Monday, 31 March 2008

2nd Sunday of Easter Year A

Every year, after Easter Sunday, whether it is Year A, B or C, we are treated to this Gospel passage. It is a multi-focused passage. At first glance, it focuses on the theme of peace. They are fearful and are locked behind closed doors. Jesus comes and stands in their midst. He calms their fears: “Peace be with you” [Jn 20: 21]. Jesus the Prince of Peace by his blood on the Cross reconciles humanity with God. He is our Peace. Therefore, it is such a great greeting that a Bishop, instead of saluting, “Good morning brothers and sisters in Christ, the Bishop, by virtue of his ordination, exercises what it means to be truly another Christ: Altus Christus when he stands before you and confidently greets you with the very words of Christ Himself: “Peace be with You”.

Or, at second glance the Gospel could very well refer to the ministry of reconciliation. Here, Jesus gives the Apostles the power to forgive or not to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained” [Jn 20:22-23]. We often point to this passage for the foundation of our Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Or at third glance, we could also focus on Thomas’ incredulity or disbelief at so stupendous or amazing a miracle such as the resurrection. Thomas couldn’t believe that the Promised Messiah would return to life. He asks for physical proofs which Jesus was only too pleased to supply.

But a closer examination of the passage may yield a bit more for our reflexion and understanding.

The beginning of the Gospel passage is our clue as it makes a reference to “the evening of the same day of the week, the first day of the week”. According to the Catechism, “Jesus rose from the dead, ‘on the first day of the week’. Because it is the ‘first day’, the day of Christ’s Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the “eight day” following the Sabbath, it symbolises the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection. For Christians, it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day” [CCC2174]. Perhaps, it becomes clearer why we go to Mass on Sunday. We do so not because of “obligation” but because we honour the Day of the Lord, the Day when Creation is renewed.

The Resurrection recalls us to the event of Creation. In effect, Jesus in rising from the death has offered us a new Creation. It is in this context that the giving of the Spirit is so important. If you recall Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep and God’s spirit hovered over the water” [Gen 1:1-2]. Now, the Spirit rests not on water but on the Apostles.

Thus, Thomas is not really “doubting Thomas” as tradition likes to paint him; a man with doubting faith asking for concrete proof in order to believe. If you recall, Thomas was also the Apostle who said, when Jesus was about to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus: “Let us go and die with Him too”. Here is an apostle whose general personality is not characterised by timidity or pusillanimity[1]. Instead, Thomas’ doubt is rather indicative of unexpressed or un-formed faith. A doubter is not one who does not believe but rather one whose heart is searching for someone to believe in. So, given the context of the Resurrection as New Creation brought about by Christ, given that Christ gave the Holy Spirit that hovered from the abyss to the Apostles, then Thomas’ exclamation is his search fulfilled; it is the birth of his true faith in the Christ who is always more that what He seems: My Lord and My God. The doubter becomes the greatest believer for Thomas is able to recognise the Risen Jesus as the Lord and Saviour—the one through whom the world was created and the one in whom creation is renewed.

Creation is renewed in the Resurrection. The problem is we are like Thomas getting lost asking for proofs of the resurrection instead of asking if our hearts already know that in Jesus Christ, creation has been renewed. This Sunday is a challenge to some of us whose faith is waiting to be born. It is not that we are faithless. A person whose faith is lukewarm is not because of unbelief. Rather, in the onslaught of killing, corruption, and lies etc, how are we to believe that creation has been renewed? In the face of evil where is the Resurrection? Unfortunately, for many of us, the Passion of Christ is easier to understand because we can relate it to the sufferings that we find in the world. That is why people disbelieve the Resurrection; not because it is not true but because it is too good to be true.

But, the truth is the Passion is not Passion without the Resurrection.

The first reading provides us with practical clue as to how/why it is possible to believe in the Resurrection. “The whole community remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood or community, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” [Acts 2:42-43]. Outside these characteristics or stipulations of the great Apostle, that is, if we do not keep close to Apostolic teaching, the Church, the Eucharist and Prayer, then we will be reduced to seeking for proofs of the resurrection. In fact, history, science and philosophy have tried to find historical, scientific and philosophical evidence to justify that the Resurrection is not possible. Yet, beyond all these attempts, we find that our hearts strain to tell us that there is something which we cannot explain away... no matter what. Let me give a couple of examples: If Jesus were just a prophet. He died on the Cross. As such, then there is nothing to explain anymore. Why? He died like any other person. But, yet, the Jews made sure that Guards would stand guard of the tomb and they paid people to spread the rumour that the Disciples stole the body of Jesus. Islam believes that Jesus was switched on the Cross with Judas. Da Vinci Code believes that Jesus escapes to marry Mary Magdalene. Have you ever wondered that all throughout history one after another elaborate theory is formulated to explain how the Resurrection could not have taken place?

All the attempts to disprove the Resurrection must mean that there is something which cannot be explained away. In fact, when they try to disprove the Resurrection they have already tacitly accepted it. Thus, it is not a question of believing what we haven’t seen. It is believing because the proof is already found according to the Acts: in the whole community remaining faithful to Apostolic teaching, the Church, the Eucharist and Prayer.

Today, let us examine our approach to what the Acts of the Apostles ask of us. If people are slow to believe in the Resurrection, it is perhaps our hearts have not truly embrace what is necessary for the Resurrection to be true for all the world to see: that we have not kept close to Apostolic teaching, we have stayed away from the Church founded by Christ, we do not really appreciate the Eucharist and finally we do not pray enough.

[1] Of course, the Passion of Christ proved otherwise because the Apostles were described as deserting Jesus or described as following him from a distance. That is why I used the term “general” characteristic of Thomas’ personality.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Easter Vigil Year A

This is the night, when Christians everywhere washed cleaned of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness. It is a line which strikes me profoundly this Easter. A short line from the Exultet we heard expresses the meaning of the Roman Letter of St Paul: “When we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death; in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life”. This is the night in which this new life has been made possible by the Resurrection of Christ the Lord.

Hence, Easter is not a past event that is just merely of interest to us historically. Baptism means precisely that through the event of Christ’s resurrection, the person baptised is drawn into a new history. This is exactly what St Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). When a person is baptised, the "I, me, myself", the essential identity of man is changed in such a way that one has become one in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28). A person who is baptised becomes another Christ.

Even though we all gather here to witness to the baptism of a few people, it is important for everyone present here to understand what it really means. [For many of us, this event about to take place, took place for us in time long past]. In baptism, a person who is subjected to the resurrection of Christ is delivered from his or her isolation to become an “I” of a community of believers otherwise known as the Body of Christ. In baptism, we are carried by the mystery of the Resurrection into the mystical Body of Christ in order to live the new life which Christ won for us. The term Body of Christ truly expresses what it means that we live a new life.

For, Jesus says in John’s Gospel: I live and you will live also (Jn 14:19). How? Well, He is alive to us and we are able to live for Him because He sent His Spirit to animate His Body the Church—to animate each and everyone of us. He is alive to us as He continually nourishes us through every single sacrament He gave His Church. He is alive and He meets us at every turn of the Liturgy. He is alive as every event we encounter opens up the possibility of meeting Him.

That is why the Resurrection cannot be an event of the past. In baptism, the sacrament of the Resurrection, the Risen Lord reaches us and seizes us as we in turn grasp hold of Him. And the good news is that He holds us firmly even when our hands grow weak. He keeps us secure even when our courage fails us. Furthermore, as we grasp hold of him, we reach out to hold each other’s hand simply because together we make up the Body of Christ. No one is ever baptised to be alone because when we are baptised, we are grafted into the Body of Christ. It is Christ who draws us into Himself.

The implication of the Resurrection and we becoming taking part in it is tremendous simply because it allows us and gives us hope because of what Christ can do for us. This is important only because the Church, the Body of Christ is made up of fallible and weak members—sinners, if you like. There are some who stay away because they feel that they are not worthy of Christ. They struggle and are discouraged by personal failure and thus, they stay away out of fear. There are some who have stayed away because of their bad experience with weak members of the Body of Christ. Instead of becoming light, we become stumbling blocks—scandals to faith in Christ. For example, if you want to meet unkindness, join the seminary or religious life. The people supposedly closest to Christ can be the most unkind. The point is, we constantly may fall short of the tall order to love but precisely because the Church is Christ’s Body, our hope is not what we can do but what Christ can do for us. We may fail but He will not fail us if we allow the strength of His Resurrection to carry us. In fact, He feeds, heals, strengthens, forgives and SENDS us continually through the ministry of the Church in the sacraments. In short, His Body, the Church cannot fail simply because Christ will not allow it to happen. This is one reason why no one and nothing can ever take away a Christian’s joy that he or she, through baptism has become a member of Christ’s body; that one has been claimed by Christ.

At Easter, we sing full of confidence in Christ who unites heaven and earth in a cosmic event. "Rejoice, heavenly powers... Rejoice, O Earth!" The Resurrection is not merely a historical event but an everlasting event in which Christ “came back from the dead and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, the Father’s Son who lives and reigns forever and ever". Amen!

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Good Friday Year A

The theme today is summed very nicely by this hymn which we seldom sing: Jesus, keep me near the Cross. On the one hand, we exalt the Cross today and yet on the other hand, it is a horrible. How could it not be when Jesus has to carry a Cross and is taunted by onlookers and jeered at? He is charged with treason and executed by the Roman authorities in a brutal manner normally reserved for slaves and other non-Romans who have committed the most iniquitous of offences. Worst is to die hanging on a Cross and in between two thieves.

