Wednesday, 20 February 2008

2nd Sunday of Lent Year A

What is the significance of the Transfiguration? First of all it was an event of captivating beauty. It took place on a mountain. The mountains are places of God’s particular closeness. And Jesus often finds himself on different mountains. For example, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, one of the defining moments is the Sermon on the Mount. There, on the mountain, Jesus the new Moses dispenses the law of the New Covenant. Last Sunday, in the Temptation, Jesus is also brought to a mountain by the Devil. It helps us appreciate that God is not far from Christ (and also therefore from us who are) struggling with temptation. In the background of the various mountain experiences of Jesus, we hear the echoes of the OT revelations at Sinai, Horeb and Moriah.

Today, Mount Tabor, another mountain, is also the place where our profession of faith comes alive. In the gospel, his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. Can you hear the echo of or at least appreciate the profession of our faith: Jesus in his communion with the Father reveals to us that He is God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Unlike Moses whose face shone with light received from his encounter with God, the light of Jesus shines out from within him.

Secondly, from the Temptation to Tabor, we can also discern an intensification of the process of initiation for those who are searching for the Way, the Truth and the Life and for those who are baptised, there is a deepening of discipleship. The white garment of Jesus’ transfiguration should be seen through the Book of Revelation. John the Evangelist speaks of the garments of the Elect that have become white because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). Through baptism, the Elect are united with Jesus’ Passion. His Passion is the purification that restores to the baptised the original garment lost through sin. The transfiguration shows us what will happen or what happens to those who seek baptism and those who are baptised—we are clothed with Jesus in light and we ourselves become light.

In that sense, the Transfiguration cannot be a once-off event. The little drop of water at the preparation of the gift reminds us of that. “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity”.

It has life-changing significance. It prods us to ask where God is leading us like He led Abram. In that, the symbol of the mountain is appropriate. The ascent, the going up the mountain symbolises the breaking free from the ordinariness of life. If we follow Jesus up the mountain then we will certainly encounter a God who speaks life-changing or life-liberating words to us. Even as we stand in awe at the revelation of the beauty and magnificence of the Divine Son of God, we are stopped in our track by a God whose Word challenges to make life-changing decisions. There is a lot at stake for so many of us. We can choose to merely exist. We go to the supermarket, watch movies, drink at pubs, marvel at the places of interest of our sight-seeing. In short, we busy ourselves with life. But, unfortunately, the busyness of life often has the unintended consequence of shielding us from hearing God.

If we do not merely exist, Lent can become the mountain where we live by choosing to hear the voice of the God who called Abram; even if it seems incomprehensible; even if it involves suffering according to St Paul in the 2nd Reading. And because it is life-changing, the Transfiguration is not a “wham and bang” event but is experienced as a gradual change of our loves and desires into the holiness of God. It means that slowly, my time, my energy, my work, my rest, my meetings—every single action of mine begins to radiate the brightness of the Light of Christ. That is why we make special attempts at fasting, praying and almsgiving because these practices of self-denial help in the process of changing so that little by little the splendour of the Father becomes more visible to the world. But, it must begin like Abram who chose to follow the will of God. Slowly and steadily we say yes. We may fall but we get up. Never losing hope but allowing God the greater freedom to change our lives. Let us ask for the grace as we progress further into the heart of Lent.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

1st Sunday of Lent Year A

Some people tend to overeat when they are stressed. That is why we have such a term called “comfort food” that people turn to for familiarity and emotional security. We sometimes use food to shield ourselves from ourselves. Not only food, but we use perfumes, undergo cosmetic surgery, buy branded goods, go to cinemas, make noise, engage busyness and chase adrenaline—what we called creaturely comforts and activities—all these are not bad in themselves but they sometimes appeal to our fear of facing ourselves. The first Sunday of Lent challenges to enter the desert in order to face ourselves.

The desert today beckons us, like it beckoned Jesus to abandon his fears, his security blanket and go in search of the real him before God. In order to understand what the desert means for us, take a look at the first reading. Adam and Eve were created perfect. They may be the best of God’s creation but nevertheless, creatures.

