Sunday, 27 December 2009

Feast of the Holy Family Year C

The Incarnation is the momentous event where God chose to clothe Himself in time and space. And close at the heel of Christmas, we meet the living out of the Incarnation as we celebrate the Holy Family of Nazareth.

First of all, the Holy Family being presented as the “model” family fails to give due to the reality that when Jesus appeared in time He did not come with guns blazing. Instead, He entered history and was immediately subjected to the harsh reality of human existence; born in a manger because all the inns were full, soon chased out into Egypt because the king was insecure. Under the spotlight of scrutiny, you can count amongst His ancestors, an adulterer, two prostitutes and a pagan. In the end, the description of the circumstances surrounding His birth or the description of His pedigree might just mask that which is most important: Jesus was born into a family. He did not appear out of nowhere.

At the beginning of creation, God created us male and female. In other words, God created us, man and woman and father and mother. Original sin destroyed what God had intended and so, Jesus being born into a family showed that God willed that salvation should come through the family. We cannot really fathom why God chose this path but we can recognise that the loving relationship between a man and a woman is essential to the proper upbringing of children. Is that not a reason why a woman who is raped often chooses the path of abortion? Because there was no love, a woman might want to reject the fruit of what ought to have been love. Love between man and woman, mother and father is essential to the well-being of the family.

Secondly, in the Gospel, we note that Jesus, the Son of Mary is also the Son of the Father. Jesus Christ's coming to us allows us to go to God the Father. In Him, we have become children of God. In the second reading, we are told that we become children of God not of our making but of His making. There is nothing we do that can ever earn the love of God. The Son of Mary has elevated our status to that of the children of God and so what remains for us is that we want to respond to this unmerited love by living it out with dignity.

We can discern that from the moment of the Incarnation to His birth, God has charted the path of salvation; a path that must go through the family. Here, we note that the model family is not restricted to the one- or two-child family. Instead, the family is larger than that as evident in the description of the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Of course, this is not a description about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ but rather a depiction that the family is larger than just the nuclear family. This in itself already gives clue about what the family is about: parents, children and relatives. This is a concept larger than what we usually define of as a family: the “nuclear family” meaning that it basically consists of “father, mother and children”. Cutting away from the family is not good for the development of children. My father and his siblings do not get along but the cousins have no problems with each other. In fact, we help civilise each other.

If the family is necessary to salvation, then, the family is either a cauldron of conflict or a source of strength. The collapse of the Copenhagen’s Climate Change Conference with its concern about the environment is perhaps a reflexion of the failure of Man to address what is crucially important to the “environment”, that is human ecology. In the craze about carbon credit, we speak of justice for the environment forgetting to address what is in the first place crucial to the salvation of the environment. John Paul II highlighted this in Centesimus annus, the encyclical commemorating the 100 years of the first social encyclical of the Church Rerum novarum. He says and I quote: “The first and fundamental structure for "human ecology" is the family, in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person. Here we mean the family founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self by husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny... It is necessary to go back to seeing the family as the sanctuary of life. The family is indeed sacred: it is the place in which life — the gift of God — can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life. [CA#39].

The environment and the family are mirror images. In fact, the term “ecology”, which we interchangeably use with “environment”, comes from the Greek oikos meaning the home. We often fail to see the connexion between the home where the family is found and the environment. For the family to flourish, it must mean that the environment be clean and wholesome. But, on further reflexion, note that the destruction of the environment actually mirrors the silent destruction of the family. In our desperation to save the environment, we are actually driving the family into isolation. Is it any wonder why people dare not venture out in the street for fear of snatch theft? Here, your immediate thought is that the environment is unsafe which is why people refuse to venture out. But, the reality is that the destruction of the family will also render the environment unsafe.

Thus, our concern for the environment must begin with the family. Unfortunately, our tendency is to take for granted that which is vitally essential to our salvation. Husband and wife take for granted that money is more important than relationships between them and their children. Children take for granted that parents will always be there until it is too late.

Today when we celebrate the Holy Family, perhaps it is time to re-think Family. We need to simply because our environment is growing more and more hostile.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Year C

Today a Saviour is born for us.

What does that mean?

At the Credo, the profession of faith, we bow profoundly at these words: “By the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin and became Man”. The operative word is a profound bow and not a head bow. There are four Masses altogether with different sets of readings between yesterday evening and today. But, what unites these four Masses is, instead of a profound bow, we kneel at the same words.

What does that mean? What implication does this action of kneeling have or why do we have to kneel?

To appreciate why we kneel, we need to look at the way we celebrate Christmas. First of all, Christmas celebrates the fact that Christ came amongst us. According to the lofty Gospel of John, which we will use for the Mass during the Day, that is, this Mass, it says simply: “The Word was made flesh”. This means at Christmas, we celebrate facticity; a fact.

However, facticity does not make sense to some of us. “So what?” one may ask. But, this is not surprising considering that our approach to reality or facticity is via meaning. Thus, the usual take on Christmas is from our perspective. He came, which is a fact, but, more importantly we are concerned about how we can celebrate His coming more meaningfully. A good example of how we can celebrate Christmas more meaningfully can be teased from songs such as “Christmas, isn’t Christmas, till it happens in your heart”. That is not a bad thing simply because we are trying to make Christ known and the only way He is known is through people who call themselves Christians. This may explain why people “denomination hop” or “church hop” because they are discouraged by what they see in a denomination or a church. From our perspective, Christ can only be known when Christians live Christ-like lives. Many homilies are based upon this principle that we are the only Bible that some people will ever read.

Whilst this may be true, the danger of this “human” or “our” perspective is to reduce the facticity of Christ coming to us. That means if we were less Christian, therefore, Christ would be less real.

But, is He? The answer is “no”. Therefore, today we are not concerned by “how” Christian we are to the world, even though that is important.

Whilst we must be concerned about making Christmas more meaningful, that is, more relevant, sometimes, we forget that the facticity or the reality of His coming is so that we can be like Him. Without Him there is no reason for a better world. Changing the world follows from recognising who He is: Emmanuel—God with us.

That is why we bow so profoundly at the creed and later after the homily, we kneel. We celebrate that event which according to St Paul to the Philippians, he says, “that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow”.

Why the reality of His birth is so important is illustrated in this story which you may have heard before.

“One raw winter night a farmer heard an irregular thumping sound against his kitchen storm door. He went to a window and watched as tiny, shivering sparrows, attracted to the evident warmth inside, beat in vain against the glass. Touched, the farmer bundled up and trudged through fresh snow to open the barn door for the struggling birds. He turned on the lights and tossed some hay in the corner. But the sparrows, which had scattered in all directions when he emerged from the house, hid in the darkness, afraid. The man tried various tactics to get them into the barn. He laid down a trail of Jacob’s biscuit crumbs to direct them. He tried circling behind the birds to drive them to the barn. Nothing worked. He, a huge, alien creature, had terrified them; the birds couldn’t comprehend that he actually desired to help. The farmer withdrew to his house and watched the doomed sparrows through a window. As he stared, a thought hit him like lightning from a clear blue sky: If only I could become a bird – one of them – just for a moment. Then I wouldn’t frighten them so. I could show them the way to warmth and safety.

At the same moment, another thought dawned on him. He grasped the reason Jesus was born”.

Christ has come even though many of us are unchristian but precisely many of us remain unchristian simply because we are not converted to the facticity of His coming. This is why every year, we are reminded of this fact: He took our flesh in order that we may become more divine. Try bowing profoundly and you will know what I mean.

At Babel, Man wanted to approach God on his own merit. So, Man built a tower hoping to touch heaven in order to tell God, “God, here in heaven, I stand at par with You”. The same is observed when people say, “Why go for Confession when I am going to sin again”. It is Babel Volume II in this sense: “Look God, I am imperfect. Let me make myself perfect before I come before You in Confession”. Is that not trying to make oneself at par with God? The profound bow and the bending of knee restore the proper relationship between God and man, that is, we are creatures before the Creator.

The posture of the creature before the Creator is important in our quest for a meaningful and better world of peace, justice and harmony. Our desire for a better world does not begin with a grandiose plan. It begins when we embrace or better still, kneel, acknowledging the reality that Christ was born. The Creator has come. He is with us. He is the reason why everything is possible: we endure suffering more patiently and more perfectly and certainly we love the world better and more generously. The path to a better world begins with our knees. So, fall on your knees, oh hear the angels’ voices... O Night Divine. O Night when Christ was born. O Night Divine. O Night O Night divine.

Monday, 21 December 2009

4th Sunday of Advent Year C

The 4th Sunday continues with the customary message of Advent hope but it is really a Sunday that belongs to Mary as is suggested by the theme: Mary’s Child: The Prince of Peace. His coming which fulfils Micah’s prophecy requires Mary’s cooperation. The birth of Christ is also the motherhood of Mary and so this Sunday we take a closer look at the blessedness of her faith; the impact of belief in the ordinariness of life.