For those who had hope in him, his was a life of failure. But, our eyes of faith can perceive beyond the veil to see that the Cross is full of meaning. The Cross is about life. Jesus says: “And when I am lifted up, I shall draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). In a conversation with Nicodemus, he says, “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him”. There is so much life in the Cross that St Paul dares to proclaim Christ crucified.

In fact, we glory in the Cross. There is a Cross in every church—in every Catholic church, there is a crucifix... not just an empty Cross.. As we enter the church, we bless ourselves with the sign of the Cross. We trace the Cross over the food we bless. The Cross is used for exorcism. And we wear the Cross as a symbol of personal devotion.

The Cross is thus a great symbol of love for it is love which transmutes or translates sheer suffering into sacrifice. Without love, Calvary would be cavalier, a sheer waste of life. And Jesus would have been a failure.

Thus, the Cross is the supreme symbol of sacrificial love since He himself had said that “no greater love a person has than to lay down his life for his friends”. That being so, our proper response to love is joy: “We adore you O Christ because by your Love you have redeemed the world”.

But we face a challenge here. I have waxed much too lyrical about the beauty of the Cross whilst we face the test of translating the Crosses in our lives—of matching Christ’s Cross with ours. Suffering and pain pose a predicament because of an expectation that has arisen from being schooled in a particular idea of God. In this idea of God, we find it hard to reconcile a good God with suffering especially innocent suffering.

People who are bowed down by suffering sometimes ask this universal question: Why? God’s answer to our searching “why, Lord?” is Christ in His suffering. The Father too gave up His Son and did not shield Him from the reality imposed by the limitation of creature-hood and creation. The Father too knows what it is like to suffer and He too has the right to ask the very question we ask.

Christ on the Cross shows that suffering is not alien to the idea of a good God. According to Cardinal Ratzinger, he laments that,
“Today what people have in view is eliminating suffering from the world. For the individual, that means avoiding pain and suffering in whatever way. Yet we must also see that it is in this very way that the world becomes very hard and very cold. Pain is part of being human. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain. When we know that the way of love–this exodus, this going out of oneself–is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.
The incarnation, the event that God became Man, may be seen in this light as God becoming more human when He took on suffering. In love there is always suffering. So much so that St Paul gave this response to suffering. “It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24). It doesn’t mean that Christ hadn’t suffered enough. Paul is just expressing what it really means to be a member of Christ’s body. In the face of suffering, perhaps, we need to find our peace with answers that can only be fully understood when we stand face to face with God. But, for now, it suffices to know that if Christ can share the riches of his divinity with us, perhaps, we too can share the poverty of his humanity—the poverty of his suffering. That is the meaning of the communion of saints.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Holy Thursday Year A

Faith tells us that we are gathered today to celebrate the anniversary of the 1st Eucharist. Over bread and wine, Jesus says: "This is my body. This is my blood”. After they have eaten and drunk, he tells them: "Do this in memory of me." In these Eucharistic words, the Church believes that Jesus the Lord instituted the Sacrament of the Priesthood. The Eucharist and the Priesthood are solidly entwined in such a way that one cannot do without the other.

But, even though it is the Anniversary of the Institution of the Eucharist, nothing in today’s Gospel deals directly with the Eucharist except that the link is made between the Eucharist and service as we heard how Jesus made it so through the washing of His disciples’ feet. So, the Eucharist is the place where our feet are washed by Christ our Lord in order that we might wash the feet of others. True Eucharistic piety must lead to service of others.

Later tonight, after all is done, the silent adoration expresses our obedience to the Lord’s invitation to stay on and to linger for awhile as we accompany Him in His distress. Jesus in his human nature is torn between what is expedient or convenient to Himself and what is necessary. It is convenient or advantageous that He should extricate or remove Himself from the situation of betrayal and danger and yet it is necessary that He remains ever faithful to His Father’s will. So, we wait with Him until such time when the shadow of the Cross is cast upon him.

Tonight, we have the Eucharist linked with the Priesthood, the Eucharist flows into Service and finally the Waiting with the Lord. What of these three themes holds our attention? If you look at today’s world, I would say that there is a disjuncture between the Eucharist and service. Thus, the Washing of Feet is directed to making the connexion between faith and justice more visible. In short, we want people to do more of the washing of the feet.

Granted that the washing of feet is very important, but, in our haste to make the connexion, in our desire to translate faith to justice, we may have missed out on something which is crucial to this translation: the priesthood.

Christ instituted the priesthood for two main reasons: First reason: the Priesthood is to ensure that the Eucharist—as Christ’s sacrifice, as expression of unity and as Real Presence—might be available till the end of time. In the Eucharist, Jesus the Lord continues to offer the same sacrifice He offered on Calvary. He died only once on the cross, but in every sacrifice of the Eucharist, made possible only through the priesthood, Jesus communicates the graces that He has won for us. The Eucharist as communion expresses the oneness of our belief, our worship and our leadership. The Eucharist is Real Presence because Jesus is present totus Christus, totally and entirely as the Church understands it. Wasn’t it that Bishop Fulton Sheen said, “the greatest love affair the world has ever known is contained in a tiny wafer of bread”. In that tiny, white host we receive reverently, we receive Christ in totality.

The second reason for the Priesthood is found in the grave responsibility that Jesus gave His disciples. “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive they are forgiven”. Thus, the priesthood in providing the sacrament of confession is a continuation of the ministry of Christ reconciling the world to the Father. Of course, the usual response is that one can go directly to God without the instrumentality of a human person—an argument which betray a lack of understanding of the working of grace. How can one accept the instrumentality of the priesthood in the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament without accepting the instrumentality of Forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession?

In conclusion, without the Eucharist, there cannot be Christianity because it is the principal channel of grace by which Jesus gives us what we need in order that we may do his will. Christ in instituting the Sacrament of the Priesthood promises us of His continued Presence and Forgiveness through the Eucharist and Confession.

But, we do have a crisis—a crisis of the lack of vocation. This crisis of vocation actually reveals a loss of faith in Christ and His Church. It does not help that we priests forget who we are and many of us seem no longer confident in our triple roles as teachers (or prophets), shepherds (kings), sanctifiers (priests) sub et cum Christo. Let me give an example. Priests sometimes try to be humble and when asked to exercise their priestly role as “shepherd, leader or king”, in short to exercise authority, they beg off because there are more competent lay people present. They don’t want to be seen as lording over lay people. Laudable as that may be, they actually reveal a failure to understand that being a priest is being a priest of Christ: sub et cum Christo. It is when a priest by exercising his roles as priest, prophet and king, reveals the power of Christ acting through human weakness. It is only when a priest acts on his own behalf that it makes sense that he should say “I mustn’t show off”. The paradox is that at the point when he refuses to exercise his authority as priest, because he does not want to draw attention to himself, he is actually drawing attention to himself.

Lack of vocation is not the result of Christ not calling people to this vocation but reflects a general loss of faith in the ministerial priest's sublime vocation of standing in Christ's place. Ultimately, crisis of vocation reveals a loss of faith in the Real Presence, in the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and in the spiritual authority of the sacerdotal office.

I have dwelt at length on the priesthood simply because it is the nexus, the link, the connexion between Faith and Justice. Without the Sacrament of the Priesthood, how can we make the connection between the Eucharist and Social Justice? Without priesthood, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist there is no Church. Without the Church, what is social justice but communism? Many Catholics are really gung-ho about being able to contribute something to betterment of the world. But, the Church’s ability to do something, if it were not to be reduced to an ideological caricature, is dependent on the strength of the Eucharist. So, the survival of Christian charity depends on a strong faith in the priesthood, not this or that priest but the priesthood which is absolutely necessary for Jesus Christ to remain with us in the Eucharist, in order to feed us and to give us the strength to do His will.

Today, it is good to pray for priests, but not only for priests. I went for confession today and I was asked to pray for religious Sisters and Brothers many of whom are struggling. The form of life called Religious Life is waning not because it is no longer relevant but because somewhere in our history, priests and religious have failed to remain faithful to Christ crucified but are instead infatuated with the spirit of the world. In our desperation to be relevant, we might have just made ourselves irrelevant.

The priesthood (and by extension the Church) is enlivened or strengthened by the deep devotion of religious brothers and sisters. So, pray for priests and religious to love only Jesus crucified and pray that they dare to suffer for Christ crucified because that is what we need most in a crisis of faith and social justice.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Passion Sunday Year A

Passion or Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. We all know the different characters who played their roles in the suffering and death of Christ. In short, we are made aware of the cruelty, the suffering and the sorrow involved in our salvation. Mel Gibson, through the blood-soaked images of Jesus in the Passion of the Christ, tried to show the sacrifice that the Saviour suffered for our salvation. Even though the blood-soaked images of Jesus may help to convey the depth of the Saviour’s love, yet we might just miss out on that which gives sense to all that we are doing this entire week. And, what is that? Let me draw your attention to one of the readings for Good Friday taken from Isaiah. It speaks so splendidly of the person whose beauty radiates through who He is.
As the crowds were appalled on seeing him—so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human—so will the crowd be astonished at him, and kings stand speechless before him; for they shall see something never told and witness something never heard before: “Who could believe what we have heard and to whom has the power of the Lord been revealed”? Like a sapling he grew up in front of us, like a root in arid ground. Without beauty, without majesty (we saw him), no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make most people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him.
Like Mel Gibson, Isaiah appears to draw our attention to his lack of beauty and lack of majesty. But, in truth, his beauty and majesty shine forth because the entire liturgy is concerned very much with the beauty of the one who died on the cross, the beauty of the one who prayed for his tormentors and the beauty of the one who never lost faith in God. It is His beauty and majesty that beckon or draw us near. In John’s Gospel, Jesus himself said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself. And the 2nd reading is nothing but a hymn of sublime poetry. So, if you think about it, the crowd was astonished and kings stood speechless not because of his lack of beauty or majesty but because His beauty and majesty was just too intense that they immediately shied away from him for fear that they might be overcome by the sheer majesty of His beauty.

