Friday, 31 August 2007

Celebrating Independence

Today we cross a milestone in celebrating 50 years of Independence. In the current climate we find ourselves in, there is a strong sense that the good old days were really the good old days. There is a palpable air of pessimism and cynicism that permeates our public life. So, as a faithful people gathered to worship God, let us take some time to think how our faith should mark the exercise of our citizenship. Hence the question: “What is it to be a faithful citizen”?

The question engages us all from many fronts. But, the first reading already gives us a clue in a certain direction. It demands that there should be no class distinction amongst us. This concern for an egalitarian or equitable society is distilled through the Church’s social teachings. If you like, in familiar terms, we call it social justice. In concrete terms, social justice is the mission to safeguard the dignity of the human person. This mission is very important because of the phenomenon of globalisation. Globalisation has made the world smaller, a good or a bonum that has allowed us to enjoy easier access to supplies and services but it has also cast its shadow upon us. What has a faith that does justice have to say standing in the shadow of globalisation?

In the interconnectedness of globalised economies, education and human strength has become fodder or food that is needed to power the economies. In the first place, our children’s education is no longer dictated by what is good, true and beautiful. Instead, their education is tailored to feed into the needs of system. Therefore, we should be ever conscious of the need for the wholesome education of our young. And this wholesome education must include the important component of spiritual learning or spiritual formation. Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew asked: “What then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life?" is fair warning to us of the vacuity or emptiness of any learning that is devoid of the spirit. To be a faithful citizen is to fulfil the first precept of the National Principles — that is to make stronger our belief in God. Nothing can ever take the place of God in our endeavour to exercise faithful citizenship. In fact, those who fight for the poor and the disenfranchised are those who place God first in their life. We can never encounter justice without God. The communist tried to establish an equitable society based on the principles of equality, as envisaged by the first reading, but they ended in dismal failure. Why? Because God was never part of their equation. Therefore, in very concrete terms, what value do we place upon our children’s faith formation? Have we a space for God in our lives?

Secondly, another effect of globalisation has been the reduction of human strength to being just a component in the production of goods and services. Human dignity or humanity with all its complexities is minimised. A person matters only because he or she can generate or produce or contribute to the result of what we intend. I have in mind the thousands of migrant workers and also those of our fellow brothers and sisters who fall through the cracks created by a society of greed. Migrant workers power the construction boom in our country and yet our treatment of them often falls beneath the minimum required to pass off as humanly dignified. You might be wondering why we need to take care of the migrants amongst us. In a world of globalised economies, both our children’s education and the brute strength of the migrants are just commodities to be bought and sold. Is there anything more slavery than that? There may be a chasm that separates us from the stranger as it were, but in a society of slaves and master, no one is free. Those who think they are free, those who are educated as it were, are living in delusion. Therefore, good citizenship behoves upon us all to take care of those who are in the margin.

Brothers and sisters, 50 years is a milestone in our journey as a nation. Faithful citizenship calls us to remedy what is lacking in our children’s education—to give a greater emphasis to the moral and the spiritual dimensions of the quest for knowledge. Secondly, the stranger amongst us is often the Christ unrecognised. Their dignity is also ours—if they are demeaned, then we too are demeaned.

Thus, faithful citizenship requires that we participate in debates on matters affecting the common good. We either do that or we can shy away in cynicism and many have done so through emigration. But, when we engage in or participate in the questioning of public affairs we are actually upholding what is sacred to our country: the principles of democracy. In this respect, faithful citizenship calls every Catholic to actively give space for his faith to enter into the public sphere.

Concretely, it means that we must give space to knowing Christ first. And in the matter of education, our children must come to know Christ because it will be their duty in the future to bring Christ to a world waiting in great labour for a Saviour of the world and his Gospel to be made known to them.

