Monday, 28 January 2008

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Have you ever perpetuated a misconception or even lived one? Remember how we were told never to eat two conjoined bananas because of the belief that eating them will result in giving birth to twins? It is a simple case of similarity mistaken for causality. It’s like playing with your uncle’s bald head will make you bald faster. We may call it plain and pure superstition but unwittingly or unknowingly, many of us do perpetuate misconceptions or even live them.

The calling of Andrew, Simon (otherwise known as Peter), James and John might be a good start or beginning to debunk some misconceptions.

In a sense, you can say that the calling of these four men was the start of Christianity. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that Christianity was a religion born in Asia. But for many of us, Christianity seems to be a foreign religion; as foreign as a missionary La Salle Brother or Infant Jesus Sister imported from Ireland or France, for example. It doesn’t take much to arrive at this conclusion. Statistics may support the conclusion for of all the continents, the most populous is Asia and yet it is the least Christianised.

Still, it is a misconception which we must dispel with. Christianity is NOT alien to Asia. It is true that Christianity was able to use Greek philosophy in its self-explication but that does not diminish the fact that Christianity was and is an Asian religion because its roots are the Old Testament and therefore Semitic. Jews and Arabs may be Semitic but nonetheless Asians. In the beginning Christianity spread towards the East, towards Persia, India and China. In fact, if you like, near Karbala the city of Shite prominence, south-west of Baghdad, you should be able to find an ancient Church that pre-dates the dominant religion of Iraq today.

It is not surprising that because of this misconception that Christianity is a Western importation, we have been told not to use a certain word for God. In fact, I remember that we were told to stick to Latin. So, you imagine what a misconception can do? And, the worst thing is that there are Catholics who live this misconception because they tell me that it is wrong for another priest to call God by the name which we are not supposed to use.

Today, we are told that Jesus called the four. There is perhaps another misconception that we may labour under. We are used to thinking that calling equals vocation—vocation to the priesthood or religious life. The calling of these four might give us an excellent occasion to speak about answering the call to priesthood or religious life. But that is to restrict the call of Jesus, as if his calling were for “new” people. Like Christ is calling for new apostles.

But, we need to re-think about calling because there is a crisis here in Asia, whether we recognise it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is a crisis of recognition; a crisis which touch upon our Christian identity. If we accept Christianity to be an Asian religion, then it should find the soil of Asian hearts a fertile ground. It’s like having a home-ground advantage. Christians should have their task of evangelisation cut out for them. There should be more Christians in Asia since Asia is the home of Christianity and Christianity is at home in Asia.

But, there are not. Christians make up less than 3 per cent of Asia’s population.

So, the crisis we have is related to the majority of Asians not recognising the few Christians living amongst them. The call of the four is not so much Christ calling for “new” apostles as His call is a challenge to Christians living out to their utmost ability the charism of their baptism which according to the CCC the “common priesthood of the laity is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—the life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit”.

It is through this life of faith, hope and charity lived according to the Spirit that others recognise Christ. This is a challenge to which we must rise. But, the sad thing is we often excuse our failure by supplying the reason for the lack of conversion to Christianity on the venerability of the other religions—notably Buddhism and Hinduism. The usual response is: Buddhism and Hinduism are older and more established religions whereas Christianity is a Western importation and 3 per cent is testimony to 500 years of failure in evangelisation. We blame the crisis of recognition on the failure of evangelisation and on Christianity as a Western important. Then, we shoot ourselves in our foot because we think we’ve adopted a “western” way and thus we are less of an Asian.

The point is China could have been Christianised if Christians hadn’t fought amongst themselves. The Controversies of the Chinese Rite arose precisely because of Catholic infighting. It does give credence that our crisis is because Christ is not clearly visible in our lives. You may say we had Mother Teresa who is well-recognised in Asia. But, she was one of so few Christians. The fact is, we should discount Mother Teresa because she was truly a Western importation since she hailed from Albania. The presence of Mother Teresa is perhaps a great shame to us Asians who should be the first to show forth the light of Christ.

Let’s recognise our failure for what it is: the failure to live our profession visibly. Let us not blame it on Christianity as a Western importation. Otherwise, we would have perpetuated a misconception or worse, live the misconception. The First Reading is echoed in the Gospel. Land of Zebulun, Land of Napthali—the people that lived in darkness has seen a great light. We are so unremarkable that Asia does not see our light—the light of Christ. So, Gandhi was right to say, “I believe in Christ but I don’t believe in Christianity”. But, the blame is not on Christianity. The shame is upon us Asians. We have failed our home-grown Christ. We have failed to be Christ. We have dimmed his light.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Baptism of the Lord Year A

Jesus comes up to John the Baptist. There is an awkward moment. John recognises the inequality of the relationship and signals his unworthiness to baptise Jesus but Jesus insists. How can we understand the baptism of The Sinless One? The insistence of Jesus can be understood from the perspective of how firstly, Matthew wants to make the connexion between Judaism and Christianity where he understands the latter to be the fulfilment of the former [1] and secondly, of Jesus’ desire and its consequence on those who are baptised.

