Sunday, 28 December 2008

Feast of the Holy Family Year B

At Christmas, I touched on the theme of Emmanuel, God-with-us. I mentioned that the Church (and this is despite she being made up of sinners et al) and the Sacraments fulfil God’s promise to be with us. This proximity or nearness of God to humanity is not some airy-fairy construct or concept but instead, it is premised or founded on concrete and finite reality’s capability to contain what is of immortal value. That is why water can be used for baptism, oil for anointing or healing, confirmation or ordination, wheat and grapes for the Mass etc. In summary, the Incarnation, the act when God chose to be one of us, allows what is concrete and physical to become channels of God’s grace.

It is in this context that we celebrate the holiness of Jesus Mary and Joseph. But, before we do so, we need to clarify what it means for this family to be an ideal and a holy family. Our concept of ideal must be grounded or rooted in reality. What happens is that we may mistakenly assume that the ideal is synonymous with perfection. Whilst the ideal may consist of striving for perfection, what has been proposed to us is actually the Holy Family and not the “perfect” family.

They didn’t have angels whispering into their ears all the time and telling them what to do. We do not know much about them but the different Gospels give us enough glimpses of who they are. He is born in a manger and even before they can settle down, they are hounded by Herod to flee to Egypt; there in Egypt to be foreigners. When they come back, they settle out in the back of nowhere, in a town called Nazareth from where, according to Nathaniel, nothing “good can come”. The young boy has to get lost in Jerusalem during one of their pilgrimages. In His life, Jesus is not always understood by His Mother. She is afraid for Him; afraid that the crowd may swallow Him up. She witnesses how a crowd that cheers can suddenly degenerate into the crowd that jeers at Him. Finally, what she feels as the prophetic sword of sorrow at the presentation, at the crucifixion, becomes the lance that pierces His heart.

So, this is the hard reality of the Incarnation. The ordinariness which we call humanity or the human condition afflicted them just as much as it would us. They were not untouched by sorrows, misunderstandings and problems of one kind or another. But, it is precisely for that and through what they experienced, they can serve as model for us. The Holy Family is holy not because they live a perfect sheltered life. They are holy simply because they allowed God to be part of their lives.

The consequence of the Incarnation is far-reaching. As a result of God entering the human condition, humanity’s vision is forever changed from helplessness into hopefulness and from pessimism to promise. Now, holiness is possible because the human family is shot through with the presence of God. It is because they had God in their lives that both Mary and Joseph found it easier to hear God speaking to them and this family found it possible to bear the hardship that comes with whatever life hands to them.

In the Letter to the Colossians, St Paul describes that presence of God in their lives as being clothed with sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. Above all, it is to put on love as St Augustine paraphrases St Paul when he says: “In all that is essential, let there be unity. In all that is inessential, let there be diversity. But above all, let there be love”.

Thus, the test of God’s presence in our family is seen in how we treat each other. In a family setting where familiarity is the norm, contempt often may be the only way we know how to deal with each other. Is it not true that many of us are kinder to friends than we are to family?

Today when we look at Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we know that they are close to us in their experiences as a family. The Incarnation has allowed them to become a “workable” family as it would allow ours to be. For us, family feuds, sickness, death, anger, jealousy or even the devastation of infidelity are part of what the family goes through. Thus, the Holy Family is an invitation not to run away because we feel that our family is beyond redemption but to allow God to enter into our family’s life and decisions so that with what we are, with what we have, we too may be on the road towards holiness.

Today we ask Jesus, Mary and Joseph to be with our family especially as we desire to be like them in holiness.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas Year B

Just after we began our Mass, we heard a solemn proclamation of the birth of Christ. It gave us a grand sweep of history as it pointed us to the events that took place from the time of creation until the birth of Christ. It is not history that is “historical” in the strict scientific sense of the word. Nevertheless, it is history because it chronicles the history of salvation. Amongst the events, one of them took place about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Then the Kingdom of Judah was facing an external threat. God sent the prophet Isaiah to encourage the King, Ahaz, to trust God for protection and not to form an unholy alliance with Assyria. God even offered Ahaz the chance to ask for a sign in order to strengthen his faith but Ahaz refused. Not only that, Ahaz also refused to obey God. Fortunately, Ahaz’s disobedience is God’s moment to proclaim through Isaiah a prophecy which is fulfilled according to the Gospel of Matthew:

“Now all this took place to fulfil the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’”.