In today’s Gospel, right after the Annunciation where Mary had put her life into God’s hands, we find her responding to the needs of others. As such, it is appropriate that Mary became the first disciple of the promised Saviour who was to come because she believed and acted on her faith.

As we approach Christmas and are taken in by the grandeur associated with it, we might forget that the relationship between belief and action is not always easy. In the case of Mary, she had to set out for the hill country of Judah, a journey by foot that might take some time. Women of her time would never travel alone. But she, believing the angel’s description of her child as holy, may have set out with the certainty that she would be protected by the holy child in her womb.

But, you do not get this in a straight-forward re-telling of the episode. Instead, we might labour under the impression that faith makes everything easy. In truth, faith does not guarantee the absence of hardship. Faith makes it possible for us to overcome hardship. In the case of Mary, she set out alone without a thought of her safety, relying on the protection of her faith. In summary, we see a correlation between faith and action where one must lead to the other. The implication of faith is action but we know that belief does not always flow into action.

The blessedness of Mary’s faith becomes an inspiration for those who are discouraged either by the futility of their faith or failure of their actions. Many of us may be failed idealists at best or plainly cynical at worst. Either way, a failed idealist or a cynic, both are crying out for faith. As such, Mary is so much more relevant as an icon of faith simply because in a “faithless world” or a “failed world”, the complication is when the “individual” is reduced to “nothingness”. No matter what station in life, almost everyone here knows the powerlessness of being small, marginalised and treated indifferently.

Part of our frustration is somewhat of our own making, meaning that we have all come to believe that all we want we can achieve on our own. In many cases, we sell the myth that faith in our dreams rests simply upon sheer strength. We have come to believe in the invincibility of our efforts or endeavours. Our faith is not in God but in our ability.

If our faith is fundamentally our strength, then Mary as the icon of faith does not make sense. A description of her powerlessness and her faith may essentially be reduced to a description of “Deus ex machina”; that moment in story telling which allows for “divine” intervention of an insolvable difficulty. Just like Cinderella’s fairy godmother appearing at a time when she had no other way to go for the ball. This formula is mostly acted out in our “feel good” movies of the “happy-ending” kind.

But, precisely, the faith of Mary is God’s strength. What she does makes sense only because she believes. Her faith seems “ridiculous” only because we have become more disbelieving or we have come to rely on ourselves. The faith of Mary will always stand out sharply as naïve against the backdrop of a technologically-driven self-sufficient scientific culture or mentality. For example, at Copenhagen, as world leaders engage in useless semantics on climate change, the polar ice-caps are melting faster than the curbing of greenhouse gas emission. To speak of faith other than of our capability suggests “inaction” bordering on a dereliction of duty. Closer to our home-front, even as we hope for the Herald’s outcome, we are left with a sinking feeling that we will lose out anyway because we have not “done” enough. You can discern how faith is related to what we do but often our action is not because we have faith. In fact, our action flows not from believing in God but in ourselves. Faith necessarily leads to action. For us, action is taken to be proof of faith and we know that is not necessarily the case.

Mary teaches us that our faith is God’s strength. She beckons us today not to give up hope because God can be relied upon and the only way we can be sure that God can be relied upon is that we, like Mary, say yes to God and like her, we act believing that God will help us because we allow Him to. Christmas is not that God needs to come but we need God to come. Faith is our call to God and faith is the reason for our actions in the world. Mary’s generous faith gave the Father the permission to send the Son into the world. In these next few days, may Mary’s example encourage us to do likewise: be generous in our faith. We will never be confounded and only then will our actions confirm that.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent Year C

Today is called Gaudete Sunday for the simple reason that some Sundays take their names from the first line of the Entrance Antiphon, the “Introit”. The entrance antiphon is taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (4:4) which is the first sentence of the 2nd Reading “Gaudete in Domino semper”, translated as “Rejoice in the Lord always”. The Jerusalem Bible translates it tritely as “Be happy” making it sound like a bit like a Bob Marley song. Some priests even try to avoid celebrating Mass this Sunday or the 4th Sunday of Lent because they do not like to be dressed in “rose”. So, apart from the rose-coloured vestment, what significance can we derive from this celebration?

All the readings share the same theme: the nearness of the Lord. And so, in Prophet Zephaniah, God’s nearness is painted in the royal colour of a faithful God steadfast to His unfaithful and unworthy bride. St Paul, believing that the 2nd Coming is imminent, urges the people to give witness to God’s nearness by letting go of their anxiety and living in a spirit of prayer and thanksgiving. Finally, the theme of the Lord’s nearness is at the centre of John the Baptist’s preaching: Escape the Lord’s judgement by preparing for His coming because judgement is always associated with His coming.

In the context of waiting for the Lord, the knowledge that our salvation is near is the cause of our joy. The three readings tell us that it is so near that we can almost taste it. And this joy in relation to His coming becomes for us a moment of reflexion.

In a nutshell, both Lent and Advent are actually seasons which capture the history of salvation between Christ’s Incarnation and His 2nd Coming. There is not a moment in salvation history that Man is not waiting for Him to come. But, in the context of the long wait, the rose-coloured vestment makes sense, not only because it is sacramental in nature but because it helps relieve the tedium of waiting.

The human spirit, in order to be human, needs rest. The word that appropriately describes this necessary rest is recreation. Here we are brought back to the genesis of creation: paradise. Recreation is recalling that moment before the human spirit was injured by sin. Recreation is the restoration of the human spirit so that refreshed, it can continue along the path of salvation. We are, after all, pilgrims on a journey.

However, we have taken “rest” as necessary for the journey to be the end in itself. Two nights ago, we had to send someone home to Bangsar and the remark about Bangsar was that it was no longer the place “to be seen at” at night. Now, the “to be seen at” places are Sri Hartamas and the Curve. I am not interested which “being seen at” place is the most happening one but instead, I am interested to question the meaning of these places. You see, in terms of rest, there is a similarity between Gaudete Sunday and Sri Hartamas or the Curve. But, that is where the similarity ends. These places represent not so much the search for fun but rather this pre-occupation with “never-ending” fun—where night becomes day, where recreation actually results in tiredness because people have to sleep during the day to regain what they had lost at night. It is not sin but a form of sickness. In short, the journey is not punctuated by rest or the journey is not made lighter by recreation. On the contrary, our preoccupation is basically recreation in itself. Is that any wonder why Christmas is so blasé on the 26th December when the decoration would have lost its glitter? Our life’s mission is condemned to this relentless search for one “high” to another “high”.

On the one hand, this reveals a tiredness in the human spirit. Thus, “fun” or the search for "highs" is our escape from the tedium of life. But on the other hand, the inability to look beyond earthly happiness is indicative of this lack of a vision beyond this world. We are caught up with what this world has to offer forgetting that the offering of this world is only a tease, a foretaste of the real deal that awaits us all. Dim sum is a good phrase to use. Many of us eat sio mai or ha kao with nary a thought but dim sum means “to gently tease the heart”. All food and all good things are meant to tease the heart because fun is eschatological. It points to the end time.

Everything that we have, in the context of journey or pilgrimage, is given as means and not as the end. That is why John the Baptist spoke of sharing the two tunics, exacting no more than the rate required, refraining from extortion and intimidation. Everything we have is dim sum—temporary—given as a respite in this vale of tear—lacrimarum valle. Clinging on to dear life or to everything that we have betrays a lack of trust in the eschaton or the resurrection. Here, I make a digression because earlier I had mentioned about sleep and night. Well, night is a form of death and our acquiescence through sleeping is actually a tacit acceptance of the eschaton or the resurrection.

Coming back to the image of this lacrimarum valle, I like it. Why? Life is hard... or it is supposed to be hard. Let me clarify this. Life is hard but not necessarily that we make it harder. There is a difference between accepting that life is hard and making it hard. So, when life is hard, whatever good that comes, we begin to appreciate it better and it helps us to rethink about the world in such a way that we use whatever good we have to help us and others further our journey. It helps us to put into proper perspective that nothing in this world is to be forever.

Thus, the significance of the rose-coloured vestment is that it breaks the “monotony” of the purple of waiting by introducing joy in an otherwise sad world. Rose is the halfway of the red of martyrdom and also halfway of the purple of penitence. So, by all means, have fun, go to Sri Hartamas or the Curve but remember that the “good times” point to somewhere else, they are simply the dim sum of the eschaton and our life’s mission is to work for that somewhere else. Gaudete Sunday serves to give us a correct perspective of the life to come as we catch a glimpse of the goodness that God can be to us all.

Monday, 7 December 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent Year C

The 1st Reading is deeply sacramental. Look at how the 3 great monotheistic religions that claim common ancestry from Abraham—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are engaged in the contestation, at times violent, for the patch of plateaux, mountains, hills and valleys called Jerusalem. The Prophet Baruch describes how the Exiled will be brought back to Jerusalem, the city of God; the place where God’s peace can be found. The etymology of its name connotes “completeness, wholeness and soundness”. Jerusalem was to be the radiating heart of the world of completeness and wholeness. Perhaps, you can discern why this constant desire to return to this city explains the sacramental character of the 1st Reading. Jerusalem is the outward sign of God’s presence in the world.

