Sunday, 28 December 2008

Feast of the Holy Family Year B

At Christmas, I touched on the theme of Emmanuel, God-with-us. I mentioned that the Church (and this is despite she being made up of sinners et al) and the Sacraments fulfil God’s promise to be with us. This proximity or nearness of God to humanity is not some airy-fairy construct or concept but instead, it is premised or founded on concrete and finite reality’s capability to contain what is of immortal value. That is why water can be used for baptism, oil for anointing or healing, confirmation or ordination, wheat and grapes for the Mass etc. In summary, the Incarnation, the act when God chose to be one of us, allows what is concrete and physical to become channels of God’s grace.

It is in this context that we celebrate the holiness of Jesus Mary and Joseph. But, before we do so, we need to clarify what it means for this family to be an ideal and a holy family. Our concept of ideal must be grounded or rooted in reality. What happens is that we may mistakenly assume that the ideal is synonymous with perfection. Whilst the ideal may consist of striving for perfection, what has been proposed to us is actually the Holy Family and not the “perfect” family.

They didn’t have angels whispering into their ears all the time and telling them what to do. We do not know much about them but the different Gospels give us enough glimpses of who they are. He is born in a manger and even before they can settle down, they are hounded by Herod to flee to Egypt; there in Egypt to be foreigners. When they come back, they settle out in the back of nowhere, in a town called Nazareth from where, according to Nathaniel, nothing “good can come”. The young boy has to get lost in Jerusalem during one of their pilgrimages. In His life, Jesus is not always understood by His Mother. She is afraid for Him; afraid that the crowd may swallow Him up. She witnesses how a crowd that cheers can suddenly degenerate into the crowd that jeers at Him. Finally, what she feels as the prophetic sword of sorrow at the presentation, at the crucifixion, becomes the lance that pierces His heart.

So, this is the hard reality of the Incarnation. The ordinariness which we call humanity or the human condition afflicted them just as much as it would us. They were not untouched by sorrows, misunderstandings and problems of one kind or another. But, it is precisely for that and through what they experienced, they can serve as model for us. The Holy Family is holy not because they live a perfect sheltered life. They are holy simply because they allowed God to be part of their lives.

The consequence of the Incarnation is far-reaching. As a result of God entering the human condition, humanity’s vision is forever changed from helplessness into hopefulness and from pessimism to promise. Now, holiness is possible because the human family is shot through with the presence of God. It is because they had God in their lives that both Mary and Joseph found it easier to hear God speaking to them and this family found it possible to bear the hardship that comes with whatever life hands to them.

In the Letter to the Colossians, St Paul describes that presence of God in their lives as being clothed with sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. Above all, it is to put on love as St Augustine paraphrases St Paul when he says: “In all that is essential, let there be unity. In all that is inessential, let there be diversity. But above all, let there be love”.

Thus, the test of God’s presence in our family is seen in how we treat each other. In a family setting where familiarity is the norm, contempt often may be the only way we know how to deal with each other. Is it not true that many of us are kinder to friends than we are to family?

Today when we look at Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we know that they are close to us in their experiences as a family. The Incarnation has allowed them to become a “workable” family as it would allow ours to be. For us, family feuds, sickness, death, anger, jealousy or even the devastation of infidelity are part of what the family goes through. Thus, the Holy Family is an invitation not to run away because we feel that our family is beyond redemption but to allow God to enter into our family’s life and decisions so that with what we are, with what we have, we too may be on the road towards holiness.

Today we ask Jesus, Mary and Joseph to be with our family especially as we desire to be like them in holiness.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Year B

Just after we began our Mass, we heard a solemn proclamation of the birth of Christ. It gave us a grand sweep of history as it pointed us to the events that took place from the time of creation until the birth of Christ. It is not history that is “historical” in the strict scientific sense of the word. Nevertheless, it is history because it chronicles the history of salvation. Amongst the events, one of them took place about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Then the Kingdom of Judah was facing an external threat. God sent the prophet Isaiah to encourage the King, Ahaz, to trust God for protection and not to form an unholy alliance with Assyria. God even offered Ahaz the chance to ask for a sign in order to strengthen his faith but Ahaz refused. Not only that, Ahaz also refused to obey God. Fortunately, Ahaz’s disobedience is God’s moment to proclaim through Isaiah a prophecy which is fulfilled according to the Gospel of Matthew:

“Now all this took place to fulfil the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’”.

Christmas is the fulfilment of God’s promise to be with us in a way that is beyond humanity’s expectation. In the first place, God has always been with us because creation cannot but reflect the presence of God. But, more than merely passive presence, God had been actively present too for He said to Moses whom He sent to face the mighty Pharaoh (Ex 3) “I shall be with you”. And, to Joshua, God promised that He would be with him as He had been with Moses as Joshua prepared to lead the people into the Promised Land (Josh 1).

Tonight, the birth of Christ is the ultimate fulfilment of the meaning of God-is-with-us. The truth of Christmas is God is permanently one with us because His Son is one of us. Furthermore, as Christ stood on the mountain where He had arranged to meet His disciples, He said, “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time”.

Christmas is when we begin to appreciate the true meaning of Emmanuel. We sometimes think of God as being with us in a vague way. In a situation where we are faced with difficulties we assure ourselves according to what St Paul himself says in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us”? So, we seek some sort of “spiritual” assurance that gives us the strength, the consolation and the courage to face the vicissitudes of life. That is not bad.

But, do you know that God-with-us, Emmanuel, is the very foundation for the existence of the Church and for the Sacraments that we celebrate? Firstly, the Church needs this assurance before she speaks with authority on matters of faith and morals. Otherwise, the promise on the mountain is nothing but an empty promise. If you reflect on this, the failure, if there were one, cannot be on the side of God. For, the challenge lies not in Christ NOT fulfilling His promise. The challenge is that we have failed to appreciate the truthfulness and the reality of that promise.

Surrounding our need for the assurance of God-be-with-us, is a notion that the assurance must be coupled with good feeling. From this mistaken notion, we may equate good feelings as God’s promise fulfilled. Often, we are condemned to search for that feeling. And it can be miserable.

Remember the Pink candle on the 3rd Sunday of Advent? It points us in the direction of joy. And joy is not also synonymous with “good” feeling. Instead, it is closely related to the knowledge and certainty that God is close no matter how pressing troubles may be. We dare to rejoice because we are certain that God will prevail. This we shall witness shortly because after this, Joseph together with Mary and Jesus will flee down to Egypt. God promised to be with them but their inconvenience or hardship was not lessened.

This fact that God-is-with-us does not always guarantee a “good feeling” or a smooth ride is an important truth about the Incarnation, the event which gave us Emmanuel. It is important because it brings us directly into the heart of how Christ is Emmanuel—how God is with us.

The shocking truth is that the Church is an expression of Emmanuel come true and in particular, each of the Sacraments is a manifestation of Christ’s continued presence to us. The Mass is the prime example of this presence. He did not mince His words when He said, “Eat my flesh so that you may live”. And so, each time when we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat no less in substance the Christ whom Thomas called “my Lord and God”. When we adore the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, we adore the real and sacramental presence of the very Christ whose side Thomas put his hand into. That is how present God is to us. So, if we accept and believe that Emmanuel is God-with-us, then, each and every sacrament is the action of Christ Himself as he calls us through baptism; heals us through anointing; strengthens us through confirmation; forgive us through confession and sends us out either as married couples or as priests.

Starting tonight, or even before tonight, we have been or we will be surrounded by an explosion of Christmas-related activities. But, the message of Christmas is rather simple. We may talk about God who is with us or desire God to be one with us. But, what does it mean? It would mean that we are blind if we didn’t begin to appreciate the fulfilment of that promise in the very Church and the Sacraments that Christ gave us. Tonight, as we adore the newborn King, let us all return to a deepened and genuine appreciation of the Sacraments. If we believe in the truth of Christmas, then we must necessarily believe in the effects of the Sacraments—the effects guaranteed by none other than Christ Himself, the Emmanuel, God-with-us. We are ever so blessed.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent Year B

The Rose coloured candle and vestment signal that our search is drawing to an end. Our salvation is close at hand and so we allow ourselves the latitude of rejoicing as the Entrance Antiphon suggests “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near”. The central theme that runs through both the first reading and the Gospel is the nearness of salvation. The writer of the first reading declares that he has been sent by God to usher in the age of salvation. In the Gospel, John the Baptist announces that he is not the Saviour but the one who prepares the way for the Saviour who is already amongst the people. Finally, St Paul gives practical guide to the Thessalonians on how they are to wait for the 2nd Coming of the Saviour.

When salvation is near, we rejoice. How? We get a clue from the Gospel. In the Gospel, the religious authorities sent priests and Levites to enquire about John’s identity. The replies given by John didn’t quite satisfy them because they wanted a more definitive answer to bring back to their higher-ups. They were looking for the Messiah and judging from the replies that they got, they weren’t satisfied. The short of it, they were expecting more but seemed to have gotten less. They were looking for salvation but failed to recognise its presence.