Christmas is the fulfilment of God’s promise to be with us in a way that is beyond humanity’s expectation. In the first place, God has always been with us because creation cannot but reflect the presence of God. But, more than merely passive presence, God had been actively present too for He said to Moses whom He sent to face the mighty Pharaoh (Ex 3) “I shall be with you”. And, to Joshua, God promised that He would be with him as He had been with Moses as Joshua prepared to lead the people into the Promised Land (Josh 1).

Tonight, the birth of Christ is the ultimate fulfilment of the meaning of God-is-with-us. The truth of Christmas is God is permanently one with us because His Son is one of us. Furthermore, as Christ stood on the mountain where He had arranged to meet His disciples, He said, “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time”.

Christmas is when we begin to appreciate the true meaning of Emmanuel. We sometimes think of God as being with us in a vague way. In a situation where we are faced with difficulties we assure ourselves according to what St Paul himself says in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us”? So, we seek some sort of “spiritual” assurance that gives us the strength, the consolation and the courage to face the vicissitudes of life. That is not bad.

But, do you know that God-with-us, Emmanuel, is the very foundation for the existence of the Church and for the Sacraments that we celebrate? Firstly, the Church needs this assurance before she speaks with authority on matters of faith and morals. Otherwise, the promise on the mountain is nothing but an empty promise. If you reflect on this, the failure, if there were one, cannot be on the side of God. For, the challenge lies not in Christ NOT fulfilling His promise. The challenge is that we have failed to appreciate the truthfulness and the reality of that promise.

Surrounding our need for the assurance of God-be-with-us, is a notion that the assurance must be coupled with good feeling. From this mistaken notion, we may equate good feelings as God’s promise fulfilled. Often, we are condemned to search for that feeling. And it can be miserable.

Remember the Pink candle on the 3rd Sunday of Advent? It points us in the direction of joy. And joy is not also synonymous with “good” feeling. Instead, it is closely related to the knowledge and certainty that God is close no matter how pressing troubles may be. We dare to rejoice because we are certain that God will prevail. This we shall witness shortly because after this, Joseph together with Mary and Jesus will flee down to Egypt. God promised to be with them but their inconvenience or hardship was not lessened.

This fact that God-is-with-us does not always guarantee a “good feeling” or a smooth ride is an important truth about the Incarnation, the event which gave us Emmanuel. It is important because it brings us directly into the heart of how Christ is Emmanuel—how God is with us.

The shocking truth is that the Church is an expression of Emmanuel come true and in particular, each of the Sacraments is a manifestation of Christ’s continued presence to us. The Mass is the prime example of this presence. He did not mince His words when He said, “Eat my flesh so that you may live”. And so, each time when we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat no less in substance the Christ whom Thomas called “my Lord and God”. When we adore the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, we adore the real and sacramental presence of the very Christ whose side Thomas put his hand into. That is how present God is to us. So, if we accept and believe that Emmanuel is God-with-us, then, each and every sacrament is the action of Christ Himself as he calls us through baptism; heals us through anointing; strengthens us through confirmation; forgive us through confession and sends us out either as married couples or as priests.

Starting tonight, or even before tonight, we have been or we will be surrounded by an explosion of Christmas-related activities. But, the message of Christmas is rather simple. We may talk about God who is with us or desire God to be one with us. But, what does it mean? It would mean that we are blind if we didn’t begin to appreciate the fulfilment of that promise in the very Church and the Sacraments that Christ gave us. Tonight, as we adore the newborn King, let us all return to a deepened and genuine appreciation of the Sacraments. If we believe in the truth of Christmas, then we must necessarily believe in the effects of the Sacraments—the effects guaranteed by none other than Christ Himself, the Emmanuel, God-with-us. We are ever so blessed.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent Year B

The Rose coloured candle and vestment signal that our search is drawing to an end. Our salvation is close at hand and so we allow ourselves the latitude of rejoicing as the Entrance Antiphon suggests “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near”. The central theme that runs through both the first reading and the Gospel is the nearness of salvation. The writer of the first reading declares that he has been sent by God to usher in the age of salvation. In the Gospel, John the Baptist announces that he is not the Saviour but the one who prepares the way for the Saviour who is already amongst the people. Finally, St Paul gives practical guide to the Thessalonians on how they are to wait for the 2nd Coming of the Saviour.