As such, the temptation of Adam and Eve is set within the context of creatureliness, meaning within the context of our reliance or dependence on God. Adam and Eve struggled with swhat it meant to be perfect and yet dependent. They may be perfect and but yet they were constrained by the boundary between good and evil. Imagine the serpent’s temptation. “You sure there are certain things you can’t do? You are sure you are not God yourselves?” The Devil’s temptation must be seen in the context of luring the creature to deny this dependence on God.

According to St Paul in the 2nd Reading, sin entered the world through one man. Sin entered the world through this single lie of self-sufficiency. That is why the desert is a challenge metaphor because its starkness provides no space for hiding from ourselves, nowhere to run from the truth that we are not self-sufficient. The first Adam failed the test of dependency because creatureliness was deemed a curse rather than a blessing. Instead of dependence as a relationship of love between the Creator and the creature, a relationship marked or characterised by “limitation” which we otherwise know as “moral standards” or as mentioned earlier, the boundary between good and evil. In this relationship of dependence, we obey God’s laws because of love. The Devil, on the other hand, introduced the notion of dependence as slavery. Limitation is slavery. Why must you listen to God? Why can’t you decide to do what you want to do? Our notion of freedom is self-decision independent of God. Is that not our notion of freedom, especially the freedom of the self-made man?

But the answer of the 2nd Adam, Jesus, to the Devil includes the very notion that the created being is of necessity dependent on the Creator alone. In the desert, shorn of all that can hide us, be they creaturely comforts or excessive activities symbolised in Jesus’ temptation as food, prestige and power, we have no choice but to face with ourselves. The truth is that we prefer to hide, like Adam and Eve hid from God and lived in denial. The fig leaf in the Garden of Eden is a metaphor for what we use—alcohol, crass material wealth, noise or busy-ness—to hide away from the loving gaze of God who sees us for who we are, not who we pretend to be.

We have also become adept or good at running away from ourselves. For example, busyness could be a symptom of running away. And many of us have this personal phantom “trainer” who drives us and tell us that we have to be elsewhere and not here. We can be a better husband elsewhere, not here with my present wife. I can have a better career elsewhere, not here in my current job. I can live in a better country elsewhere where my gifts are appreciated, not here where there’s always discrimination. I should be elsewhere except here to make a stand to be a better person. It seems that I cannot encounter God here but elsewhere. Busyness is a form of running away from facing ourselves.

That is why the desert is not a physical place but an interior space for God to see us, to commune with us and to love us. It is only possible when we do not run away from facing ourselves. But, we are a generation that feels really bad about itself. If we weren’t so then there must be an explanation why the constant need to market ourselves? We are a generation of emotional pygmies because we look for our validation, justification or affirmation not from God but from what we can do or achieve. Many of us are afraid that God dares to love us and we are deceived by the Devil to think that God’s love can never be greater than our sins. Our notion of God is a God who hates not just the sin but ALSO the sinner.

The point is: so what if you were a sinner and so what if you were unworthy? That’s the reality of who we are. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that God can and even dares to encounter us. The devil’s job is to convince us that we are so utterly useless that God cannot love us. That’s his lie. So, the person who stays away from Church for years out of the fear that God cannot love him or her is not staying away from God but is rather running away from himself or herself. He or she is afraid to be encountered by God. That is why alcohol often comes in. After a few beer or shots of whiskey, I feel good about myself. I don’t need God to make me feel good.

Jesus in standing up to the Devil shows us that Lent is the here to stand utterly naked before God, without the fig leaf of false security that we find in our comfort food and in our running away, etc. By standing still, Jesus acknowledges his total dependence on God for who he should be. For us, however hideous our sins may be, it is time to allow them to come to surface and realise that God’s gaze is a healing gaze and not a condemning glare. We too can be who we should be but only if we dare to stand naked before God.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I don’t quite like to preach on the beatitudes because the experience is like going to buy shampoo only to find that there are 20 different types of shampoos to choose from and everyone of them good. I am afraid that having chosen of the beatitudes and halfway through expounding it, I get stuck because I have nothing else to say. So, let’s see how the CCC can help us in this matter. The Catechism says, “The beatitude we are promised confronts us with decisive moral choices. It invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement—however beneficial it may be—such as science, technology and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love" (CCC#1723).