We are all attracted by beauty because the soul lives for beauty. Unfortunately, we live in a post-modern world. Beauty is ambiguous because the standard of beauty clearly differs from one individual to another individual. One man’s lady is another man’s broad, to paraphrase the popular adage. But, beyond this ambiguity, what is objectively beautiful must not be confused with one’s own tastes and convictions. Beauty is not just what I think or I feel because if truth, goodness or beauty were, then genuine human interaction would not be possible. The Pope reminds us that if it were just what I thought or felt, then we would have given in to a dictatorship of relativism. This dictatorship does not recognise anything as certain but has as its highest goal, one’s ego and one’s desires. It is not possible to be civilised in such a world.

So, there is such a thing as objective beauty that can claim our hearts. And it is important because it has everything to do with God. Let’s reflect on just one facet of our worship--music. When music is beautiful, we listen to it and are caught up by its beauty. Try to make the connexion between hearing and the Gospel. “Listening” is a response to the proclamation of the Gospel or Good News. Therefore, being caught up by the beauty of music should in a way pre-dispose us to be more open to the beauty of the Gospel, the truth of the Good News.

The search for beauty is innate or inborn in us and is part of the human make up when you consider our common experience of addiction. We know how destructive addictions are. We are afraid of them but in truth, an addict is someone who has had an encounter with beauty. An addiction is just symptom of mistaking a lesser beauty for what is truly beautiful. This description also fits the definition for sin because sin is mistaking what is evil (or lesser good) for what is good. But, nowadays the word “sin” does not have the kind of repulsion or revulsion that the word “addiction” has. Addiction does have a rather unsavoury connotation. Thus, addiction is when we get waylaid or distracted by a lesser or poorer experience and we mistake it for the good. For example, the “highs” [euphoria, ecstasy, joy] we get from gambling, over-eating, narcotics, pornography, violence, gossip, smoking, bullying, drinking, flattery etc, we mistake them for what is really good and true: God alone. Addiction is our search for beauty unfulfilled. But, our soul is not created for mediocrity; our soul is created for beauty.

Thus, beauty’s role is to draw us to what is good and true. But, the objective good and truth that lay claim to our heart is not a thing but a person who is good and true: the Christ Himself. Our Elect, those who are to be baptised are moving closer to their baptism. In a sense their journey is a journey for which they find themselves more and more infused and enveloped by the beauty of Christ’s message. The journey that they make does not end before beauty as it ends within beauty—who is Christ himself.

Furthermore, beauty is necessary to our cause for justice because when we are enamoured by beauty, it takes us out of ourselves. Our experience with beautiful music is a good example. And what is justice if not the removal of the “selfish” centre from the equation of things? Often, we begin to see a picture bigger only when the self is no longer the centre of reference. The willingness to step aside because of beauty displaces our ego for other things more important: someone who is sick, someone who is hungry, someone who is dying and etc. The lesson we should learn from this search for beauty is one of self-forgetfulness, self-effacement and humility. To serve truly, you often have to forget yourself simply because people will treat you like their servants or they behave as if you owe it to them to serve them.

This beauty we search for has everything to do with our self-offering to God. I have asked the servers to practise so that they will not “mar” or disfigure the beauty of the worship by their lack of coordination and attention. If the servers do not understand the seriousness of every action of theirs, then they have failed to understand that the beauty of their coordinated actions is crucial to the idea of self-donation—of giving the best to God what God has in the first place given to us. The same can be said of the lectors who do not practise their reading or priests who do not prepare their homilies and a choir that does not train its singing. But, the problem with our concept of beauty is that we are very utilitarian. We are pragmatic. Remember the move Titanic? The Titanic is sinking. Everyone is saving his or her life but the string quartet continues to play the music till the end. There you find two different approaches to life. The quartet represents the “beauty” approach to life. The rest just respresents the pragmatic approach to life. Why bother about “beauty” when we have more pressing questions like injustice or poverty to deal with. This approach to goodness and truth is pragmatic and not beautiful. “I am already giving my time to be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion etc. What else do you want from me?” Likewise a person who dresses shabbily to Church who says, “I am already here, what else do you want”? Even our notion of beauty is at times closer to seduction than it is to God because people dress not for God but to draw attention to their bodies.

When our approach to goodness and truth is pragmatic and not beautiful, we cut God down to our size and we place him in a convenient place for us to worship, the way we like to and not the way that God deserves to be worshipped.

So, brothers and sisters, we want to do good and we all want to serve the truth but it is beauty that leads us there. Music, Servers, EMoHC, Lectors, Hospitality Ministers--everyone here is involved with beauty. For example, if everyone is lifted up to meditate on divine things because the choir’s singing gave wings to each one’s soul, then the choir has done what fulfilled its purpose. The beauty of your sound had led people to God. Your role is to be like John the Baptist: “He must increase and I must decrease”. John forgets himself in order to guide his followers to Christ alone.

This week, the liturgy opens our eyes to the beauty of the one mocked, the beauty of the one whipped and the beauty of the one crucified to attract us. Beauty is love made visible. Our efforts to let go of sin (or any addiction) are efforts to turn from the false beauty offered by fleeting temporalities and to turn to the true beauty of Christ. As we witness Christ tortured for our sins, let us be drawn by his beauty so that we will allow His grace to reshape our lives so that we reflect His Beauty mirroring His Truth and His Goodness.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 9) Year A

This Sunday is Palm Sunday and then the rigour of Holy Week begins. Even then I still feel light since the novena is ending today. It has been a challenging 9 days simply because of the fear of failure to make connexion with the readings, the life of St Francis Xavier and the preaching. Now, it is almost over. I can even sense my own palpable feeling of joy that it’s over...

At the point, it is perhaps good to look at Francis waiting for a favourable time to enter China but is in fact, nearing the end of his earthly life. Today we are concerned with the death of St Francis. He left India in April of 1522 and entered the Bay of Canton in September, disembarking on the desolate island of Sancian (or Sanchuang or St John’s Island). Sancian was a hideout for Chinese smugglers but it was also used by Portuguese traders. Determined to get to China, Francis tried to entice some of the smugglers to take him there, but none wanted to take the risk. He eventually hired one of them, but after he paid him, the man disappeared. In the meantime, Francis looked longingly towards China, not knowing that his missionary days are over. On 21st November he was taken ill with a fever and was confined to his leafy hut on the island’s shore. His Christian Chinese servant, Antonio, faithfully cared for him in his final illness and years later wrote an account of the saint’s last days. On 28th November Francis went into a coma but regained consciousness on 1st December. Throughout his waking hour he prayed constantly, until the early morning of 3rd December, when he went to heaven. His body was buried on the island and when spring came his remains were taken to Malacca, and a few years later to Goa.

The death of Francis is not exactly the point of our interest. Rather, his death becomes for us a starting point of our reflexion. Thus far, we have touched upon, in general, the different periods of Francis’ life. Today, we want to think about Francis the Saint. Death opens up for us a vista on what sanctity really is.

Let’s see where sanctity lies. The results of the SPM exams are out. The Olympics will soon come upon us. Our focus is on results as we count the number of “A’s” in the SPM or what the total gold medal haul is for a country. We are result-oriented as we push our students or athletes to excel in classrooms or the field. But, we seem to think that sainthood or sanctity is so different from this human drive to excel that it is beyond our reach. According to St Maximillian Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan and I quote him because he is contemporaneous, meaning that he lived not so many years away from our experience, he said: There is in man’s very nature a continual drive to perfect himself physically, mentally and morally. In the history of man we find individuals everywhere whom we consider to be in a class above the ordinary crowd, above even the well-educated. These persons we call “Saints”. Unquote. The first part of the quote is of interest to us.

If students strive to advance themselves academically—drive to perfect themselves mentally and athletes exert themselves to break records—drive to perfect themselves physically, the question is why is there a hesitation to drive ourselves to moral perfection. In fact, we continually claim “humanity” to be the cause of our moral imperfection. “I am only human”. In short, we may tower over the rest with our physical prowess or mental mastery but morally we are pygmies. I apologise to the pygmies in Africa for using them as a measure for our lack of moral stature.

“It is difficult to become a saint. Difficult but not impossible. The road to perfection is long, as long as one’s lifetime. Along the way, consolation becomes rest; but as soon as your strength is restored, you must diligently get up and resume the trip”. This is a quote from another one of our contemporaries, Padre Pio or St Pio. St Josemaria Escriva says, “Each day be conscious of your duty to be a saint. A saint! And that doesn’t mean doing strange things. It means a daily struggle in the interior life and in heroically fulfilling your duty right through the end”.

Even in today’s cheap Air Asia flight, many of us will never be able to chalk up in a life’s time the mileage which St Francis did in his short life. It just means that our sanctity has to be exercised from the bedroom to the kitchen to the dining hall; from the car porch to the parking bay under the office; from the office to the meeting... everything and anything becomes the way to fulfil God’s will. The truth is we spend our entire life’s time revolved around the kitchen, the office table, the road, the classroom, the ward, etc. In short, life is routine... very routine. In fact, 95% of our life involves routine. If that is so, would it not be fair to say that God’s will is found in the greater part of our life rather than the 5% of our life which we classify as exciting. And this exciting 5% is often our problem because we keep thinking that the will of God is to be found when we make the corner as if the will of God is just around the corner. But, in truth, the will of God is often “now” and not tomorrow or somewhere else.

