Friday, 28 December 2007

Feast of the Holy Family Year A

The priesthood to which some of us are ordained for and committed to is principally directed to the service of the family. The preface of the mass for wedding, [the preface is the part which begins with “The Lord be with you” and end with the “Holy, Holy, Holy”.] may help us understand the relationship of the priesthood to the family. “You are the loving Father of the world of nature, you are the loving Father of the new creation of grace and in Christian marriage, you bring together the two orders of creation: nature’s gift of children enriches the world and your grace enriches also your Church”. The baptism of infants is the normal channel whereby the grace of God enriches the Church and through which the membership of the Church is increased. And it is to this grace that the priesthood is involved because the family is at the centre of the Church’s apostolic vision. We are in the business of the nurturance of or in the formation of grace-filled families.

In this endeavour the Church aptly gives us the Feast of the Holy Family for us to reflect on. The Holy Family is given to us not because they are a perfect family. In fact, as a family they resemble some of our families. Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. Joseph wasn’t quite sure about what he should do and the young boy “serious” about his father’s business is perhaps too head-strong at such a tender age.

They are considered holy not because they have an unblemished family history. They are holy because they constantly sought God’s will in their lives and they lived their holiness through the grace of God. A conclusion thus is that there is hope yet for every family here especially for those who consider theirs to be less than perfect. This path to holiness may be gleaned through the readings we heard today.

In the first reading, we hear of the command to honour our parents. To care for one’s kith and kin is no easy task. Not especially when the demands of career and work are plenty. But the book of the Ecclesiasticus enjoins upon us the duty of ensuring that our parents live out their final years in comfort and dignity. Unfortunately, comfort and dignity are often interpreted as sterile and clean... put them into a nursing home where they will get better care than they would get at home. But, have you ever heard of a saying that “one mother can take care of ten children but ten children cannot take care of one mother”? It is possible that the elderly sometimes need professional care that only a nursing home can provide but professional care is not what they always need. There are more people who die from lack of love and affection than from physical neglect. The pressure of forging a future may make us forget our past or history. But Jesus hanging on the Cross gives us a model of what it means to honour one’s parents. On the cross, Jesus thought not of his suffering but of his mother and entrusted her to the care of his disciple. The call to holiness often challenges us to walk beyond the convenient path of comfort.

The second reading widens the path towards holiness. It is quite telling that people often think that theirs is the worst family there ever is. Parents know this to be true. You send your child to school and your child wants you to drop him or her 150m away from the school gate. You are NEVER to kiss the child in front of his or her friends. Peer pressure may explain your child’s embarrassment. But it is more likely that your child probably thinks that he or she comes from the worst ever family.

It just illustrates for us that a holy family to be proud of is not just a wish. It takes a lot to make a family holy. St Paul says that the foundation of a holy family is anchored upon the bonds of commitment, fidelity and self-sacrifice. It is a common experience that people are kinder to strangers but can be mean to their kin. When we encounter this phenomenon of dislike in our family, then we are challenged to re-think how we relate to each other as members of a family. Even religious life is like that. St John Berchman--whose portrait can be seen in the stained glass said that his greatest cross was community life. We are born into a family and we have no choice about it. Likewise a religious community is not something we choose—we are sent there. This is significant because the family or even a religious community is ordinarily our first path to salvation. That is why we say that charity begins at home.

Finally, our path of holiness must cross God’s will. The paths of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not straight-forward—just like many of ours. What makes their lives remarkable was the will of God. At every juncture in their lives, they sought the will of God. “I am the handmaid of the Lord”. Joseph unquestioningly took Mary to his home and Jesus upon returning from Jerusalem was obedient to both Mary and Joseph.

That being so, every family’s story, shameful as it may sound, may turn out to be a story of salvation. The will of God is always to save us and God can write straight line with crooked ones. Therefore, holiness is never beyond the reach of any family.

In conclusion, the holy family is given to us not because they were perfect. They were on their way to perfection, thus giving us hope that one day we too may enjoy the perfection that became theirs.

I said at the beginning that the priesthood is directed in the service of the family. Yet the vocation of the priesthood is tied to the “fortune” of the family. A weaker family is a poorer society. A poorer society will result in poorer vocations to the priesthood.

Whilst the priesthood may be directed to the service of the family, it’s the family that must give birth to the vocation of the priest. It is time to rethink and re-embrace the path of holiness that runs through our family.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Christmas Year A

Have you ever been mean to people? The condition of “bitchiness” affects both men and women. Sometimes a person drives the car and is in the wrong lane and has to quickly switch lanes. This happens a lot at traffic lights. But what you do is prevent him or her from cutting into your lane. And when a comment is passed that you were mean, have you ever heard this excuse or used it yourself? “It’s only human” or “I am only human what”. This excuse is used when someone has lost it and has given in to temptation and is finding an explanation for the lapse of judgement. Whilst it is true that “to err is human [and to forgive divine]”, the fact is, if we reflect upon it, the excuse “it is human what” is proof that we have already lost our sense of humanity. Why? Why do I say that? Christmas is why—Christmas is the reason the excuse is an expression of a lost sense of humanity.

Christmas is about the incarnation. The incarnation means simply that God has come down to earth, took on our human nature in order to confer upon us the dignity of children of God. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” is significant because through the incarnation, Jesus came to show us how to be truly human. When we give ourselves the excuse that our sins are indications of our humanity, we miss the point. What is worse is that “the Word made Flesh” is sometimes used against Jesus. In order to defend ourselves and to find an excuse for our actions, we point out that “Jesus is God what, so, how can he sin”. This argument misses the point simply because we take as our reference that we are made for sin. We may sin but we are not made for sin.

Therefore, “Jesus is like us in everything except sin” says that Jesus is sinless not because he is God but because he is human. He came to show us that it is possible to live for God and to live in God. He became one of us in order to show us our true destiny, which is a divine destiny.

You can’t imagine how pervasive the contrary idea that our destiny is less than divine is. Hence, Christmas is a timely call to attention that we are not made for sin. In the encyclical, Deus caritas est, incidentally signed on Christmas Day by BXVI, helps us understand why humans are not made for sin. In the encyclical, the Pope speaks of two types of love: eros and agape. Eros, from which we get such terms like erotic along with all the steamy imageries of love, actually points out our true destiny. Our perception of what is erotic usually revolves around “sexual perversion” bordering on “pornography” or leading towards the darker side of our human nature. But, eros is actually ever reaching out towards its fulfilment in agape, in God. How? Human desire which is a powerful drive of the “erotic” or eros is a sign that human persons are made for and directed toward a love that never ends. St. Augustine, the Pope’s favourite philosopher illustrates this point. St. Augustine asks us to reflect on our experience of desire. Our experience shows that when we have desired something very badly, and have worked very hard to possess it, often at the end, we lose interest and become bored with the very things we chase after. Sometimes we are even condemned to a relentless move to seek one thing after another. Ask a womaniser if he’ll ever be satisfied when he gets the woman he lusts after. Black Eyed Pea sang this song which proves this point: fools in “lust” could never get enough of love, love, love.

Our experience of desire points out to us something very important about who we are. No good thing that we have wanted and even possessed can finally quench desire itself, because we are made for the uncreated Good who is God himself.

Christmas then sets us right on our path to thinking about our humanity and our potential. We are made for God and our inner dynamism or drive is directed towards God and not towards sin. We sin, even routinely sin but we are not made for sin. To say “I am only human what” may be an insult to God—a kind of indictment against God meaning “You, God cannot have made me better. That is why I am like that”. The fact that we sin is not the same as we are made to sin. Our capacity to sin is indicative of the freedom we possess as created beings and it not an indictment against God who created us less than perfect.
During the celebration of the Eucharist, sometimes people can miss an action. But insignificant as that action may be, it speaks volumes. When the wine is poured into the chalice, a drop of water is added to the wine and the following prayer is said silently: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”. God when He created humanity, He put the stamp of divinity in us. We are created with potentiality for the divine.

The second reading tells us that God spoke to us through different prophets and at different times but in our own time, he speaks to us through his Son. What is most relevant is not that God “speaks” to us as much as God indicates His desire to be at close quarters with us. He became one of us so that we can look upon Him as the model of humanity, as the model of how to be fully a human. That is the meaning of grace because grace is the gift to enable us to fulfil our divine destiny.

Christmas is not a time to be discouraged by our sinfulness. It is a time to be encouraged by the possibility of being human, like Jesus is and also to be divine like Jesus. Only Jesus can make us more human and more divine. "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was made flesh." He lived among us and so it is time to give thanks that finally we have the possibility of regaining our full and true humanity.

Monday, 24 December 2007

4th Sunday of Advent Year A

I wish Christmas were over. Why? In some places, the way a feast is celebrated is rather prolonged or aggressive. For example, in the Philippines, the preparation for Christmas is already afoot comes September... it seems that when the month ends with “ber”, Christmas preparations would start. We may not begin in September but we are no less aggressive or intense in our preparation.