Monday, 27 August 2007

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

How would you feel if I told you that three quarter of you… three quarter of the people sitting here will go to hell? I suspect an initial reaction would be “surprise”, i.e., “from which part of the Pre-Vatican II hell is he from”?, followed by “such judgemental attitude”. But beyond this initial reaction I think lies a reality which is hitherto unquestioned by so many of us. In actual fact, it does not come into our horizon at all and it is the reality of hell where you or I can go to. I call it an unquestioned reality simply because of what I hear at eulogy… Through the many eulogies at funerals, I have come to a realisation that our conception of life and death is almost “mechanical”… mechanical in the sense that, I live… or shall I say, I meander along in life and I die and it is assumed that life continues along the same trajectory after death. And that whatever happens in this life has nothing to do with the quality of the next life. It is almost as if the next life were inevitable. The fact is that there are people whose lives are questionable. I am saying this not because I am judgemental but a person who doesn’t practise his faith, has no sense of belonging to a faith community, but is adulterous and yet at death, is given a “Catholic” burial. At the end of the service, a family member gives a eulogy of this person’s life. The thing is the eulogy sounds more like a canonisation process. The person whose life is questionable is already a “saint” enjoying beatific vision, never mind that there is purification still before we ever can come into God’s presence.

Today, Jesus is reminding us that people can be shut out of life. Hell is a distinct possibility. But somehow, I get a sense that we are unable to “feel” hell and the urgency of the possibility of hell does not affect us. Perhaps it is a good occasion to think about hell.

Firstly, part of the reason hell is inconceivable is because our idea of God is a soft one—an idea which posits the incompatibility of a good God with hell. How could God ever consign a person to hell? This is backed up by our reaction towards innocent suffering. “What kind of God allows such a thing to happen to an innocent child”? However, today’s Gospel clearly indicates not only the reality of hell but that the notion of God must necessarily include hell. Why? Because hell is the absence of God. Hell is not a place for God to consign us to. Rather, hell is when we shut God out of our lives. If you decide not to choose God meaning that you have chosen to live without God, the consequence of that choice is hell. In the Eucharistic Prayer I, we say, “save us from final damnation and count us amongst those you have chosen”. Damnation is NOT the result of God not choosing us but rather of us not choosing God.

Secondly, our inability to conceive the notion of hell is perhaps the direct consequence of our inability to conceive what heaven is like. And this inability has something to do with how poor our measure or our estimation has become. We are constantly bombarded with images of the good life. And often we are presented with a picture of having arrived which consists of being sated or satiated with material comfort. Good is measured by a bigger car, better housing location replete with amenities. In short, our concept of good is material good or material comfort. In itself, all that we can eat and enjoy is not bad in itself. But consider the difference between these two sentences. I am good. God is good. These two sentences use the adjective “good”. But are they the same? Their difference far outweighs their similarity meaning that God is good but His goodness far exceeds my goodness. Surely there is more to goodness than just material good or material comfort. Thus, our description of what of goodness is must go beyond the barrier of our expectation and not be limited by a vision of the good proposed to us on a merely material level. If you like, we are short-changed in our vision of heaven if we consider that heaven is just what we can experience here. The truth is that what we can experience here is only a foretaste of what heaven is like—just like the raising of Lazarus is a foretaste of what the resurrection is like. But if our vision of heaven is that shallow, then there is no hell to be afraid of. If our vision of heaven is just having a bigger car or a better house to live in, then we can never contemplate the depths of hell. What is more in tune with humanity is that the human spirit is made to soar into heights of heaven so much so that to propose anything less than the stratospheric heights of heaven is to impoverish the spirit. For example, why are our young people even with the latest ipods and now iphones still dissatisfied with the vision of life proposed by a materialistic culture? Isn’t that already some kind of hell that they are living in which may account for the reason why drugs, sex and adrenalin rushes are mistaken currencies in the purchase of the promises of heaven? If your life is an alcohol binge after another, one excitement or “sexcitement” after another, one shopping spree after another, then it’s not heaven. It is hell because one click of a porn site leads to another and another in a series which is never ever going to satisfy us. That is hell.

