Sunday, 28 September 2008

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 September 2008

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

If you understand the tricky business of organ transplant, then you’d begin to understand the parable in today’s Gospel. Harvest is not only a time-consuming affair but it is also a timely one. When the harvest is ripe, one has to gather quickly. In a sense, both the workers and the vineyard owner are desperate. One is desperate enough to hang around the whole day waiting for employment and the other desperate enough to go in search for more labour to expedite the harvest. The urgency ends with God paying disproportionately to those who work. What are we to make of this God?

Firstly, it seems that God is an unfair God. And we all know “unfair”. For those who experience injustice, an unfair God who is generous does not resonate well with us. For example, there are people with top grades who know the unfairness of being denied a place in the university. We know of qualified people whose promotion is denied but instead it is given to less qualified people. In short, merit is unmerited in an unfair society. An unfair God only amplifies the humiliation of the experience of blatant miscarriage of justice.

Therefore, the Gospel is disturbing to say the least. It tells us that we have this God who is generous but his generosity is not bound by the limits of fair-play and justice. And the First Reading sort of supports this point. “Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts”. God’s way of behaving is not like ours.

To understand this God, we need to consider the question Jesus asked: “Are you envious because I am generous”? Thus, the question is not about justice or fairness but of envy. The first batch of workers had agreed upon a set wage. The subsequent batches of workers were promised a fair wage. Thus, there was no question of injustice. They were paid according to what they had agreed. The sore point came when those who did the least amount of work got the same as those who did a full day’s work.

Envy is something which afflicts all of us. And the language of envy is “that’s not fair”. It often leads to resentment and if left unchecked will eat into our very being. Envy is also amplified if we feel ourselves victimised.[1] Perhaps, our experience of “unfairness” is actually the experience of envy.

The hearers of the parable knew what Jesus was talking about. It was not injustice or unfairness that they were reacting against. The truth was that Jesus had been consorting with sinners and the Gentiles. The Jews and the Pharisees represented those “called” by God at the start of the day... and as such, they thought that they should be privileged. The problem is that God seemed to treat with kindness the late-comers: the sinners and the Gentiles. It was not unfairness on the part of God but envy on the part of the Jews and the Pharisees that God should ever be so kind to those who do not deserve it.

The reaction of the Jews and Pharisees is occasion for our deeper reflexion. As stated, the Jews and the Pharisees represented those privileged to be the first people chosen by God and sinners and Gentiles were plainly Johnnies-come-lately. The relationship between the privilege of the first and the last to be called has a bearing on evangelisation. First of all, the call of God is gratuitous and unmerited on our part. It is God who calls and at any time one is called, the appropriate response is gratitude. Secondly, if one were called first, the honour is more responsibility than it is privilege.

And this is where we need to be more aware of our responsibility to those who come after us. Are we doing enough to bring the Good News of our calling to people who have yet to know Jesus Christ? That is the gist of the 2nd Reading: I want to be gone and be with Christ, which would be very much the better, but for me to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need for your sake.

In summary, at first glance, we who aim to form a society under the principles of justice and fair-play are somewhat taken aback by the Gospel because God seems to be unfair. But upon closer reflexion, we realise that the Jews and Pharisees were envious of God’s generosity and sadly, their envy blinded them to their responsibility. A calling does not accord greater privilege. On the contrary, we are yoked with greater responsibility to bring the good news of salvation to people everywhere. On our shoulders lies the Gospel. To be called first is to be a light to the world. We are to be the Good News and that is why the 2nd Reading ends appropriately: “avoid anything in your everyday lives that would be unworthy of the gospel of Christ”.
[1] Just as an aside, you know that we sometimes remember things we read or hear. Well, I remember a primary text from Plato on the question of Justice. I can’t remember which one of his works but I remember very clearly that one of his characters in a discussion said something like this: “Justice is for those who do not have the guts to be unjust”. We dare not be unjust and so we don’t like others to be unjust. There is an element of envy in this, I think!!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Triumph of the Cross Year A

The feast of the Triumph of the Cross became prominently observed in the Western Church only in the 7th century. In case you’re interested, prior to the cross becoming our universal symbol, Christians used the symbol of fish because the Greek word for fish (ἰχθύς, capitalised ΙΧΘΥΣ) stood for the acronym: Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. Now, let us get back to our subject matter, the cross. In the 4th century, St Helena the Empress Mother of Constantine was credited as one who led in the discovery of the Cross of Christ. It was taken away as a war trophy by the Persians in the AD614 and 14 years later Emperor Heraclius returned part of what was retrieved to Jerusalem.

