Sunday, 30 November 2008

1st Sunday of Advent Year B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Solemnity of Christ the King Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 November 2008

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 November 2008

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 November 2008

All Souls Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 1 November 2008

All Saints Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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