John the Baptist, in the Gospel today, cries out, “Prepare the way for the Lord and make straight His paths”. In light of the sacramental character of the 1st Reading, the place where God’s peace or wholeness is to be found is now translated into a person: the Prince of Peace. Jesus is the person where wholeness is to be located. In short, in Him, all mankind shall see the salvation of God.

In order to see God’s salvation, we must want it or we must need it. The theme this Sunday is the “Joy of Salvation”. In a world which is seemingly perfect because of our capability, it is not easy to discern how we can ever be saved or why we even need it in the first place. Since we function along the principle of efficient self-management, it is hard to comprehend the joy that comes with salvation. Thus, God cannot save if we do not need Him. And if we do not realise that we need God’s salvation, since we are made for God, the simple result is that there will always be emptiness in our hearts.

A way in which the principle of efficient self-management is worked out is a form of spiritual pride. Some of us fail to see it that way but there are times when we believe that God cannot love us because of our imperfections and our sins. You know how often we punish ourselves by thinking such? This is borne out by the reluctance to go for confessions and for good reason. People ask earnestly: “Why go for confessions when I am going to sin again?” [1] Confession, in essence, is the acknowledgement that we need God’s salvation but, for many of us, the basis for confession shows that we do not really need God. How so? For many of us, confession makes sense only if one does not sin or one is incapable of sin. And so the reason goes that “I will only go for confession if I am assured that I will not sin again. But since I cannot assure God that I will not sin again, I shall neither waste my time nor God’s time by going for confessions”. You can see that intention is good but the reasoning is spurious. If that is not spiritual pride, I don’t know what is.

Here, let me be clear that I am not making a pitch for confessions or the necessity of it. I am merely trying to explain why the apprehension concerning confession masks the spiritual pride of a generation that believes salvation is the fruit not of God’s doing but its own machination. We can manufacture our salvation. This does sound like the tagline from The Six Million Dollar Man: Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. Translated: We can rebuild ourselves without God. Does this not remind you of communism? Communism was an attempt to save mankind from itself and it tries to do it without reference to God. But, sadly, a world without God is joyless.

However, salvation brings joy or if you like, the appreciation that salvation is near brings joy. The 2nd Reading radiates the joy of the salvation which Christ brings. If you read further, you will find the context of Paul’s joy is that he writes to the Philippians even though he is in prison. Paul is in prison and yet he can still write. This is how the joy of salvation is brought home to us. For Paul to encourage the Philippians even though he is in prison shows an appreciation that no time is ever out of the scope of salvation. It is an optimism which is founded on no less than the person of Christ. In Him, all mankind shall see the salvation of God. It is the only reason why Paul can exhort the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:8ff): "We are in difficulties on all sides, but never cornered; we see no answer to our problems, but never despair; we have been persecuted, but never deserted; knocked down, but never killed; always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus". The nearness of salvation gives us the sure hope of joy.

We live in troubled times, do we not? As The Star report states on 4th Dec that more than 304,358 people seemed to think so last year as they left the country. The Herald may have won a reprieve in the use of the word Allah but will judges who dare to stand up for judicial independence be subjugated by "routine administrative processes"? Will our need for greater transparency in governance be stymied by vested interest of a few? The depressing and disappointing list goes on.

But, we dare to labour joyfully knowing that it will not be in vain because salvation has not only been promised to us; salvation is much closer than we think. Advent’s wait is a reminder that the joy of salvation is a distinct possibility for those who embrace Christ. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth because only in Christ shall mankind come to know the fullness of salvation. Advent is ever pregnant with joy.

[1] Sometimes the contrary is true. It is not the fact that one will sin again that makes us reluctant to go for confession. Sometimes we feel that our sin is so big that we feel ourselves hopeless. We are in effect saying that God’s mercy is not big enough for our sins; God is not bigger than our sins.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Christ the King Year B

In a few weeks’ time, we will celebrate Christmas. Personally, Christmas, like Easter, does not excite me. They represent more work! But, apart from that, you may be wondering why both Christmas and Easter do not excite me. In a sense both are “matter of fact” type of celebrations. Christmas celebrates the fact that the 2nd person of the Trinity was born of the Virgin Mary. Easter celebrates the fact that Christ suffered, died and rose in order that we might have life. Christ’s birth, passion, death and resurrection are facts for eternal life. We rejoice at Christmas and Easter because of the salvation brought about by Christ.

Today, I am excited so much so that I told Fr AT to take this weekend off because I can’t seem to get enough of the Last Sunday of the year. Why? Luke 24 provides a glimpse of this excitement. In that chapter we find the post-resurrection experience of the 2 disciples on the Road to Emmaus. After their encounter with Christ one of them said: “Did not our hearts burnt within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scripture to us”.

There is a burning in the heart because we are celebrating not just a fact but an ideal of who we can be. I am happy with the fact that we have been saved but I am even more excited by the possibility of who we can be. Christ the King is an invitation as well as the reason for our being here. A part of the preface for the solemnity (that is, the part of the anaphora between the “Introductory Dialogue of the Eucharistic Prayer” and the Acclamation: the Sanctus) shows how it is both an invitation and a reason for our presence here.

You anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son, with the oil of gladness, as the eternal priest and universal king. As priest, he offered His life on the altar of the cross and redeemed the human race by this one perfect sacrifice of peace. As King He claims dominion over all creation, that He may present to you, His almighty Father, an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.

Now, together with the fact of Christmas and Easter, the preface presents a majestic sweep of the Christian vision—an ideal that our hearts can burn with. We have, on the one hand, Christmas and Easter proclaiming the fact that Christ has triumphed over Death. No longer can death hold us captives forever. The birth, passion, death and resurrection of Christ assure us that in our contention with Death, His victory will be ours. Eternal life, lost by man’s disobedience, has now been restored by Christ Himself. On the other hand, this grand vision of Christ as King puts into perspective the struggles that we encounter and will continue to encounter. We struggle because creation is groaning; creation is reaching out for the fullness of redemption. The perspective that creation is groaning helps us answer some fundamental questions arising from the experience of evil: the sufferings of illnesses, the destruction of natural calamities and the evils of injustice etc. We often ask the question, why is God so good and yet He allows such suffering? Suffering is part of creation’s groaning and yearning for the fullness of Christ’s salvation. Christ victory puts us back on track towards God and our so-called suffering here on earth is part of that return to God. A helpful analogy is that the war is over but we still have pockets of resistance to clear. We are not called Church Militant for nothing. We are Church Militant because we are engaged in the cleaning up process. In this engagement, we struggle but we know that we will never be defeated as we are engaged in the furthering of the kingdom which Christ has come to establish. The heart aching for His kingdom prompts each and every one of us to engage in or be part of His enterprise not as some faraway project set in the future but as part of the present because the future is in fact now. The future begins now.

The only way to be converted to this endeavour is through the eyes of love. The Gospel presents us with an image of Christ which makes possible this conversion. He stands powerless before the power of all powers. If you think about it, this image of a powerless Christ runs counter to the rank we ascribe to Him: A King. And yet, this powerless Christ is the very foundation of the Kingdom that He has come to establish. Thankfully, an image presented by St Ignatius may help. He says, “Consider Christ our Lord, standing in a lowly place in a great plain about the region of Jerusalem, His appearance beautiful and attractive. Consider how the Lord of all the world [who is not high and mighty but] chooses so many persons, apostles, disciples etc and sends them throughout the whole world to spread His sacred doctrine among all men, no matter what their state or condition”. This image of St Ignatius is found here in our stained glass. There you will find the majestic King humble in His service. He looks after the lambs and invites us to share in that mission of His.

I can’t tell you how to be excited. All I can say is this: my baptism is meaningless; so too my confirmation. My ordination is useless and so too the Eucharist I am celebrating. All these sacraments I have received are useless unless I am ready and I desire with my heart to be at the service of Christ my King in any way He sees fit for His kingdom. You may say the same for you: Your baptism is meaningless; so too your confirmation. Your marriage is useless and so too the Mass you are attending unless you too offer yourself simply because the very purpose of one’s existence is so that every breath of one’s being is directed to that enterprise of Christ the King that at the end of time, “He claims dominion over all creation, that He may present to His almighty Father, an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace”.

We all want excitement or we may crave the adrenalin rush. But, that excitement gives us a temporary high. The only “high”, the only genuine “high” worth living for is to be in the service of Christ the King [not adrenalin] because in Him, nothing “bad” is ever definitive—a bad job, a broken relationship, an unjust situation... the list can go on. A young doctor who is in compulsory public service came up to me to say yesterday: “I can see now that no matter how ‘crappy’ my job is, it is still possible to be part of Christ’s Kingdom”... Perhaps you understand why we can be excited because in Christ who is King, everything, no matter how bad, is pregnant with the possibilities of the Kingdom to come. It is possible if you say yes. The answer is with you.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Today is the 2nd last Sunday of the liturgical year. There is a feeling that we are neither here nor there because the readings will be some sort of a repeat next week! The 1st Reading and the Gospel are apocalyptic enough as they warn us of the impending end time. Daniel gives a vision of the resurrection and also the reward or the retribution for how we live this life. We know that the end time will come. Just that the Gospel tells that that time is known only to God. Thankfully, we have the 2nd Reading as it ties in very well with the theme: The eternal perfection of all whom Christ is sanctifying.