This “now” is what we call a daily struggle in the interior life which in today’s Gospel Jesus simply says: If you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples, and you will learn the truth and the truth will make you free. The truth about the “now” and not about the “later, the future or tomorrow”. All through the novena, as we come before God with our hearts desires to ask earnestly of God what He can do for us, we are actually struggling with words unspoken to ask God what we can do for Him. O God, what is Your will for me now? It is in the “now” that we are to find our freedom.

Which is why we have kept till today the blessing for those who suffer, first from addiction and secondly for those who are victims of crimes. If you think about it, what is addiction? We might take on a little air of self-righteous indignation with people who suffer from addictions. How come they have no control over themselves? But that is precisely the point. Addiction is not because people have no self-control. Addiction is often a symptom of holding on to something which we cannot and dare not let go because we are afraid that when we do, there is nothing for us to grab onto “now”. That when we let go, God is not thre for us. We dare not die for the same reason too. Fear that God will not be there when the final chapter of our life on earth is finished.

People in general do not want to be addicted. Ask a person who smokes or drinks one drink too many how much loathing takes place in his or her life? Ask them if they go through a period of “one last stick”, “one last drink” only to find that they reach for yet another stick or another last drink. Addiction is looking for God in the wrong place. It is only when we have let go of our insecurity that we will find that we do not need one last stick or one last drink. When we finally have Him who alone can satisfy us, then we will willingly let go of our additions.

Sometimes people do not want to go for confession and their reason is simple: “Why come for confession when I will do the same sin again”? They really missed the point about what sainthood is. We will struggle with temptation right till the end of our lives and we may even be addicted to a particular sin right till we die. Therefore, sanctity is not focussed on the fact that we have no more sin. The blessing is handy because “the saints are those who struggle right to the end of their lives, who always get up each time they stumble, each time they fall, and courageously embark on their way once more with humility, love and hope”. St Josemaria Escriva. Today, as we end our Novena of Grace, let us ask that we never shy from striving for moral perfection even if we do not always succeed and know that our holiness is God’s gift to those who persevere along this pilgrimage called life.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 8) Year A

We are now entering the penultimate night of the novena. The 8th day and it is good to touch, by way of passing, Francis’ endeavour in this part of the world. He spent most, if not his entire, Jesuit life as a missionary in Asia. I think he is the only missionary that can hold a candle to St Paul the Apostle. The spread of his missionary activity covers an entire swathe of the continent of Asia—sailing the sea of humanity from India to Indonesia and all the way to Japan.

The Gospel today lends itself to our reflexion on what Francis’ endeavour means for us. Jesus speaks of His Father in terms of His intimate knowledge with Him. “What the Father has taught me is what I preach”. He is the mouthpiece of the Father. His knowledge of His Father is the substance of His preaching. Knowledge of His Father becomes the impetus for His preaching. Likewise, knowledge in the case of Francis is to be translated into his missionary enterprise in Asia. How to bring to Asia the knowledge of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

On this front, there is agreement that Francis blazed a trail for subsequent generation of missionaries to Asia. However, in the context of revisionist history, Francis remained just a tool of the colonial expansion of what is now looked upon as the ugly Western hegemony or colonial domination. And there is one criticism I would like to take up.

One of the criticisms has been that the Church is foreign. “Foreign” seems to be the only explanation because the 400 years of Christianity’s presence in Asia has yielded nothing but a miserable 3 percent of Asia claiming to be Christians. “Foreign” seems to be the reason for Asia’s rejection of Christianity. It is an easy and a convenient criticism to make. It makes the Church something so foreign that her presence in Asia is at best tolerated or at worst considered an imposition, a yoke to be freed of. Maybe this will jolt you: Pendatang. This word is an example of how even after 3 or 4 generations, people of South Indian extraction or people of Oriental ancestry are “tolerated” in this country. We’ve been told time and again, “Go back if you do not like it here”.

Since “foreign” is a ghost to be exorcised, the Church, in order for it to succeed, is asked to aim for greater “inculturation”, to shed a lot more of her European features.

If the Church is culturally European, she is therefore a foreign imposition. Fortunately, we have on our side what I would consider to be the porosity or the permeability of cultural boundaries. Because cultural boundaries are porous, it does assimilate and make for its own something which is in the first place “foreign”. For example, where does one get prawn “tempura”? Japanese restaurants! But, its origin is actually Portuguese. Shipwrecked Portuguese sailors cast upon Japanese shores introduced it to the Japanese. On certain days where they had to abstain from eating red meat, they ate fried prawns... the holy days were known in Portuguese as “Quattuor tempora”... We think prawn tempura is Japanese but its presence so entrenched in Japanese cuisine shows that culture is more adaptable. So, if the Church were foreign and we like to draw a more distinct line between foreign and indigenous, then perhaps, we should do away with this microphone and everything that the foreign culture has brought us. [The bra that women wear is a Western importation. Asian women were freer [more liberated] but now Western women don’t want to wear bra but we have kept them]. (Remember the tualang tree).

Technology or the application of science is not a respecter of culture. What every culture does is to adapt technology for its convenience and thus, it is convenience which really is the agent for the inculturation or the reception of technology. Let me give another example: the mobile phone is a technology which is used everywhere. But here in Asia, we’ve made far greater use of this service than say the Europeans or the Americans.

Thus, the basis for the rejection of something or another basically follows along the criterion of convenience. That has always been the way cultures work. Two examples: it is far easier and more convenient to wear the “western suit” when attending Parliament or any of these functions of governance than to wear something which is dangling here or there. Secondly, and you find this amongst people who for whatever reason convert to Christianity. How often have these people returned to their “roots” because they consider Christianity as foreign? Few. I know that people visit this medium or that bomoh because Jesus is quiet and it is more convenient to get the answer from a medium or a bomoh. Often we reject something local or foreign because it is not convenient.

And, the knowledge of Christ is never convenient. At the end of mass, in many parishes, the priest and the servers will process right to the front to meet the people. It is a wonderful practice. Some people have asked me why I am not doing that. Why do I want to miss out on meeting people? The secret is this. When we recess into the sacristy, we wind up with a prayer. It may be routine or habitual. But, I have begun to pull the servers and make them look at the Crucifix. Sometimes they think it is funny but it is not because I tell him, “Look at Him on the Cross. It is your sin that puts Him there”. This is a reminder to each of them that knowledge of Christ will always bring us into the shadow of the Cross. The knowledge of Christ will always entail the Cross. Anytime we know Him better, be prepared for the Cross to come unbidden. The knowledge of Christ is never easy.

Perhaps, that is why Christianity has failed in Asia. Christianity failed because following Christ is too hard. In a homily, which I preached at the beginning of the year, I did mention that Christianity is actually an Asian religion. Christianity failed because it is not easy to live Christ. And the failure is our individual failure. Perhaps, it is unfair. We live amongst the very venerable traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhkism. Let me repeat some from a previous homily. “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”. Indeed, the standard exacted upon the disciples of Christ is much higher. We can do better but always with the grace of God. We ask that Francis pray for us in this area that where Francis left off, we will continue to take up his mission of bringing to Asia the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 7) Year A

I am happy that the weekend is over. It was tough and really long. But I am not relieved because I have overcome the seemingly impossible. I am only glad because I can be with you as a small and rather cosy group of worshippers. It’s so much easier to be more of who I am... less formal but no less solemn [because the Eucharist deserves our solemn devotion]. Today, brothers and sisters, things are beginning to come together for us.

Yesterday, after Mass, I received a number of SMSes about the novena prayer—reminding me that I had forgotten to include it in. And even as the servers and I came down to make our recessional bow before the altar to process out, Alex who was sitting in front, was mouthing to me about the novena prayer... Well, I didn’t forget. It was just tricky trying to harmonise so many diverse needs together without mutilating the majesty of the Mass which is the sacrament above everything else... We had the Elect’s 3rd Scrutiny, the normal Sunday worshippers, our novena needs, and finally the blessing of our migrant/foreign and guest workers. Let me assure you that the intent of the novena is fulfilled as long as you make yourself available for the Masses for these nine days. What you could have done was to come up here to make the novena prayer yourself, in your own words. The availability for the nine days doesn’t follow a magical trajectory but rather is an expression or indication of what I have always been reminding you about... outside sign of an inward grace... your physical presence is sacramental of your intention.

So, just be clear that what I am going to do is not superstitious. We shall make sure that at the pause of our novena prayer, we shall spend a longer period of silence to ask St Francis to intercede for us. It is not superstition because the questions that came to me yesterday about whether or not we had broken the novena dynamics came from sincere and searching hearts and the longer silence is a response to the heart’s desire.

And with that long preamble, we are brought into the matter of today’s reading. How so? Both the first reading and the Gospel touch on an issue that affects the heart—an issue that is also at the core of our novena. I would like to bring together my thoughts on some issues.

First of all, let us look at the readings. The matter appears to centre on the lady in question—Susanna who is accused unjustly of questionable behaviour—for engaging in death-demanding deeds. The focus seems to be her deeds as they are chronicled in rather exhaustive details. Thankfully, we’ve chosen to skip the salacious specifics by reading the shorter story. Suffice to say our concern is that the charge of adultery is really an indictment of the elders themselves—an indictment of hearts turned in on themselves. Wickedness is the bitter fruit of a heart—or human desire—turned in on itself. They persecuted the woman because their hearts’ evil desires could not be satisfied.