Thus, to rejoice means we must recognise the presence of our salvation.

What is salvation or what does it consist of? First of all, it means different things to different people. For some, salvation is confined to the spiritual realm and is defined as salvation from sin and eternal damnation. Whilst it is true that salvation is from sin and eternal damnation but such a conception of salvation tends to be narrow and sometimes selfish because it is restricted to “my salvation”. What about the salvation of others? So, personal salvation can be a blinkered existence in which a person tries to save his or her soul for the next world. The good thing is that these days, few people think like that. On the one hand, this may be explained by the fact that people generally do not have a firm belief in the after-life. Even if they did, it is probably vague and not really helpful or hopeful. On the other hand, and this is more insidious because “personal salvation” has given birth to an explosion of self-help programmes. These are helpful but the assumption behind these programmes is that we can bestow upon ourselves salvation and self-improvement is the path to wholeness. The truth is that try as we might like to, we cannot save ourselves.

A good thing about the narrow view of salvation is that our consciousness has expanded beyond the boundary of this “personal salvation”. The first reading echoes our broadened vision of salvation as liberty to captives, freedom to those in prisons; and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord. In this broadened vision, salvation, even if it were for the next world, must begin with this world. People who do not appreciate Church involvement in political matters may have failed to understand that the new heavens and the new earth can only begin when we are engaged to change this world. They have confused political involvement with partisan politics [1]. Thus, we should continue to speak up against the unjust use of laws against those who do not share the majority view because salvation begins here and now.

However, broadened as the horizon may be, the challenge is not to perceive salvation purely in terms of political and social liberation. Salvation is not just freedom from oppression, freedom from hunger and freedom from rules and regulation. Salvation is more.

Like the priests and the Levites in the Gospel, we too search for salvation. The purely spiritual or the secular view of salvation does not provide us with a satisfactory answer. Gaudete Sunday proposes that our search for salvation should end with Jesus Christ and not in any programme, spiritual or secular. In fact, Isaiah’s pronouncement is realised in none other than the person of Jesus Christ Himself. That is why John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness crying out: Make a straight way for the Lord. Advent’s preparation is for the coming of the Lord who alone is our salvation. The question to ask is what are we expecting? Are we like the Levites and the priests somewhat lost in our search?

What we do for ourselves may give us satisfaction in life. Self-help, self-improvement or political and social liberation may bring about a sense of achievement but still they will fall short of the salvation that we deeply desire because salvation is not what we grant ourselves. Salvation comes from being near to Christ our Lord. When He is near, we are joyful. The trick is to recognise Him as present amongst us. The sole pink candle helps us to focus our attention not so much on the pleasures surrounding Christmas but on the joy that Christmas is to bring to those who are waiting for the Lord.
[1] In
Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI says that the Church recognises the legitimate autonomy of the temporal sphere. Yet, he says that “Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life; its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has more to do with ethics” (#28). In deciding what justice means for the state and how it can be achieved, a legitimate role opens up for faith. Applying faith to questions of justice, argues the Holy Father, does not mean there is an attempt to impose religion on nonbelievers. Rather, it can purify human reason, enabling it to appreciate better the demands of justice. As well, the Church's social teaching is also based on reason and natural law, and is therefore in accord with the nature of every human being. Far from promoting a specific political programme, the Church seeks to stimulate and form consciences so that each person will be better prepared to take up his responsibility in ensuring a more just society. It is this subsequent political involvement which "cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility," and that means the Church should not be involved in partisan politics.

Monday, 22 December 2008

4th Sunday of Advent Year B

It’s too good to be true. We hear people say this. The reason may be because we live in desperate times that we have acquired the natural suspicion that what is good may be too good to be true. Our conception of truth is “reality” and “reality” is measured by proximity, that is, the closer we are to whatever the phenomenon may be, the closer we are to truth. Could this be one of the reasons why people of this country love to stop and check out the goriness of a car accident? We subscribe to an unquestioned assumption about truth that may account for the growth and popularity of the genre, otherwise known as Reality TV. Truth is “Reality TV”. It follows that our conception of truth is basically what we can see.

Unfortunately, what we have seen hasn’t been entirely edifying. We have seen two great wars and many more in the last 100 years. In the last 25 years of political and economic upheavals, what we have witnessed has made us fearful for our security be it what we eat, where we live and what we do. No doubt, the fear we have is fuelled by what we see as the breaking down of law and order in the country as we witness the impotence of the individual citizen. Pregnant women are not safe from snatch thieves. ATMs are blown out of their safe enclosures. Recently, we are told that luxury cars are stolen with “inside help”. People are scammed left and right by quick get-rich programmes. The brazenness with which people exploit even the dead paints a rather dismal and bleak picture of reality. There are more reasons to be pessimistic than optimistic. Thus, when something is good, it is often too good to be true.

This pessimistic world view does have an effect on how we want to understand the 4th Sunday of Advent and consequently what Christmas may truly represent. We dedicate this Sunday to Mary. The birth of Christ must necessarily involve the motherhood of Mary. Is she too good to be true? It would seem so. First of all, she’s so “unreal”. We want a “real” Mary but we want a “real” Mary who actually represents our human limitation. If you think about it, this “real” Mary may actually mask our pessimism’s desire to limit her capacity to respond to God. It is true that we feel more at home with a Mary who is pregnant out of wedlock. She has more affinity with us when we think of her as an “unwed teenage mother”. Furthermore, Mary seals her “being so much like us” when we conceive of her as not just the mother of Jesus but also the biological mother of the brothers of Jesus. Underlying our wanting Mary to be so much like us is our inability to deal with someone whose calling is directed beyond this world. [As an aside, is it not true that people are often mean to those who are “holy”?]

When we are unable to deal with Mary’s other directedness or we perceive her as being too good to be true, then we may be struggling with at least two fundamental beliefs. The first struggle is the difficulty in dealing with a good God. In the First Reading, David wanted to build God a house, a temple worthy of Him. In reality, it was the reverse for it was God who built David a dynasty, the House of David that will last forever. This is how good God is, for every attempt of ours to please Him will be met by His returning generosity. But, our human limitation often thinks of God as one whose measure is circumscribed by our generosity. For example, the more we pray, the more God ought to answer our prayers. That is often the way we calculate God’s generosity. For those who have experienced God’s benevolence, they know that God’s generosity is always beyond what they had expected. Thus, Mary’s yes to God is premised on believing that God would never be outdone by her generosity. Even in the face of the seeming defeat of her Son who died on the Cross, she dared to remain ever faithful to His Cross because she knew in faith this God who is generous. And this leads me to the second struggle.

This struggle betrays a crisis of belief in who we can really be and what we can really do. People, and Catholics included, have derided Mary’s perpetual virginity. On the one hand, are we dealing here with stuff or matter which belongs to the realm, at best, of theological construct or at worst, of legends and both having no connexion to reality? Or, on the other hand, what lies behind the rejection of Mary’s virginity is also a rejection of our capacity to live a life which is not self-centred. We do not believe that we can be God-centred.

Mary represents the best of who we can be. Thus, desiring her to be like us is to abdicate our calling to cooperate with God. Yes, it is true that all of us are affected by the division of Original Sin but when we look at Mary, we recognise the true capacity of the human spirit—its ability to be taken up by God like Mary was.

It is right that the 4th Sunday of Advent be given over to Mary. The Catholic belief in Mary’s greatness is not idolatrous. However, let me qualify that: some people’s behaviour may be idolatrous. But the belief in Mary’s greatness is not idolatrous because it is first and foremost a firm belief in God’s goodness and secondly she represents humanity’s capacity to respond totally to God.

Monday, 8 December 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent Year B

There are two distinct phases in what we term as the beginning of the liturgical year. The world at large may not appreciate this subtle and yet significant distinction. In fact, they are more familiar with the second phase. All they want, apart from two front teeth, is Christmas—or better still, what is associated with “consumer” Christmas. Where we are, it is still Advent, the 1st phase at the start of the Liturgical year. This is a period of waiting and preparing. That we are preparing makes sense. Look at the pink candle in the Advent Wreath. Next week is called Gaudete Sunday when we change to pink—the colour a shade lighter than purple to symbolise the joy of anticipating Christmas. As a result of this lack of appreciation for the distinction between Advent and Christmas, the world at large marks Advent as if it were Christmas. When Christians are unaware of this distinction, it has disastrous consequences for evangelisation.