The 2nd Reading is the occasion for the misunderstanding of some people of what we do here every Sunday. We celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass. But, for some time, especially after Vatican II, we began to call the Mass by any other name except that of a sacrifice. We thought of the Mass as a memorial meal because we were supposed to remember a meal that Jesus had with the disciples before His passion on the Cross. Or, in many cases, it was basically considered a fellowship meal as its function was reduced to helping us build our relationship with one another. But, the Mass is more than just a memory of the past and the occasion for fellowship. It is the perfect sacrifice of Christ offered once and for all. At this point, I would like to make a little digression here. If the Mass were basically a fellowship meal, then both the posture and the music must serve that function. For example: a less solemn and easier going posture and the music light and easy. [One of the Pater nosters that some choirs use sounds like “Puff the Magic Dragon”]. But if the Mass is sacrifice, then the posture, for example, the priest facing the Crucifix, and the music solemn makes more sense. Later, I will say more of why the posture and music is important.

But, for now, let me return to the phrase "offered once and for all" because it raises a fundamental question. There in Hebrews, it clearly says that Christ does not have to offer Himself again and again, like the high priest going into the sanctuary year after year. Thus, if Christ offered Himself as sacrifice on Calvary once and for all, then what are we doing here?

Let us see how we can answer this. First, Calvary and the Last Supper are inseparably linked because they are both the one and the same sacrifice. The Gospel of John gives you a glimpse of that close connexion. When the soldier pierced His side to see if He were dead, according to John’s Gospel, blood and water gushed out. The Church interprets the blood and water to be the fountain of sacramental life, namely the sacraments of Eucharist and baptism. You hear this beautiful description in the Preface for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Second, if we accept that Calvary and the Last Supper were one event, then we begin to understand that there is a difference between "time" and "time". The ancient Greeks make a distinction between two experiences of time. One is chronological in the sense that there is a past, present and future. Our common experience of time is linear which means that an event has a beginning or an ending in time. As such, chronological time is quantitative because you can measure it. However, there is another time which is more qualitative and they call it “kairos” and the quality of this time is an experience of eternity. Why? Because, for God, all time is the same in which the present takes in the past as it projects the future. Even though both the Last Supper and Calvary are chronological events in the past, meaning that they happened some two thousand years ago but they are, in God, events that are still present and so in a sense, they can touch our lives here and now. Therefore, kairos transcends chronos because it is a kind of time in which a reality, even though past, becomes ever-present. This kind of time, kairos, is the basis for us to say that at baptism, we enter into the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, even though chronologically, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ happened more than 2000 years ago.

Hence, kairos is the basis for the “anamnesis” of our Mass. The command, “Do this in memory of me” is not a commemoration of the past in the sense that we are simply recollecting a past event in chronological time. Instead, it is a living memory in the sense that we are calling to mind that there is an event that has the capacity to touch our lives even now. Anamnesis means that we are present in the kairos sense at the Last Supper. The Eucharist we celebrate now is thus a sacrifice because through it, with it and in it, we are perpetually making present the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Now I return to the earlier point I made about posture and music. The posture of facing the Crucifix is appropriately sacrificial. We are making ourselves present to Christ being present to us in offering Himself [and we with Him] as sacrifice to the Father.

It is precisely this re-presenting that allows the theme to speak of the Eucharist as the “eternal perfection of all whom Christ is sanctifying”. Only the sacrifice of Christ can take away our sins and make us holy. And this act of Christ is only possible if we can in some way come face to face with THE event that took place chronologically 2000 years ago. The Council of Trent through the Doctrine on the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass taught that, “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross... For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different”. [22nd Session of Trent. Doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass]. Thus, the sacrifice of the Mass is the very action of Christ washing away our sins with His Blood shed on the altar of the Cross.

So, brothers and sisters, we are warned that chronological time is apocalyptic. It can come to an end and the worst possible scenario is painted by Daniel and Christ: to be caught unawares. And yet, kairotic time gives us the assurance that we will never be caught unawares, that is, if we keep before us the true source of our sustenance: Christ Himself who becomes present to us really through the Sacrifice of the Mass that we celebrate every Sunday.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

To some preachers, the readings are a bonanza because one can develop the theme of generosity and apply it to the congregation. “Give! Give until it hurts! If it does not hurt, then you have not been generous enough”. But, is there more to this “giving till it hurts” generosity for the congregation or parishioners? Yes, and both are found in the two widows of the 1st Reading and the Gospel. There are two lessons to be learnt even though both are centred on one theme: God in whom we trust.

In biblical times, even amongst the poor, there is probably a hierarchy and widows are placed right at the bottom of the social class. In a culture which places a great emphasis on honour, widows often have no one to defend their honour. The word “widow” itself can also mean, in Hebrew, one who is silent.

Thus, we might think that the Gospel is highlighting the generosity of a voiceless widow. It is, but, Christ is not so much praising the widow as He is lamenting how she has become poorer. Her worsened position must be seen in the context of who the Scribes are and what role they play in society. The Scribes are those who know the Law. If widows are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, then the scribes must belong to the upper stratum and this is confirmed by their preoccupation with honour. From their position, they have the authority to teach. That they love themselves too much is not the problem. The problem is Christ points to them as “men who swallow the property of widows”. Why? In giving all she has, the widow has further worsened her situation. Never mind that she trusts God. Her abandonment to God is actually a condemnation of those who have allowed her to be in such a situation. Thus, Christ is lamenting that the Scribes, whose teaching must have included the sacrifice of giving generously, has effectively reduced the woman to such dire straits. What they teach has further increased the depth of the widow’s penury or poverty.

As such, the widow in the Gospel challenges us on two counts. First, you would think that we have come a long and enlightened way. But, when you read of personalities (who have to remain nameless) and their making a show of their "noble largesse", we know that the phenomenon of shameless parading is still alive. In the context of this benevolence, what is worse is that much of the wealth has been ill-gotten in the first place. But, that is not the point. What is more important is to become more aware of how our actions affect the poor. That is the challenge of the Gospel’s widow. By what we do or what we do not do, have the poor become poorer? This is the part where we begin to be more aware of what we do with what we have. Parading our “generosity” is not enough. Nowhere does Christ condemn the wealthy for being wealthy. Wealth may be God’s choicest blessing but for those who do not know how to use it, it becomes a curse.

Thus, the widow in the Gospel teaches us, that apart from generous giving and trust in God, those of us who are more blessed need to be aware of what the true nature of blessing is. The blessing of having more is never for oneself. What we do with what we have is also an act of trust in and a response to God’s providence and this allows us to take a look at the widow of the 1st Reading.

First, consider her “double” silence. She is not just a widow but a “foreign” widow with a child to support. As such, she is doubly disadvantaged. Her encounter with Elijah teaches us that no matter how disadvantaged, one can still be generous. In a way our widow in the 1st Reading is like the widow in the Gospel because objectively by giving everything she has, she has also worsened her situation—"we shall eat and die". But unlike the widow in the Gospel, the situation is made different by her subjective response. We are never impoverished if we begin to share what we have. Thus, the difference between the two widows teaches us that we may be made poor objectively but our response to an objective situation must always be subjective, that is, personal.

Whilst the widow in the Gospel is made poorer by her objective situation, the widow of Elijah by her subjective response has freed herself to receive God’s providence. This is where we are challenged in our giving. There will be a lot of times where we will not be in control. The political landscape shows that injustice abounds in the country. The environment is not cooperating with us as we experience floods in the East Coast. We are told that the economy is improving but a neighbouring country known for its corruption is now even more transparent than we are and drawing foreign direct investment. All these factors may come together to restrict our freedom or narrow the scope of our action, like the widow in the Gospel. But the widow in the 1st Reading illustrates that freedom, no matter how restricted, is never so that we cannot be generous. That generosity comes only when we believe that God will provide. Otherwise we remain always in the territory of giving from our abundance or from our surplus and not from what we need. In short, we give what we do not need. Let me stress that there is nothing to be ashamed of even though many of us are like that. It is a natural response to any situation of lack or want. The parish is like that too. I tell other parish priests not to come to our parish for their fund-raising believing that there is only this much of generosity and we cannot spare. It actually betrays a lack of trust in people and more so in God.