But, is it just a problem of the heart? No. It is also a problem of the head as we see in the Gospel. The Pharisees approach the problem from a logical perspective. They place Jesus in a logical impossibility whereby his position either set him against the Law of Moses or against the Roman authorities. Mercy would place him above Mosaic Law or stoning would mean he incited murder. Both are unacceptable options.

Jesus response is both logical and compassionate. Both his head and heart are involved. The Latin word for Mercy is misericordia. I love that word because it involves both the head and heart—misereor (to take pity) and cor (heart) meaning to take pity from the heart. The story of the adulterous woman and Jesus shows love is needed for logic to function correctly.

It wasn’t logic that saved Jesus from that complication. It was his heart that saw through the hypocrisy of a twisted logic—we heard that in the first reading. Logic when allied with greed or unalloyed desire always leads to manipulation. See how it is with some of our elected leaders. But logic when correctly aligned with the heart will only bring about greater good for the world. But how difficult it is!

Remember yesterday’s gist of the homily. Fides et ratio, faith and reason. Today, we see how this divide is at work because the split between faith and reason parallels the disjunction between the head and the heart—logic and compassion. We like to speak of vision and mission statements. The problem with vision and mission statements is that they deal with the head. They are logical. But vision becomes ideology and is thus dry because it does not touch the heart. And the frustration with failed vision often leads to cynicism. Ask the most cynical people you can find: Jesuits. Many of them are failed idealists. When the reality they desire does not fit an ideal they often give up hope failing to understand that the elucidation or the clarification of any vision falls within the domain of education. But, education is not enough because the achievement of an ideal belongs to the process of conversion. Conversion speaks directly to the heart. Our beloved St Francis wasn’t someone who lacked a vision. Remember that he had a Parisian vision and later a vision of himself as a courtier. Rather, it was his desire that needed conversion. Francis was a man of the head. He didn’t discover his heart until he encountered Ignatius. It was the conversion of his heart that brought him to the Far East...

If you think about it, the swing in the election was not really because people didn’t know that the country has been in such deep trouble for so long. It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to solve our problems. We analysed the results of the previous elections as voting according to bread and butter issue. The truth is the head has more solutions than the heart is ready to accept. This election was when we allowed our hearts to come to the fore. Likewise, the area of sin too is not that we don’t know what they are or how we should proceed. We know but just that the heart is not ready to go where our head is.

Since the beginning of the novena, I asked that people come with great expectation. Why? Because expectation is an expression of the human heart. And the heart is the one that needs conversion. As I said, we often approach conversion from an intellectual point of view. It is much easier to educate. It is harder to convert because conversion involves giving of the heart to someone as in the case of Francis, giving his heart to Ignatius. Don’t be scandalised. He gave his heart to Ignatius who led him to give his heart ultimately to Christ. So, the core of our novena centres around the formation of our hearts.

In our case, when we come with our expectations, we demand that God does for us what we desire and yet in the end, we find that our desires, expectations must blend to God’s will. The embrace of God's will is difficult because it involves giving our hearts to God. And that’s where many of us balk. We are afraid to give our hearts to Him.

So, brothers and sisters, in summary, Jesus healed many of our illnesses not because he applied an intellectual solution to them but rather he healed us of our iniquity because he recognised that the heart is in need of, more than anything else, a human acceptance or human touch. The pitfall for us is being an intelligent but a heartless people! G.K Chesterton once said that “poets do not go mad but chess-players do”. The problem though is not with logic. As Fides et Ratio tells us, the danger is when logic is not guided by the heart. There's no fool like a logical fool, because he is committed to defending his foolishness. And from his foolishness mischief is sure to follow. The core of our novena... coming with great expectation is right but it is also for us, many of us, a reconciliation between our head and our hearts. We pray for that grace that one day when God calls, we will readily give Him our hearts.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 5 & 6) Year A

Today is the 6th day of the Novena of Grace and here I am with this unenviable task of addressing three groups of people. The first group is the Elect. The second are those who are faithfully fulfilling their Sunday obligation. Finally, the third is a small group who have devotedly attended the novena since 4th of March. My apologies, you will probably hear part of the homily from yesterday. I shall speak to all you groups consecutively and also simultaneously.

First, for the Elect, the day of your Baptism looms near. Why do we have the raising of Lazarus as the Gospel for this 3rd Scrutiny? I shall follow the principle of lex orandi lex credendi (how the Church prays is what the Church believes in) in explaining the importance of what we are doing. The prayer goes like this:

Father of life and God not of the dead but of the living, you sent your Son to proclaim life, to snatch us from the realm of death, and to lead us to the resurrection. Free these Elect from the death-dealing power of the spirit of evil, so that they may bear witness to their new life in the risen Christ, for he lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

The prayer basically tells us that you, our beloved Elect, have journeyed thus far and now you are like Martha who affirms readily what you have come to know: "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world”. By so doing, you admit that you recognise the truth of Christ and are asking to be admitted to the communion of believers.

The raising of Lazarus is basically centred on the theme that Jesus is the Lord of Life. The resurrection which we will celebrate on Easter makes sense when we see Jesus at work to bring life in the midst of death. The first reading describes the exile of the people to Babylon in terms of death. Their subsequent return is described in terms of resurrection or spiritual renewal. The second reading tells us that the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is the same Spirit that lives in us. The Gospel tells us that by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows that he is Lord of life and death.

On all account, the raising of Lazarus is a stunning display of the power of Jesus over death. Yet, for some, it remains an account which leaves them struggling with the scientific possibility of it ever taking place. Since the raising of Lazarus is closely associated with the belief in the resurrection, many hagiographies, that is, the accounts of the lives of saints, will also contain incidents of saints performing the miracle that Jesus did. For example, we find that during the brief stint of his stay in Malacca, Francis worked a number of such miracles. He called to life from the grave a girl who had been buried for three days. He also called to life a boy, Francis de Chaves, who later became a Franciscan and died a missionary in China.

How do we respond to the miracle of the raising of Lazarus and to the reports of Francis Xavier performing such miracles? In general, what place do miracles, that is, events beyond natural explanation, have in our faith?

For some of us, our response is that we live in at least two worlds. Sometimes both these worlds co-exist peacefully in some kind of mutual toleration. These two worlds are of faith on the one hand and the other of the hard world of facts supported by science. It would seem that our scientific mindset is somewhat at rest when we hear of the account of the raising of Lazarus, the son of the widow at Nain and the daughter of Jairus, etc. We accept these accounts based on the fact that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. As Son of God, he could perhaps, suspend the law of nature. We make exception for Jesus because He is God. But, in the case of St Francis or any other saints, further away from the time of Jesus, perhaps our scientific mind may not be so kind and we may dismiss these hagiographical accounts as embellishments used to support the cause for canonisation of a particular saint.

The miracle of the raising of Lazarus and our celebration of the novena becomes an occasion for us to reflect on how we understand the phenomenon of miracles, and what sort of roles do they play in the relationship between faith and reason.

How can we reconcile what we believe with what we know to be of positive science? First of all, nothing in science disproves the existence of miracles. If that be the case, then what accounts for these separate schizophrenic worlds we inherit? Part of our explanation lies in the period called the Reformation. The early Protestant Reformers confined miracles to the apostolic age. They believed in miracles but they do not believe that miracles continue beyond the age of the Apostles.

Another part of our explanation is found with the onset of the scientific age where our perception of reality is restricted by experimentation. The rigour of experimentation namely through the laboratory is to ensure that results can be verified through repetition. It means that if something cannot be repeated, it probably is not true. Thus, it is not difficult to banish miracles or any unnatural phenomenon into the realm of the superstition, the realm of the Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”.

Whether we agree or not, we are children of this rejection. We live in a world of cold, hard facts. The charismatic experience of possession for example is easily classified as belonging to the world of superstition. After all we have psychology (which is part of the cold hard world of science) to explain a pathology or illness. What is “possession” is diagnosed as mental illness. Sometimes, the charismatics are brushed off patronisingly as “crackmatics”.

Thus, if we encounter the miraculous, in order to go about with life, we sometimes have to suspend our logic. You still hear people say “You believe when you do not understand” or “faith is when reason cannot explain”. In short, we live as if faith and reason were separated by a divide—a chasm or a gulf that reveals a crisis not of faith itself but rather a crisis of faith and reason, a crisis that severs reason from faith. In this divide, miracles, along with that, our mysteries and our sacraments are banished to the realm of the superstitious.

But, miracles are important because miracles are actually fruits of our faith. As long as there is faith, there will be miracles. Think about it. Miracles are proofs that we believe. But, as I said earlier, because we are somewhat “scientifically” conditioned, miracles are not fruits or proofs of our belief but rather miracles are reduced to proofs for our belief. In a way, we use miracles to justify our belief. That means that miracles still remain outside our normal experience and as such, they are extraneous to our faith. Faith and reason remain divided.

The Church though, has always taught that no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist—between faith and reason. The Catechism says that "Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of the faith derive from the same God" (CCC 159). John Paul II in the encyclical Fides et Ratio, sort of paraphrase this. He says that the search for wisdom is actually the implicit search for Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, whenever reason operates correctly and in accord with its very nature, it will always find itself open to the transcendent even in the absence of divine revelation.