The cross is a powerful symbol for Christianity and yet Catholics and Protestants approach this symbol differently. The usual thing is to look at it and say that Catholics tend to emphasise Christ's death on the cross (it explains why we have the body – called the Corpus) whereas Protestants emphasise Christ as risen (it explains why they have an empty cross). Christ on the cross reminds us of the sacrifice he made whereas the empty cross points to the power of Christ over death. Furthermore, Catholics are supposedly “worshippers” of Mary and the Saints, therefore, the Protestants will try to avoid “graven images” (read = statues).

But beyond the Protestant “aversion” to idolatry, the first reading may actually support the Catholic approach to this powerful symbol and it is connected with the Eucharist we celebrate. St John Damascus writes that the serpent was raised up on a piece of wood like a “standard” and those who look at it with faith are cured of the serpent’s bite. Therefore, Christ dead on the cross is the source of life for those who look at him. We see Christ hanging on the cross with blood and water flowing from his side—the fount of sacramental life in the Church because water symbolises baptism to wash away sin and blood symbolises the Eucharist that gives life.

That Moses raised the serpent standard in the first reading is being translated into the Mass we celebrate. In Mediæval times, there arose the practice of “ocular communion”. Ocular has something to do with the eyes; with what is visual. This spiritual practice came about because people were simply “more aware” of their unworthiness to receive the Lord. At that time, the frequency with which we receive communion would have been unknown to them. The practice of “frequent communion” only started in 1905.

So, in Mediæval times, people would come to Mass and wait for the consecration when the host would be raised and looking upon the elevated host, they would profess silently like St Thomas, otherwise known as the Doubter: “My Lord and my God”. They did likewise with the chalice raised. After that, they would go in search of another Mass where the consecration was about to take place. The triple bells we hear let people know that Christ will be raised up and that to look up and look at it is to look at the Saviour for redemption. Today we may be a few hundred years removed from this practice and may thus call it a superstition. Since the Mediæval or Middle Ages is commonly known as the Dark Ages, we associate that period with barbarism and superstition. But, it cannot be disputed that such a practice arose because of a firm belief in Sacred Scripture, a deep desire for salvation and a trust in the power of God.

In some ways, we are no different. We wear the cross like an ornament or tattoo the cross as an embellishment. I saw a girl the other day who had a rosary tattooed on her ankle and leading to her foot was the cross. I haven’t a clue what that symbolised for her but for us, the cross is really a symbol of salvation because it is a symbol of love’s triumph over hatred. On Friday, a parishioner came to see me. She comes to Mass daily. She has been robbed many times by snatch thieves. Still, she faithfully attends daily Mass by walking from her home down the road to church. So, on Friday when she came, after yet another robbery attempt (she was blue and black on the face because she had struggled with them and had managed to ward them off) I offered to bless her. Yes, there is a blessing for victims of crime or oppression. There was a sense of powerlessness and frustration. I was utterly disgusted by the incidents of her being robbed. As I was opening the Book of Blessings, I was also letting out my frustrations. I said, “Let’s pray that those thieves (I used a stronger than the phrase “those thieves”) will meet with a bad accident that they be so badly hurt but do not die. They should suffer”. When we got to the page, we collected ourselves and I started to pray: “Lord, your wicked Son ...”. She flinched and instinctively I knew I had committed a Freudian slip because the prayer actually read: “Lord, your own Son was delivered into the hands of the wicked, yet he prayed for his persecutors”. I was that consumed by hatred that it came out through the prayers. When you hate so much, it is bound to come out somewhere and somehow.

But, in the cross, there was no hate even if it were an instrument of hate. On the cross, Christ not only preached love but he practised love till the end that he cried out from the cross: “Father, forgive them”. The 2nd Reading expresses this as “self-emptying”—a Kenosis of his divinity so that we might be saved. Today, more than ever, we need men and women of the cross; Christians of the Kenosis—self-emptying so that others might have life. Kenosis will always involve dying and suffering. In order for love to triumph there will be the cross as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta says, “Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross that He can kiss us and that He can show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His passion”.