For Christians, Advent through the Gospel of Mark helps clarify this distinction which has consequences for our preparation and waiting. Mark’s Gospel stands in contrast with the other Gospels simply because it is short and it seems simple enough—almost like the “Air Asia” of the Gospels because it has no frills. Both Luke and Matthew have the Genealogy. Through it, we are treated to the colourful background of Jesus’ ancestry. From the genealogy we know that amongst Jesus’ ancestors, there were personalities of questionable reputation. Look at John’s Gospel. It may not have the genealogy but it takes us to the moment before Jesus’ genealogy began. “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God”. Mark does not seem to have any of these sophistications.

But the simplicity or the lack of sophistication is rather deceptive because Mark actually starts with no less than a solemn declaration. Listen again: The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What is interesting is that we, the readers, are introduced to this fundamental fact that only halfway through the Gospel that Peter will declare in response to Jesus’ query about His identity: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter in 8:29 says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.

As such, Mark begins the Gospel without hesitation that the subject he writes about is none other than the Christ (that is the Messiah) who is the Son of God. The pinnacle for Mark’s Gospel is often accepted to be Peter’s response or confession in Chapter 8. But, consider that the title “Son of God” is not only a declaration of a fact. Instead, it is also significantly an acknowledgement that we cannot save ourselves and as such are in need of a Messiah. This is what we witness at the end of Mark’s Gospel, generally taken to be Chapter 15. Here in Chapter 15 of Mark’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus abandoned not only by his disciples but also by his Father. Here, we face a Jesus without eloquence as we find in the later Gospels. He simply cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In the midst of abandonment and despair, we find in 15:39 a pagan, a non-believer, an idolater, a Gentile oppressor, a Centurion coming to a solemn realisation: Truly this man was God’s Son.

I never liked Mark’s Gospel. But, I am beginning to appreciate it more because in the first 8 chapters before Peter’s confession, we find a Jesus, who also calls Himself the Son of Man, identifying Himself with the poor, the hungry, the sick and the possessed... the Son of Man is destined to suffer. Thus, through these 8 chapters, we cannot understand who Jesus is and be His disciples unless we accept the centrality of suffering in His mission and in ours too. Mark’s Gospel is not only a Gospel of the Son of God but also a Gospel of Discipleship.

This has serious implication for our Advent and for Christmas. We are not preparing to receive gifts. We are not preparing to open gifts on Christmas morning. We are, however, preparing to receive a Gift, no less than the Son of God. Thus, Advent requires, according to both the 1st and 2nd Readings, a radical change of heart in order that we be true disciples. Isaiah urges the people to prepare a way for the Lord’s coming to save them. Prepare a straight road by straightening our lives with integrity, honesty and justice. Peter, in discussing the relative length of time believes that if the Lord appears to be slow in coming, then it is because we are given the chance to change and be ready to meet Him when He comes.

Thus, Advent’s message is really spiritual; a message of purifying ourselves for discipleship, as we free the space of our hearts for no less than the Son of God. The fact that we are preparing to welcome Christ the Son of God puts into perspective all that we are doing. In fact, everything pales in comparison; everything measures to nothing if our preparation is not about Christ. Cakes and cookies, turkey and ham, gifts and parties will only bring us to the 25th of December, a calendar date but they will never bring us to Christ if our hearts are already full and our stomachs filled. In fact, the very idea of Christmas gifts itself is instructive. We leave our gifts under the Christmas tree waiting for the right moment to open the gifts. Isn’t that waiting a “purification” of our desires and our senses? In waiting for Christmas to open our gifts, we already have a practice of self-denial as we wait for the proper time to unwrap the gifts. How good if that practice of waiting can be translated into other areas of our life so that we may truly prepare and purify our hearts to receive the Son of God coming to us at Christmas.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

1st Sunday of Advent Year B

Some people live for the future. If only I had this, if only I were this, if only. When people live for the future, they sometimes fail to live. It is almost as if they have a phantom that chases them towards the “perfect future”. They are anxious about the shape that their future will take that they forget that there is a present. If you ever had this feeling that where you are, you have to be somewhere else, that’s close to living in the future.

Some people live for the present. You might think that this is better than living in the future which is not living at all. The truth is some people live for the present in such a way that they can’t see beyond the present. You meet this type of people in the Jerry Springer Show. The reason why it is not available in this country may be due to its lack of taste. The point is people in the show are so driven to achieve that 15-minute fame that they are reduced to doing whatever it takes even at the price of demeaning themselves. It’s not really about the money because money may be an incentive. The underlying sad assumption behind the Jerry Springer Show is that there are no consequences for our present actions. This is the meaning of living in the present without a care for the future.

To live meaningful lives, we cannot live solely for the future nor can we exist exclusively for the present. We need to be in touch with reality, that is, to live in the present because our future is dependent on it. To do so would require us to stay awake. We remain alert to the present because our future is determined by how we respond to it. This is where the Gospel comes in. Three times we hear Christ urging His disciples to stay awake. For us the beginning of the Liturgical Year is an appropriate time for us to heed Christ’s call to stay awake and be vigilant. Thus, Advent is marked by self-introspection, self-examination or self-reflexion. It is a proper posture to take to await the coming of the Master in the Gospel.

The first reading is a good example of self-introspection. Isaiah recalls God’s past goodness and candidly acknowledges the ingratitude and sinfulness of his people. And he entreats God to come and save His people and that is exactly the response of the Psalm: God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.

The liturgy we celebrate bears this spirit of self-introspection. The decoration is subdued and the colour is purple. Purple signifies our penitence as it expresses and acknowledges our sorrow for sins. In a parish not too far from here, the Parish Priest asks his people not to sing Christmas carols and not to put up the Christmas tree before Christmas. Let me clarify that “O Come Divine Messiah” is not a Christmas carol simply because its lyrics express our waiting and our preparing. And the reason we do not sing carols is the same as why we do not sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” during Lent. It is like before Christ comes, we already cut His birthday cake.

But, people have difficulty in understanding this. It is not difficult to see why. For some countries, Christmas carols can be heard as early as September. That is a culturally embedded practice. Here, as soon as Deepavali was over, the shopping complexes would begin tripping over themselves trying to outdo each other on which had the better decoration. It is a commercial consideration. For the parish, it is a matter of convenience. We put up the Christmas decorations early because volunteers will not have the time to put them up on Christmas day itself.

Whatever the reason, it is useful to know why the Parish Priest asks his parishioners to delay their Christmas merry-making because Advent’s penitential spirit embraces the tension of the present and the future, the tension of vigilance. We anticipate Christ’s coming by looking at our lives and seeing how prepared we are for Him. Getting caught up with the merry-making, the Christmas decorations up and the Christmas carols may short-cut the preparation and anticipation.

A reason why we tend to jump into “Christmas” is because it is not easy to live this self-introspection. It requires that we look at our habits honestly. Over these months what sort of good habits have we acquired? Conversely, what sort of bad habits have crept into our lives? Good habits require a lot of effort and a generous dose of discipline to cultivate. It takes energy because it presupposes that we remain vigilant and alert. Bad habits, on the other hand, have the tendency of creeping in insidiously as we let down our guard. When it comes to excuses, we are rather liberal. You notice this when we eat. When I tell people that I am putting on weight, the usual response is “Never mind. It’s not every day. It’s only once in a while that you’re enjoying this”. That’s how we acquire bad habits.

Christmas is coming. But before we get there, there is work to be done. It may consist of getting your house physically ready, preparing the home to welcome family and friends. But, Advent begins with the spiritual call to stay awake. Let our preparation begin with a deeper look at how we want to be present to Jesus and how we want Jesus to be present to us. It is time for reflexion, for confession and it is time to change what needs to be changed.

The Filipinos have a traditional practice called Simbang Gabi. It is their pre-dawn Mass that is celebrated between midnight and morning for 9 consecutive days before Christmas. Some people take that as a personal challenge to get up for a 2 am Mass for 9 consecutive days. But, we want more than taking what we do as a “personal challenge”. We want a heart renewed and ready for Christ. Otherwise, a personal challenge may remain an external habit without a corresponding conversion of heart.

We may not have the Simbang Gabi but there are ways to renew our hearts as we prepare for the coming of the Lord: prayer, fasting and remembering the poor are three good spiritual exercises not just restricted to Lent. When we are prepared spiritually, the grace of Christmas will be felt. Otherwise, when all the celebrations are over, we’ll be left with an empty feeling. So, stay awake and prepare for the coming of the Lord.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Solemnity of Christ the King Year A

The Kingship of Christ is a reminder that Christ is King of all creation and that all humanity must submit itself to the rule of Christ. But, this submission is somewhat controversial for the simple reason that, for many of us, the concept of “kingship” is rather outmoded or outdated. We might be one of the few remaining countries with a monarchical system but by and large, most countries have gotten rid of their kings or queens; the latest example being Nepal. Some of the Commonwealth countries which have Queen Elizabeth for their monarch are trying to become republics. In fact, the idea or the notion of “kingship” can be rather oppressive. Given our preference for democratic principles, I have seen the term “kingdom of God” being translated as the “kin-dom of God”, a term which seemingly fulfils the principles of democracy as it connotes or stresses the equality of our kinship or relationship. The Solemnity of Christ the King is akin to Good Shepherd Sunday, a symbol which finds little correspondence with reality.