In short, the Pope is saying that reason, a faculty of the intellect, when correctly exercised will not exclude faith. Faith is the context for natural science and is relevant to our quest for knowledge. There is a unity between faith and reason which means that, the world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analysed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being outside of the process. Faith intervenes not to abolish reason's autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts. Thus, the world and the events of history cannot be understood in depth without professing faith in the God who is at work in them. Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence. Faith leads reason to discover the miracles of God acting in the world.

This evening as we pray for our Elect to come to a deeper knowledge of Christ who is the resurrection and the life, we pray that, like them, we may be able to see beyond a reason constricted by science to the miracle of God acting in our world and for our world. Let the quest for knowledge be always guided by the heart of faith. As long as we believe, miracles will continue to take place. The title of the song by Witney Houston and Mariah Carey says “You will when you believe”. And the lyrics support what St Augustine himself said: Unless you believe, you will not understand. Unless you believe, your reason is crippled. Unless you believe, miracles will not be seen.

The problem for many of us is that we often believe it for others. We believe in the resurrection but only as a theory. It is when we come face to face with death especially of a loved one that our faith in the resurrection is tested and purified. You see, when a person we love dies, we often live as if there were no hope of the resurrection, that is, when we allow grief to grip us beyond what is necessary. This is where I think those of us who come for the novena must pray for this grace to live in the joy of the resurrection because the power of death over the living is great. That is why adoration before the Blessed Sacrament is really good because it provides us an antidote to the cynicism that arises from our reaction to death. But, it is not just physical death that challenges us to trust God. It is deaths in many and varied forms that challenges us: wars, excessive spending on arms race, vicious political witch-hunt, corruption, violence in the family, against women and children. These are deaths which challenges us to believe that Jesus is still the resurrection and life. We may want to linger at the grave longer than it is necessary but if we look up, we will find the Christ who has broken the chains of death. He is life everlasting.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 4) Year A

Today we enter the 4th day of our novena. The Gospel challenges us to look at our attitude towards Jesus. Accordingly, no one can be indifferent to Jesus. So who is this Jesus and who is Jesus for us?

There is an episode in the nascent beginning or early days of the Society of Jesus which may help us answer this question about Jesus. First of all, Francis was a Basque. Navarre, an autonomous territory, lies within the Basque region of Spain. It is said that all European languages are somewhat related. Except, of course, Basque is a language that has no relations to its closest neighbour, Catalan or Castilian. Francis probably spoke Spanish (or Castilian) and in Paris, some kind of French. The early Jesuits were all united in the vision of St Ignatius, which was to go to the Holy Land and to minister there.

However, they had to wait for favourable winds in order to set sail from Venice. So, at different times, they made their way from Paris to Venice to regroup there. Those who arrived early wasted no time to set themselves useful apostolically. They probably could understand Italian but not speak it well. But poverty of expression was no barrier to their preaching. They stood in the piazzas, the town squares and by shouting and waving their birettas they assembled a congregation. Many persons were moved by their preaching and they managed to receive in great abundance the necessities for their bodily welfare. In short, moved by the sincerity of their preaching, people were generous to them. [The biretta is a square cap with three or four ridges or peaks, sometimes surmounted by a tuft, traditionally worn by Roman Catholic clergy].

For them to do what they did—braving ridicule, when people laughed at their poor command of the language, for example, was it the vision of St Ignatius that commanded them or is there more to the vision? Is the vision enough to drive them into the streets to preach?

In today’s gospel, the Jews were quibbling about the identity of Jesus. The name Mary Magdalene actually means Mary of Magdala. (Pause) You see, the Feast of the Tabernacles meaning the festival of the Booths is understood by some to be the commemoration of the forty years when the Jews wandered homeless through the desert. So, during the seven days of the feast the Jews lived in tents. The tent is an annual reminder that they came from nowhere. A tent is basically “nowhere”. Therefore, a place is identity. Mary’s identity is Magdala. Joseph’s identity is Arimathaea (the one who buried Jesus) and Jesus’ identity is Nazareth.

So, the quibble was about whom Jesus really was—His identity. They knew where He came from and that identity helped them size Jesus up. “Isn’t He the Carpenter’s son and His mother Mary from Nazareth? Even though they knew where He came from they really did not know that His real address was not a place but rather a person: His Father.

Now, we come back to our dear St Francis. The early Jesuits may have been guided by the vision of St Ignatius but in actual fact, they were driven by the love of a person. They couldn’t have rooted for Jesus if Jesus were merely human—a mere man from Nazareth. That would mean idolatry of some kind. They could only preach because they knew Jesus’ origin. He was of God. He was from God. He was God. They gave their hearts to Jesus. Only Jesus can draw people to Himself. Thus, they served not a vision. They served a person.

Thus, behind the apostolic endeavour of Francis and his companions was not an ideology or principles of conversion. It was a personal commitment to the person of Jesus. It was a personal commitment that drove Francis to the far fringes of the earth to seek for Christ unnumbered souls to be cherished and loved.

It cannot be understated how important this person of Jesus is for the Church and for the world. The world is decidedly a more dangerous world. It is unquestionably a more unfriendly world. Whether the locus of this unfriendly world is within us or as the case may be for so many of us, “out there is an unfriendly world” is not important. What is important is to look at the initiatives that people of goodwill take in order to build a better world. Religions, according to some people, have made the world a more dangerous place—Sept 11. Therefore, in order to mitigate or soften the impact of a religion’s claim to universal truth, there seems be a “universalist” approach that tries to turn Christianity into a religion without Jesus. He cannot be the Saviour of the world because that would mean Christianity is the only religion that saves. Jesus is only good because He shows us the way. He is not the way.

In many ways, to eliminate Jesus from Christianity is to substitute an ideology for faith. Faith leads to freedom. Ideology can only lead to slavery. Let me give an example. Remember the incident of the adulterous woman anointing the feet of Jesus. Judas’ reaction was clearly that the money from the ointment sold could be used to help the poor. But Jesus was adamant that the love of the woman was to be directed to Him. When we serve the poor we believe that we serve Jesus. But, it doesn’t always follow that way—because they are many people who serve the poor without any knowledge of Jesus. Thus, one can serve the poor without serving Jesus. This is where some Christians run into difficulty when they forget who they are. This is because when the means for serving the poor were frustrated, those who claim to serve Jesus would turn to arms and violent means to achieve their aim of serving the poor. Ask the revolutionary priests of the late 80s and 90s in the jungle of the Philippines.

In actual fact, then it is not Jesus whom these people serve. It is an ideology, an idea of what service for poor means. That is why Jesus’ answer to Judas is so relevant: the poor you will always have with you. He is not canonising poverty but rather giving Judas a context for serving the poor. What Jesus is saying is this: When you serve me in the poor, be prepared to have your service frustrated. But, I am still in charge here even though it does not seem that way. Trust in me.

On the first day of the novena, I mentioned about expectations and in the light of today’s preaching, perhaps we can also add our vision. When we have a vision for Jesus, be prepared to have our vision purified because we serve not a vision but Him who gives us sight to see Him in the poor etc.

In summary, our vision of the world is only sharpened if Jesus our Lord is kept at the centre of our love and devotion. Any attempt to eliminate or remove Jesus from Christianity is to make ourselves God—our ideology becomes us. Today, let us ask, amongst other things, for the grace to know Jesus more intimately so that we can follow Him more closely.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 3) Year A

The geography of Malacca has changed much. Near the ruins of the old fort, the A Formosa, there is a stone relic which according to stories told, the high tide water would never wash over because Francis had dusted his shoes there as he left Malacca in disgust over the sinfulness he had encountered there. The rock is now surrounded by reclaimed land. It’s no longer miraculous that no tide washes over it.

The fact is that it didn’t happen that way. What took place at his last visit to Malacca was that the city was racked by a family feud between the Captain of the Fort and his brother. The conflict saddened Francis so much that coupled with the subsequent rejection of the people, he removed his shoes, struck them against a rock as if removing the dust that clung to it.

In fact, the way Francis dealt with sin is reminiscence of the way Moses dealt with his people’s sin. Moses pleaded with God on behalf of his people, always to mitigate or to stay God’s anger against the people. Francis didn’t really plead with an angry God even though he did encounter a headstrong people when he came to Malacca, a bustling cosmopolitan city of that time, a meeting place for cultures and religions. Here, we find cross-crowned steeples of Catholic churches appealing to heaven together with mosques and temples dedicated to Indochinese deities.

The apostolic landscape was far from charming because the city was where greed and lust cohabitated. It was not easy but Francis plunged into this corrupt milieu with his customary zeal and enthusiasm. He found great difficulty in bringing about reform. So, more than any other place of his sojourning, his prudence and charity became evident. Seeing that there was nothing to be hoped from mere exhortation or denunciation, he set himself to win the hearts of the sinners. He was always a jovial self, mixed easily with everybody, men and women. He would even go to the place where they were gambling, showing that he enjoyed their company and if they, out of deference for him, tried to stop the game, he encouraged them cheerfully to carry on, for—he said—soldiers were not expected to live like friars. To be merry without offending God is better any day than grumbling and quarrelling.

Not only the Portuguese but also their concubines and servants loved him dearly and liked to have him for lunch at home, for he showed great love for everyone…telling them that their girls were very beautiful and they deserved to be wives of honest men.

Witnesses testified over and over again that it was mainly his radiant cheerfulness that attracted people to him. Here in Malacca, an incidence of relevance to our blessing today is a strange story related by a Fr Paul Gomez who tells us that, "There were some mothers with their babies. He called the babies by their names, inquiring from them about their fathers. I and many others believed this a miracle. How could he know the names of children he had never seen?" He served the sick and taught the children daily. On Sundays, he preached at the church on the hill and he was so overwhelmed by the great number of people seeking ministrations that he himself bore testimony to the fact saying, "It is impossible to satisfy all who come".