That is why true generosity is a gift of the Holy Spirit for it is a heroic virtue. Any preacher who sets about asking people to give until it hurts may work on the sentiments of people who are shamed into giving—like telling the congregation that the "Proddies" give 10% and by our calculation Catholics on average give less than 1%. But, in the face of God’s Providence, to be shamed into giving would be a slap in the face of God whom we can trust. We give not because we are shamed. We give because God can be trusted for He is the giver of all things good. The 2nd Reading is our confirmation. If God can give His Son who sacrificed Himself to do away with our sins, what would God not give since He has paid the price for our salvation, with no less than the blood of His Son?

Generosity is a companion of freedom. When one gives freely, the result can only be freedom on our part—a freedom that no wealth or money could ever buy. The path to this freedom is to desire this faith and generosity to trust in God. We pray for that freedom to be generous.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

In Mark’s Gospel, the story about Bartimaeus is more than the story about blindness and the restoration of sight. It is an account of faith because after his sight was restored, Bartimaeus followed Jesus along the road. An important note is that Jericho is not far from Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s suffering. The symbolism cannot be lost because faith has this effect: to know Christ is to follow Him in suffering.

Basically, Mark’s theology is simply that Christ is the one who brings salvation to Israel. Therefore, healings are a sign that Christ’s salvation is already in the world. Consider that in Mark, very few recognise Jesus as the Messiah. So, it is remarkable and ironical that we have a blind man who recognises Jesus by acknowledging Him with the title of the Messiah: Son of David. And the Messiah’s response to Bartimaeus is not “You are healed” but “Go, your faith has saved you”. A closer reading of the Gospel reveals that blindness actually describes a lack of faith and not the lack of vision.

Thus the Gospel invites us to take a second look at how blind we can be in recognising the Lord and how slow we can be in responding to Him. What sort of faith are we to have?

First, faith is a kind of vision. As far as the eyes can see, we call that the horizon. Now, the horizon we have is provided by our vantage point. What happens is that the higher our vantage point is, the further the distance of our horizon will be! Faith is a vantage point because it allows our eyes to peer into a horizon beyond what our eyes can see.

But, the truth is, many of us are limited in our horizon because we cannot see beyond ourselves. Looking at oneself is not a bad proposition. For example, it is said that “feeling good” about oneself allows us to feel good about others. Or, you cannot give to others what you do not have. However, the challenge is not to allow this “looking inward” or introspection BE just about the self—my needs, my wants, my ambitions, my hurts, my dreams and my vision etc. The “self”, important as it may be, can also be a limitation to horizon because it prevents faith from seeing beyond what we are capable of to what God is capable of.

Faith allows a person to see beyond the self to what is possible. Jesus himself saw beyond the fig tree that Nathaniel was under. He saw a Nathaniel destined to do great things. Jesus saw beyond the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus was on top of. He saw a Zacchaeus who would be converted to a vision of just relationship.

Jesus’ “vision”—what he saw—was not entirely the result of positive thinking because He did see unsavoury business taking place in the Temple and He drove them all out. He lamented the hardness of heart in the Pharisees and the Scribes. In the age of positive thinking, what we think of as “faith” may not be more than what it is: positive thinking. The horizon of faith is deeper and wider than just being an eternal optimist.

Faith frees the heart to feel, the mind to think further and the imagination to dream. The vision of faith allows us to peer beyond the veil of superficial or cosmetic appearance. Thus, when faith is shallow, the mind constricts, the heart chills and the imagination dies. When faith is weak we become engrossed or obsessed with what is only the appearance. Reliance on God becomes more tiring when we have no faith.

In summary, do note that Mark does not normally name the character in play. Hence, Bartimaeus is so named because Mark highlights the pivotal role faith must play in our lives. What we have today is “self-confidence”. It does not lead to Christ. Only with faith will we recognise Jesus and more so Him in the widow, the poor and the orphan. Only with faith will we follow Him and serve Him in those who are “set aside” by society. Furthermore, you see how powerful faith is. As a beggar, Bartimaeus depended on his cloak. The cloak acts as a “net” to catch whatever coins that are thrown at him. When Jesus offered Himself to Bartimaeus, he shrugged off his cloak of dependence and followed Jesus. We all depend on the cloak of our self-confidence. We depend on our capability or strength. But, Bartimaeus shows us who we should really depend on.

Faith is the only key to discipleship and salvation. We need faith to recognise Jesus, to know Him and to shrug off any encumbrances that prevent us from following Him. We need to pray for that gift.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

The theme for Mission Sunday is Christ the Suffering Servant of God. The word that strikes at our Catholic heartstrings is “suffering” because the Church seems to have a passion for suffering. The passage taken from the Prophet Isaiah reinforces the perception that the Church and suffering come as a package. The truth is, as the two sons of thunder jostle for a place of honour in the line-up of the future glorious Lord, He draws their attention to the fact that authority is for service and only then, service and suffering become two sides of a coin.

The place of honour sought by the brothers has its appeal and its grandeur is even more alluring in our age of celebrity. We live in an age that has gone beyond the simple categories of fame or notoriety. In the past, one was either famous or notorious. Today, it does not matter as long as one opens that 15-minute window of glory to celebrity-hood. But, the craving for celebrity status is not our concern. What is of greater concern is that the authority that James and John sought from being honoured with Christ has lost its credibility.

The 19th/20th century gave us three great thinkers whose thoughts or reflexions correspond to 3 vital areas of our lives. In the area of psychology, we enter the world of Sigmund Freud’s psycho-analysis. In the arena of economics, Karl Marx is no stranger to us as he tries to level the playing field. In the realm of politics, Friedrich Nietzsche introduces us to power.

Now, great thinkers they may be, but, collectively, they are called the Masters of Suspicion. Their hermeneutics or their principle of interpretation is basically one of suspicion or distrust. Freud, in the area of psychology teaches that motives are often impure and cannot be trusted. Marx shows us that capital is the struggle between the rich and the poor. Capital cannot be trusted because it is basically the rich oppressing the poor. Finally, Nietzsche’s genius is found in the will to power. Everything is about power or control and as such those who are powerful cannot be trusted.

In the last 100 years or so, we realise that these 3 Masters of Suspicion have been proven right—time and again. People who are honoured because they have good intentions are often not trustworthy—holy men and women betray their vocations and often the more holy the more hypocritical. [1] Those who have money will make sure that the status quo is maintained. How can a person be rich, if there were no poor people beneath them? Finally, power is corrupt. We have witnessed coercive power at work—coercion and the treat of punishment are a lethal and corrupt mixture in the disguised service of the greater good.

In short, the crisis in our age is trust. If we lament that the defining feature of this age is characterised by a loss of faith in God, it is perhaps an indictment against humanity more than it is against God. Loss of faith in God is symptomatic of the loss of faith in humanity. [2]

Hence, the Gospel is timely today. Firstly, it is not focused on the suffering. Christ and His Church do not look for suffering in itself; that would be masochism. On the contrary, suffering is often the consequence of the sacrifice entailed by serving that allows us to say that suffering and service are two sides of a coin. Once we accept that the consequence of service is suffering, perhaps we can now understand that Christ, the suffering servant is more relevant than ever. You may experience that honoured people cannot be trusted. You may meet people for whom riches have not made them more graceful but instead have turned them rather disgraceful and you may come across people for whom power is only self-serving. All these experiences may discourage you to the point of cynicism or drive you into a self-contained but asphyxiated world—a world choked by its pessimism. [3]

But, Christ shows us a way out of our current malaise or crisis. The greatest redemption for authority is to be found in service. In short, the best way to be honoured for your good intentions, to be wealthy or to be powerful is to serve. Last week, I mentioned that proper development of the conscience with regard to wealth as blessings begins with our direct involvement with the poor. Why? The answer is found in Matthew 25. The service of the least of Christ’s brethren is to serve Him. Anything that wields us authority—honour, wealth or power—anything that places us a rank above others, now in Christ, becomes a responsibility to serve Him.

In summary, more than ever, the healing of our intention, the rehabilitation of wealth and the restoration of the proper use of power must take place in the arena of service. [4] In the olden days, kings stood at the head of their army leading the charge and were often the first to be killed. How else to be an effective leader if one does not know how to serve and be the example or model? Christ, who is pure in His love, whose wealth is His divinity and who has power as God, has shown us the path of service. He who is everything has shown us what it means to wield authority. The more honoured you are, the richer you are and the more powerful you are, that is, the more authority you possess, the greater must your service be. A tell-tale sign that you have come into the authority of Christ is this: no one, not even a beggar and nothing, not even washing the toilet, is below your dignity to serve or to do. Service, at the heart of the Christian message, is rooted in strength. It is not a sign of weakness but really an exercise in strength. Only the strong dares to serve. The weak will cling to authority.
[1]People avoid the term “holy”. We simply cannot trust people’s motives.