Make no mistake that hell is real because hell is a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. Hell is real because our destiny is heaven. Hell is not to frighten us but rather it is a call to conversion as Jesus today tells us “Try to enter by the narrow door” because the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction. But take heart brothers and sisters because the 2nd reading says: Suffering is part of your training. And we are in for the long haul and hell is just a reminder that avoiding it can only bring us to heaven. And that means that we must live by the values of Jesus Christ our Lord and so make our lives conform to the likeness of Christ as suggested by last Sunday’s prayer after communion: “By becoming more like Christ on earth, may we come to share his glory in heaven where he lives and reigns forever and ever”. Amen.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

At the beginning of the movie Transformers, there is a scene of the young hero Sam Witwicky, in a “show and tell” session. Instead of “showing and telling”, he is actually trying to hawk his grandfather’s things… an old pair of glasses, map, newspaper cuttings. The teacher tells him that by doing that, he should be getting less than an A. Now our hero needs an A, even an A minus… to show his Dad because the criteria for a set of wheels are 3 As and US$2000. A B- would “poof” his dream and Sam asked the teacher: “What would Jesus do”?

The question is a loaded question. What would Jesus do? The answer to this question betrays our notion of who Jesus is. People who ask this question have probably not read this part of the Gospel we heard this morning. We live in a world which does not want to feel guilty for embracing a life of uninterrupted pleasures. We want our meat drowned in gravy but minus the fat and our drinks laced with sugar but minus the calories. We want low fat, less sugar, in short, a comforting Jesus minus the demands.

Today, a challenging Jesus confronts us to choose him and when we do, there is a cost to be borne. The only person today I know of who is quietly paying the price of choosing Jesus Christ “unadulterated”—comforting and yet demanding—is Lina Joy.

She stands in stark contrast to how we reckon the price to be paid for having chosen Jesus. When we choose to stand alongside Jesus our Lord, then the road to Calvary becomes ours too. The thing is, we want to stand out—we want to be noticed. Otherwise why become fashionable, why speak of the “in-thing”, the “happening place” etc? Unfortunately our desire to stand out does not extend to our courage to go against a culture of accommodation to the values of the world. The price of the real Jesus is rather too steep to pay. For example: It’s common to bribe the police when caught committing a traffic offence. Many a times, people have to struggle not with the thought that bribery is wrong but rather “Everyone is doing it. What would they think if I didn’t do it? Isn’t it stupid not to follow the conventional wisdom of paying your “kopi” money of $50 instead of $300”? And if the Aidl Fitr is around the corner, he might even be desperate enough to accept your bargain to reduce it further.

When we choose Jesus, Calvary is our home. But, when we shade Jesus grey, like Sam Witwicky tried to, we will find excuses to stand in the shadow. When Jesus is watered down, then our task is to ensure that Jesus does not intrude into our lives. He can be there but he must not disturb our comfort. We want a Jesus to tell us that He loves us but we don’t want a Jesus to remind us that it is our sins that keep us away from his love.

I remember the story told by Tony de Mello about this prophet who foresaw that the rains would poison the water supply of his village and drinking it would make them mad. He went around warning everyone but instead of listening to him, everyone laughed at him and also his effort at storing water for himself. Soon enough, the rains came and the water was poisoned. One after another descended into madness. The prophet was the only one who remained sane. He felt happy for himself because he had enough stock of good water to drink and to last a long time. After a couple of months, he soon became lonely… then, he did the unthinkable. He poured away the water and started drinking the water that everyone drank. He became mad like everyone.

The prophet gave up not because he didn’t believe in doing the right thing or doing the good thing. He gave up because he was too lonely. We often find ourselves in that position too. Some of us find our commitment compromised by the loneliness arising from moral integrity. In one of the scenes of Ratatouille, Remy the Rat gave up because he didn’t want to fight anymore. Why? He stood apart from his father and brother. He walked on his two hind feet simply because he didn’t want to dirty his front paws because he used them to eat. But his father and brothers were content to eat rubbish. After a while, it was too much to fight everyone, so he gave up hope.