So, if the Solemnity of Christ the King is to make sense, and that we ought to submit to the rule of Christ, then it is imperative that we understand how His Kingship is exercised. In this regard, the Gospel is most helpful. The Kingship of Christ is a ministry of service, not of military might or oppression. Listen to what Jesus tells His disciples in Matt 18. “You know that among the pagans, the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. No; anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many”. (Matt20:25).

What Jesus says is telling. You’d be pleased to know that tyranny is not a new invention. If you remember, Jesus called Herod a fox. Given that Jesus was familiar with the popular (more fittingly unpopular) image of a king or a lord, yet He did not reject the concept of kingship or lordship, but instead re-defined it. For Jesus, a king is but another word for a slave. He himself is the prime example. Through the Incarnation, He, the Son of God became man. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2 says, “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross”. A King is to serve.

Fortunately, this notion of kingship as servitude is not entirely alien to us all. In fact, those of you parents who have one child, even though you may be the “exalted” head of the family, often enough your life revolves around your child. You drive your child here and there. In fact, some of you practically have no social life at all simply because your daily schedule revolves around the activities of your child. Those of you who have a son (or sons) serving as altar server, would feel this more, especially when your son (or sons) has to serve at a funeral at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. You have to change your hectic schedule just to fit his (theirs).

That is the meaning of servant-hood. He or she who is leader or head is servant of all. And this is where the model of Christ’s Kingship is different from the conventional model of lording over the “subjects”. In fact, it is even different from being a slave to your child. It is different because being a slave to your child is, if you like, your “sad destiny” or “ill fate” (not that we believe in pre-destination). It is your child which pretty much means you have no choice though you may do it out of love or maybe out of “justifiable” fear for the safety of your only child. The point is your service is conditioned by being a parent to your child. But, service goes beyond that.

Thus, the model of Christ’s Kingship is best expressed and our submission to him is more perfect when the vision of our service looks beyond the familiar kinship (like parent to a children) ties to whom the Gospel today calls the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. We have no reason, no kinship that ties us to these categories of people. It is easy to serve those whom we know or like, whom we are familiar or have a rapport with. Our challenge is to cross the bridge of familiarity to the unfamiliar and uncharted territory of the stranger or to breach the walls of our comfort zone. It takes a lot to forego our status, forget ourselves and a lot more humility, a lot more sacrifice to serve those who cannot repay our kindness, who are incapable of loving us in return.

A point may be made here that it can become fashionable to rattle off the familiar list of “the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned” and when we do that, we may just make them even more invisible to us because they become comfortable “categories” for us to deal with. It’s like once a year, we write a cheque for donation to the Little Sisters of the Poor and we sort of salve our conscience that we’ve fulfilled our annual quota of the corporal acts of mercy. I have done my duty so leave me in peace. Today’s solemnity is a reminder that the Kingship of Christ is not “up there” but is very much tied or moored down here and therefore, a Christian, in order to fulfil his or her vocation, must enter into the service of those who are forgotten, not just at arm’s length but in reality, this or that person. As one serving the parish, we have our fair share of the cuckoos, the unreasonable and always the one who comes with a “cock-bull” story. Even in my heart of hearts, I am pre-conditioned to think the person in front of me is trying to cheat or lie, yet, I have to be conscious not to treat the person with indignity. [1] Why? Firstly, it is on this that we will be judged. And secondly, our encounter with this or that person is an encounter with Christ Himself. Thirdly, not only do we encounter Christ, for in serving, we are indeed acting out the servitude of Christ who Himself came to serve.
[1] In fact, it was uncanny. Christ always comes unbidden in the poor. In the afternoon of Sunday, after preaching this homily, a man was hobbling in search of a priest. And I had the misfortune of bumping into him. Why misfortune? He had been one who had lied and cheated a number of people in the parish, me included. Furthermore, I had seen him in different parishes with the same story that his salary was delayed. I had also “driven” him out of the parish ground not because he was poor but because he had been lying. Whatever the “justification”, the point was, this was Christ unrecognised. I was acutely aware of my antagonism towards him and my shame that I refused to acknowledge the Lord in him. Anyway, I gave him money but there was still the annoyance etc. The submission of Christ demands that one even dares to love so “unloveable” a character. That is why there are saints and we are struggling!!!

Monday, 17 November 2008

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The Parable of the Talents is set in the context of the end-time because it is grouped together with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins before it and the Account of the Last Judgement after it. However, a slight difference is that Matthew stands in contrast to Paul who believes, in the 2nd reading, that the Parousia or the end of time is imminent. It is in the context of the “delayed” end-time that the Parable spells out the necessity of being prepared for whenever the end of time catches up with us.

The keyword is to be prepared regardless of whether or not the time has come. How are we to be prepared? The Parable suggests a reflexion on what God has given us and to provide an account of how we have used God’s gifts or talents. The usual measure for our preparation is that much more will be expected of them who have been given more.

It is true that more will be expected of us if we were given more. Unfortunately, this sort of reflexion tends to focus on what God has given us. Paul wrote elsewhere in 1 Cor 4: 7, “What do you have that was not given to you”? People in the community of Corinth were boasting and so in posing that question, Paul pointed out that boasting did not really make any sense since all they had had first been given them. If everything is from God, then the question of talents or gifts is more or less redundant.

It is taken for granted that whatever we have is from God and so, what is relevant is not what God has given to us but what we can give to God. It is not a measure of quantity for if it were, then we would be reduced to measuring how much and comparing with one another what we have. And we know that measurement and comparison may lead to jealousy. Two examples would help. First, when we count what we have, often others will have more. And so, keeping up with the Jones is a result of envious comparison. Second, crab mentality is a reaction to what we do not have. When others have more, the same envy drives us to pull or put down the others.

What we give to God is not quantity but is rather qualified by the attitude of giving God the best. It actually follows the famous Kennedy quote, “Ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?”. Thus, in the context of the “talents” that we have, giving God the best is as demanding on an idiot as it is on a savant, as demanding on the CEO who has 800 people under him as it is on a daughter preparing dinner for an invalid mother. It does not matter whether we have more or less because the attitude remains the same. If everything is from God, then the only appropriate response is to give God the very best.

This attitude to give God the best is a spirit which no money can buy. That is why it is more than “talents” the way we understand a talent to be an ability to do something. It is not about an ability to do something because clearly there will be limitations to our abilities. It is best described as an attitude that tries to exhaust all possibilities before saying “No”. And this attitude makes all the difference and we instinctively recognise this. In the service industry, how often is it that we encounter a professional whose vision is limited by the impossible? [1] Let’s take the example of the University Hospital. What if you encounter a surgeon who tells you the limit of what can be done and is content to leave it as it is and another one who tells you the same thing but tries to see other alternatives in such way so that no stone is left unturned? In the 2nd surgeon, you know you’ve met someone whose attitude is to give the best—one whose vision is not limited by colour, creed or financial standing of the patient. When our attitude is to give God the best, then our physical, socio-cultural or political limitations are not excuses but rather opportunities, obstacles to be surmounted and when we do that, we are not affected or threatened by what others can do or achieve.

And guess what? This attitude accords with who we are. We are all created to be like that. The human spirit flourishes wherever there is a reaching upwards, a striving for the best and this actually captures the divine restlessness of St Augustine: “O God, my heart is restless until it rests in you”. The human heart instinctively yearns to give the best. People trapped in a particular sin are there because their hearts have mistaken that particular sin to be the best option to place their hearts in. Alternatively, when we find ourselves languishing, being neither here nor there, then it is probably because our hearts have settled upon mediocrity. The human spirit also perishes in mediocrity.

In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, at the end of a meditation on sin, the retreatant contemplates Christ hanging on the Cross and he asks these questions: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ? These three questions are the basis for the Ignatian Magis, the more, the greater glory of God. In this context, it means that being prepared is more than just "passively" waiting for the Lord to come. It is an active embrace of giving the best to God because the way to the fullness of our humanity is to give God our very best. In a way, I am so glad that for us Catholics, the Cross has a “corpus”, a body, a figure hanging there for us to contemplate the possibility of offering Christ our very best. St Irenæus says: the glory of God is Man fully alive and Man becomes fully alive when he gives God the very best.
[1] In general, our civil service is circumscribed with the impossible. In fact, this country is crippled by the “impossibilities” of race and religion. It seems that we cannot give the best because our vision is limited by colour and creed.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica Year A

Today we celebrate the dedication of the Lateran Basilica. When I was still in formation, I remember a rather caustic comment made by the celebrant of our daily Eucharist. He said, “I cannot understand why should we celebrate a dedication of a building”? I didn’t know better then and I had an uneasy feeling whenever we had to celebrate this feast. Just for information, apart from this dedication today, we also have the optional memorials of the Chair of St Peter on 22nd Feb, the Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary Major on 5th August and later this month, we’ll have the dedication of the Basilicas of St Peter and St Paul.