[2]There are people who think that bringing new life into the world is an act of grave irresponsibility. Such thinking illustrates not only the loss of faith in humanity but also is symptomatic of the tiredness of the human spirit. There is a dearth of inspiration that cries out for the Holy Spirit.
[3] The hermeneutics of suspicion can only take us so far. We may distrust everything but only so much. Otherwise, a radical distrust will only end up with paranoia or the inability to function. Ultimately, we begin to doubt the very ground we stand on. Thus, the hermeneutics of suspicion is balanced by the opposite which is the hermeneutics of trust. The hermeneutics of trust ties in with a God who is also Providence.
[4]Authority accorded by honourable intention, wealth or power is redeemed by service.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

History has shown that Christianity has had an uneasy relationship with “wealth”. In fact, literature from the time of Chaucer made references to wealth often with negative connotation and that gave rise to terms like “filthy lucre”. The focus of this Sunday’s Gospel on the Rich Young Man’s inability to let go of his wealth, may sway us gently into this way of thinking that the possession of wealth is not a good [a bonum]. The Gospel states clearly that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. And because we are preoccupied by his inability to let go of his wealth, we may lose sight of the fact that the young man was a good man. In fact, as the Rich Young Man turns to Jesus for further guidance, the Gospel enumerates a list of virtues, a rather long list that the young has fulfilled. Thus, the inability to part with wealth should be placed in a bigger picture of the inability to follow Christ, i.e., he lacks the freedom to follow the Lord.

The focus is on discipleship. The Rich Young Man represents not just wealth, even though the adjective “rich” is used to qualify him. Instead, he represents any inability or the lack of freedom to follow the Lord. He is a reminder to us that anything, not only wealth, can deter us from following Christ. [Even the poor can fail in following the Lord].

In a positive sense, the focus on discipleship also reveals the real search of the Rich Young Man. Given all that he has, he is actually asking the question of the purpose of life. In a sense, he is typical of many people today, especially the young. For many of us, the train of life may be a never-ending ride or journey filled with distractions or amusements. Sadly, our frenetic pace of life does not always encourage the spiritual reflexion necessary to make life more purposeful.

But, like the Rich Young Man, at some point, in our insatiable quest for wealth of any kind—money, fame and success, we must stop and ask the important questions of life. This search may best be framed by these questions: “For whom am I ready to give up everything that I have”? For whom would I give up not just my wealth but also my career advancement, my addictions, my pleasure and my possessions? In short, Whom and not what do I think can fulfil my inmost longings better than anything that I have?

In a world divided by “haves” and “have-nots”, and where lucre is filthy, it is easy to pass judgement on the rich as those who will find it difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, this simple division of the world may detract us, whether rich OR poor, to the need to deepen our discipleship. So, wealth is not really the enemy. Look at the long list of virtues the young man has. He has not done anything bad. In a sense, he is a model disciple but he is likened to someone living on the safe side of the law. What happens is that we tend to hold the avoidance of evil to be the sole measure of a virtuous life—see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. However, this attitude may lead to apathy, simply because, the avoidance of evil can easily be translated into non-involvement as one minds one’s own business. Thus, a pertinent or relevant question to ask in the current context is “How much of the way body politics is shaped in this country is in fact a direct or indirect consequence of this “I am not involved” attitude?” “I have not done anything wrong" is NOT always a right thing.

In the light of “I have done nothing bad” or virtue as the avoidance of evil, the possession of wealth leads us into the realm of possibilities. That was why Jesus looked steadily at the young man and loved him. Jesus saw the great potential in this young man. From “I have not cheated” he saw the possibilities of this young man helping the poor. From “I have not killed”, he saw the possibilities of this young man giving life to those who needed it. Thus, the critique against the possession of wealth is best understood as a critique against not doing what is possible.

In this sense, wisdom is needed as we heard in the first reading. We must choose wisely the course of action with regard to what we have. In the end, we begin to appreciate that true wealth begins not with accumulation—with money, fame or success, etc. True wealth begins with doing what is good or doing what can be done. It is not just avoiding evil, important as that may be.

Wealth is relative, that is, its possession is always in relation to God [for He provides] and others [whom God chooses to bless through us]. It is not possession in absolute terms. In general people are not afraid of sharing. People are not afraid of giving. Wealth only becomes an expression of greed when people fear that there may not be enough to get back what they had given out. [Clearly, a lack of trust in God’s Providence]. People hold on to what they have because they fear that in giving up what they have, what is replaced will not be able to satisfy them. In the Gospel, Christ offers Himself as the only satisfying reward for giving up. “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over”. Christ is the only wealth or possession worth the sacrifice of our lives.

In summary, the other side of the wealth is discipleship. It is this relationship between what is gift, what is given that we begin to understand the sin of omission—the sin of not doing what is made possible by the gift given. As long as we have an uneasy relationship with wealth due to the guilt of association with filthy lucre, then we will not be able to appreciate wealth in relation to the Kingdom of God. If you feel guilty because you are wealthy, then know that it is the wrong guilt. But, if you feel guilty because you have not done enough with what you have, then you may be on the track of proper conscience. And, the development of a proper conscience with regard to the possession of wealth begins with our direct involvement with the poor. Wealth may be the root of all evil but it is also the seed of discipleship—a start on the road of grace. “Do what you can. Give to the poor. Come follow me”. The challenge for the Christians today is not the possession of wealth or even the accumulation of wealth but rather to understand, appreciate and interiorise how our wealth is to be at the service of the Kingdom of God—for the praise and glory of God and through us, the means of God blessing our brothers and sisters.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B [4th October 2009]

It is perhaps fortuitous that this weekend is the memorial of St Francis Assisi and the theme centres on the family. Why fortuitous? St Francis was a man of peace and his message, perhaps, has implications for the human family. If you like, the readings today point toward the unit of peace called the family. According to the First Reading, God made man and woman for each other. The bond of marriage means that they are no longer two but one. Christ in the Gospel teaches that the marriage comes from God and is therefore indissoluble.

In the face of global armed conflicts and with the threat of a nuclear holocaust becoming more real, the idea of world peace is indeed sought after. Just like the movie Miss Congeniality, world peace is supposed to be every beauty queen’s desire. [1] That airy fairy fuzzy desire for world peace must begin concretely with the family.

How can the family be a means to world peace?

The first reading taken from Genesis may help us here. There are two accounts of the “institution” of marriage found there. The first speaks of marriage in terms of fruitfulness or procreation. The second looks at marriage as meeting a human need for companionship and for equality—the basis for our thought on peace in the family. In the Gospel, Jesus draws his inspiration from the Book of Genesis instead of from the Book of Deuteronomy. The Pharisees, on the one hand, looked for their loophole in the indecency clause of Deuteronomy to get out of a marriage whereas Jesus, on the other hand, looked at His Father’s will as the foundation for marriage’s stability. Through faithful love, man and woman will come to reflect the faithfulness of God to creation.

Faithful love or marriage stability is a reflexion of or better still, a sacrament of God’s faithful love. According to a survey of Entertainment Weekly, there are 15 lines that more than any others epitomises the worst, the silliest, the most cringe-worthy movie lines ever spoken. Almost at the top is Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire (1996): “You complete me”. Apart from the fact that it may be silly, it certainly is a reflexion of our lost sense of perspective. Many of us no longer believe in the permanency of marriage. “You complete me” is basically the message of our Genesis reading. The unity that is brought about by mutual completion or mutual fulfilment of each other is the basis for the celebration of marriage.

In marriage we proclaim God’s faithfulness to us and what a better proclamation than to see couples, men and women who after 30 years of marriage can still sit together and hold hands. Here, in this parish, let me assure you that there are as many grieving widows as there are merry widows. For some people, death of a partner is a welcome change but for others, death begins this long life of pained loneliness. On the one hand, what is most reassuring in the face of death is the resurrection; that we will be reunited with those whom we love—it is part of supernatural faith that gives us this comfort. But, on the other hand, there is the natural longing and pining for one’s partner. This gives us all a deep sense of the value that marriage has brought to lives of individuals.

Marriage stability is a great gift that the family can give to the cause of world peace. The grammar of world peace is written in the structure of the human family. There will be peace on earth to the extent that humanity discovers its calling to family life. Nothing is more important to the health of children than that they come from stable marriages. Before we go into that, divorce is a reality. First, today, it is easier to divorce because the taboo against it is no longer that strong. Second, some people find themselves in a state separation through no fault of theirs. Thus, our reflexion on the stability of marriage is not a judgement of those who find themselves in the unenviable position of separation. Divorce or separation is not always a result of personal failure.

If anything, the prevalence of divorce and its acceptance in our culture must spur us on to protect the family even more. In this respect, the Church or in particular, this parish owes a great deal of gratitude to couples who have remained married to each other over the years and through thick and thin have held together. Thus, the parish invites them to share joys and sorrows by celebrating their anniversaries with us.

In marriage, as in every relationship, the bond between man and woman has to be worked on. Nothing suffers more from “disuse” than from being unused. Compare the difference between an unused portion of a travel journey and a disused swimming pool. Which gives you a greater sense of dereliction? A disused swimming pool suggests of broken tiles, green algae and stagnant water. Marriage suffers from “disuse” and not from being unused and a disused marriage suggests of broken promise, unhealed hurts and a moribund relationship. There are many marriages falling into disuse.