To choose Jesus is to choose the road less travelled cliché as it may sound. It is to choose the road where we are often alone. It could mean that we may have to leave our family like Lina Joy did, give up a comfortable lifestyle and be at odds with those whom we used to party. If you used to gossip but now do not, you’re weird. If you used to take bribes but now do not, you’d be stabbed in the back. In all cases, the road less travelled embraces the vocation of suffering.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius asks the exercitant to pray for the grace to know Christ more intimately, to love him more ardently and to follow him more closely. It is a grace against a dumb-down Jesus, a grace against a counterfeit Jesus, a grace against an overly indulgent Jesus. It is the only grace that can accompany us on this road less travelled. If we are to choose the less travelled road of moral integrity otherwise known as the less travelled path of suffering then only Jesus can be our rock, our salvation. Nothing less is good enough a shield and an armour in the winds that blow against us. If you choose Jesus, then be prepared for stronger winds that blow, and steel yourself because the temptations will become more acute. But, as the author to the Hebrews says, let us persevere and keep running steadily in the race we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Year C

The human person sees in perspective—he needs to see things in perspective in order to make sense of it. For example, looking out into the horizon, we scan a wide panorama of things. What happens is that our faculty of sight needs to lock onto some familiar things so as to give us a measure of what is before us.

The Assumption of Mary is one such measure for the human race. In the immensity, the grandeur and the majesty of who God is, Mary assumed body and soul into heaven becomes such a figure that is familiar to us; a figure that allows us to see how we are to fit into the larger picture. I particularly like very much the quote by a Poet that Mary is our tainted nature’s solitary boast.

She is the foundation for the reasonability of faith. Her fiat, “let it be done according to your word”, represents an utter and unqualified trust in a God who never fails to satisfy our inmost or deepest expectation. God is the only one who can satisfy us completely and as such, He never fails to keep his promise. Unfortunately, many of us believe that our faith will shield us from pains and sufferings. The foundation of our faith is rather contingent and is based upon the principle of reciprocity: “God, we do this and you keep your promise”. The basis of our relationship with God is at the level of “You scratch my back, I scratch your back”. If that were not the case, then, why the many questionings that come after a tragedy? “I have done my part and yet I feel so betrayed by my God”.

For Mary, “Let it be done” does not take away the pains which she has to undergo—an uncertain pregnancy of a woman out of wedlock and its attendant punishment if found out; the indignity of giving birth in a stable; the frightful losing of her only son, not to mention, the son of God, and the anxious searching for him in Jerusalem; the leaving of Jesus from home for an active ministry that saw him with nowhere to lay his head; and the death of Jesus at an age where he was beginning to flourish in his ministry. Her faith, instead of shielding her, propels her into the heart of living. Life is full of vicissitudes and in her own life we know that Mary’s faith brought her into the fullness of life. It is in life that she finds her God. Mary became our pillar of faith not because she was shielded from the bomb blast of belief in God but because she took the risk of standing by and upon the promise of God. People might argue that because she was sinless, immaculately conceived and therefore she could not have felt the toils or the troubles of temptations that we all, “mere mortals” feel. But judging by what she went through, one can surmise that precisely because of the immaculate conception that God our Lord subjected her to the test beyond what many of us can bear. The Immaculate Conception was a gift given to Mary in view of her role as the Mother of the Son of God. The Immaculate Conception was never given so that Mary could be free from the trials that we are subjected to. Thus, rightly she becomes the measure of our vision of heaven.

According to the Preface written for the Solemnity, Mary is taken up to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection… As such, the Assumption is like a mirror of Easter Sunday. The empty tomb of Jesus is also the empty tomb of Mary for the Church has never venerated the mortal remains of Mary. Since Mary is closely associated with Jesus, she participates fully in his resurrection. Mary's assumption strengthens our faith just as the transfiguration on the mountain strengthened the faith of the three apostles.

Today we gather in joyous celebration because all Marian doctrine and devotion, properly understood and practised, does not lead believers away from, but rather more deeply into, the mystery of Christ. Therefore, let us look at Mary, our pillar of faith, to ask her to strengthen us in our journey amidst the joys and sorrows of life. What we all undergo will all be transformed by Christ's victory. Mary knows it already, and today she confirms our faith and hope.

Monday, 13 August 2007

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The Gospel describes how Christians are to be like bridesmaids in their readiness to welcome the return of the bridegroom. Be vigilant. Appropriately, the question to ask oneself is: Am I ready to meet the Lord now? Am I ready to meet Him either at His Second Coming or at the hour of my own death?

