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.