That is why, I wish Christmas were over. The aggressiveness with which Christmas is anticipated with so much effort is put into “celebrating” Christmas before the actual feast itself that when the actual day finally arrives, we are already too tired to celebrate—a feeling that as Christmas arrives, it’s already passé. The same can be said for our Moon-cake festival, Aidl-Fitri or the Lunar New Year celebration.

But, Christmas is essentially a religious feast. Regrettably, the aggressiveness of our commercial celebration tends to overshadow the spiritual aspect of Christmas. I am not against the commercial celebration of Christmas. What I am lamenting may be the poverty of our spiritual preparation for Christmas.

Christmas is a religious feast and the 4th Sunday of Advent brings out more of this aspect as we stand at the threshold of Christmas. First of all, the word "religion" is widely understood by many to be a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people, often codified as prayers, rituals, and religious laws. That is why the airy-fairy spirituality is so much more popular because “religion” is rigid whereas spirituality is seemingly more spontaneous. But the more fundamental meaning of the word “religion” has something to do with “re-alignment”. Thus, to be religious is fundamentally to be re-aligned with God.

Advent is clearly a period of re-alignment. We see how as the drama of both Mary and Joseph unfolds, it also reflects their alignment with God as the one who is at the centre of their will. Mary, who was found with child not of her future husband, risked everything she was. Joseph, an honourable man, when told to accept a child not of his, did exactly as he was told.

The circumstances of their lives may not be simple or straightforward. But what they show us is that the alignment of their lives with God’s will has something to do with a firm belief that God is in charge. This God who is in charge challenges our current cultural presupposition that we are the masters of our destiny. We are constantly urged to take charge of our lives and to make things happen. So much so that, when we encounter failure, it is because we hadn’t tried hard enough.

In the gospel, we learn that God takes charge in really critical situations—what can be worse than after having prepared for a wedding, the couple finds out that one is pregnant and the child is not the fruit of their love. The first reading assures us that God is really in charge. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel, a name which means “God-is-with-us”. God is in charge by being with us. Both St Paul in the 2nd Reading and the Gospel confirm this when they speak of Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of God. Every king in David’s line is an embodiment of God’s promise to be with us and this promise finds its fulfilment in Jesus.

If we accept that Christmas is a religious feast, then, we are asked to submit to the demands of divine desire or accede to the sovereignty of God’s will. For those who do not believe, to be aligned with God is escapism. Karl Marx says that “religion” is the opiate of the people. But, for those who believe, alignment with God can only result in the freedom to truly embrace life without escape. We do not need to buy more, eat more or undergo cosmetic surgery to escape from the “cruelty” of life.

Mary and Joseph illustrate for us that our personal history, no matter how much the world may measure it as failure, is always the arena for the exercise of God’s sovereignty and a display of God's love. It is also a reminder that there can never really be any doubt about the ultimate victory of God's goodness. It is incredibly consoling to know that a good and loving God is in charge of history.

Religion, far from shielding us from the reality of life, actually brings us into life and helps us especially at those times when life does not make sense. For example, the death of a parent before his or her time, the loss of an only child. For many of us, life’s “downs” are proofs of God’s absence. Whereas, in the case of Mary and Joseph, life’s vicissitudes are charged with the presence of God. And they prove that by acceding to God’s will.

Indeed in these two days before Christmas breaks upon us, may we find the time to sit religiously with God asking for the grace that our life be a reflexion of God’s will, a reflexion that indeed God is with us: Emmanuel.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

3rd Sunday of Advent Year A

John and Jesus couldn’t be further apart than the North is to the South Pole. Theirs is a life of great contrast because John prophesied the judgement of God whereas Jesus emphasised the salvation of God. John lived like an ascetic, apart from people. Jesus happily enjoyed the crowd, eating and drinking with sinners.

John had prepared the people for the coming of the Messiah and as he faced his end, doubts and questions about this Jesus whom he had believed to be the Messiah.

But, John wouldn’t be wrong to have lost faith in Jesus. Who wouldn’t be? Every expression of his life showed that he had lived for the image he had of the Messiah. But, it was as if Jesus had seemingly failed to live up to John’s image of how a Messiah should be.

In prison, John is supposed to face the truth on two fronts. The first is the truth about who his Messiah really is and secondly the truth about himself and what he believed in. Both these two truths are connected. How?

Humans live ideals. Even the most despised of all people have ideals. Drug addicts want to live in a world wherein they can remain on a high for all time without really having to pay the price of their addiction. The point is when reality does not match our ideal we are challenged to face the truth. In the case of John the Baptist, Jesus almost “repudiated” his definition of what a Messiah should be. That repudiation was bewildering because John had staked his entire life on whom he had believed in. When his ideal was shattered, John began to doubt himself.

Parents may be disappointed that their children have given up the practice of the faith in spite of all the efforts in bringing up the children in the tradition of the faith. Parents in such situation will certainly begin to question the very foundation of their belief. Not so much, “What have I done wrong?” but rather, “Have I believed in the wrong things all these years”?

People are scandalised and deeply hurt by the actions of some members of the Church especially priests in regard to the treatment of people. Whenever a scandal breaks out in Church, the people’s faith takes a knocking. People not only question the faith but they also question the very reason for believing.

In both these crises: children giving up their faith or scandal in the Church, the crises ultimately point back to the believer. The question that John asked: “Are you the one who is to come?” can be rephrased: “have I been wrong to have believed in you?”.
The key is: “Have I been wrong?” I remember when a good friend of mine left the Society of Jesus, I was quite affected. Upon hindsight, it was not so much the fact that the person had left that affected me. The leaving actually raised the question of “whether I should stay or not”. The same can be said of the effects of divorce. Those who are married and have witnessed their close friends getting divorced are sometimes plagued by the uncertainty that they too have staked their belief in the wrong thing, in this case, marriage. Should they continue to believe in the sanctity of marriage?

When things do not turn out the way we want them to, our disappointment is with God. However, is it the case that we are disappointed because God has not answered our prayers? Or are we more disappointed with ourselves? We are disappointed with ourselves for having trusted God. Why have I been so stupid to have trusted… Often it is not the failure or the betrayal of the person whom we have trusted that holds us prisoners. It is the fact that we have trusted that holds us prisoners. Our lack of faith in God may actually reveal deeper crisis which is the lack of faith in ourselves. Our trust has been wounded and we are just wary of trusting.

The first reading says: Courage! Do not be afraid. James says: Do not lose heart. Be patient and have hope like farmers waiting for the harvest to come. And Jesus tells John: Look again. Your faith has not been in vain because what I do herald the coming of the Kingdom prophesied by Isaiah.

All these words of comfort give us a sense that God is still in charge. We can still believe.

Today, Jesus asks us to have faith in him. We might have to wait a little longer. But he has never failed us. He says, “Have faith in me but have a little more faith in yourselves as you trust me”.

Monday, 10 December 2007

2nd Sunday of Advent Year A

Do you know that some people hear voices?

I suspect the thing on your mind when you first heard the statement, “Some people hear voices”, is that a person who hears voices is probably a sandwich short of a picnic. He has a screw loose somewhere. You’d want to distance yourself from this screw-loose person. But actually, all of us hear voices. The predominant voice that we hear today is that it is Christmas and not Advent. Everywhere we go, we hear voices shouting to us that we are celebrating Christmas now. Christmas carolling is already afoot in the malls; one wonders where and when one can find the time to write Christmas cards? What shall I buy her? Whom shall we invite for Christmas? And there is the circuit of parties to attend.

The point is: it is not wrong to think about Christmas and what we ought to do but our challenge is not to allow the voices of commercial Christmas to drown out the voices of Advent hope. If Advent is a time of preparation, then we must hold at abeyance these Christmas voices in order to listen to the voices of Advent.

Fortunately, the readings give us three Advent voices and they point to the same thing.

Isaiah’s time was marked by political hopelessness. The rulers of Israel were relying on themselves, upon their political skills and diplomatic manoeuvrings. Whereas, Isaiah had hopes that they would come a time when the new king would be like King David who placed his trust upon God. Relying upon God, Isaiah hopes for a time when the wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together. Such imageries give us the idea of a new world of justice and peace especially for the poor and the afflicted. Isaiah is a hopeful voice.

In the 2nd Reading, St Paul furthers the vision of Isaiah as he looks forward to a new era in which Jewish and Gentile Christians may learn to accept one another and live in harmony and peace. Paul is also a hopeful voice.