The answer is most probably no. Firstly, because I still have life to live. Our notion of life is that death should only come after a long and fruitful life. That is why we speak of living to a ripe old age and also in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, when life is cut short, we call it a “tragic” death. Secondly, I am not ready because I live in a world of uncertainty. The uncertainty of life causes me to search for meaning. In this quest, the thought of death is set aside as we pursue fulfilment in life. Fulfilment is thought of in terms of what is accomplished: “my work is done, my vision is realised, my objective is met, there is nothing to worry about, and I am free from obligation”. Thirdly, I am not ready because my vision of heaven is blurred by a picture of life which is largely materialistic. Fullness of life is presented in terms of material wealth, material gain and material comfort. In fact, many of us unwittingly postpone living or we think we can only start to live when we have everything we need. Many of us are chased or haunted by the phantoms of material wealth, believing that life will take off only after we have taken the corner of wealth.

Our vision of life without death is challenged by evangelical vigilance. It means that we must be ready to stare death in the eye because death does not work according to our schedule. Like a thief in the night, it comes a knocking when we least expect it, especially when we are working hard to achieve our goals or to accomplish our objectives.

We are invited to live in a state of readiness as exemplified by a monk’s response to the impending end of the world. This monk was sweeping the floor of a monastery and when asked what he would do if he had less than an hour to live said: I’d go on sweeping the floor. That is testimony of a person’s faith in God and a testimony that his or her own life can stand up to close scrutiny. I live in such a way that I can be at any place and in any time. It is easy to live for the future, in the future but it’s hard to live for the now.

Thus, to attend to whatever duty that a person is called to at the time is what Jesus meant by being watchful servants. In the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus returned to his disciples and found them sleeping, he warned them to "watch and pray" (Mark 14:38). To be vigilant indicates that we live in the presence of God and it implies that we become acutely attentive to the presence of God. This idea turns people away from God simply because many of us are afraid that being in the presence of God indicates that we are being kept on our toes. Even the phrase “to stand up to scrutiny” gives the uncomfortable feeling of being watched. It is bad enough that we are being watched by our neighbours, by our colleagues or even worse, being spied upon by our government. Our understanding of watchfulness is made poorer by the image of a God who is waiting to catch us unawares and waiting to punish.

But, listen to the Gospel as it says: Happy those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. I tell you solemnly, he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them. This is our God who delights to serve us. Imagine that when our hearts are in search of God; when we live in the presence of God, God comes to serve us. Thus, being in the presence of God does not mean being kept on our toes but on the contrary should draw us more and more into a life in which we want to make things right before God. It is something instinctive in us and we silently long for this righteousness. It’s like living in such a way that we do not need to pretend and we need never to wear a mask. Unless you are a pathological or chronic liar, then lying and adding more lies to cover another lie leaves you with a feeling of dissatisfaction. We instinctively do not like to live in darkness.

Death and vigilance are friends. Because we are afraid of dying, we reject death, and as such give excuses not to be vigilant—we postpone true living [as in living in truth, living in readiness] until such time when we are “ready”. The philosopher Martin Heidegger brought out an existential truth of who we are. We are “beings unto death”. This runs counter to our accepted view of life as a journey in which one is born, grows up and then after a period of active life, slows down to enter the process of death. But according to Heidegger, we begin to die as soon as we are born. Every breath we take moves us inexorably closer to death. There is never a point in our existence where death is not a part of. Death is not alien to our existence but is in fact, built into our existential structure.

Hence, to be vigilant is to live in the shadow of death. It is not a threat. It is an invitation to walk into the presence of God because beyond the shadow of death is the light of God. We are created to see God face to face and the only way to see God is to go through the door of death. For that, we must be ready. Be vigilant.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The first reading and the Gospel seem to cast a cold eye on the emptiness of possession or wealth. “Vanities of vanity” actually refers to the effort to amass wealth for inheritance’s sake. The Gospel warns of the demand made on the man who stores up treasures for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.