How is this related to us?

Yesterday, we spoke of friendship and affection as means to apostolic efficacy. It might give us good grounds to ponder on how we approach those who do not share our sentiments. I think by and large, our normal response is to shut people out—people who are difficult often end up as lumps swept under the carpet. Everyone knows that there’s a problem but no one wants to deal with it and people simply just sidestep the lump. Or if we do deal with it, we might be a bit more judgemental when we express our disagreement. When it became more difficult for Francis, his prudence and charity became more evident. Virtues such as these are not easy to exercise. But, it is worth our while to ask for this grace. Conversion is a response to love—not matter how cliché it sounds; conversion is never the fruit of anger.

But, beyond the conversion, we need to look into the area of catechesis, the process of handing on our faith. Both the Israelites in the desert and the unbelieving Jews reveal the stark reality of the complexity of catechesis and conversion. On this topic, we run into some kind of an invisible wall. Most Catholics understand catechesis to be the work of the Church, namely, our Sunday Schools. It may explain why the topic of catechism does not make sense to most people. It’s a task to be engaged by others. Perhaps an analogy may help us understand our role in catechesis. A child spends barely an hour each Sunday in formal catechism. If you consider the minimum 70%-attendance obligation, that does not count for much. Thus, the formal catechesis that our children receive at our Sunday school is like a skeleton. The home is where the “enfleshment” or incarnation takes place. Family must take a greater role in the formal catechetical development of a person. A difficulty we might encounter is where to begin... how do we begin?

A very good starting point is through the liturgy and the celebration of the liturgy. Lex orandi lex credendi. How the Church prays is what the Church believes in. Here, we’ve endeavoured to make sure that our preaching and our liturgy help each other. It is as simple as paying attention to the way a prayer is structured to find the theology of our belief. Every now and then, you will find little catechesis taking place as we celebrate our liturgy. Our grasp of the faith is enriched so much through the prayers of the Church.

Secondly, the home must become a place where the faith can take root. Parents are the first catechists for every child. Catholic sensibilities are caught at home. The whole sacramental system of the Church is built upon the senses experiencing the sacramentals. Rosaries, holy water, blessed candles, medals, the bible etc. Of course, the caveat is that the presence of the rosaries, holy water and bible resting on your altar do not mean anything if you do not faithfully use them. In general, if there is something lacking in the parents’ practice of the faith, it will be reflected in the child’s subsequent behaviour. For example, our crisis with the lack of social concern is reflected in the phenomenon that our current catechesis is basically damage control. So much of what we are doing in terms of catechesis is just damage control. I give an example: the altar servers’ formation has to begin when they first enter the society. If the substance of what we are doing is not inculcated or instilled, then subsequently we will have to deal with damage control—we basically try to limit whatever bad habits they have accumulated. We are constantly battling with bad habits... and how can we have a socially conscious young people when prayer, when Catholic social teachings do not even form part of their sensibilities?

Let us pray our Saint today that he ask the grace for us to be joyful in facing any difficult apostolic challenge and that our homes be graced much more as a place where faith is first taught and caught.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 2) Year A

In the Gospel today we hear Jesus speak of a unity between Him and His Father—a unity founded on affection that becomes the basis for the apostolic action of Jesus in the world. Jesus is united with His Father. That allows Him the freedom to engage in the ministry of drawing the world from the brink of annihilation/self-destruction back to the Father. Likewise, the members of the Society of Jesus are spread throughout the world engaged in the same apostolic ministry of reconciling the world with one another and with God—a ministry of consolation. Given the geographical spread, St Ignatius writes of the difficulty of maintaining unity in dispersion but insists on the importance of this unity for the efficacy of this apostolic endeavour. In the Constitution of the Society of Jesus it says: The Society (of Jesus) cannot be preserved or governed or, consequently, attain the aim it seeks for the greater glory of God unless its members are united among themselves and with their head. (655).

Today we enter the 2nd day of the novena. Let me focus on the subject of friendship expressed as affection and esteem for one another. The unity which St Ignatius envisioned is actually described by him as friendship in the Lord. The early companions were known as “friends in the Lord". It is perhaps an understated aspect of what a Jesuit is today. A critic of the Jesuits once said that the “Jesuits meet without affection and they part without regret”. It may be harsh but this truth can be explained by the fact that we have focused so much on carrying out our apostolic task that we forget that our apostolic endeavour is borne upon the shoulders of friendship and affection and not a burden shackled by duty. If you think about it, even the phrase “Jesus sent” lends itself to the idea that he is sent to carry out a duty. But, in reality, there’s an affection (or love) between the Father and Son which gave rise to the mission of the Son. I rephrase what I said earlier, there is a friendship founded on affection that becomes the basis for the apostolic action of Jesus in the world.

I would like to survey what little we know of the friendship between Francis and Ignatius and how it can help us reflect upon our daily Christian life.

The seed for our reflexion began in Paris. It was here, in the college as a student, that Francis met two other students who would have a huge influence on his life, Pierre Favre and Ignatius of Loyola. In 1526 Francis Xavier met Pierre and they became college roommates and friends. In 1529 they were joined by Ignatius of Loyola, who was then just new to the college. Pierre Favre was easily impressed by Ignatius whereas Francis was described by Ignatius to be the toughest nut ever that he had to crack. Francis Xavier did not take too kindly to Ignatius, even though Ignatius often came to the financial assistance of Francis, who, as a student, liked to live as a noble, much beyond his means. Ignatius may have seen the potential that lay hidden beneath Francis’ big ambitions but if anything else, it is more likely that Ignatius’ persistent friendship and affection that won Francis over to his cause. The two would become life-long friends. In fact, mutual affection was characteristic of the early Jesuits which allowed them to overcome the tensions that came from their differing personalities and nationalities. There were perhaps as many nationalities as there were the members of the original Society.

The way to apostolic efficacy/effectiveness winds through the avenue of friendship. The very idea of St Ignatius that the Jesuits should be friends in the Lord is based on our creedal belief. The Communion of Saints we profess is not a loose congregation of saints whose commonality is that they have been canonised. They are there because of the sharing of what is good. “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others. There exists a communion of goods in the Church”. Of course, goods is not measured materially. Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to say that within the Communion of Saints we find a sharing of affection. Is that not implied when we pray the Eucharistic Prayer III, “May he make us an everlasting gift to you and enable us to share in the inheritance of your saints, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with the apostles, the martyrs, St Francis Xavier and all your saints, on whose constant intercession we rely for help”? How else to explain the constant intercession if not because we believe in the mutual affection that exists between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant?

If we ever envisage our parish to be efficacious, then perhaps, the idea of friendship should be explored even more because the pathway to Christ cuts through friendship and affection. The ancient philosophers recognised how important and essential friendship is for human development. They called friendship a necessity. With the exception of wisdom, Cicero views friendship as the "sun of life, . . . the best gift which the immortal gods have given humanity". Friendship can refer to many kinds of human relationships which are hardly worthy of the name. But, according to Aristotle, the true and perfect friendship has the good for its object, i.e., the friends each seek what is good for the other. They love each other not for what they can get out of the relationship but for what they are. St Thomas Aquinas would echo such sentiments.

Friendships are formed when we love others for their own sakes. For a true and genuine friendship to exist, something good has to be communicated. The higher and more noble this good is, the more noble the friendship will be. The best kind of friendship is the one in which "mutual and reciprocal communications relate to charity, devotion, and Christian perfection”. Perhaps now we see how friendship and affection really enriches our apostolic efficacy. The lack of friendship impoverishes us. Like Descartes’s “cogito ego sum”, we can say, “we are friendship”... for it is the essence of who we are.

It is through friendship and affection that a person becomes what he/she is. But, in order to enter into a friendship, people have to accept themselves as they are. We have to first be a friend to ourselves before we can become a friend to another. In this, we need courage to face our vulnerability. Jesus, hanging on the Cross was actually suspended in the vulnerability of the mutual affection between Him and His Father.

Thus, true friendship, which is modelled after that of the Trinity, accepts vulnerability and yet demands that we challenge our friends to be who and what they really are without ever implying in the challenge a withdrawal of our affection for them. Friends help Christians to be good Christians. And because friendship is who we are, a quality intrinsic to our human nature, think of how many people have been burnt in the furnace of friendship and the hurts they have suffered. If we are friendship, then broken friendship can only make the world a painful one. If the parish is not where it is supposed to be, it perhaps challenges us to a further reflexion on our various ministries. Are we friends? Dare we be affectionate? Do we hide our vulnerability behind the walls of duty?

I realise how far we are from our ideals. There is infighting in our ministries. We are by no means unique because it’s a sad phenomenon that affects every parish I know. This distance from our ideal is proof of sin active in our lives. It may be the occasion for criticism of hypocrisy that our actions do not match our ideals. But more and more, we need to come before the God who calls us to grant us that friendship, affection and esteem which we seek in order that our coming together may be apostolically fruitful and our parting always affectionate.

St Francis cut out the names of his companions and kept the parchment close to his heart and often wrote movingly of his love and affection for them. Tonight, let us pray for those who have been hurt by broken relationships and pray that we may never be afraid of the vulnerability of friendship but be granted affection in Christ to befriend and to love.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Novena of Grace (Day 1) Year A

Some people attend novenas as a matter of practice. Yearly, they find their way to St Jude or St Anne swearing by the efficacy of these novenas. But, some come as a matter of curiosity. I think in this intellectual parish, there is perhaps an enquiry about what it is and what it can do for us. So what is a novena and why are we doing this novena?