In the Gospel, we hear a voice crying in the wilderness. Of course, we can get sidetracked by John’s exterior demeanour—his strange diet, his rough clothing, his courage at naming the Pharisees and Scribes as vipers etc. But, beyond his eccentric or unconventional behaviour, people must have recognised in him a voice of hope. Otherwise they would not have flocked to him. He was a herald of hope. He also pointed towards a world which was possible for us to aspire: a kingdom of justice and peace.

We live in an imperfect world. If it were not, then we wouldn’t have people dressed up in yellow on Saturday or attempting to get to the British High Commission. Ours is an imperfect world of fragmented race and religion politics that colours everything we see, hear and do. It is spoken of at home, whispered around in coffee-shops and isn’t it true that we resent having to deal in matters relating to the government?

This imperfect world may spur us onto greater hope in God or our vision may be blurred by despair, anger and worse of all, cynicism. That being said, the many voices of Christmas come not as hope but rather temptations because we want to buy for ourselves what our despair, anger and cynicism cannot afford. We lull ourselves into some kind of self-delusion that the trimming of Christmas is the fulfilment of hope, of Christmas itself.

The Prophet, the Apostle and the Herald offer us a vision of hope that is not utopian as if pointing to some kind of changed political landscape. If it were out there it runs the risk of becoming impersonal so much so that we become detached or uninvolved since we are not responsible for the imperfection of the world. When our vision loses hope, then we will begin to mend the rupture or bridge the gap with shopping, partying and etc.

This vision of the Prophet, the Apostle and the Herald points directly to our hearts wherein we can see a world that is reduced or rid of evil both by human effort and the grace of God. That is why Advent is a time of preparation. We often believe that we can change the world and by changing the world out there, the world will become a better place. But, Advent is the time we discover that the world we want to change is really the changed person we hope to be. The political or social landscape will always be out there and cannot be changed unless we first look inside our hearts.

It is only when we are prepared for a change of heart the vision of the Prophet, the Apostle and the Herald can come through. Prepare the way of the Lord, says John so that by changing oneself, one changes the world. And it is in this way that the world becomes transformed, gradually changed from a world which serves purely human interests to a world which reflects the vision of God, the vision of acceptance, justice and peace.

The vision begins when the self acknowledges the need to change.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Triduum Part 3: Feast of St. Francis Xavier

I shall begin by re-capping the gist of what I preached about on Saturday and yesterday. On Saturday, I pointed out that we encounter shameful un-Christ-like behaviour amongst Catholics because the grace of the Gospel has not really penetrated their hearts. This experience is the result of a disjuncture or rupture between the head and the heart. Advent or even Lent is the period where we make a conscious decision and also desire to attempt the re-connexion of the head and the heart so that there is a greater consistency between what we profess and how we act. Otherwise, we risk a schizophrenic existence as exemplified in a saying of the Oirish: Paddy went to Mass and he never missed a Sunday. But Paddy went to hell, for what he did on Monday.

In the 2nd instalment of the Triduum, I spoke about healing the disjuncture or rupture between the head and the heart—between belief and action. I said that the healing of the rupture takes place once we begin to reconcile the relationship between love and duty.

Otherwise, duty will always be considered an imposition which we tolerate at best or resent at worst. The reconciliation between love and duty takes place when we begin to acknowledge that duty does not lead to love but rather love frees us to embrace duty. But, unfortunately, love is associated with feelings or emotions. Love in its truer sense is more a matter of the will as it takes us out of ourselves in order to focus upon the beloved. This is where many of us hesitate because it would mean that we lose control and may be at the losing end of the equation. When we love, we are vulnerable—like the Son of God was.

Only when we dare to put ourselves at the losing end, believing that in love, there is no loss, then will we begin to look upon duty in a new light. "Parish in love, Parish alive" was an example of duty in a new light.

We deliberately promoted the service of the community from the perspective of loving that leads to service or rather, loving that leads to loving service, avoiding the “guilt of having to serve”.

In trying to make the connexion between the head and the heart we enter into the territory of love, the territory of vulnerability. In order to do so, we begin to see how the Eucharist is important and how the adoration before the Blessed Sacrament becomes an extension of the Eucharist we celebrate. It is when we have fallen in love with Him that everything else falls into place. It is not rules and regulations that bind a people together. It is love that allows us to embrace duties enjoined upon us. But first, we must dare to love, dare to fall in love with Christ so that in Him, we will begin to love all our neighbours. Only in this sense, will we be able to bear with our vulnerability.

This is where the 3rd instalment comes in. Let me draw together a few themes to make sense of the celebration this evening: vulnerability and the building of a community. The Gospel speaks clearly of the need to evangelise the world. Our application of the Gospel is nuanced in this respect. We are in the business of evangelisation through a dialogue of life. Therefore the BECs are our expressions of this dialogue of life.

Everything that we do is geared towards animating the BECs. Even the parish groups must serve the BECs, in line with the vision of the Catholic Church in Peninsular Malaysia. When we animate, vulnerability is involved because people are not just “duties” to be performed. Animating the BECs also means that we are in need of love and of friendship. Otherwise, everyone in the BEC or in the Parish has a solution to a “problem” (in inverted commas) or a need that nobody wants to admit—our search for acceptance, friendship and love.

The Society of Jesus is good at organising because we are methodical and our training gears us in that direction. Saying that is not a statement of “hubris” or pride but of fact. The movie shown on Saturday, “the Mission” was proof of the Society’s capacity to organise. In a sense the parish reflects this strength of the Society. And yet, the strength of the Society is also her weakness. When we organise, we enter into “dutiful” relationships—we become utilitarian in the way we deal with one another. Often we become functional in our relationships. In a sense, functional relationships are easier to deal with. They are cleaner and more professional and less “personal” because personal is often fraught with vulnerability. We are afraid to spend time together. We are afraid that people might take advantage of us.

If you reflect upon it, being dutiful could also be a sign of a lack of trust in God. There is a saying attributed to St Ignatius who says that we should pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on us. The “organisational” mode makes us depend more upon ourselves rather than upon God. Now you know why I keep pointing towards the tabernacle. In a society that prizes achievement, we build our credibility or our self-esteem upon what we can achieve. The BECs can become the crowning glory of what we can do and not what God can do for us.

I am not justifying what we do here. I am giving a platform for God to work. We want to do great things for God. Yet, we forget that God has a greater role to play. Playing (lepak, doing nothing, enjoying each other’s company) is a form of trust in God. Remember how Jesus after his desert experience, went to Simon Peter’s house. He had already chosen his fishers of men. There was the mission ahead but the first thing he did was to take time off to be with the mother-in-law of Peter. In the bigger schema of things, the mother-in-law wasn’t the most important thing because the bigger schema of things should be “numbers”. The mother-in-law of Peter was not just duty for Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I shall end with this song which we sing. “Brothers let me be your servant. Let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I may have the courage to let you be my servant too”. If we are an organisational, or a "head" people, we hear the first part of the song better because it fits with a “dutiful” mode of being: Let me be your servant. But it takes a lot more heart, a lot more vulnerability and a lot more trust in God to let you be my servant too.

On this Feast of St Francis Xavier, let us remember that as he traipsed and trudged the trenches of Asia, he missionary vision was powered also by his heart. He always carried with him the cut-out names of his Jesuit Brothers close to his heart. It was love for Christ, fleshed out in the love for his brothers that gave him the strength to embrace the duty enjoined upon him. May that grace be ours as well.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Triduum Part 2: 1st Sunday of Advent Year A

Yesterday we celebrated the First Day of the Triduum. For those who were not here yesterday, let me re-cap the gist or the general substance of what I said. First, I mentioned the experience of being surprised by “un-Christ-like” behaviour of Catholics. This experience shows that the grace of the Gospel has not yet penetrated the hearts of Catholics. This very experience is the result of a disjuncture or rupture between the head and the heart. There is a lack of connexion between the head and the heart. Advent or even Lent is the period where we make a conscious decision and also desire to attempt the re-connexion of the head and the heart as we grow in greater consistency so that what we profess will animate our actions and our actions will confirm our beliefs. If not, this lack of connexion will result in a schizophrenic existence as exemplified in a saying of the Irish: Paddy went to Mass and he never missed a Sunday. But Paddy went to hell, for what he did on Monday.
That was where I ended yesterday.

In this 2nd instalment of the Triduum, I shall begin by asking how we can heal this disjuncture or rupture between the head and the heart—between belief and action. The healing of the rupture may take place once we begin to reconcile the relationship between love and duty.

For many of us, life consists of a series of duties simply because duties are often enjoined upon us. For example, when we get married, we acquire the duties of being a spouse and later, when the children arrive, of being a parent. When our parents are aged, we have the duties of caring for them. Then there are the duties of our vocation, profession, or society or culture etc.

There are times in life when we impose upon ourselves the duties which nobody else wants to shoulder. There could be many reasons for doing so. But, the complication with being dutiful is that it can lead to resentment. How often have we become resentful because we have to care for our aged parents, stayed at home because our parents are conservative, married a person out of duty, study because our parents have indicated the course we should sign up for in college, head an unwanted project or lead a BEC because nobody else wanted to?