From the perspective of continuity and fulfilment, we have the opening of heaven. Imagine in the Old Testament when heaven remained shut and no rain fell upon the earth? Here at the River Jordan, heaven is opened and God re-establishes His relationship with the world. Of course, the Father’s eagerness is a response to the Messiah, his beloved Son.

Second, the Spirit coming down like a dove is sign of a new creation dawning. In Gen 1, the earth was a formless void and there was darkness over the deep and God’s Spirit hovered over the water. Further on in Gen 8, we read that the dove sent out by Noah brought back an olive branch thus signalling a new beginning. (Gen 8:11). With the Spirit coming down like a dove, Matthew reads the history of Israel anew in Jesus. In the baptism of Jesus, a new beginning has dawned upon us. For Matthew, he is reassuring the early Christians that there is greater continuity rather than discontinuity between Christianity and Judaism. For us, the implication of Jesus’ baptism can only be extraordinary for each one of us because we too have been baptised. Let us explore some of the implications.

In Canon Law, baptism is described as the gateway to all the other sacraments (Can 842 §2). It grants us a host of privileges. For example, without baptism, we cannot receive Holy Communion. Once, an un-baptised person was rather annoyed because he was not allowed to receive Holy Communion. He said, “I am a practising Catholic. I believe in what the Church teaches etc”. The answer is simply this: baptism. Baptism initiates a person into a believing community. We are baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. That means through Jesus we gain God for our Father and through Jesus we become brothers and sisters to one another. Communion implies just that “communion”. It means that we not only “communicate” with Jesus but the Eucharist expresses the communion we share as brothers and sisters in Christ.

This initiation which baptism achieves is not just a convention we observe. It is not like a community which you join willy-nilly. One day you are happy with the people, you consider yourself as belonging to the community. One day, you fight with this person, then you exclude yourself from the community. It is somewhat analogous to the family. You are born into a family and no matter what happens you remain a member of that family. The same can be said of baptism. Once you are baptised, you become a member of the Christian family no matter what happens after because at baptism, your entire being is changed and you become configured to Christ. In baptism, there is a marking which after it has taken place, cannot be reversed. The consequence of baptism is once baptised you will always be baptised. This explains why for us Catholics, when an Anglican joins us to become a Catholic, he or she is formally received into the Church. We do not “re-baptise” the person. The same too is said of a Christian who for convenience converts to Islam to marry a person. However you may want to see it, the person remains internally configured to Christ.

This is frightening, is it not? In today’s world of freedom, freedom is often translated into self-determination. If I am defined as who I want to be, such an implication can only be frightening. In that case, why should one be baptised, you may ask? And further into this “why should one be baptised” is a subsidiary question: “Should not we wait for a child to grow into maturity before we baptise the child”? [2]

The answer I would give is that the implication or the consequence of privileges is duties... Earlier I mentioned that baptism is gateway to the other sacraments—granting us a host of privileges. If you like, duty is the other side of the coin of privilege. The problem is when we are gung-ho about our rights and privileges, we may forget about our duties. Thus, we need to reconcile our understanding of freedom and duty. Freedom is not the ability to do just anything but rather the freedom to embrace our destiny or our duty. Why? This is because the human spirit is made for a great destiny. It is when we deny the spirit the drive to rise above itself that we kill the human spirit. The understanding of freedom as doing anything that you want is a denial of the human spirit’s destiny for greatness.

Today, Jesus walked into the water not because he had nothing better to do but because he had come to a point in his life where his destiny opens him to embrace the Father’s will. His baptism is a declaration that He intends to live according to His Father’s will in the way that will please His Father. Now you see how enormous the consequence of Jesus’ baptism is for us for it expresses His openness to God’s will. For us, baptism is God’s invitation and our acceptance is salvation. It is a privilege and also a duty to be embraced.

Many people feel unworthy. But let not the fact that we can sin cloud or limit the vision of our calling/vocation/destiny as sons and daughters of the Father, called to greatness. Do you believe it? The crisis we face today is not sin. Ours is a crisis of belief that God can and still does call us. If you don’t believe this, then know that the Devil has clouded your judgement.
[1] Of course, these days it is politically incorrect to look at Christianity as the fulfilment of Judaism.
[2] Baptism of an infant does not violate the infant’s right. A parent routinely chooses for a child or on behalf of a child. Our skewered sense that freedom is self-determination seems to think that in the matter of “religion” a child should have the right to choose. The point is, when your child is sick, you’d never think twice to bring him or her to the hospital. So, our idea of freedom is challenged by our practice. A parent always wants the best for the child. No one sends a child to the worst school in the area. Baptism is a supreme good; life with God. So, why shouldn’t one choose the best?

Monday, 7 January 2008

Epiphany Year A

In Ratatouille, Remy the gastronomic rodent describes his brother Emile as someone who is easily impressed. We too are like that because we are taken up by the bright lights of Christmas. But in reality, Epiphany is the reason for us to celebrate Christmas.