When salvation is near, we rejoice. How? We get a clue from the Gospel. In the Gospel, the religious authorities sent priests and Levites to enquire about John’s identity. The replies given by John didn’t quite satisfy them because they wanted a more definitive answer to bring back to their higher-ups. They were looking for the Messiah and judging from the replies that they got, they weren’t satisfied. The short of it, they were expecting more but seemed to have gotten less. They were looking for salvation but failed to recognise its presence.

Thus, to rejoice means we must recognise the presence of our salvation.

What is salvation or what does it consist of? First of all, it means different things to different people. For some, salvation is confined to the spiritual realm and is defined as salvation from sin and eternal damnation. Whilst it is true that salvation is from sin and eternal damnation but such a conception of salvation tends to be narrow and sometimes selfish because it is restricted to “my salvation”. What about the salvation of others? So, personal salvation can be a blinkered existence in which a person tries to save his or her soul for the next world. The good thing is that these days, few people think like that. On the one hand, this may be explained by the fact that people generally do not have a firm belief in the after-life. Even if they did, it is probably vague and not really helpful or hopeful. On the other hand, and this is more insidious because “personal salvation” has given birth to an explosion of self-help programmes. These are helpful but the assumption behind these programmes is that we can bestow upon ourselves salvation and self-improvement is the path to wholeness. The truth is that try as we might like to, we cannot save ourselves.

A good thing about the narrow view of salvation is that our consciousness has expanded beyond the boundary of this “personal salvation”. The first reading echoes our broadened vision of salvation as liberty to captives, freedom to those in prisons; and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord. In this broadened vision, salvation, even if it were for the next world, must begin with this world. People who do not appreciate Church involvement in political matters may have failed to understand that the new heavens and the new earth can only begin when we are engaged to change this world. They have confused political involvement with partisan politics [1]. Thus, we should continue to speak up against the unjust use of laws against those who do not share the majority view because salvation begins here and now.

However, broadened as the horizon may be, the challenge is not to perceive salvation purely in terms of political and social liberation. Salvation is not just freedom from oppression, freedom from hunger and freedom from rules and regulation. Salvation is more.

Like the priests and the Levites in the Gospel, we too search for salvation. The purely spiritual or the secular view of salvation does not provide us with a satisfactory answer. Gaudete Sunday proposes that our search for salvation should end with Jesus Christ and not in any programme, spiritual or secular. In fact, Isaiah’s pronouncement is realised in none other than the person of Jesus Christ Himself. That is why John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness crying out: Make a straight way for the Lord. Advent’s preparation is for the coming of the Lord who alone is our salvation. The question to ask is what are we expecting? Are we like the Levites and the priests somewhat lost in our search?

What we do for ourselves may give us satisfaction in life. Self-help, self-improvement or political and social liberation may bring about a sense of achievement but still they will fall short of the salvation that we deeply desire because salvation is not what we grant ourselves. Salvation comes from being near to Christ our Lord. When He is near, we are joyful. The trick is to recognise Him as present amongst us. The sole pink candle helps us to focus our attention not so much on the pleasures surrounding Christmas but on the joy that Christmas is to bring to those who are waiting for the Lord.
[1] In
Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI says that the Church recognises the legitimate autonomy of the temporal sphere. Yet, he says that “Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life; its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has more to do with ethics” (#28). In deciding what justice means for the state and how it can be achieved, a legitimate role opens up for faith. Applying faith to questions of justice, argues the Holy Father, does not mean there is an attempt to impose religion on nonbelievers. Rather, it can purify human reason, enabling it to appreciate better the demands of justice. As well, the Church's social teaching is also based on reason and natural law, and is therefore in accord with the nature of every human being. Far from promoting a specific political programme, the Church seeks to stimulate and form consciences so that each person will be better prepared to take up his responsibility in ensuring a more just society. It is this subsequent political involvement which "cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility," and that means the Church should not be involved in partisan politics.