I mentioned about the reconciliation of the relationship between love and duty and it begins by prioritising them. The relationship between love and duty is this: Duty does not lead to love. It is love which leads to duty. Hence, the resentment when we have to be dutiful. Remember the Prodigal Son? Remember the Elder Son? “I have slaved for you”, (I have been dutiful to a fault) he complained to his father as he resented his father’s “gentle” treatment of the “prodigal brother” who came back penniless? When an altar server has lost the love of serving, he will resent the schedule being imposed onto him. The dilemma with love or being loving is that some of us may mistake love to be an emotion. But it is of the will as exemplified by the saying that “love seeks the good of the beloved”. It is more a verb (an action or a working thing) than a feeling because love has a direction [often a direction that takes us out of ourselves]. However, the direction that love takes is where many of us do not want to go.

When we love, we actually place ourselves into the hands of the other. We think less of ourselves and more of the other [love seeks the good of the beloved]. It means that the calculation is loaded on the other side and not on our side. When we do that, we expose ourselves to vulnerability. We naturally do not like to be vulnerable. For example, “What if the other person does not respond”? I have wasted my effort, I am embarrassed etc. More than ever, since we all have this kiasu mentality, (afraid to be on the losing end), we want to be in control. That’s why we are afraid to love because we don’t want to be on the losing end. Nobody likes to be a loser. Nobody likes a loser. In a sense, being dutiful is also about being in control, being calculative. Like the elder son in the same story. He can tell the Father: I have done this already as part of my duty. Don’t expect anymore… [Love allows us to deal with the more without the resentment].

Only when we dare to put ourselves on the losing end, believing that in love, there is no loss, then will we begin to look upon duty in a new light. Christ is able to put himself into our hands only because he was in love with his Father. In love duty is embraced, not imposed. Now, you begin to see why we do things in a certain way here. Remember a couple of months before when we had this promotion, "Parish in love, Parish alive".

We deliberately promoted the service of the community from the perspective of loving that leads to service or rather, loving that leads to loving service. We wanted to avoid the guilt of “duty”. In some ways, I feel that the failure of the BEC is because we had “forced” people to come. Even Sunday as a day of obligation is a sad testimony that religion has become duty rather than as a result of love. I suspect that there is a certain guilt trip that arises when we promote the BEC as a duty.

Perhaps, in trying to make the connexion between the head and the heart, we also begin to put our priorities right. It is time to learn to love, better still, to embrace vulnerability. BECs may have to die. Parish groups may have to die. Congregation may have to die… I mean be decimated in numbers…

Now, can you see now why the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is important? Constantly, we must focus on falling in love with Christ our Lord. It is when we have fallen in love with Him that everything else falls into place. It is not rules and regulations that bind a people together. It is love that allows us to embrace duties enjoined upon us. But first, we must dare to love, dare to fall in love with God so that in Him, we will begin to love all our neighbours. Only in this sense, will we be able to bear with our vulnerability. Otherwise, what we have will be position-taking!!

And for that, tomorrow is the 3rd instalment…

Triduum Part 1: 1st Sunday of Advent Year A

About a week ago, someone was trying to park his car and in the process damaged another. When the “offender” was confronted, instead of apologising, the person acted the maxim that the best defence was an offence. So, the guilty party turned aggressive and drove off without an apology. The owner of the car was upset and asked why Catholics behaved in such an un-Christ-like manner. Are you surprised by such behaviour?

I am not. Such unchristian behaviour was also prevalent or common during the time of St Francis Xavier. You might be wondering why mention SFX since this is the 1st Sunday of Advent. It is the Triduum of SFX which we begin today (Saturday), tomorrow and Monday. The good thing is that the readings actually help to draw together SFX and the 1st Sunday of Advent. The readings point towards the future coming. But this future coming is not principally focused upon the future as it is upon how we can make the future present. The future is described in the first reading as the “mountain of the Temple of the Lord where people gravitate to and where God may teach us his ways etc”. This future can be realised and in a measure attained through the process of moving into the light. St Paul says to the Romans: The night is almost over, it will be daylight soon—let us give up all the things we prefer to do under the cover of the dark; let us arm ourselves and appear in the light. Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy.

During the time of St Francis in Malacca, he encountered such licentiousness. He was rather disgusted by the behaviour of his countrymen. The focus of his disgust was neither the “licentiousness” nor the “drunken orgies” but rather an exasperation that the grace of the Gospel had not penetrated the souls of those who were baptised, beginning most of all, with the Portuguese. We are no different. In general, there is a certain attempt to make our lives coherent. Regrettably, for many the coherence is only skin deep. We too suffer like the Portuguese from the Gospel not penetrating our hearts.

This is what Advent and also Lent are for. Advent is the period of preparation for Christ’s coming. Christ came 2000 years ago. We remember or commemorate that on Christmas. We also await Christ’s 2nd coming. Again, we anticipate that through Christmas. Set in the midst of remembering and anticipating is the possibility of making the future present here and now. Advent allows the Gospel to take flesh in our hearts. This is what we mean by Christ coming into our hearts at Christmas. [Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart].

Earlier I mentioned about this business of being unchristian. Actually unchristian behaviour is too simple a category because we have not paid sufficient attention to a particular disjuncture, a break in the lives of many of us. This disjuncture is more than just a lack of correspondence or a lack of consistency. The description of the experience of St Francis in Malacca as the grace of the Gospel not penetrating the heart can be defined as a disjuncture between the head and the heart or a lack of connexion between the head and the heart.

There must be a head and heart connexion in order that what we believe illuminates what we do and what we do concretises or enfleshes what we believe. If not, we continue to have Catholics who come to Church simply because they have to and not really because they want to. It also explains why Catholics can “gostan” (reverse) into your car, break your light and then quickly drive off without even a note or a word of apology. My experience has been that there were so many times when I wanted to walk out of a funeral or wedding mass simply because we have Catholics desiring the sacraments without knowing why. Big disjuncture. They want a wedding mass but have no idea why they are there and when the mass goes on, they are doing all the stupid things and at the point of consecration, they are not even reverential. It makes a mockery of what is being done at the altar. There is no connexion between what they profess and how they act.

Today on the First Day of our Triduum and the First Sunday of Advent, let us take the opportunity to make the head-heart connexion. Penitence is not just about sorrow for sin. It also calls for a deeper reflexion where we begin to see where our beliefs have not informed our actions. Or how our actions contradict what we profess. Otherwise, we will live in two different worlds with such a dire consequence as my favourite Irish saying goes: Paddy went to Mass and he never missed a Sunday. But Paddy went to hell, for what he did on Monday.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The Solemnity of Christ the King Year C

If you think about it, all through the liturgical year, we implicitly acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus. For example, Epiphany is when the kings of the world come to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Lord of creation. Easter is when Christ by dying destroys our death and by rising restores our life. Ascension is when the conqueror of sin and death ascends to heaven while the angels sing His praises. Every Eucharist rings out loudly and clearly that Christ is the Lord of all because we proclaim at the mystery of faith: “Lord Jesus, come in glory” and at the doxology “Through Him, with Him, in Him”.

Historically, Christ the King was celebrated on the last Sunday of October—as instituted by Pius XI in 1925. The Pope instituted the feast to counter what was perceived to be the increasing atheism and secularism of that time. Jesus and His rule “had no place either in private affairs or in politics”. So, the Pope reminded the Church that “as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Saviour, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations” – ultimately, “Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ” (Quas Primas, 1).

But Vatican II’s reform moved the Solemnity to the last Sunday of Ordinary time and this time putting greater emphasis on the cosmic and eschatological characteristics of the Lordship or “Kingship” of Jesus. As the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, the cosmic and eschatological emphasis becomes more “universal” as it encompasses this world and the next. Ultimately, the rule of Christ the King in the private affairs and political structure of our time in this world is to ensure that through Him, all things can be brought into unity by the Holy Spirit to the glory and honour of God our Father—in the world to come.

Christ the King reminds us to centre our lives on Him who will lead us back to the Father. The definition of the word “Sacrament” is where we begin to understand how we are to live the Kingship of Christ. First, a sacrament is defined as an outward sign of an inward reality. What this means is that every sacrament uses material things to point to a spiritual reality. For example, water in baptism, a material element points to the cleansing that is accomplished or brought about by the shedding of the blood of Christ. This use of material things to signify a spiritual reality holds a tension which many people are uncomfortable with.

The Gnostics for example, disdain, disparage and despise the material world. They believe that humans are spirits trapped in a material world created by an imperfect spirit. This is why the Gnostics will have difficulty accepting the “incarnation” of Christ—they do not think that Christ can ever take on “flesh” because flesh is evil. As such, their aim is to avoid contamination.