The result cannot be good for the family. You can see the indissolubility of marriage is not just a concern of priests. There is justification for couples to strengthen their married life because the fruit of their love for each other, their children, is best nurtured and cared for when a marriage is stable.

You are challenged; we are challenged to promote good family life. A good family is not a perfect family. It may be a struggling family trying to live the way that God intends. You should find some modicum of hope because there are very few perfect families. Like many families, you probably belong to the category of struggling families. But, remember the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage. When a couple comes before the Altar to pronounce their vows, God also promises to be with the couple. In many cases, it is we who break the promise to God. So, rest assured that God is with you and He promises to help you. But, you need to trust Him and trust each other.

Our desire for world peace has led us to the family—the building block of peace. Thus, today is a good day to look at the family and ask how a struggling family may improve in its “familial” relationship and praise be to God if you have a wonderful family, then ask how a good family may become even better.
[1] If you know the movie, every contestant was asked what she would do if she won the crown. The answer given with a dreamy look was she would promote world peace.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B [27th Sept 2009]

The theme this Sunday is God’s Spirit in the World. The readings give us a glimpse of God’s Spirit working in the world. According to John 3:8, [and this was echoed in the Processional Hymn], the Spirit is like the wind for He blows wherever He wills. The freedom of the Spirit to act according to His will blends in very much with our accepted notion of what freedom is or how we ought to conceive freedom. The freedom of the Spirit to act outside the norm is at times taken to be the attitude of “anti-establishment”. Furthermore, that the Spirit cannot be stifled is also sometimes translated as the Spirit cannot be found in “institutions” etc—like governments or Church. [1] Thus, freedom may be construed as being able to stand up to established norms or authorities. [2]

But, freedom draws a line. You puzzle as to why freedom is defined by a line. The first reading and the Gospel may lend themselves to our understanding that freedom is to stand outside or against the established norms or authorities, but they actually speak in terms of gifts in relation to the community. In the first reading, Moses confirms this when he wished that the Spirit be given to everyone and in the Gospel, those who work in the name of Jesus are deemed empowered by the Spirit and as such they should not be stopped.

Thus, freedom is not willy-nilly the freedom to do as one wishes the way we think the Spirit does. The line drawn by freedom is relevant to us especially in the context of living in a global village. Lines demarcate and as such, they may tend to exclude and this runs counter to the current convention which is tolerance and inclusive. We want the freedom from constraints in order to interact as we like and living under the glare of sometimes hostile media, we may be afraid to “define” ourselves for fear that we be judged prejudiced or bigoted. As a result, in a globalised context, the Spirit is our excuse and our licence. Whenever we want to escape the limitation imposed by the incarnation, we claim the passport of freedom from the Spirit.

But freedom is a line and the Spirit drew the line strongly against sin. For example, the 2nd Reading is not really that sympathetic. It warns those whose riches are ill-gotten that their wealth will not be their security but instead, wealth will be their corruption. “On earth, you have had a life of comfort and luxury”. In short, your days are numbered.

In the Gospel, that line is called Hell. The original meaning of Gehenna is that awful place where Jews before the time of Jesus held human sacrifice. The Prophet Jeremiah condemned the place outside of Jerusalem which became for the Jews a dump where rubbish was burnt. Hell would be like Gehenna—to sin and lead others to sin would be to condemn oneself to Gehenna or eternal separation.

Given our understanding of freedom as unfettered or is without responsibility, the idea of the Spirit as freedom from encumbrance is certainly tempting. This is often the case when we come across what we think and what the Church teaches. Thus, the idea or notion “anti-establishment” becomes a necessary stance for freedom. Where we find the Church’s teaching limiting our freedom we turn to the Spirit to cry freedom.

But, there is a closer bond than we dare to think between the Spirit and the Church because every gift of the Spirit given to the Church is given for service. Thus, the context of Moses and Jesus teaching the Elders and the Disciples was about the use of gifts by the Spirit for the greater good. In fact, the Liturgy will remind us time and again that the primary gift of the Spirit is unity. [3] Nowhere does the Spirit behave “fancifully” or according to our “dictates or whims”. The reason why the Spirit of freedom is “tied” or somewhat “limited” by the Church is found at the end of Matt 28: “I am with you to the end of time”. It is Christ’s promise to His Church. The promise is to His Church and it is not a guarantee that we will not be unfaithful. In fact, Christ’s promise to be with His Church through the Spirit is found in our liturgy at the part where after the Our Father, the priest says, “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, I give you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins [4] but look on the faith of your Church”. That Church is the faithful one responding to the faithful Lord’s question of identity, “Who do people say I am”?: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. The Church can never be unfaithful because she stands on the guarantee of Christ. However, the same cannot be said of us. We, you and me, her children, are often the unfaithful ones.

Part of our fear of institutions or our aversion to any establishment comes from our experience that people who are in charge of doing what is good for all are those who pervert the good for all. It does not take us far beyond the entrance or exit of the Church to find that. The controversy over the nearby Port Klang Free Zone is one example. We have encountered one case after another reported with great fanfare in the beginning but then it is quietly withdrawn from our collective glare. But, since we needn’t go far, the same judgement could be levelled against those who serve the Church. Some might even say that the team which runs the parish is no different. [5]

So, what and how are we to judge if the Spirit is at work? A good measure of how to discern the Holy Spirit’s movement is what Jesus Himself said: Check the fruit—a good tree produces good fruit. Ignatian spirituality measures the fruit in terms of the increase of faith, hope and charity. Gamaliel, during the persecution of the early Christians further confirms it by asking the Pharisees not to be hasty but to consider that God cannot be defeated in something that He wills to do.

Now, if you think about it, the freedom of the Spirit that we want is not unbridled freedom. We are not exactly comfortable with indeterminacy. An example to illustrate this discomfort with indeterminacy is the experience of nostalgia. We associate nostalgia with the elderly. But, go check out this place of worship where you find young people who go there for the manner Mass is celebrated—priest and people facing the Lord. Are the young people nostalgic? Maybe they are. The difference is, for the elderly, nostalgia may simply be a yearning for the past. For the young, nostalgia is more than yearning for the past. It is a cry, a yearning for certainty, boundary, determinacy or permanency. The lack of determinacy or permanence which we confuse to be freedom often leads to emptiness—as the French would call it, “ennui”. These young people are looking for some semblance of permanency and a sense of the eternal. [6]

In conclusion, we are much more limited or determined because we are embodied spirit—it is the reality of being incarnated. Indeterminacy does not always make us happy. In fact, we need boundaries in order to function properly. Everyone here probably has had this experience with family or close friends? You get into your family car and you ask: “Where do you want to eat?” Anywhere. “What would you like to eat?” Anything. Nothing is more energy-sapping when going out to eat in Café Anywhere ordering from the Menu of Anything!

Today’s readings may seem to call for the freedom of the Spirit to go beyond the limits or boundaries of the established norms. But, this interpretation could be the result of what we like to hear. It is true that they call us to be more open and inclusive. But, how do we serve the purpose of inclusivity and tolerance? How do we show that the Spirit is present? It is certainly not by the dictum that everything or anything can. Fraught as the process may be of trying to “draw the line”, still we must because that is the only way we can serve humanity better. Freedom in the Spirit is helped when we begin to listen closely to what the Spirit is teaching us through what is primarily the locus for the Spirit’s work: the Church—the Spouse of Christ. A good place to start is the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a relevant question to ask is: “Do you have a copy”?
[1] This is not a wholesale pitch for government policies or Church authority.
[2] Freedom is defined as revolutionary. But, the French Revolution, the mother of all revolutions, will show us that in due time, the revolution will devour her own children.
[3] And not the gift of Disunity where everyone says, “My gift is the only one that is most necessary for the community’s good”.
[4] “Our” refers concretely to you and me.
[5] When we cannot separate the person from the Institution, we will fall into despair or cynicism because we see the failure of the “individual” as the failure of the Institution....
[6] Some of us who consider ourselves as sophisticated and are purveyors of change tend to look down on these young people as “neo-conservatives”. We are so at the forefront of “relevance” that we have failed to see that “radical” also means faithfulness to tradition.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Mark Twain says: “It's better to keep quiet and have people think you stupid, than to talk and confirm it”. A lot of times this remains the wisest option—to keep quiet because when Shakespeare says: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, he is telling us that when we try to deny something, we may actually be confirming what we are trying to deny.

However, the duties of the ordained ministers are stipulated by the three munera. [1] The first of the Munus triplex (three-fold ministry) is munus docendi which is the duty to teach through preaching based on Christ’s role as Prophet. The second is munus sanctificandi which is the duty to sanctify through worship, based on Christ’s role as Priest and finally, the third is munus regendi which is the duty to shepherd through the pastoral office based on Christ’s role as King.

