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”.