This warning about possession or wealth can very easily lead us into an invective/diatribe/tirade against affluence, prosperity or riches. It can become an occasion to praise poverty with its attendant virtue like detachment etc. Yet, it is also true that when one is poor, very quickly one can concoct a theology in which the rich are ridiculed or disparaged while the poor are praised. One often gives anecdotal/subjective evidence to prove one’s point... like so and so is poor but is indeed very happy unlike so and so is rich but is unhappy. The truth is that poverty sucks or is dreadful and to praise poverty sounds a bit like subtle propaganda. The phenomenon of sour grapes describes it best. The point is Jesus is not against wealth. He is warning against greed and avarice.

On the one hand, possession, or to possess, is related to our sense of security, therefore, an inherent part of our make-up as a human person. For example, why is “land” or territory so important? Israel was given the Promised Land described as the “land of milk and honey”. What may be missed out in the vision of the Promised Land is the relationship between Israel and God—a relationship of trust and security of which “the Promised Land” would be the concrete sacramental sign or manifestation of that relationship of trust. Put in another way, God to Israel says: If you put your trust in me, if you put your security in me, where you are is the Promised Land.

On the other hand, it is greed or avarice that drives our rapacious appetite to accumulate wealth. There is something about possessing which can lead to self-destruction. Instead of a relationship of “trust” in God as the Psalmist so aptly put it: O Lord, you have been our refuge (read = God is my security), we place our trust upon material wealth. We need more to hedge/protect against uncertainty. Perhaps this harkens back to the days when life was more contingent on one’s ability to hunt and on the availability of scarce natural resources, the ability to have some buffer before a famine strikes. We need to ensure our survival. Hence, we amass, accumulate, we gather, we collect and we hoard. It is as primal as that.

Yet, our survival is for not itself. The very desire of a person to have offspring in order to leave our inheritance shows that we are not entirely “self-centred”. Greed is just a symptom of our basic desire to survive gone awry or off-tangent. When we fail to trust God we tend to look for security elsewhere and that’s when greed or avarice comes in.

Wealth or possessions in themselves cannot be bad as we need them to ensure our material well-being. Therefore, our challenge today is the prevailing philosophy that it is not enough. Our problem is not the accumulation of wealth. Our problem is that “it is not enough”. For some of us, when greed and avarice sets into this instinct for survival, “it is never enough”. Buffet is one phenomenon that highlights this philosophy that “nothing is enough”. We ply our plates with more food than we need. The measure of our greed is the measure of the wastage of food at the end of a buffet. [1]

It is not about being rich or being poor and about which is better. Survival cuts across the line between rich and poor and therefore greed or avarice can strike anyone. In fact, it is often those who were poor who when they become rich, do not understand the self-consuming desire of greed or avarice. Imelda Marcos is a perfect example. She came from poverty and when she became the First Lady, she collected her now famous 3000 pairs of shoes.

We are challenged today to look for our security in God. “Only in God will my soul be at rest, from Him comes my hope, my salvation”. When our security is in God, our possession or wealth becomes relativised. They are important but they will not dictate “the way we move or have our being”. The vow of poverty the religious brothers, sisters and priests take is not because they love poverty. Poverty is a reminder that our security is not to be found in material possession as echoed in the 2nd Reading which asks us to direct our thoughts on heavenly things. When we have escaped the prison of avaricious possessing, we will perhaps discover that the greatest possession is that of freedom; freedom not to be shackled by greed or avarice. The greatest possession is the freedom to live secure in the trust of a God who never fails to provide.
[1]We struggle to balance the tension between what we want and what we need. Our whole environmental endeavour is enervated by this lack of conversion from the principle of want to the principle of need. One of Murphy’s Laws states that “Work expands to fill up whatever free time that you have” is perhaps applicable here. The principle of “want” is akin to this particular law because our level of consumption is dictated by “want” and not by need. It seems that we want bigger cars and bigger houses etc… not that we need them. What is at stake is the sustainability of our consumption based on “want”. To save our environment, we need a genuine conversion from the principle of want to the principle of need. It should be “need” which dictates how we consume. Beyond that, it’s often greed.