Monday, 22 December 2008

4th Sunday of Advent Year B

It’s too good to be true. We hear people say this. The reason may be because we live in desperate times that we have acquired the natural suspicion that what is good may be too good to be true. Our conception of truth is “reality” and “reality” is measured by proximity, that is, the closer we are to whatever the phenomenon may be, the closer we are to truth. Could this be one of the reasons why people of this country love to stop and check out the goriness of a car accident? We subscribe to an unquestioned assumption about truth that may account for the growth and popularity of the genre, otherwise known as Reality TV. Truth is “Reality TV”. It follows that our conception of truth is basically what we can see.

Unfortunately, what we have seen hasn’t been entirely edifying. We have seen two great wars and many more in the last 100 years. In the last 25 years of political and economic upheavals, what we have witnessed has made us fearful for our security be it what we eat, where we live and what we do. No doubt, the fear we have is fuelled by what we see as the breaking down of law and order in the country as we witness the impotence of the individual citizen. Pregnant women are not safe from snatch thieves. ATMs are blown out of their safe enclosures. Recently, we are told that luxury cars are stolen with “inside help”. People are scammed left and right by quick get-rich programmes. The brazenness with which people exploit even the dead paints a rather dismal and bleak picture of reality. There are more reasons to be pessimistic than optimistic. Thus, when something is good, it is often too good to be true.

This pessimistic world view does have an effect on how we want to understand the 4th Sunday of Advent and consequently what Christmas may truly represent. We dedicate this Sunday to Mary. The birth of Christ must necessarily involve the motherhood of Mary. Is she too good to be true? It would seem so. First of all, she’s so “unreal”. We want a “real” Mary but we want a “real” Mary who actually represents our human limitation. If you think about it, this “real” Mary may actually mask our pessimism’s desire to limit her capacity to respond to God. It is true that we feel more at home with a Mary who is pregnant out of wedlock. She has more affinity with us when we think of her as an “unwed teenage mother”. Furthermore, Mary seals her “being so much like us” when we conceive of her as not just the mother of Jesus but also the biological mother of the brothers of Jesus. Underlying our wanting Mary to be so much like us is our inability to deal with someone whose calling is directed beyond this world. [As an aside, is it not true that people are often mean to those who are “holy”?]

When we are unable to deal with Mary’s other directedness or we perceive her as being too good to be true, then we may be struggling with at least two fundamental beliefs. The first struggle is the difficulty in dealing with a good God. In the First Reading, David wanted to build God a house, a temple worthy of Him. In reality, it was the reverse for it was God who built David a dynasty, the House of David that will last forever. This is how good God is, for every attempt of ours to please Him will be met by His returning generosity. But, our human limitation often thinks of God as one whose measure is circumscribed by our generosity. For example, the more we pray, the more God ought to answer our prayers. That is often the way we calculate God’s generosity. For those who have experienced God’s benevolence, they know that God’s generosity is always beyond what they had expected. Thus, Mary’s yes to God is premised on believing that God would never be outdone by her generosity. Even in the face of the seeming defeat of her Son who died on the Cross, she dared to remain ever faithful to His Cross because she knew in faith this God who is generous. And this leads me to the second struggle.

This struggle betrays a crisis of belief in who we can really be and what we can really do. People, and Catholics included, have derided Mary’s perpetual virginity. On the one hand, are we dealing here with stuff or matter which belongs to the realm, at best, of theological construct or at worst, of legends and both having no connexion to reality? Or, on the other hand, what lies behind the rejection of Mary’s virginity is also a rejection of our capacity to live a life which is not self-centred. We do not believe that we can be God-centred.

Mary represents the best of who we can be. Thus, desiring her to be like us is to abdicate our calling to cooperate with God. Yes, it is true that all of us are affected by the division of Original Sin but when we look at Mary, we recognise the true capacity of the human spirit—its ability to be taken up by God like Mary was.

It is right that the 4th Sunday of Advent be given over to Mary. The Catholic belief in Mary’s greatness is not idolatrous. However, let me qualify that: some people’s behaviour may be idolatrous. But the belief in Mary’s greatness is not idolatrous because it is first and foremost a firm belief in God’s goodness and secondly she represents humanity’s capacity to respond totally to God.