It is so relevant for us all. Given the fearful, oppressive and tense climate we have today, it is really easy to give in to anger, hatred and despair especially when there is this naked display of aggression but the cross is a powerful symbol of victory over evil; of love over hatred. And as we continue with the celebration of the Eucharist, we remember that Christ had to be lifted up so that we may have the strength to embrace His life. Let the cross we wear or sign on ourselves not remain a mere symbol but truly become the outward sign of who we really are: Followers of Christ, Prisoners of Love and not of Hate.

Monday, 8 September 2008

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The central theme today deals with fraternal correction. It is not an easy thing to do because people don’t like to be corrected but more so people do not like to correct others. I would like to explore why this is so and perhaps see how we can embrace this sacred duty enjoined upon us by Christ Himself—to correct and be corrected.

First of all, it’s not easy to deal with diversity. For example, how many of us believe that all religions are the same? One hears enough of the idea that every religion just represents a different pathway to the same God. Here, the intention is not to debate the veracity of the statement that all religions are the same but to note that the idea or statement shows an inability to handle diversity. If that were so, we might also face the same difficulty with regards to fraternal correction. This inability to deal constructively with diversity is translated into: “We all believe that everyone’s opinion is right. Let’s not be judgemental”.

The difficulty we encounter with fraternal correction points to us the challenge we face with regard to what is right and good. If every opinion is to be tolerated because we need to respect people, the question is, “How can we act in a good and right way”? Every opinion to be accepted means that we do not know what is truth. Therefore, “doing” good is not good enough because we need to know what is right and good before we can do it. Knowing what is right and good leads us to know the truth. Therefore, to say that everyone has the right to be right is not saying anything at all. In fact, it makes living even more difficult.

The Doxology we sing might give us a clue. “Through Him, with Him and in Him”... it comes from the Greek word “Doxa” which, apart from the meaning of “opinion”, also means “right worship”, that is to give glory to God. To be “orthodox” means “to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified.” This “right way” implied that some ways are wrong ways, even if we were to show respect to the persons who hold them.

That there is truth cannot be doubted. People often say, “Don’t judge” because we are tolerant and this “do-not-judge” attitude extends only to areas concerning sexual preferences or life issues like contraception, abortion or euthanasia. However, when an MP makes a statement against a particular race, people are up in arms against your man. This is proof that the exercise of knowing the truth is selective.

Some things are just not right which means that there are truths to be known and we can know the truth because Christ is the Truth. Christ taught the Truth and He continues to teach us through the Church and speaks to us through our conscience. Conscience is not integrity, sincerity or preference. One can kill with sincerity and conscience is not involved. Conscience is a hard, objective thing—a challenge to self, a call to conversion, and a sign of humility. In this case, it means that one must really listen carefully to the teachings of the Church. The Church and conscience are not mutually exclusive.

In the matter of fraternal correction, we are pointing to some standard of behaviour which should command us. It is truth’s ability to compel us to behave rightly. And here, Christ Himself offers practical help to us. We are not dealing with the issue of “forgiveness” but on how to approach an erring member of one’s community. Christ says, firstly, do it in private, then before a few and finally before the whole community. Failure to convince a person leads to excommunication.

It sounds drastic but in reality, fraternal correction is an exercise of love. Our Lord offers practical help but what He is not saying is that fraternal correction can only be an exercise of love. St Paul in the second reading calls it simply a “debt of mutual love”. Sometimes we think that keeping quiet is part of that mutual love. But it is not. Parents with young children have this tendency of keeping quiet. A child is naughty and they think that “disciplining punishment” does not fit in with today’s enlightened child care. As it were, one is to show greater patience. The problem arises when the parent can no longer tolerate the nonsense. He or she hits out at the child. Ultimately, the child sees not the fact that he or she has done wrong but only the anger of the parents. Knowing something is wrong and keeping quiet is tantamount to allowing someone to destroy himself. Thus, correction requires courage and involves risk. Risk that your action might be misinterpreted. However, it does not mean that we go out of the way to “repay the debt of mutual love” by pointing out people’s fault. Many suffer from self-righteousness.

Nobody likes to correct. The attitude we ought to take, if we do not want to reduce morality to “my standard”, is fraternal correction is an exercise of love for our brothers and sisters. The basis of one’s correction is not so much “I am right” but because “I love you”.

Nobody likes to be corrected. So a good attitude is to never go away without thinking about it. The basis to receive correction is “Let me see if there is truth in what you say”. Ultimately, we must be guided by the love of the Truth who is Christ Himself.