At the other end of the spectrum are the materialists. They hold a philosophy which states that everything in the universe is matter, without any true spiritual or intellectual existence. Such a philosophy gives us the rule of life that says that material success and progress are the highest values in life. This doctrine appears to be prevalent in our thinking. For example, people who live to eat personify this philosophy.

In summary, there is a tension between these two poles which can work itself out in the attitude either of “accommodation” or of “isolation”—a pull between “assimilation” and “aloofness”. If you like, sell your soul or be a ghetto. On the one hand, it is easy to be a ghetto. Live your life with your head in the sand. After a while, you realise that it is impossible to live because you have to avoid people for fear of contamination. Some countries like Myanmar, for example, have existed almost in a time warp because they have decided to take themselves off the “human highway”. That I think many people will realise is not the way to go. After all, the whole idea of the Epiphany is to show that Christ is the Lord and our task as Christians is to engage the world in such a way that Christ can be Lord of all. Check out the 2nd Reading… It’s one of the most beautiful hymns describing Christ and all He is and does.

On the other hand, there is the “sell your soul out”. This is by and large many of our experiences. Many of us are “idealists”. We started out in life with a sense of purpose. Many of us have also given up. I hear this often: “You got to live in the real world lah”. When a person says that, he or she has sold out to the world. But, nobody likes to hear that he or she has given up on their ideals and so excuses the fact of their selling out with the idea that he or she is being realistic.

This is a tension which many of us have to live with. We have to bring the grace of Christ to the world without selling out our souls. Fortunately, St John’s gospel tells that it is possible to hold the tension between these two poles because he says that Christians are in the world but they are not of the world. The definition of what a sacrament is was our starting point to understand the tension involved in focusing on Christ our King. We live a tension. It’s the celebration of the sacraments now that enables us to embrace a life in which Christ can truly be our King despite the tension.

We claim Christ to be King. This means that He leads us in our life. Our understanding of His Leadership is that “He is there and we are here”. But really the Sacraments are Christ with us in this world, both spiritually and materially. As King on a mission, He ensures that He is amongst his people and the sacraments are the perfect ways of His being with us. He fed the hungry. He continues to feed us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He forgave sinners. He continues to forgive us in Confession.

My point is: a Sacramental life, rigorously and vigorously celebrated is a sign that Christ is King in our lives and a sacramental life is needed in order to help us navigate through the tension of engaging the world without succumbing to the spirit of the world. Christ the King is a time to re-look at how we celebrate the sacraments. Are we as present to our King as He is to us in the sacraments?

Monday, 19 November 2007

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

To many people the end of the world is tragic. Christianity, however, thinks otherwise. It is not an end but rather a beginning—an event not to be afraid of. Our fear is natural because of the unknown but our fear could also mask a lack of firm belief in the resurrection.

But, given that our conception of time is somewhat linear—yesterday, today and tomorrow (past, present and future) travel in a straight line—then, it makes sense that every ending is also a beginning. Hence, the old world needs to end before a new world can come about. The best analogy is the birth of a child. The womb is a paradise of security—food and lodging are assured. Yet, a child needs to leave the security of the womb before it can experience the freedom of an independent existence. Just like what Jesus told his disciples after his resurrection—in not so many words—“Even if you all enjoy my presence, yet, I must be gone before the Spirit can come”. Something must end before a new era begins.

Therefore, the end that the first reading and Gospel are pointing to, cataclysmic as it may be, is not an ending to be feared but instead to be welcomed—just like the Apostles welcoming Pentecost. We welcome the end because we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

But, our "looking forward" to the end is tempered or “moderated”. It is a looking forward set in the present. In fact, the apocalyptic feel of the first reading and Gospel is tempered by St Paul’s focus on the present. How? The first reading speaks of the coming days marked by fiery furnace and the Gospel about the days when the Temple will stand no more. But smacked in the middle, we hear St Paul telling people to imitate him in not being idle. By profession, Paul was a tent-maker. The context of his exhortation to imitate was because people thought that the end was near and as such they found excuses to be lazy.

St Paul making tents shows us that our concern for the future should be grounded in the present. As Jesus says, “Take care not to be deceived because many will come using my name proclaiming that the time is close at hand”. What you should be concerned with is how you actively live your present calling.

The key to being grounded is patient endurance and it is active rather than passive. The word “patient” may suggest passivity in the face of a situation beyond our control. But, our endurance is active because no matter how difficult, extenuating or trying a situation may be, it is never totally out of our control. No matter how constricted my freedom may be, yet I always possess a modicum or a small measure of inner freedom over my actions and my responses. Life imposes a lot of constraints upon us and that is to be expected. I give an example which I know of—as a priest I have many responsibilities and chief amongst them is being a shepherd. The shepherd [like our stained glass] is where the sheep are. If you ask me, many of the social responsibilities like functions or BEC gatherings, etc. are not my cup of tea. But given that they are part and parcel of the pastoral duties of a shepherd, I still have the freedom to choose to be happy or to be miserable. Here I need to make a clarification just in case I get invited out. I don’t want you to think that every time I go out or am in the midst of a social function, I am suffering because I am not. I have chosen to be happy in a situation over which I often have no control—that’s the point I want to make. [1]

The same can be said of married life too. Once married, there is already a tying down, a schedule to keep. [2] You can’t simply go out until 2:30am as if you were single. You have to explain to your husband or wife. There are housing or car loan repayments and all the attendant duties that come with married life. Sometimes the person you marry may even turn out to be less of what you had expected. In a situation where the Church says clearly: “no divorce”, you can choose to go through the motion or maybe ignore the constraints through excessive drinking, smoking, eating, extra-marital affairs, shopping, reckless driving or you can choose to be happy in a marriage—choose to work out a marriage, choose to respond positively, to have hope. This is the meaning of patient endurance. When a situation is beyond your control, you still can choose to live rather than to exist.

Otherwise, we are saying that we are no better than animals because we only respond to whatever is done to us. Actually, it is a feature of our age to moan and groan about what is being done to us because we have been somewhat brain-washed into believing that we are victims of circumstances. When we have no control, we see ourselves as victims and victims often suffer passively.

Our endurance is active, set in the present because it is based upon the resurrection. The first reading is clear about that. “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays”. The good news is that Baptism has endowed us with the grace to persevere. Confirmation strengthens us with the gift of fortitude and through the frequent reception of the Sacraments of Confession and Eucharist, we are nourished in the endurance race for which we have been entered.

Finally our endurance makes sense, that the present is embraced because there is a saying in St Paul to Timothy, that if we have died with him, we shall also live with him and if we endure because we love him, then we shall reign with him. (2 Tim 2:10-12). Each time we make the sign of the cross as we enter the Church, we are reminding ourselves that we die with Christ at our baptism in order to share in His resurrection.
[1] In actual fact, the line between what is “private” and what is expected of me is sometimes not clear… It is part and parcel of being a public person. Either you live with it or you end up embittered by the fact. Many of our celebrities want the fame of publicity but not the responsibility that comes with being a public person.
[2] Indian weddings illustrate this “tying” point because there is the ceremony of the thalli tied around the woman’s neck. A bit unfair because the woman does not tie her husband with the thali but it says something to us about being tied down by commitment.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

As we inch closer to the end of the liturgical year, we deal with end-time issues. This week, the readings nudge us in the direction of the resurrection. The mother and her children in the Maccabees are only able to do what they do because of their faith in the resurrection. In the Gospel, Jesus countered the Sadducees by appealing to God as the God of the living—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

What can we say about the resurrection?

First of all, it is a belief which is theoretical. Theoretical because it is something which we subscribed to but more practically many of us believe that it is for others. Close your eyes and imagine the one you love—your spouse or your parent or your child being taken away in an accident. If not, imagine yourself leaving the Church and meeting with an unexpected death. People don’t like to do this exercise simply because it’s just too painful. The resurrection is the furthest thing from the mind of many people when met with the death of their loved ones. And some never fully recover from their loss.

The experience of shopping may illustrate why the resurrection is rather theoretical. When we shop we get a sense of what we are buying through the inspection of the product. For example, people don’t usually just shift into a new house without first inspecting the property. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the resurrection. You can’t go and come—there is no product testing before buying. Another reason why the resurrection is theoretical is because we live such a good life that it’s unimaginable that there should be another life better than this!

That being the case, how can we speak of the resurrection? There are perhaps three ways of speaking about the resurrection.

The first way of speaking is that life is discontinuous with the resurrection. At the end of life, there is nothing else to look forward to. Some people live like that. They party very hard. Or if they do not, they make sure that they do not miss out on life because at the end, if you’ve not experienced everything, then your life is somewhat deprived. Corrupt tyrants are like that. They grab and amass wealth because they see no connexion between this life and the next. Everything is to be had before one dies. Even those big monuments that people leave behind to remember them by. They could be indicative of the fear that there is nothing really after this side of death. Finally, a deeper and more nihilistic form of discontinuity would be to look down on those who believe. A good example of this form of discontinuity is Karl Marx’s who says that religion is the opium of the people. Why? Because there’s really nothing after life and that is why people fool themselves with religion.