The first misconception we might want to disabuse ourselves of is that the beatitudes glorify starvation, misery or persecution as if they were “blessed” states of being. For example, abject starvation is evil. The great and grave number of children going to bed with an empty stomach is unconscionable; most especially if we live in the context of wastage of food. In today’s world of agricultural advancement, no one should ever have to starve. Hence, the blessedness of the beatitudes refers to our reliance or dependence on God alone as we heard in the quote from the CCC and so, it is right that the beatitudes challenge us to choose how we live our Christianity—by authentic Christianity through reliance on God or by a Christianity that conforms to the standards of the world.

It boils down to asking if we want to live true and authentic Christianity or do we want a Christianity of compromise. If we choose to live authentic Christianity, our life will change as our choices will affect how we live, move and have our being, just to paraphrase a quote from Act 17:28.

At one time, I remember, it was really fashionable to speak of “being counter-cultural”. But, I think, the term “counter-cultural”, even though true, sounds ideological. The beatitudes are not a set of “rules” but rather a description of a way of life. St Paul describes in the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians his beatific experience of suffering. “We are taken for impostors while we are genuine; obscure yet famous; said to be dying and here we are alive; rumoured to be executed before we are sentenced; thought most miserable and yet we are always rejoicing; taken for paupers though we make others rich; for people having nothing though we have everything (2nd Cor. 6: 8-10).

St Paul’s description of discipleship is not ideological but rather, comes from a lived experience. He describes the Christian’s life as a paradox indeed. The blessedness we possess is not because we are persecuted. To be happy because we are persecuted may be indicative of mental illness. Instead, blessedness means that in spite of persecution, we are able to laugh or despite our hunger we are able to rejoice. The paradox is that our peace comes not from outside but rather wells up from inside. This is why the beatitudes cannot be ideological because ideology is subscription to a set of ideals or values or better still, to political manifestoes. On the contrary, the beatitudes are a subscription to a person: Christ. It is the person of Christ who gives us the reason for the laughter despite all that is crushing around us. St Paul says that much in 2nd Cor. 4: 8-9, “We are in difficulties on all sides, but never cornered; we see no answer to our problems but never despair; we have been persecuted, but never deserted; knocked down but never killed”.

The person of Christ is the reason why Paul says that “always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body, the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, too, may always be seen in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10-11).

According to Benedict XVI, the beatitudes express the meaning of discipleship. They cannot be expressed in purely theoretical terms; it is proclaimed in the life and suffering, and in the mysterious joy, of the disciple who gives himself over to completely follow the Lord. As such the beatitudes are not a social programme even though the choices we make in completely following the Lord will have social implications. It is when we have anchored ourselves upon Jesus, upon the person of Christ that we begin to mould a culture of inner freedom in order to stand up to the prevailing culture of affluence, a culture which glorifies self-sufficiency.

It is not difficult to trace the culture of “self-sufficiency” in our lives. As I have said before, every time we fail at an enterprise, our first thought is often, “I have not done enough”. It is a thought which betrays that the success of our undertaking is premised on our ability to carry out or execute all our plans. But, the beatitudes invite us to the inner freedom that is not afraid to embrace even failure because we are totally dependent on God’s promise to be with us.

In conclusion, the beatitudes invite us to a new way of living which is both difficult and challenging. First and foremost, this life is made possible by the person of Christ. He alone can offer to us all the spiritual means that we need in order to live his beatitudes or live Him with conviction in our daily lives. You may be wondering why I am hammering the point of “the person of Christ”. In the context of liberation theology, the beatitudes seem to be a programme of social initiatives aimed at the liberation of the human person. But, more and more, I am convinced that the failure to love mercy, to act justly or to walk tenderly with the Lord is a failure of recognition. We fail to love our neighbour because we do not know Christ enough. Christianity is not serving a programme but serving the person of Christ.

So, it is right that we turn to Him, as St Paul so says, “God has made us members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing he has become our wisdom, and our virtue and our holiness and our freedom. If anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord”. Only in Him, will what we do make sense. Through Him we live the beatitudes and through Him we become the beatitudes.