The word novena is derived from the Latin novem meaning nine. Thus, we enter a nine-day period of private or public prayer to obtain special graces, to implore special favours or make special petitions. There is a sense of urgency and neediness in novenas which explains St Jude for hopeless cases and St Anne for fecundity.

The origin of the novena is not easy to pinpoint. Nothing is indicated in the OT of a nine-day celebration. The closest we get to is perhaps at the Ascension. The Lord gives the apostles the Great Commission, and then tells them to return to Jerusalem and to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Acts tells us that they devoted themselves to constant prayer (Acts 1:12, 14). Nine days after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Perhaps, this "nine day period of prayer" of the apostles is a basis for the novena.

The ancient Romans on the other hand offered 9 days of prayer to avert evil or the wrath of the gods. They also do that when wonders have been predicted. Their burial customs too admit of a 9-day mourning period to be followed by a feast on the 9th day. It is possible that Christianity "baptised" this pagan practice. In fact, we witnessed this 9-day thing at the death of JPII.

During the Mediaeval period, 9 days signified the 9 months the Lord spent in the womb of our blessed Mother. At first, the novenas helped the faithful prepare for the festive yet solemn celebration of Christmas. Eventually, various novenas were composed to help the faithful prepare for a special feast or to invoke the aid of a saint for a particular reason: Miraculous Medal, Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Joseph and St. Jude to name a few.

There was a time when people who normally skip masses would go for a novena religiously. But, with Vatican II, the primary focus of our spirituality and public worship has been shifted to the Holy Eucharist. The advent of the liturgical renewal and the increased participation of the congregation and the use of English at Mass may explain why novenas fell by the wayside for most Catholics except the diehards. Mass was in Latin whereas novenas were in the vernacular—that provided the laity with an outlet for the expression of popular devotion.

But, one of the practices which may have hurt the cause of novenas is superstition. Sometimes, one finds copies of a St. Jude novena which basically states that if a person goes to Church for nine days and leaves a copy of the novena to St. Jude, then the prayer will be granted — sort of like a spiritual chain letter. It is to treat God like a vending machine with very little to do with God’s will. Even though asking and petitioning form a part of the novena, the main thing about a novena is that it expresses our total dependence on God. Our consistent and faithful praying of a novena will enable us to be formed and shaped by it into the image of Jesus. Thus, novenas still hold a legitimate place in our Catholic spirituality.

Ours is called a novena of grace of St Francis Xavier for it originated in Naples, Italy after 1633, when a Jesuit, Matteo Mastrilli, was cured through the intercession of St Francis Xavier, who promised that those who made the nine days of prayer in preparation for the anniversary of his canonisation would receive many graces and favours. Thus, we have the name, Novena of Grace. It is not automatically that you’ve attended a novena and you receive what you ask for. Rather, a novena appeals to our desires and expectations.

Novenas are about desires and expectations. This is one area which we have in common with St Francis Xavier, under whose patronage we make this novena. He was a man of deep desires. He was tonsured when he was young, meaning that he became a cleric in a diocese, in his case, the diocese of Pamplona, capital of present day Navarre. Tonsure committed him to nothing but exempted him from any military service. Note his ambition as he took charge of the direction of his life. He knew that in order for him to climb the ladder of success in the clerical world he needed to increase his knowledge. That ambition brought him to the famous University of Paris.

So, suffice it to say that if you have come without desires or expectations, then be prepared to go away empty. If you came with the attitude that “If it works, then I have profited but if it doesn’t, then I have lost nothing”, then you would gain nothing. Come with great expectation and deep desires. Thus, as we enter this novena, let us trust that God is interested in what we desire. Ask for what you want for yourself or for your loved ones: a return to the practice of the faith, a relief from the allure of addiction, a cure for illness or a deliverance from a ghost past. Everything within the spectrum of human needs, expectations and desires can be the prayer of our petition. But, be prepared to have your expectations changed by God’s desire. The novena prayer gives us this hint that even as we ask of God what He can do for us we pray that our expectations always find their foundation in His will. “If what I ask for is not for the greater glory of God and the good of my soul, then give me what is conducive to both. Amen”. This marks us as different from the other popular novenas we are familiar with: St Anne’s or St Jude’s. Different not because we are better but different because we try to reflect what any novena or triduum is supposed to be. The greater are our expectations or desires, the greater will the opportunity be for us to be open to do the will of God. Novenas are not just about our desires or expectations. Novenas are really about the purification of our desires and expectations.

The first reading and the Gospel provide us with the wonderful imagery of water. We are invited to drink of the river of grace. Let us come with deep expectation. Let us be open to God’s will. Let us be surprised by His grace.

Monday, 3 March 2008

4th Sunday of Lent Year A

We all live with too much light. Even our occasional darkness caused by blackouts is not really an experience of real darkness because we have the power of halogen torches. Once I was in the south of the Philippines in a hamlet where the only source of electricity came from a generator used to mill rice and the electric grid/network connects three places: the rice mill, the owner’s house and the uncompleted priest's house. [A rectory would be too grand a word for that place--one side of the room had no wall]. The generator is turned off at 8pm and the entire hamlet is plunged into total darkness. The only illumination they had came from the flickering kerosene lamps. That was an experience of near total darkness [1]. An experience of total darkness helps us to appreciate the light of faith the Gospel is pointing to.

Today’s Gospel is a straightforward lesson on the growth in faith symbolised by the movement from total darkness to light—a movement that marks a journey from unbelief to belief. Even though the Gospel is designed for the Rite of Scrutiny of the Elect bound for baptism this Easter, they are actually a challenge to us also who were baptised to reflect on our faith in an adult way.

The journey of the man is centred on the growth of knowledge. Hear him tell the religious leaders that he doesn’t even know where Jesus is. But he knows that he was blind and now he sees. At first he calls Jesus a man, then a prophet and finally addresses Jesus as “Lord”—a title reserved for God. On the contrary, the religious leaders never made the journey of knowledge because they were so certain in their opinion that they couldn’t see beyond appearances.

According to the first reading, things are not what they always seem. Plato has a story or allegory that parallels the Blind Man. In “The Myth of the Cave”, we find prisoners chained in a darkened cave. All that these prisoners could see are flickering images on the wall. Since that was the only thing they ever saw, they took these shadows to be reality. But, one prisoner though managed to escape and made his way to the world outside the cave. He saw the sun for the first time and he returned to tell his fellow prisoners of what he had seen but they all thought him crazy. Such an experience is akin to the rejection of the “prophet who is not accepted in his own country”.

In the case of the Blind Man, the religious authorities did not think him crazy. They only abused him and expelled him. What is relevant for us is that blind man’s experience of Jesus can be interpreted according to Plato’s Myth of the Cave as a journey of intellectual assent of the soul to truth; an acceptance of the truth that leads to freedom. St Paul in the 2nd Reading tells us once we were in darkness but through baptism have been brought into the light of the Lord. So, we are to live as children of the light. The freedom that comes from the intellectual assent to the truth is that we should live as children of the light. But, just because we are baptised Catholics brought into the light is no guarantee that we cannot walk back into the darkness of sin. In fact, there are really more Catholics living in darkness than there are Catholics living in light.

The other night, I was going to hear confession in the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. [One of the blessings of a priest is I don’t need to battle the morning or evening rush-hour traffic]. The traffic after the toll was heavy but the cars were moving. I was talking on the mobile (using hands-free, of course). The traffic was inching haltingly and a car came in from my left and tried to force its way in but I purposefully refused to allow him to cut into my lane and we ended up with both our cars rubbing and scraping against each other. Earlier in the week, I had just repaired a dent and some scratches on the left front side of my car and that night, the dent and scratches came back. The thing is I can’t explain what possessed me to behave in that manner.
That I had acted out of character didn’t surprise me. That I could sin didn’t surprise me either. But what saddened me was the fact that I chose to act in that manner. There I was going to hear confessions yet I ended up behaving in a manner which did not reflect my status as someone brought into the light. After some reflection, I came to the embarrassing conclusion that my action only revealed that the light of Christ may not have penetrated deep enough in me. Often we live in a manner that is characterised by “OK”, more or less, give or take we sin a bit. Here a white lie, there a white lie... That’s where the danger is for we think that we’re doing OK but the truth is, it could mean that Christ's light has not really penetrated the depth of our being. It explains why I behaved so uncharitably. Such an experience proves that baptism does not guarantee us that we will not sin. What baptism does promise is the availability of grace should we consciously choose to live its consequence.

The blind man’s progressive enlightening is also a deepening in the knowledge of Christ as he first thought of him as a man, later a prophet and finally acknowledged him as Lord. This acknowledgement has an implication—that we come to live as the children of the Light.

Christ is the light that draws us to walk out of the shadow of our sins. But, this walk is made possible when we grow in the knowledge of who He is for us. And the depth of our knowledge of Christ is measured in terms of our familiarity with Scripture [how much do we read, know and pray the Bible?], acceptance of his teaching [does his teaching make impact in our life?] and the devotion to the sacraments [what place do the sacraments have in the way I worship God?]. A few minutes spent before the Blessed Sacrament is always a good way to get to know Him who remains forever the only Light that leads to Salvation. Whether we are preparing for baptism or struggling to live up to the challenges of baptism, the important thing is to have faith in Jesus Christ and to believe in the light and life he brings.
[1] I suspect that explains the reason why there were so many children in the hamlet.