But atheists are not just the only people who think of life as discontinuous. There is also another group who think that everything in this life has nothing to do with the next especially Catholics. They believe in the resurrection but they also believe in some way that this life is totally different from the next, that they sort of grit their teeth and try to endure this life. Something like our Salve Regina which proclaims that life is a valley of tears. Everything here is unhappy… heaven is totally happy. It is as if God chooses to make us suffer in order that we may be happy. The Book of the Maccabees and especially stories about enduring suffering do lend themselves to this kind of view. It is indeed a funny view of God.

There is however, an alternative which sees both the present life and the next as continuous. It is a modification of the previous view which accepts the resurrection but views the resurrection from the perspective that whatever good we have in this life here is but a glimpse of the next life. For example, the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Naim and also Lazarus… they are not the resurrection but a foretaste of the resurrection. As such, all that we can ever enjoy here is magnified many times over in heaven. Our experience here and our experience in heaven are to be understood in an analogical sense. For example, when we say “I am good” and “God is good” I am referring to the same thing—to goodness and yet I am also speaking of two totally different realities because the chasm between my goodness and God’s goodness is immeasurable. God is infinitely "more good" than I can be. In a sense the joy I have here on earth cannot be compared to the joy that I will have in heaven.

If this life is continuous with the resurrection, then it now points to the choices that we need to make in life. Hell is not so much a creation of God as it is our choice. When we choose not to live a life with God, then we have chosen to place ourselves outside of God and that is by definition hell. Heaven, by definition, is a continuation and much more of the choices for life that we make. Only then does it make sense that we become courageous in the face of death. [1] We face death not because God is on a vengeful streak to test us but rather we face death because of the sure hope we have that God will not allow those who believe in him to suffer eternal damnation. In God no one is ever lost. Let us pray for courage and for hope of the resurrection.
[1]Religious brothers, sisters and priests take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The vows are actually an affirmation of the resurrection. How? The renunciation they make is not directed at this world. They are not saying that this life is not good. What they are saying is that we believe that there is a better life than this good life. In that sense, the dearth of religious vocation could be indicative of a lack of belief in the resurrection. It’s just a thought…

Sunday, 4 November 2007

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Many people know Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean but he’s better as a speaking comedian. In one of his speaking episodes he plays the Devil welcoming people to hell. His task is to sort the people out and he starts by grouping them. “Murderers, murderers over here please. Thank you. Looters and pillagers over here. Thieves if you could join them. And lawyers, you’re in that lot”. [1]

Last week, we heard a parable of a Pharisee and a Tax-Collector in the Temple. We are told that what separates the two of them is humility. The tax-collector was humble and as a result, he ended up at right with God. This week, we hear an incident instead of a parable involving a Tax-Collector named Zacchaeus. Just like lawyers being grouped together with thieves, looters and pillagers, tax-collectors are by common prejudice often grouped into the same category. Furthermore, all descriptions seem to point him out as an unjust man. He was a senior tax collector, a wealthy man and the crowd complained that Jesus had gone to stay at a sinner’s house. The prejudice against him was overwhelming; never mind the fact that the name Zacchaeus is formed from a Hebrew word which means clean, pure and innocent.

So today, perhaps Zacchaeus, “clean, pure and innocent” can deepen our understanding of humility. He is humble because he stands his ground. They deem him rich, greedy and a sinner but he claims to give half his property to the poor. The tense used in our gospel is “I am going to give”, a future tense, but in Greek the tense used is present suggesting that he customarily and repeatedly helps the poor. And to further substantiate his claim, he makes conditional statement that IF he had cheated anybody, he would pay back 4 times what he had cheated. Torah itself only decrees that thieves should repay 120 percent. Roman Law dictates that convicted criminals should repay 400 percent of what had been stolen. Here we have someone who’s not convicted except by prejudice, a man who more than fulfils the criteria of Jewish Torah and Roman law.

A person like Zacchaeus is able to stand his ground only if he has a healthy sense of self-esteem. In order to be humble, like the unnamed Tax-Collector last week and Zacchaeus this week, we need a healthy sense of self-esteem. But, you know what? Unfortunately poor self-esteem or the lack of it is often mistaken for humility—a mistake which sometimes produces deadly results. People who are bullied may just brush if off because they don’t think that they need to defend their dignity and they think (especially Christians) that it is humility not to fight back. But underneath it all, the person who has no measure of self-esteem/self-worth to defend himself or herself grows greater in depression and self-hatred. The incidences of “going postal” that we read about in the USA[2], like Columbine High or Virginia Tech (this April where a Korean student massacred many) have some connexion with the fatal lack of self-esteem.

There are many reasons but a reason why many of us have such poor self-esteem is because we are a generation seemingly obsessed with success—material success. But that is not actually our fault because our self-esteem is consistently assaulted or battered by the constant barrage of suggestions that we do not have enough to be happy. This is what I can afford to drive: a run-down car but I am constantly buffeted by winds of “not safe enough, not prestigious enough, not big enough”. A society (race or community) that constantly tells us that we need to market ourselves—to project ourselves—is a society which is also at the same time insecure or suffers from poor self-esteem. Perhaps that explains why the Keris or Malay native dagger needs to be unsheathed and waved year after year and cultural justifications are given, as if we were stupid.

We instinctively shy away or react against people who are selfish. The problem is that when people are not comfortable with themselves, they tend to focus more on themselves: their needs, their true identity, their search for meaning and satisfaction. A selfish society, an ego-centred world is rather symptomatic of a society that is not at home with itself. Selfish people are usually people with poor self-esteem. It is a vicious cycle.

Self-esteem thus consists of knowing, accepting and in a sense being at peace with who you are. It is easy to say: know, accept and be at peace with who you are but it is not. We are afraid that we are never good enough, what we have is lacking and is not acceptable. A healthy self-worth, that is to stand one’s ground, also demands that we dare look at the ugliness of our sins because being at peace is not an excuse to remain in a state of sin. If you like, self-esteem is really the measure of our worth before God. I stand before God as I am… not as I would ideally like to be or want to be. [3] It takes a lot of courage to believe that God can accept this “me”, all warts and pimples. That realisation is the stepping stone of self-esteem. That is why after confession, I tell the penitent: “For your penance (actually penance, in this case, is really an insult to God)… rather for your prayer, go to the Blessed Sacrament. Self-esteem is best cultivated or nurtured before the one who, in the first place gave it back to us… If you want to measure your true worth, stand before God because true self-worth is not a construct. It doesn’t come through self-help programmes.

You know, every Jesuit is invited to embrace the 3rd Degree of humility where one embraces insults for the sake of Christ. Humility presupposes a crucial and important element of accepting who we are. To give up honour, prestige, entitlement and to accept insult presupposes that you give up something valuable. Teresa of Avila says that humility is living the truth. This means that unless you own yourself, that is, live and accept the truth of who you are, it is hard to give up what you don’t have and own in the first place. A person cannot suffer insult for God if he or she doesn’t know even how to love himself or herself the way God does. Therefore, it’s not possible to be humble without a healthy sense of the self. And it’s not possible to embrace the will of God without humility.
[1] Fornicators if you could step forward. My God, there are a lot of you. Could I split you up into adulterers and the rest? Male adulterers can you just form a line in front of the small guillotine in the corner there? Then he proceeds to insult the French and the Germans. The English, French and Germans have a history…
[2] The term originated from the cases in the US Postal Service where employees who, due to job stress or other traumatic influence, have murdered co-workers on the job, usually with a firearm. Now it means general insanity that includes violence through firearm. The incidents in Virginia Tech and Columbine High are two good examples.
[3] After the Fall, human history consists of running away from a God who dares to face us in our nakedness. We are constantly trying to cover ourselves with fig leaves. Fig leaves represent the “ephemeral” search for the “self” bolstered by “wealth or honour”.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

There are three things which a person ought to do in order to be considered virtuous. Virtue consists of praying, fasting and almsgiving—ties in very much with our Lenten observance, if you remember. So, on the one hand, we have the Pharisee who actually fulfils all these three conditions. He prays, he pays tithe and he fasts. And yet he is not held up by Jesus to be a model of virtue. On the other hand, we have the Tax-Collector. He belongs to the class which is traitorous because it colludes with the Roman invaders in taking advantage of the local population. In the parable, the table is turned because he who is seemingly “virtuous”, who does the right thing is not at right with God and instead the contrary is true. A reversal of roles made possible only because of the virtue of humility.