Now that I have a better understanding, I want to share it with you. Many of us think that the Basilica of St Peter is the “capital” of the whole Church but it is not. Every Bishop has a cathedral and it is the mother church of a diocese. The word “cathedral” comes from the Latin “cathedra” which means “chair”. Thus, the cathedral is the bishop’s official “seat”. It is the church where he is consecrated and traditionally where he ordains, confirms and celebrates the liturgy of the Sacred Triduum. St Peter is not the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. St John Lateran is. This “church” was originally a family home of a Roman patrician family. When Constantine became a Christian, and after the Edict of Milan was issued, Christians were allowed to practise their faith publicly. It was Constantine who donated the palace, which he had confiscated as a result of conspiracy against him, to the Pope. It was adapted for church use and consecrated on 9th Nov in AD324 by Pope St Sylvester and for the next 1000 years, the Bishop of Rome resided officially in that church. At first, the church was called the Basilica of the Saviour confirming Christ’s superiority over Rome’s pagan gods. Later it was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist and as such it acquired the name Basilica of St. John Lateran. When the Pope was exiled to Avignon in the South of France for about a century, the church fell into disrepair and when the Pope returned to Rome, it was too run down to be used. And that sort of explains why the Pope now resides next to St Peter’s Basilica.

If the Pope no longer resides in St John Lateran, what then is the significance of this building that we celebrate? The significance lies in the fact it is the first church dedicated in the world. Before this, Christians were persecuted and they worshipped underground. As the first dedicated church, there is an inscription on the façade that reads “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput,” meaning “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world.” Over the centuries, the Basilica suffered much destruction. The barbaric Vandals attacked the Basilica in 408 and 455. Earthquake almost totally destroyed the church in 896. Fire gutted the church in 1308 and 1360. The vicissitudes or the cycles of destruction and reconstruction may symbolise the Church as she went through history hated, attacked and somehow she prevailed—a sign that Christ has kept His promise to be with His Church.

Another significance of celebrating the dedication of the Pope’s cathedral is that it expresses our unity with him. The announcement at Holy Communion that it is a sign of our unity with the Church means that when we receive Holy Communion, apart from believing that it is truly the Body of Christ we receive, it also signifies that we are united in teaching and under the leadership of the Pope. In the Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians he describes the Church as the Body of Christ made up of different parts but all united into one Body. This unity is visible through our communion with the Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome.

Furthermore, Ezekiel, in the first reading, gives us a vision of a river flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem and wherever it flowed, life is to be found in abundance. The Church is the channel of life-giving grace from Christ because He is the cornerstone. When we make Him the cornerstone of our faith, we receive His grace coming to us through His Church especially through the celebration of the Sacraments. We celebrate the same sacraments as the Pope and a powerful symbol that we possess the same sacraments is experienced in the universal commemoration of the dedication of the church of the Bishop of Rome.

However, we are schooled in the idea that the Church is more "people" than "building". Traditional Catholics tend to focus on too narrow an understanding of faith in Christ which is basically restricted to “God and I”. “God and I” is found in church. But, the last 40 years and with the help of Liberation Theology, we have begun to understand that "God and I" are inclusive of our neighbour and our neighbours are to be found in and more so outside the church building. The idea of church as building tends to narrow our view to the narrow “God and I” perspective. That may be true but the insistence that church is more than "people" may also be an over-reaction to the point that the physical church building is no longer important. As a result, we can celebrate Mass everywhere and we do.

The problem is, when we desacralise the church—the building, very soon, life itself will be desacralised. There is perhaps a connexion between the desacralisation of church buildings and abortion. Furthermore, that there is sacred space is consistent with who we are. How so? Can you imagine a couple and they build a room whose walls are made of glass and you can see the bed and what goes on in bed? The point is some of the things that they do must never be seen in public. What does this mean? When no building or space is sacred anymore, the sanctity of the womb can be violated.

Whether we like it or not, our appreciation of “space” is demarcated. Therefore, the priest who made the comment about “why are we celebrating the dedication of a building?”, well-intentioned as he maybe, has missed the point. So it is too, those who believe that the people are more important than the building. We are marked by space and some spaces are sacred. This is sacramentality at work. Therefore, a church building is very important. People who dress inappropriately do not understand sacramentality. It is not about stifling the freedom of expression. It is simply inappropriate considering that we are “space-bound”.

St Augustine describes the “church” building as an outward sign of who we are interiorly. "What was done here, as these walls were rising, is reproduced when we bring together those who believe in Christ. For, by believing they are hewn out, as it were, from mountains and forests, like stones and timber; but by catechising, baptism and instruction they are, as it were, shaped, squared and planed by the hands of the workers and artisans. Nevertheless, they do not make a house for the Lord until they are fitted together through love" (St. Augustine, Sermon 36).

The memory of the dedication of the Mother Church of Christianity is a sacramental expression of our relationship with Christ. It helps us to look at the larger picture. If we love Christ, then we will love His Church—despite the ugliness of her sons and daughters. So, today we pray that those who lost faith on account of Christian people may discover the Church as the Mother who will lead them to Christ the cornerstone and the source of life.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

All Souls Year A

Why do we celebrate All Souls Day? We know why we celebrated All Saints yesterday. We, who are struggling on our pilgrim way to God, celebrated our solidarity with those who are already in their heavenly glory. We look longingly at those who have blazed a trail of glory for us to follow. There, in their triumphant joy, they urge us on in our race. Today, All Souls Day also highlights our solidarity with the departed faithful. Both All Saints and All Souls are expressions of our shared supernatural solidarity otherwise known as the Communion of Saints. Thus, we who are battling against the Evil One, remember those who are not ready yet for full fellowship with God in the glory of heaven. All Souls is tied closely to the Catholic belief in Purgatory. A good point to clarify is that God’s forgiveness is immediate but the effects of sin remains with us even after we are forgiven. An apt example to illustrate what this means is to look at a reformed alcoholic. His sin of substance abuse is forgiven but the effects of alcohol abuse will take a longer time to dissipate or subside. Thus, for those who have died, Purgatory is the process or the state whereby they undergo the necessary purification of the effects of sin before they attain the beatific vision of God.

Today I would like to talk about the “effects of sin” and how our understanding of it may help us in this life as well as the course of action to take with regard to those who are in Purgatory. Imagine this scenario. Stephen is 26 years old. He intends to get married. He walks into the parish office to make arrangement to marry Ah Lian who is not a Catholic. Stephen’s last confession was in Standard Four and he hasn’t been confirmed yet. He occasionally attends Mass and mostly on major Solemnities such as Christmas and Easter. He doesn’t know much about the spiritual preparation necessary before marriage, the rite of marriage itself, and he knows next to nothing about the theology of marriage. He wants a garden wedding and tries to set the wedding date for 1st December because Ah Lian’s family had consulted a Medium and had been told that 1st December would be the auspicious day for a wedding. In short, he believes that the Church should facilitate what he wants or desires. When we asked him to fulfil a few conditions before we could settle on the date, he became angry and stormed out of the office, disgusted that the “Church” did not understand his needs but instead was too rigid. Sadly, Stephen is not alone in this thinking.

The Church, like civil society, is governed by Canon Law formulated in accordance with the understanding of who we are in relation to God. It tries to establish reasonable norms of action for intelligent and responsible people. As such, Canon Law defines how the Church should be run in such a way that our vocation as Christians can be fulfilled. Similar to Civil Law, Canon Law has a system of sanction, a system of discipline when something goes wrong. The sanctions applied indicate that the Church is concerned with 1. Repairing scandal 2. Restoring justice and 3. Reforming offenders.

In short, our “form of punishment” is rehabilitative and not punitive. We do not punish for the sake of punishment. This is reminiscent of Matt 18: 15-18. If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone. If he remains unrepentant take two brothers along with you. And, if he refuses, report to the community. And if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a gentile or a tax collector. The ideal intent here is to gently coax a sinner back into relationship. Even “ex-communication” is for the sake of the unrepentant sinner coming to his or her senses so as to excite a desire for reconciliation with the community.

This seemingly long excursus, digression or meandering allows us to better understand what we do on All Souls Day. The assumption that Stephen and many have is that “rules” or “obligations” or “duties” are too demanding. The Church should be more accommodating and more forgiving. Furthermore, this idea of “accommodation” to human frailty is transferred to God. Not that God is not forgiving, it is just that God is now powerless and indulgent. He cannot help but forgive. The result is that God exists to fulfil our desires. A God who expects a bit more of us, a God who asks us to be what He has made us to be, is just too demanding. Stephen in trying to marry Ah Lian has actually done away with God. His understanding of Church has subtly writes God off. For Stephen, there is no concept of consequence except the "here and now". In fact, for many of us, there is no difference between God’s forgiveness and the consequence or the effects of sins.