If you accept the quotations of Mark Twain and Shakespeare, you would know that one of the most difficult and loneliest roles for an ordained minister to fulfil is the ministry of the Word, the munus docendi. This is because everyone is an expert. In our internet-connected postmodern world, this might well be true. [2] We have canonised an experience that different people have different perspectives into a gospel truth. Whilst this may be true, it is subjectivism at its worst. A characteristic of postmodernism is this breakdown in a shared world, a breakdown of stories that can bind us together. Thus, truth is not something which we search together through reason—it is no longer “objective”. Instead, truth is defined by what is meaningful to me. And in an unjust relationship, my truth has a greater claim than yours. [3]

When truth is about what I think and how I feel, then, often enough we encounter chasms over which we cannot cross. Is it any wonder why we have condemned ourselves to live in ghettoes? A good example of this chasm, under the guise of seeming respect that must be accorded to the other, is the attempt to ban beer in a particular precinct in a nearby city.

Today, I would like to bridge this chasm or propose a bridge beyond an entrapped self. The chasm is created in the context of what this parish has been doing—it is contextualised firstly, by the question asked by Judas. “Can’t the money be used for the poor?”. It is the same concern that is found in the 1st and 2nd Readings. Secondly, the chasm gives rise to the question “why this particular form of exercise that we have embarked on”?

Firstly, the Judas question is valid and important. How come so much money was spent on this roof and why assistance to the poor cannot be matched by the same amount we had spent? The fact is that we have been giving through many channels to the poor. Saying this is defensive and it misses the point. The point is, what we are doing here is related to the poor (to justice in particular) and I know the audacity of this statement will surprise many of you. How is what we have done or are doing related to the poor? Well, the option for the poor is not just an economic option. Furthermore, liberation (which we desire so much) should not be understood only in the social, political or economic sense. In a liberated world, despite all that we can achieve, we will still encounter alienation. We all suffer from loneliness. We conceive of liberation as freedom from loneliness—that is social liberation. We all suffer from oppression. We conceive of liberation as freedom from oppression—that is political liberation. We suffer privation. We conceive of liberation as freedom from hunger—that is economic liberation. We want freedom from loneliness, oppression and hunger. But, the truth remains that when we have everything we want, when we are no longer lonely, when we are free from oppression and when hunger is banished, it does not mean that we will be happy or saved. The answer to alienation is not liberation even though it is so important. The answer to alienation is redemption. All desire for liberation must lead to the desire for redemption from sin!

This desire for redemption from sin brings us immediately into the horizon of God. Note that the centrality of God is the only sure way to salvation. The centrality of Man, that is, his social, political and economic needs, no matter how pressing they are, is not the solution. Instead, a focus on Man solely often leads to dehumanisation—as we are witnessing in North Korea [4] now and as we have witnessed in so many failed socialist projects. Poverty—the Judas question—is a pressing issue that we must not overlook. But, in looking at poverty, in trying to give an answer to Judas, that is, in trying to solve the world’s hunger problem, many of us forget that poverty arises because we have forgotten to put God first. [5]

Thus, a way out for us, the way to bridge the chasm, is to put God first. [6] That is why we have embarked on this whole exercise because it is related to a phrase we are all familiar with—anamnesis. “Do this in remembrance of me”. Sin can be conceived of as the act of forgetting. Israel forgot God’s goodness in the desert. She forgot and she murmured. Anamnesis is thus to remember—for the memory, our memory, is also God’s reaching out to us. In the sacraments we celebrate, God does so through the rituals that we have—the solemn music, the incense, the ringing of the bell, the consecrated bread held high. And in our Gospel, Jesus poked his finger into the man’s ears and used spittle. Both are sacramental signs of God reaching out to us. Thus, our exercise—what we do and what we have—is an attempt to remember God.

In trying to remember God, we acknowledge that we have actually forgotten God’s beauty. Thus, the choice for whatever we have here is not as important as understanding why Beauty is necessary. The choice we make is not nostalgic. It is not harking back to days gone by though it seems like it. We are not here to wallow in nostalgia. So, let me tell you why we chose what we chose.

How many of you use credit cards? Do you know what the ordinary entry level is for your credit cards today? It is the gold card. But, sometimes your gold card is not enough. You need platinum or beyond platinum to titanium. What has happened to the “simple” original silver-looking plastic credit cards that nobody wants anymore? Banks market it as the “classic” card. It is grossly a wrong use of the word classic. You see, nothing fades like fashion. Our teenagers will be the first to tell you that. Look at architectural structures of the 60s or 70s or even 80s... they betray their age. Nobody wants to be caught dead with bell-bottoms! But, when we look at something classical we see “timelessness” or the quality that speaks of “enduring”.

Thus, the choice we made reflects timelessness. And yet, it is not just simply anything “classical” because we could have chosen the Taj Mahal or turned this place to look like the Great Wall. After all, these are classical too and they better reflect our Asian background. [7] We could not because our choice of the “classical” was guided by the scandal of particularity. The Church which is truly Asia (not only Malaysia is) because Christ was Asian and the Church’s birthplace was Asia, when she spread she was immediately coloured by the particularity of what is known as the Graeco-Roman philosophy and culture. This is significant because Graeco-Roman philosophy enabled the Church to give a rational explanation of the experiences of the early Church and thus ensured the spread of Christianity. Thus, we had to look back at our particular Christian classics or tradition for direction because the quality of “timelessness” embodied in our tradition reminds us that the exercise of beautification is an attempt to remember who the Church is.

She is timelessly beautiful, that is, she is forever the Ecclesia Formosa, because she is the beautiful Bride of Christ—the meeting place of salvation. [8] She is where we remember that God saves us. We want to be saved and thus we are concerned with God’s truth. We want to be saved and thus we are concerned with God’s good. But according to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Idiot: Prince Myshkin, the not-so-clever prince who gave the title of the book Idiot, says: Beauty will save the world. Thus, the choice, for want of a better choice, is an exercise to reflect the timelessness of God’s beauty.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, I am not so hung up on the fact that the altar should look like this or the altar-piece should look like that. In fact, when the original sketches were presented, they had to be scaled down because people would not be there to make the connexion yet. So, I am not offended that people do not like what has been done. I recognise that in this exercise, I find greater affinity with Don Quixote of La Mancha—embarking on this foolish quest. I further recognise that my vision may not fit into some kind of preconceived big picture of how the parish should be run. But I look at Benedict XVI, my Pope and yours, I hope, and I try to see what he sees. With him, I am deeply convinced of the necessity to return beauty to the liturgy and to the church—this sacred space—so that we may, in giving God His due, then together with Him, look at the world and make it reflect the Beauty of Christ the Son.

Thus, in this exercise, I am humbly guided by Albert Einstein...who had this to say about his achievements, “You imagine that I look back on my work with calm and satisfaction. But there is not a single concept of which I am convinced that it will stand firm, and I feel uncertain whether I am in general on the right track. I don’t want to be right—I only want to know whether I am right”.

I am nowhere near the shadow of Einstein but I live with this vision that what I am doing, though far from what many other Jesuits are conventionally doing, is actually trying to remind you, through the beauty of our liturgy and our sacred space, of the central reality which is none other than this: Christ is the only Saviour of the world. We are only instruments. No programme, not even Liberation Theology, not even the best BEC, can ever take His place. He alone is the Saviour. If we want to save the world, the beauty of the liturgy and sacred space bid us turn to Him. From Him we draw our vision, courage and transfusion of love to help re-shape the world to reflect His beauty so that we might be saved.

[1] The root of the English word remuneration (salary) comes from this word which means “mission, ministry and office”.
[2] We do not need libraries. All we need are Google and Wikipedia.
[3] The result is usually an unjustified use of force. Government against people. Parents against children. And in reversal, career children against aged parents.
[4] They are concerned with Man and have banished God.
[5] By extension, the same can be said of social and political problems. They arise because we forgot to put God first.
[6] Recently I met with all the choirs of the parish. I told them that there is too much "WE" or “US” in the liturgy and too little of God.
[7] Our choice does not mean that Asian architecture has no merit. There are places which have used indigenous artefact effectively. We had to work with limitations of time, expertise available and finances. An important thing to note about this exercise is the act of choosing. Many of us understand the act of choosing as a function of “likes”. A major criterion of choosing is “one’s likes or dislikes”. However, if truth is one’s concern, something which commands my attention, then choosing is a function of the good, the true and the beautiful. What a person likes or dislikes may come into play in the act of choosing but the main reason for choosing is because the choice reflects what is good, true or beautiful. When “likes” or “dislikes” are canonised, then morality will tend to take on an arbitrary characteristic—more to do with emotion than with volition. Imagine a person being good because he or she feels like it.
[8] Beauty is sometimes impractical. In being impractical, it breaches the limiting dome of practical reason. This means that beauty does not always have to be “functional”. Functionality is part of practical reason but when coupled with a culture of convenience has a dehumanising effect. Imagine our friendships based on functionality. Friendship is reduced to utility. Thus, without beauty, the very people we want to protect will be the first to “enjoy” the practical consequence of “functionalism”. Take the example of our elderly. What good are they when they cannot contribute to society? In adopting a practical attitude towards beauty in the guise of helping the poor, we have actually harmed those whom we are sworn to protect: the poor, the orphans and the widows.