Today, it might be good then to dwell a little more on the long forgotten virtue of humility. We do so by taking a closer look at pride for our friend the Pharisee’s attitude may help us understand better what humility consists of. We are not as distracted as we are disturbed by the Pharisee’s action of gloating over the inability of the Tax-Collector to live up to his standard. He seems to be saying “I am better than this Tax-Collector”, but in reality, the tenor of his prayer is characterised by an attitude that says, “God, here I am doing you a favour”. The Pharisee was self-sufficient, so he wasn’t really comparing himself to the Tax-Collector as he was telling God this: “God, I am good enough to stand before you, before you as your equal”. We never think that we can be like that because we commonly or colloquially describe pride as “don’t action lah” and we have words like “arrogance, vanity, superiority or self-importance” and these words are applied to our relationship with others. We don’t like it when someone comes across as “arrogant”. But in reality, pride has to do with trying to stand equal before God. Lucifer is our perfect example. He was the most beautiful, the brightest and the most intelligent of all the angels. Beauty and light are synonymous with intelligence and truth and the name “Lucifer” means the “bearer of light”. But, Lucifer was blinded by his own light and he became the source of his own glory. He turned away from God as his source of inspiration and light and as a result, committed the sin of pride.

Pride affects us more than we dare to think. The history of mankind is a history of trying to be God. Let me give a couple of examples. The Tower of Babel is testimony to pride. It wasn’t just that we wanted to reach heaven but we wanted to tell God that we could do so with our own strength. Or, how many of you feel that going to confession is a waste of time? The usual comments I hear are “Why go for confession when I am going to sin again” and “I am confessing the same sin again and again”. Confession may seem to focus on our sins but really it is more a celebration of God’s merciful love for us. Therefore, to think only in terms of sin is perhaps to commit the sin of pride for the person who says, “Why go for confession when I am going to sin again” is actually saying, “God, let me come before you only when I am perfect. Only when I esteem myself as your equal will I stand before you”. [Lord, I am worthy to stand before you not because of You but I am worthy because of me]. When a person despairs of his sins, it could be a sign of false humility and a symptom of pride more than anything else. The unasked question: “Why can’t I be like God who does not sin?”

The point is, I go for confession and I confess the same sins too. In doing so, I express a trust that God’s mercy will shield me from His fierce judgement. The point is that we sin and acceptance of it is the beginning of humility. The Pharisee would have done himself a lot more good if he had stood there and said, “God, I am good only because you are good to me”. If pride makes one an equal of God, then humility makes one acknowledge God as the superior and accept His authority.

We are fascinated by those who came from India or China with nothing on their backs except their shirts. Now they are multimillionaires. We live in an era of the self-made man or woman. The rags-to-riches man is emblematic or a mascot of "having arrived". And we are guided by this philosophy that “to be” is to be self-made, self-taught, self-directed. In fact, Abraham Maslow, in the earlier days of his theory of human personality understood the fulfilment of human potential in terms of self-actualisation. To be is to be self-actualised.

While it is not bad to be self-made or self-actualised, what is required is that we grow in awareness of our dependence on God. When we refuse to accept our creaturely relationship with God, then we will, like Lucifer begin to look at ourselves, our achievements, our capabilities etc as the source of glory.

When we no longer acknowledge God, then we will find it hard to acknowledge what God intends to teach us through His Church—what can the Church teach us? Obedience fosters humility, but who needs to obey, who needs to listen to anyone else when one is the source of one’s own glory?

Humility is the forgotten virtue. Humility comes from the Latin word “humus” meaning soil or earth. The humble person is one who stands before God with his or her feet firmly planted in the ground. It is easy to think that the Pharisee suffered from being self-righteous or judgemental. But it is more profound than being judgemental. The Tax-Collector stood there knowing that with God and before God, humility is the only posture possible a creature can take before his creator. He has come to the profound realisation that of his own, he was worth nothing but with God, he was worth everything.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Leprosy, a dreaded disease features prominently in both the 1st Reading and the Gospel. That being the case, I would like to speak on three seemingly unrelated points. First, I would like to start by taking a look at the phenomenon of leprosy, our reaction towards it and what implication that reaction has for us. Second, I would like to point out how both Naaman and the cured Samaritan are reminders of our responsibility to carry the grace of the Gospel to those who are waiting. Finally, how we ought to choose gratitude as a mode of behaviour.

First, leprosy is association with ostracisation—being cast out. Being cast out of the community comes under the purview of purity laws as required by Mosaic Law. But, purity laws are not maintained for the sake of themselves. They function to keep the smooth running of a society—for its viability. Every society must set up boundaries to guarantee its survival. For example, Sg. Buloh leprosarium was an effort at self-preservation.

Thus, a boundary is also measured by the extent to which the society will defend it. For example, we know that the virtue of virginity in a Middle Eastern setting is prized very highly because a violation of the boundary of virginity carries with it no less than death by stoning. We may be shocked by the barbarity of the punishments like the cutting off of hands or the stoning to death but our reaction may also be a symptom of how much we have lost our sense of value. [1]

We know that in this country, there is a growing sense of Puritanism especially in the public arena. Puritanism is boundary defining and thus, two questions may be asked in the face of this growing rigidity of the boundaries. First, who has the right to define boundaries? Should our boundaries be defined by one religion—specifically by a particular group of people dishing out fatwas as and when they like. The answer can be tricky because we can be reduced to just using “my warped sense of interpretation of scripture” as the standard of measure for everyone. If we are to avoid using “my personal standard writ large”, then, we are brought to a second and more challenging question: what are our boundaries and where do we derive them from? For serious Catholics, we know that conscience is absolutely crucial to the discernment of the boundaries which we are to keep. However, our conscience must be formed according to the teachings of Christ and His Church. Cardinal Newman once said: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” because it is the messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches us and rules us by his representatives. The experience of marginalisation or drawing of boundaries leads us to a deeper realisation of the need to form our conscience.

Secondly, there is a deeper and humbler meaning to both the readings than just curing because they both point to how two foreigners are able to recognise God. Naaman acknowledged Yahweh to be the one true God. The 10 Lepers calling out, “Jesus”! “Master”! “Take pity on us” is the beginning of the awareness of the divinity of Jesus. Finding himself cured, the Samaritan came back and threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him because he acknowledges that healing can only come from God.

We can be too complacent but both Naaman and the Samaritan remind us of the heavy responsibility of bringing the Good News to those who are waiting anxiously for the grace of the Gospel. Paul confirms the seriousness of this responsibility in the 2nd Reading when he says that nobody can chain up God’s news. He also claims that on account of the Good News of Jesus Christ, he is able to bear all hardships and even to being chained like a criminal.

And this brings us to the 3rd point—of gratitude as a mode of behaviour. The stranger who came back to thank Jesus shamed those who should be the first to do so. The Jews… and now Christians should be living a life of gratitude. The Eucharist is our expression of gratitude which sometimes challenges us when we look at Sunday mass as an obligation. Gratitude is the memory of the heart. Paul who once relentlessly pursued and killed Christians and now is able to bear with grace his ill-treatment is a response of gratitude. He was a grave sinner who has now become a graced sinner. Gratitude powered Paul’s preaching.

In conclusion, the boundaries, the grace of the Gospel and gratitude are inter-related. Gratitude enables us to enter deeper into the formation of our conscience. A person with no gratitude will look at God’s laws as restriction of his or her personal freedom. Gratitude also frees us to embrace the hardship that will be involved in bringing the grace of the Gospel to people who are waiting hungrily for Christ.
[1] We need to be careful of how we judge communities which are, in our eyes, barbaric. The ancient world tried to protect its boundaries in order to survive. In a way, in trying to ensure the survival of the community, it also becomes systematically a ghetto. On the other hand, we would like to be inclusive. And yet, because we have lost our sense of value, what we have is not inclusiveness but rather a form of organisation in which like-minded people can gather to the exclusion of the others. In that way, we may not be better off than those “pre-modern” societies.

Monday, 1 October 2007

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“May you bear witness to the love of God in this world so that the afflicted and the needy will find in you generous friends and welcome you into the joys of heaven”. Do you know where you get to hear this? At a wedding… and it is part of the final blessing at the end of the celebration. I am amazed and yet humbly thrilled by how scriptural Catholicism is because the blessing of a married couple makes a reference to our Gospel for today. Furthermore the blessing is contextualised because the reference arises presumably because it has something to do with the fact a wedding is associated with feasting and the context of today’s gospel is hunger in the midst of plenty.

Today we are called to reflect on how to be personally responsible in a situation of hunger in the midst of plenty. As long as there are hungry stomachs and there is food wastage, it is a scandal.