God’s forgiveness does not wipe away the suffering that results as a consequence of our sins. Christ hanging on the Cross between the Two Thieves promised the Good Thief heaven but He didn’t come down to remove the Good Thief from his cross. Thus, Purgatory reminds us that what we do has a rippling effect long after we are forgiven. Ask a woman who has had the misfortune of making a wrong decision of aborting a child. Even after countless confessions through which sins are forgiven, long after forgiveness is obtained, the trauma remains still. So, the reality of Purgatory is an encouragement to think, to reflect and to repent.

Otherwise, the whole idea of “purgation” becomes nonsensical because there are no longer effects of sin to be “purified”. Everyone goes to heaven regardless of what has gone on in his or her life. Yesterday, I mentioned something about movie and music stars proposing ideals or models that fall short of our vocation as pilgrims on the path to holiness. Nothing challenges us anymore and the result of a God who makes no demands on us renders Purgatory unnecessary and everything that we do for the faithful departed redundant.

Purgatory is a reminder that we will always fall short of this forgiving God and that is why we need to be purified before we enter into His presence. Purgatory makes sense because of the Communion of Saints. This means that our prayers, our charity and the celebration of the Sacrifice of Calvary, that is, our Mass can aid those in the state of being purified. This month of November, we remember that because of the goodness of God, our dead continue to live as they prepare themselves to enter the full vision of God’s goodness, beauty and truth. Even though imperfect, nevertheless, what is important is that they live in God, and they live in our hearts. That is why we bless the columbarium and graves. Today, we pray for them who need our prayers as well as ask them to pray for us.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

All Saints Year A

All Saints Day was originally observed as All Martyrs. Pope St. Boniface IV (608-615) on 13th May AD610 re-buried the bones of many martyrs in a Church dedicated to the Mother of God and all the Holy Martyrs which he restored and rebuilt from an ancient Roman temple dedicated to "all gods", the Pantheon. About a hundred years later, Pope Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a new chapel in the basilica of St. Peter to all saints (not just to the martyrs) on November 1, and he fixed the anniversary of this dedication as the date of the feast. A century after that, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration to the entire Church.

Before the conversion of Constantine, Christians suffered severe persecution. So, the Church honoured the early witnesses who refused to deny Christ, even when this denial might have saved their own lives, or the lives of their children and families. The Greek word for witness is “Marturion”, from which we derive the word “martyr”. Whilst it remains true of what Tertullian says, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”, still the Church needed to recognise those whose faith was exemplary but were not martyred and this explains why All Martyrs became All Saints. There are thousands and thousands of not only martyrs but also saints whose names are known to God alone and today we remember them in a special way. They live ordinary but holy lives. In fact, if you look at the Missal approved by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland and you will find a commemoration of All Saints of Ireland on 6th Nov. The Jesuits celebrate All Jesuit Saints and Blesseds on 5th Nov. These two celebrations show that for every saint that we commemorate publicly, there are thousands of others known only to God.

All Saints is important on at least two accounts. First of all, since not everyone will shed blood, so All Saints is a reminder that many of us are called to white martyrdom through which we die a thousand deaths to our pride, our selfishness, our greed, our laziness, our anger—in short, our sins as we plough through the daily sacrifices called life. The path to sanctity does not lead to blood but it always passes through the Way of the Cross, the way of self-denial, the way of prolonged suffering. The Saints are models of perseverance. "They have come out of the great tribulation", one reads in Revelation, "they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rv 7:14). But, people sometimes give excuses that holiness is for “women or softies”. [1] In reality, it’s far too challenging that many dare not embrace it. They dare not embrace holiness because they are afraid of failure. But, the Saints, and we have many of them who do not possess stellar character, are proofs that no one is ever so useless that one is outside the vocation to sanctity. We should aim for sanctity. Why?

St Bernard’s response to a question will help us in clarifying the 2nd point. When asked “Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this Solemnity, mean anything to the Saints”? his response was simply, “The Saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.... But, I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning”. (Disc. 2, Opera Omnia Cisterc. 5, 364ff.) What is this yearning but a yearning to be like them, the Saints? This was the experience of St Ignatius as he lay in his bed recuperating from a shattered leg. “If St Francis of Assisi or St Dominic did this, I can surely do better than this”. The meaning of the Solemnity is that looking at the Saints, we too yearn to live in God and with God. Sanctity inspires sanctity. Thus, hagiography or the “Lives of the Saints” is a valuable aid to this path of sanctity.

But, one of the problems that we face today is that our models and examples are taken over by music or movie stars. I was listening to Justin Timberlake’s attempt at African-American rapping on “Where is the love?”. The group, whilst lamenting the lack of love, was proposing how we ought to love. [2] At that moment, it struck me that we suffer a broken connexion somewhere. How so? We believe in the Communion of Saints and yet there seem to be a lack of interests in the lives of canonised saints—who are certainly models of what “love” is or how best we can live our lives. You might think that I have something against the music or movie stars but I haven’t because at the WYD in Sydney they played a song by Stacie Orrico:
I've got it all, but I feel so deprived. I go up, I come down and I'm emptier inside. Tell me what is this thing that I feel like I'm missing. And why can't I let it go. There's gotta be more to life... Than chasing down every temporary high to satisfy me. Cause the more that I'm... Tripping out thinking there must be more to life. Well it's life, but I'm sure... there's gotta be more. Than wanting more.
The lyrics hit the nail on the head because most music and movie stars provide us with a model or an ideal which does not take us far enough or if you, like close enough to heaven. Their ideals fall short of our Christian vocation which is to be holy. That is why Staccie Orrico says that something is missing and which St Bernard calls the yearning. And in fact, if you think about it, the lack of vocation to priestly and religious life can be traced to this loss of models amongst the young. Life is not challenging enough or the rewards are just too temporary and too earthly. You wonder why I bring in the music or movie stars. One of my altar servers has for his mobile phone ringtone, a song which has as its first word a four-letter word spelt with “F”. Imagine, one minute he’s serving God and the next minute, when his phone rings, the first word you hear starts with “F”. I asked him if he thought our politicians were crooks and he answered without 2nd thoughts: Yes. I asked him why? Because they promise one thing but do another. I asked him: What about you? You serve God but your ringtone says something else? He was caught. But, I am not singling out any of the servers because every one of us here suffers from this broken connexion between what we profess with our lips and how we live our lives. A lady came to me for confession. At the end, I said, “Go and offer your suffering to God and pray for the conversion and salvation of priests and religious. She said, “You don’t need that as much as we do”. I said, many of us priests and religious profess to love God with our lips but our hearts are furthest away from God. All Saints reminds us that our entire life is an effort to bridge the gap between what we profess and how we live—to fulfil the yearning that we have been made for.

That is a meaning of the Communion of Saints we profess. All Saints and All Souls so close together because they remind us that the Church is not separated by time and space. At the altar, the Church triumphant—the Saints, Suffering—the Souls in Purgatory and Militant—we who are labouring here on earth, are gathered around the Lord in offering the perfect to the Father. We can ask our brothers and sisters to help us imitate and strive to respond with the same generosity with which they did when they walked the earth. In particular, we call upon Mary, Mother of the Lord and mirror of all holiness that she, the All Holy, may help us to be faithful disciples of her Son Jesus Christ! Amen.
[1] They say it through statements like “Church is for old women with nothing to do”.
[2] In a way, their lamentation was actually a proposal on how we should love. Every “description” of a negative situation could also be a prescription of a positive possibility.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

An attempt to entrap Jesus resulted in a profound synthesis of the Law in the Old Testament. Of the 613 laws in the rabbinical tradition, Jesus was asked which was the greatest of the laws and His response was to bring together two commandments—the love of God and the love of neighbour—in such a way that to love God would necessarily mean that one ought to love one’s neighbour. In short, love of neighbour is the fruit of one’s love for God.

The first commandment is lifted from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5): The Shema is what every devout Jew should know and recite in the morning and evening. Leviticus (19:18) provides us with the second commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.

However, the commandment that one should love God and neighbour is not revolutionary. In fact, to talk about love is perhaps redundant. Why? This is because we are by nature lovers. God created us with love and in love. It is natural that the creature should show the characteristics or features of the Creator. God is love and so are we created loving. Therefore, we should never be surprised that we love. In fact, when Backstreet Boys to Westlife sing of love, they are reminding us who we really are: Lovers.

The challenge we face is how to define love.