Monday, 8 December 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent Year B

There are two distinct phases in what we term as the beginning of the liturgical year. The world at large may not appreciate this subtle and yet significant distinction. In fact, they are more familiar with the second phase. All they want, apart from two front teeth, is Christmas—or better still, what is associated with “consumer” Christmas. Where we are, it is still Advent, the 1st phase at the start of the Liturgical year. This is a period of waiting and preparing. That we are preparing makes sense. Look at the pink candle in the Advent Wreath. Next week is called Gaudete Sunday when we change to pink—the colour a shade lighter than purple to symbolise the joy of anticipating Christmas. As a result of this lack of appreciation for the distinction between Advent and Christmas, the world at large marks Advent as if it were Christmas. When Christians are unaware of this distinction, it has disastrous consequences for evangelisation.

For Christians, Advent through the Gospel of Mark helps clarify this distinction which has consequences for our preparation and waiting. Mark’s Gospel stands in contrast with the other Gospels simply because it is short and it seems simple enough—almost like the “Air Asia” of the Gospels because it has no frills. Both Luke and Matthew have the Genealogy. Through it, we are treated to the colourful background of Jesus’ ancestry. From the genealogy we know that amongst Jesus’ ancestors, there were personalities of questionable reputation. Look at John’s Gospel. It may not have the genealogy but it takes us to the moment before Jesus’ genealogy began. “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God”. Mark does not seem to have any of these sophistications.

But the simplicity or the lack of sophistication is rather deceptive because Mark actually starts with no less than a solemn declaration. Listen again: The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What is interesting is that we, the readers, are introduced to this fundamental fact that only halfway through the Gospel that Peter will declare in response to Jesus’ query about His identity: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter in 8:29 says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.

As such, Mark begins the Gospel without hesitation that the subject he writes about is none other than the Christ (that is the Messiah) who is the Son of God. The pinnacle for Mark’s Gospel is often accepted to be Peter’s response or confession in Chapter 8. But, consider that the title “Son of God” is not only a declaration of a fact. Instead, it is also significantly an acknowledgement that we cannot save ourselves and as such are in need of a Messiah. This is what we witness at the end of Mark’s Gospel, generally taken to be Chapter 15. Here in Chapter 15 of Mark’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus abandoned not only by his disciples but also by his Father. Here, we face a Jesus without eloquence as we find in the later Gospels. He simply cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?” (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In the midst of abandonment and despair, we find in 15:39 a pagan, a non-believer, an idolater, a Gentile oppressor, a Centurion coming to a solemn realisation: Truly this man was God’s Son.

I never liked Mark’s Gospel. But, I am beginning to appreciate it more because in the first 8 chapters before Peter’s confession, we find a Jesus, who also calls Himself the Son of Man, identifying Himself with the poor, the hungry, the sick and the possessed... the Son of Man is destined to suffer. Thus, through these 8 chapters, we cannot understand who Jesus is and be His disciples unless we accept the centrality of suffering in His mission and in ours too. Mark’s Gospel is not only a Gospel of the Son of God but also a Gospel of Discipleship.

This has serious implication for our Advent and for Christmas. We are not preparing to receive gifts. We are not preparing to open gifts on Christmas morning. We are, however, preparing to receive a Gift, no less than the Son of God. Thus, Advent requires, according to both the 1st and 2nd Readings, a radical change of heart in order that we be true disciples. Isaiah urges the people to prepare a way for the Lord’s coming to save them. Prepare a straight road by straightening our lives with integrity, honesty and justice. Peter, in discussing the relative length of time believes that if the Lord appears to be slow in coming, then it is because we are given the chance to change and be ready to meet Him when He comes.

Thus, Advent’s message is really spiritual; a message of purifying ourselves for discipleship, as we free the space of our hearts for no less than the Son of God. The fact that we are preparing to welcome Christ the Son of God puts into perspective all that we are doing. In fact, everything pales in comparison; everything measures to nothing if our preparation is not about Christ. Cakes and cookies, turkey and ham, gifts and parties will only bring us to the 25th of December, a calendar date but they will never bring us to Christ if our hearts are already full and our stomachs filled. In fact, the very idea of Christmas gifts itself is instructive. We leave our gifts under the Christmas tree waiting for the right moment to open the gifts. Isn’t that waiting a “purification” of our desires and our senses? In waiting for Christmas to open our gifts, we already have a practice of self-denial as we wait for the proper time to unwrap the gifts. How good if that practice of waiting can be translated into other areas of our life so that we may truly prepare and purify our hearts to receive the Son of God coming to us at Christmas.