Year A is Matthew’s Gospel. Whatever historical foundation we want to establish for the wise men—were there three of them, were they actually kings, etc—we should not overlook their symbolic value for Matthew’s Gospel. More than any other evangelist, Matthew sees in Jesus Christ the fulfilment of the hopes of ancient Israel. For Matthew there is continuity between Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, when he tells the story of Jesus, he does so with a rear-view mirror glance at the history of Israel. For example, the sermon that Jesus gives is set on a mountain. This is because Jesus is now the new Moses for Moses had brought divine revelation from Mount Sinai. The wise men's coming today parallels Solomon whose wisdom was sought by a visitor from the East—the Queen of Sheba. She marvelled at the wisdom of Solomon. (1 Kgs10:1-13). Now the wise men are in search of the true wisdom.

The Second Reading gives us a theological or wider vision of the feast whereby God invites both Jews and Gentiles to share on an equal footing, the benefits of salvation brought by Christ. Epiphany brings out the true significance of Christmas because it reveals to us the universal significance of Jesus Christ. This is possible because of the continuity in the plan of God’s salvation for the world. There is no salvation just for the Jews alone. Therefore, it makes sense then to speak of the continuity between Judaism and Christianity.

Who is Jesus Christ for the world? How are we to come before him? Today’s feast is meant to open our minds to the possibility of conversion to Christ, to his truth, to his wisdom and his salvation.

This is where we meet closed minds. People like to be known as “open-minded”. If I called you narrow-minded, I don’t think you like that because we are especially sensitive to the charges of prejudice, bigotry or intolerance. But, this seeming “openness” may actually represent a kind of conformism which is actually a closing of the mind. When we are afraid to think the deeper questions, then we have actually closed our minds. At this point in human history when there is a breakdown of meta-narratives, that is, a breakdown in the ability to have an overarching story that binds all the experiences, when we no longer are able to tell the same story, we react by closing our minds. For example, in a dialogue of life, when a person says, “what is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me”, that means that we have already closed our minds or we admit that we are incapable of truth or incapable of approximating the truth.

You’d be surprised where closed minds can come from. There are those who have accepted Christ as Saviour. The acceptance of Christ is not really openness. The acceptance of Christ to the exclusion of others is really a kind of “closing of the mind” as there is no possibility of accepting other people who do not share our convictions. A closed mind will look at them and think: We have the truth and you have falsehood. The current debate about what to call God in another language is a clear example of how a closed mind works. Such a closed mind sees a great divide between them and us. “Ours is the true God and we alone can call God by this name. We are saved. Yours is not the true God which is why we forbid you to call God by that name. You are not saved”. But, let’s not point our fingers at other people. Let’s look at how closed a Catholic mind can be. For example, in marriage too, there are families who might exert the pressure to either the son-in-law or the daughter-in-law to convert to become Catholics. And there are many who enter into marriage a Catholic only in name but will never live a Catholic life. It is sad that people embrace a religion such as Catholicism out of convenience. But that’s not because of them but because of our stance towards those who are not Catholics. We have acted with a closed mind.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are some who pride themselves to be open-minded. For some people, everything is the same. That too is a form of closed mind. Everything cannot be the same for if it were, then why aren’t you everything? It betrays a laziness of one’s capacity to choose or one’s capacity of conviction—a poor exercise of the faculty of choosing and be convicted. For example, people who believe that every religion is the same, ultimately believes in no religion, set themselves up as the standard and in the end reduced themselves to an idol of no consequence. Ask a person who is a friend of everybody. That person will probably die of loneliness. "Every religion is the same" is a form of relativism because it leads not to conviction but rather dissolution of life, of character and morality.

What we need is a rigorous openness to Christ and the true meaning of his coming. In the first example of a closed mind, we are not supposed to beat people into submission because force in conversion can only result in superficiality. On the other hand, we should not confuse what we believe in to be with everything else. Not all religions are the same. We are duty-bound to respect them but we are not bound to accept their truth claim.

This is where we hear the common saying that religion is one of the greatest sources of conflict in the world. But true religion does not lead to conflict. Instead true religion leads to conversion.

Therefore, given the scenario, what is important is for us to hold the tension of being “exclusive”, on the one hand, in which people who do not think like us are excluded and “inclusive”, on the other hand, in which people try to dissolve differences because they are unable to deal with them. When people can’t deal with differences, they either divide the world into a “we vs. they” reality OR they dissolve the differences by making “everything the same”. Within this tension we enter Epiphany in which Christ is revealed to be the Saviour of the world. This is the meaning of Epiphany. The only credibility we have for proclaiming Christ to be the Saviour is through our lives. Now, He is revealed in and through our lives. How can we live our lives so that people may recognise the Christ in us? Epiphany is thus a reminder that every deed of ours must match the name Christian. For example, if your car has a sticker that says, “Jesus is the answer”, be careful how you drive because for many of us, our actions are not extraordinary enough to show the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. Go to the supermarket and see how our behaviour is no different from others.

Today is a good day because we are commissioning our catechist. The word catechesis is rooted in the Greek "Katekhein", meaning to resound or echo faithfully the teaching of the Church in Scripture and Tradition. But, I should add that catechesis is also an echoing of the actions of Christ. Let our actions be the most credible witness to the presence of Christ the Saviour of the world.