Almost everyone is an expert on love so much so that love has lost its currency or value. It is not what we think it is. Love is too lusty to the point that it has less to do with an ability—a faculty—and much more to do with our emotions. Love cannot be distinguished from lust. In fact, I like the song by Black Eyed Peas: Fools in lust could never get enough of love, love, love. If you are young and strapping or if you like, old and "gatal" (randy), you often cannot tell the difference between love and lust. I love you often means I lust for you.

But, love is to be more than lust. It may be passionate but it is more. Benedict XVI, in the first encyclical Deus caritas est, tells us that love must move beyond lust. He says that Eros which is associated with the wildness of passion (as in lust) in a Greek temple setting is enthusiastic. The root of the words “enthusiastic” or “enthusiasm” is “theos” meaning God. To be enthusiastic or to have enthusiasm means to be taken up by God. When one is taken up by God, one becomes more loving.

The catch, however, is this: Eros, which is one of the Greek words for love (the other two are philia and agape), takes us up into God—it is an ascent, a climb if you like. Lust must reach upwards towards God which for Jesus involves not just the heart but also the soul and the mind—the whole person. It involves an “acting person” because love is a verb—an action word—rather than a noun—a word which denotes a “feeling” or an “emotion”. Both the first reading and the second speaks in terms of love as a verb, an action word so much so that Paul tells the Thessalonians that they have become examples to believers in Macedonia and Achaia.

Love in action means that we often love even when not feeling it. To be taken up into God is “hard work” because it often takes us out of ourselves. Some mothers or fathers know that. Even when the marriage is over, they keep to their side of the bargain in bringing up the children. Couples who have been married for years, when all the fires have gone out, they keep faithful to each other. In other words, love is sacrifice. For priests or religious, the vow of obedience is a “love” word. It is “easy” to obey when you like the superior. But, love becomes an act of supreme self-sacrifice when you obey a superior even when he or she is disagreeable. In today’s world where one is so clever, it is even a greater sacrifice of love when you have to obey a superior whom you think is more stupid than you.

Love of God and neighbour takes a lot out of us. It took the life of Jesus, no less. He loved His father and His disciples to the point of laying down His life. Ever since Jesus, the saints provide us with great examples of what it means to love God and neighbour. Two great and more well-known contemporaries are Maximillian Kolbe and Teresa of Calcutta. Maximillian didn’t die for millions. He gave his life so that a father may see his wife and children again. Teresa didn’t die for millions but she loved many unloved and unwanted throughout her life.

We don’t need to be in Auschwitz or Calcutta to begin loving. The supreme sacrifice of love is to be found in such simple setting as the home, at work, at school or on the road. It is easy to love in general. It is more demanding to love in specific this or that person.

We do not always love as we ought to. In fact, everyone is bound to encounter the difficulty of loving. Of course, we may feel that some people have the vocation to irritate or annoy us, and etc. The fact is, often there will be people—wife, husband, a child, colleague, teacher, a catechist, a priest--who will fulfil the role of scapegoat in our lives. This only proves one thing: our failure to love is an indication that we ought to pray even more to discover and to fall in love with God.

It is important because when we love God, we can love our neighbour. We love our neighbour, that is, this or that specific person, not because he or she is attractive or agreeable. You know Jesus hanging on the Cross had every reason to curse the Roman centurions or guards for what they did to Him. But, He was able to forgive because He had known the love of the Father. Thus, we love, we forgive and we reach out because we have found love in God and God in love.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees can be described as being “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”. If Jesus had said “NO”, then he would be charged with subversion. If Jesus had said “YES”, then he himself would be guilty of betraying his people, his religion and his God. It’s like “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

But, the answer Jesus gives is brilliant. He gives proper due to both God and Caesar. For Jesus, there is no conflict between God and Caesar or according to our more familiar formulation, there is no conflict between Church and State, between religion [which some see as the private sphere] and public life, as long as we are clear about the relationship between them. For Jesus, the clarity of the relationship is found in the priority given to God. The assumption is that there is someone who is in charge and to whom we ought to give our loyalty. It is when we acknowledge that God takes priority, only then can we render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Why? Because Caesar or the State, even though it plays an important role in our lives, that role is limited and cannot take the place of God. We owe our loyalty to our King and country; we are citizens, we enjoy all the security that our country provides. But, our country is not God.

Thus, the question is how do we render to God what belongs to God first? Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “God is dead and what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God”? However, if you think about it, Nietzsche’s reference to the death of God was a reference to Christianity as a spent-force. The reason for Nietzsche’s “God is dead” was because Christianity or Christians no longer made a difference in life. Christianity was no longer effective.

A logical response to Nietzsche’s critique against Christianity may be found in the realm of Caesar. In order to make a difference, that is, to testify that God is alive, we must venture into the realm of Caesar. We prove that God is alive by our mission in the world.

But, the first thing we need to do though is to get away from the idea of mission that has been glamourised. We think that mission is somewhat associated with political action on behalf of the poor, the marginalised, the excluded and the unjustly treated. These aspects of our mission are important because politicians are also telling us that God is dead and that they, the politicians are now in charge. Some of the problems we face in the country and in the world are because “politicians” have behaved like gods. The same is observed with the environmental crisis when “man” behaved as if they were gods and not stewards of creation.

So, our mission through the realm of Caesar is not restricted or confined to the glamour of political and social actions. In fact, it flows down to such simple tasks as found between your pots and pans in the kitchen. As it is not glamorous, it requires deep personal conviction as well as perseverance. It is tough to render to God what belongs to God without any promise of reward. And sadly, we often do things because we fear the possibility of punishment. And that leads me to my next point.

Often, our mission lacks power or credibility simply because our personal life lacks conviction. We may fantasise that our mission lies elsewhere and not in the “here and now”. As a result of this “dis-ease”, we live half-hearted lives as we do not see our present “situation” as husband, wife, children, parents, catechist etc as good enough to be offered to God.

In the 2nd Reading, St Paul affirms the Thessalonians that their faith in action, their love at work and their perseverance in hope are proofs of their utter conviction. The human spirit does not die from want or lack of courage. Look at fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. They may not be wise but they certainly do not lack courage. The human spirit does not die from lack of courage but it withers or dies from lack or want of conviction. Take a look at the life of St Thomas More. His philosophy of life was one of personal conviction: I die the King’s good servant but God’s first. In the midst of his predicament and despite his favourite daughter’s encouragement to give in to the King’s demand, Thomas was convinced that in order to remain faithful to his king, he must first remain faithful to God. This rendering to God first before all else is the conviction that we need to continue Christ’s mission in the world.

And we are somewhat supported by the first Reading. God chose Cyrus, a pagan king to achieve His purpose. The good news is that we are chosen by God and think how much more can God achieve because we are His and we belong to Him? But if we suffer a lack of conviction, then we will not be able “to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”. It is said that “Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible”. The trouble in an apathetic society, when we suffer from lack of conviction, is that all are guilty but only some are responsible. And these few responsible ones are the ones who pay the price for our guilt.[1]

Mission Sunday is a reminder that our mission is to follow Christ whose mission has been to lead the entire creation back to His Father. Give to God and to Caesar is a formula of conviction that we can continue Christ’s mission. When we give God our best, we will also want to make the world a better place.
[1] Ask RPK and the Hindraf Five who are detained at the “State’s” pleasure.

Monday, 6 October 2008

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Whilst China attempts to come to grips with the economic damage of tainted milk, the rest of the world is deciding which brand of milk chocolate may be eaten or not. On Friday evening, we had the Blessing of Animals and Animal Lovers in conjunction with the Feast of St Francis Assisi, the patron of animals and the environment. What connects the Blessing of Animals, tainted milk and the Gospel?

To find the connexion, let’s firstly set the Gospel within the context of its time. In those days, the landlords commonly lived far away from their land-holdings. And it was customary to lease out the land for a fee, for a percentage of the produce. The trouble with this arrangement arose because the relationship between the landlords and their tenants often bordered on ruthless extortion. Given such a lop-sided deal, it was understandable that the tenants behaved the way they did: killed the landowner’s agents and finally the heir to the estate.

But in our case, the parable exceeded the “context” of its time when understood from the perspective of the Prophet Isaiah in the 1st Reading. Agricultural land was and still is scarce in the Middle East. Prime agricultural land was often reserved for other crops. Grapes were grown on hillsides. Thus, they necessitated the terracing of hilly terrain and removal of stones, rocks and boulders. And to protect the vineyard, the landlord had to build a watch-tower and plant hedges around it. In short, a lot of effort went into turning a hillside into a vineyard. From this perspective, the landlord was not an unfair one. In fact, he lovingly fashioned out of nothing a vineyard to be leased out.

This is where the Blessing of Animals, the Milk Scandal can be connected to the Gospel. The Vineyard could represent many things. In our case, let the Vineyard leased out be our natural environment. The Landlord in this case, is none other than God who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. God has left the environment under our stewardship and care.