Last week I spoke about the unhelpful categories of rich and poor. Today this is somewhat confirmed because in the Gospel we have just heard, nowhere is it mentioned that Jesus condemned the Rich Man because he was rich. In fact he was condemned because he was blind. Thus, we are reminded of a blindness which is not amoral but deeply moral and deeply ethical. It is fascinating that the rich but blind man is not named except in some translations he’s known as “dives” which in Latin simply means rich whereas the starving man is named Lazarus which literally means God has helped.

The name itself shows where God’s preference is and how we cannot afford to be blind to God’s preference. In the first reading, our social justice prophet Amos is clearly pointing out that we should not be caught on the wrong side of God in the area of accountability and personal responsibility.

Accountability is the uncomfortable link between the unhelpful categories of the rich and the poor. The nature of our accountability is that the more you are blessed, the more accountable you will need to be. The discomfort we feel has something to do with our lack of trust and may also arise from our understanding that there is only so much that we can share—which is usually translated into there is never enough to be shared.

Take a moment to reflect: the scandal of hunger in the midst of plenty is not that there is not enough. In fact, the scandal is precisely because there is more than enough. Here, let’s make a shift. We are accustomed to think of sin from the perspective of weakness. We are accustomed to thinking that due to our weakness we fall into the sin of jealousy or envy, anger or grudges, disobedience and lies. As it were, sin is a manifestation of weakness.

But what is actually pointed out in the parable of Dives and Lazarus is that Dives sinned in the area of “his strength”. Dives could have done something for Lazarus but he did not. [In fact, the presence of dogs in the parable in a sense condemns Dives. Dogs along with pigs are considered to be animals of the lowest kind and thus to have dogs licking his wounds, indicates that Lazarus is nowhere to be found in the radar-screen of human dignity.] We often sin not out of weakness but out of the failure to act upon our strength. Instead of doing something because we can, what we do is to turn a blind eye to those in need.

We sin so much more when we do nothing. I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault—in what I have done and what I have failed to do. “Failed to do” indicates that we have failed to act when we can. Therefore, it is also a failure of accountability.

The world we live in has also shrunk. What may be thousands of miles away is now brought closer in a few seconds. [Case in point is the “Saffron” revolution in Burma which through the media has become so immediate]. And a consequence of immediacy is that our accountability is also widened. A way of understanding accountability is to look at our involvement. It is a fact that we will never be able to feed all of the hungry but the truth is that, no matter how circumscribed we are, no matter how constrained we are, we are never far from the demands of accountability. Even though we can’t feed all the hungry, we are still not powerless. What we can do is “not to over-eat” and not to waste food. These are two major sins we are guilty of, made even more scandalous because there are people who still go to bed hungry.

If you are rich, rest assured that you will never go to hell because you are rich. But you might go to hell because you are not sensitive to those who are hungry. In other words, make sure you are a poor man’s friend (or a hungry stomach’s friend). It is not a matter of condescension or a matter of patronising the hungry. As the blessing at the end of the marriage ceremony suggests, the welcoming party in heaven is made up of the poor. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, in prison and you came to visit me.

Our involvement with the hungry is important as a measure of our accountability. The hungry are our ticket to heaven. In the life of every saint, you will find some references to their friendship with those who are poor and are in need of food. It is not so much the avoidance of sin that will gain us to heaven. Rather it is the good that we can do (especially and as real as to feed the hungry) that will open the gate of heaven for us.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The categories of rich and the poor can sometimes be unhelpful. Let me explain. In the first reading, we hear the Prophet Amos championing the poor. He criticises the rich and here the categories—rich and poor—become unhelpful because Amos criticises the rich not because they are rich but because they have unjustly treated the poor. When it comes to injustice, it is by no means the preserve or domain of the rich because the poor can also be equally unjust in their treatment of each other.

Let’s try to understand better why the Prophet criticises the rich. In the Gospel, Jesus seemingly speaks of “priority” when he says that we cannot serve two masters at the same time—one must come before the other. But, if you reflect further there are no two masters because there is just no basis for comparison between them, between God and wealth. One is creator and the other is created. There are no two equal “masters” competing for our loyalty because one is sovereign and the other is dependent. When we have grasped the fundamental difference between the Creator and the created, then, there is simply no “priority” because God always comes first in our lives and everything else is contingent; everything else is dependent. In this context, the Prophet’s criticism is directed against those who have forgotten the fundamental truth of the dependence of the creature upon the Creator. All we have is not ours. They come from God.

It is in the context of this fundamental dependent relationship—that everything comes from God—that we can now explore the idea of accountability. The basis for speaking of accountability is Genesis 1:26 where it tells us that God created Mankind to “have dominion” over all creation. This dominion is a reflexion of God’s authority over Creation—made in the image and likeness of God that we are—hence, we are to be accountable for the way we reflect God’s stewardship over creation. In light of our dependence on God, wealth becomes God’s loan to us and thus we must be accountable. Stewardship by its very nature entails accountability and here is the crux: the more you have, the more you will be held accountable. That’s the basis for the Prophet criticising those who have been blessed more but have not been more responsible. “Never will I forget a single thing you have done”. Amos does give a fair warning on accountability. In the Gospel, the rich man asks his steward to give an account of his stewardship. And the steward acts exactly as he is expected. He may not be right in his method but still he acts within the remit or the boundary of being accountable.

Today we are challenged to give an account of our stewardship. Amos is as relevant as he was in his time. How can we be accountable for the wealth that the Lord has entrusted us with. For example, the current climate of crime in our country is a topic very quickly brought up in polite conversation. We may point to the statistics to indicate that the crimes are committed by the foreigner. And our response is to buy the latest car protection system; instal the most up-to-date home security or live within a gated community. In short, we rightly do all we can to shield ourselves from the troubles brought about by the “foreigners” in our midst.

Here, I’d like to apologise to the migrant community present amongst us. It’s not about you but rather about us. We need scapegoats and “scapegoating” is an indication of a lack of accountability because it is always easier to blame than to look at ourselves. The Chinese in the country were scapegoats once and maybe still are with regard to the economic situation. Hence, instead of blaming, Amos challenges us to take a closer look at how the economic system worldwide is organised? How have we contributed to an economic system which is unjust in the treatment of people? In the newspapers, we read about the rising number of foreign workers coming to this country but working without just remuneration. What is the response of those who have a louder or stronger voice in a matter such as this? It is about accountability.

This is where our reflexion often stops. We cannot be responsible for the entire world. And that is a fact. As a consequence, this fact “cannot be responsible” is quickly translated to “we are not responsible”. If I can’t do anything about it, let me not sweat it. Does this explain apathy that we face today? Apathy is not because we are bad but rather a resignation in the face of a situation beyond our control. This explains why vandalism is a modern scourge. It’s this big something over which we have no control that makes us all frustrated and thus we strike out. Vandalism is a response to a situation in which a person has no control over and unfortunately, often at the expense of the innocent and the faceless.[1]

That is why accountability must start off with the personal, the individual—the “I” and not the “they”—a recognition that dependence is personal stewardship. And in the context of our greatest challenge—global warming, each individual must look at the way he or she consumes. I cannot be responsible for how others behave. But I can be responsible for how I behave. My choice together with others—personal and corporate stewardship—has an impact on the world. But it must start with a personal conviction. It does not begin with “when others do it, I’ll do it”.

Let me give an example: How the vow of poverty that every Jesuit takes is an exercise of stewardship. I lived in the Philippines for 6 years. I think the Philippine Bishops are really at the forefront of this environmental accountability. They were the first in the world to write a pastoral letter on the environment. When I went to Loyola House, Manila in 1988, we all use the ubiquitous jeepneys for their transportation—our jeepney really was a chimney more than a jeepney. It left a trail of black smoke. But, because we were so blinded by the vow of poverty we failed to see that poverty must protect a greater value—it was not about owning less but it was about lessening as much as possible the degradation of the environment. Yet, we drove that smoke belching jeepney and became part of the polluters rather than the solution to the environment degradation. As a body, we failed in our corporate accountability. The Jesuits are not poor in the Philippines.

In conclusion, the 1st Reading and the Gospel are not really speaking of the rich-poor divide. They teach us the fundamental truth of our dependence on God. All else revolves around this truth. Once we have set our heart aright on this truth, we will begin to appreciate that everything we have is entrusted to us and our duty is to give an account of our stewardship but truth to tell, when we have set our hearts aright, stewardship will be more of love than of duty. It will be our joyful embrace and not an imposition. Let’s pray for that grace.

[1]We are outraged at the finding of a dead girl whose body had been stuffed into a bag. Sexual perversion might be too easy a reason to explain what had taken place. We think that there is really an increase in sexual depravity. But sexual depravity might mask a deeper symptom of frustration. Sexual aggression is often a symptom of a loss of control over one’s life and may be a possible reason for the compensation of this loss of control. When there is a loss of control, there is always an accompanying frustration. When people are angry they take it out on the weak and the defenceless… children are often the first targets.