But, our living environment has become rather complex and also quite removed or detached, if you like, from reality. A few examples might help us appreciate the complexity of our living environment. We can create artificial environment to the point that it is not easy to differentiate between Reality and Virtual Reality. One of the most engaging pastimes and for some people, not a pastime but business, is the phenomenon called “Second Life”. It is a “place” [for want of a better word] or it exists in “cyber-space” where one can socialise through one’s avatar or onscreen graphic character. For some it is business because you can build an empire from scratch and then sell it to someone who wants to live your fantasies.1 But, if you haven’t had the chance to enter “Second Life” perhaps you might want to read the nutritional label of what you eat. It is safe to say that more than 50% what we eat is processed. It’s like someone has chewed the food, spat it out and packaged it. Processed food is eating what someone has chewed, spat out and packaged.

What I mean to say is, we are removed or somewhat detached from the natural environment that God has given us and in a way that makes the “care or stewardship” of the environment problematic. The more artificial life becomes, the less we are responsible for God’s creation. That is why the Blessing of Animals connects us with God’s creation. Our connexion with the natural environment is crucial because removed from the environment, we become less grateful to God for the gift of created reality. Parents who have children addicted to computer games—to virtual reality--will understand this. If you remove them from their games, they become less human in their response to you.

St Francis Assisi had a wolf for his pet. He could talk to the animals better than Dr Doolittle can. In a village somewhere in Central Italy, the inhabitants were having problems with a wolf. Francis asked the wolf why he attacked people in the village. The wolf’s response was “hunger”. The solution, according to Francis was to feed the wolf and the villagers did with the result that the wolf became the town pet. Is it any wonder why elephants rampaged through villagers’ plantations? Animals do not attack for fun.

St Francis and the taming of the hungry wolf show us the inter-connectedness of the whole world in such a way that we are a part of the environment and not set apart from the environment. In giving us the environment, God has made us co-creators with Him—we are to care for the environment the way God lovingly crafted for us. Tainted Milk has shown us how connected we are to each other. Through emails, I am receiving an ever-expanding list of products to avoid because they are tainted by melamine.

The 2nd Reading says that we ought to fill our minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. Since we are tenants in the Lord’s vineyard, let this be translated into a greater sense of responsibility for the natural environment. We like to think that we are more environmentally conscious as we embrace recycling. But, do you know that the philosophy behind recycling must go beyond recycling for the sake of maintaining the same level of consumption? Consumption must give way to conservation. Otherwise, the wholesale degradation of the environment is a spit upon the face of the Creator.

In summary, we need to intersect with the natural world because no matter how much we long to remain in virtual reality, we can never get away from the “physical need” to use the toilet. No matter how long we cruise through cyber-space, we remain “embodied” spirits—tied to this world. Thus, the earth—the Lord’s vineyard—is not only a space for gratitude towards the God of all creation but it is also the only place where we become human. Without the environment, we cease to be human.

1.Before Mass, I asked the Altar Servers if they knew anything about “Second Life”... one of them said, “the everlasting life”. It actually refers to an alternate “universe”. Last year, an Italian Jesuit asked fellow Jesuits not to be afraid of this virtual universe because it could be a fertile ground for new converts wishing to better themselves. Soon enough, Jesuits will be saving virtual people from virtual sins.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

In the Parable of the Sower, some seeds fell on rocky ground, they sprang up quickly but because they had no roots they withered and died. You may be wondering what bearing the Parable of the Sower has on the Gospel today.

Firstly, the parable in today’s Gospel was addressed to the established religious authorities of the time—the chief priests and elders of the people. These so-called religious people took offence at Jesus fraternising with sinners and the Gentiles. In the parable, the sinners and the Gentiles were represented by the elder son, whereas the chief priests and elders of the people were represented by the younger son. The sinners and the Gentiles chose to go their own way but repented and thus gained an entry into the Kingdom. The first reading says this clearly: “When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live”. On the other hand, the established religious authorities were those who knew better but yet failed to act on their privileged knowledge and as a result they excluded themselves from the Kingdom of God [1]. Again, the first reading says: “When the upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed”.

This is where the connexion between the Parable of the Sower and the Two Sons may be established. The seeds falling upon rocky ground can be taken to represent the religious authorities who know better but do not live their better knowledge. There is a shallowness in their behaviour that can be described as “lip-service”. But, interestingly, that they paid lip-service to God is not actually our problem here. Why? Everyone pays lip-service to one thing or another. It is part and parcel of who we are as sinners.

What is problematic is when we begin to associate “religious” behaviour as the cause of our lip-service. It is as if being religious, like the chief priests and the elders, is an obstacle to a meaningful relationship with God. An example is the use of the term “holy”. So, many of us do not like to be labelled as the “holy” type because the holy type is the hypocritical type. Isn’t this a common answer when asked to “serve” the church or in an empty church to sit in front? [2] “I am not holy” may express a genuine and humble fear of failure to live up to the standard of holiness but it actually disguises the fear that “holiness” is very close to hypocrisy. This is because the “higher” you rise, the further or harder will your “fall” be and it probably explains why we are suspicious of the “holy” types, because we keep seeing those who claim themselves to be holy but in actual fact live unholy lives. That is why people stay away from church, because "church" is a gathering of hypocrites.

Furthermore, our problem with what we term as shallow or superficial religious behaviour is compounded or complicated by the dichotomy between “ritual” and spontaneity. Ritual does not give life, spontaneity, on the other hand, does. So we scorn or disparage the “ritualistic” or regular part of life. Is it any wonder why young people have a problem with the Mass? Because the celebration of the Mass is distinctly “regular”. We understand "regular" in the sense of occurring at fixed intervals but the Latin root of the word “regula” means being subjected to rule. Rules are expressed through rituals and rituals belong to “established” religion and "established" religion is peopled by the so-called "holy" hypocrites.

That is why the Parable of the Sower might be instructive. All religions must have clear moral guidelines and elaborate rituals to maintain the semblance of what they are and to prevent them from degenerating into arbitrariness or caprice. Nothing is more destructive of your worship than a priest arbitrarily “praying” the Pater Noster at one Mass and skipping it at another Mass.

In short, religious or regular practices cannot be reduced to just primarily keeping the rules or observing the rituals. This is where we need to be on guard. Keeping the rules and observing the rituals are good but in themselves they tend to render our religious observances shallow and superficial. In the chief priests and the elders, that superficiality turned them into self-righteous judges of characters.

Nowhere in the Gospels did Jesus say, “Do not follow the rules”. And He Himself observed the “rules” by keeping the Sabbath. The Parable of the Two Sons may teach us that there are three things necessary for entry into the Kingdom. They are (1) right thinking, (2) right worship and (3) right acting. The chief priests and the elders probably excelled in right thinking. They knew the law and they studied theology. They may even observe the rubrics of worship carefully—how to bow, how to genuflect, how to sign themselves. But they, like the younger son, failed in right acting. They didn’t know how to love. They only knew how to judge those who didn’t measure up to their “superficiality”.

People today are repelled by shallow behaviour. This is more so if our behaviour does not commensurate with what we teach and celebrate. It is important to note that bad behaviour does not make the religion bad. Bad behaviour just makes the religion harder to accept. This is probably the challenge of Islam and the Western World. In the 2nd Reading, St Paul asks of us to imitate the humility of Christ. So, humility is the way to go for us who are sinners to ensure that we become beacons rather than stumbling blocks for bending knees (worship) and acclaiming tongues (teach) in search of Christ the Lord.

Right thinking and right worship have their rightful place in the way we live our lives. The ideal is for us to go beyond superficiality in the observance of rituals and rules to bear fruit in the way we behave: justly and with mercy.

We had a vigil on Friday night to pray for the country. I am not saying that we were right in what we did but I am explaining why we did what we did. Right thinking (orthodoxy) and right worship (orthopoesis) leads to right action (orthopraxis). John Paul II is insistent that there is truth to be known and to be taught. You find this teaching in the encyclical Fides et ratio. So too Benedict XVI. His insistence on “worship” is telling us something as well. We are very much guided by what he said in Deus caritas est, that “prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone”. This praying that we asked for, before the Blessed Sacrament, is important if we aim to act rightly. However, in order to act justly we need to convert a mindset. Firstly, hypocrisy affects everyone, not just the “holy” ones. Let not those who claim to be holy but are hypocritical deter us from seeking holiness. Holiness is a matter of personal responsibility and not dependent on whether or not the others are holy. Secondly, we must invert the order that “right acting” is proof of right thinking and right worship. Instead, right acting is fruit of right thinking and right worship. So, if you want justice, again I say, let’s search for the Truth (who is the Christ) and let’s worship Him.
[1] It does not follow that knowledge always leads to right action. Just because you know more does not mean you will behave according to what you know even though that would have been the ideal.
[2] This could probably be explained by the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. One a hypocrite and the other a sinner, who standing at the back of the temple went back justified with God.