Sunday, 18 January 2009

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B

The first reading gives details of Samuel’s calling. He played a big part in the building up of Israel. Through him, Israel entered a new era because it was through him that Israel got her first kings. The Gospel describes the call of Andrew, John and Peter. In this vocation story, Peter’s call is highlighted to reflect his importance in early Christian history and is the basis for the Catholic teaching of what we know to be an important ministry for the Church: The Petrine Ministry concretely expressed through the Ministry of Pope Benedict XVI.

Today the theme centres on God’s call and our response. However, vocation, that is, God’s call and our response, is often understood in terms of calling to be a priest or a religious brother or sister. As a result of a restricted definition of vocation, Catholics tend to exalt the vocation to the priesthood and religious life and to downplay the importance of the non-priestly or religious vocations. The truth is: baptism is a response to God’s call and so it involves every Christian.

Our first call is to life. Baptism calls us to a life in Christ Jesus our Lord. This life in Christ Jesus is spelt out by St Paul in the 2nd Reading in terms of purity of the body, that is, through abstention from fornication. Through Baptism, the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit and as a result, there is need to give due reverence to the body—living or dead. This explains why we incense the congregation during Mass at the moment we enter into the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Also at the end of a funeral Mass, the body in the coffin is incensed. And, because the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the Church prohibits the scattering of the ashes of a faithful departed who has been cremated.

Baptism is so serious a matter that in the early Church it takes place only after a prolonged period of initiation into the life of the Christian community. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus describes this period in terms of 3 years in what is known as the catechumenate. This long period of waiting for baptism shows how seriously the Church takes the call of Baptism to be.

Baptism takes us into the life of Christ. It is in the context of our life with Christ that we may speak of the call to become a priest or religious. But, priesthood or religious is a particular call which does not diminish the importance of any other vocation or state of life.

Baptism is both a call and a response.

Granted that not everyone here is inclined to run to the seminary or the convent, how are we to step up to the mark?

The Catechism speaks of the relationship between the priesthood of the ordained, that is, the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity. “The common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace—a life of faith, hope and charity, a life according to the Spirit. The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (CCC1547). If the priest is ordained to help a lay person to live out his or her baptism, this means that every vocation is important. [1]

It means that we first take what we do with great humility. In the context of the Gospel, take a look at John the Baptist. If we think that vocation is to become an ordained priest then we will think of anything else as less. But John the Baptist did not feel his vocation any less. He simply stated: “Look, there is the lamb of God” and pointed Andrew and the other disciple to Jesus. The ordinariness of John’s vocation tells us that life is often lived in someone else’s shadow. Not everyone will be a CEO or will have his or her picture in the papers.

Once, I received an email, which was sent to quite a number of people by a self-serving community leader. Unfortunately, for that leader, I was accidentally included in the mailing list. The content of the email is not important but it was revealingly indicative of the way we perceive vocation. We seemed to have attached glamour to the vocations which are more prominent or visible... like becoming a priest or becoming a leader who must be seen to be taking charge of things. It is only worthwhile to serve if we stand in the lime-light.

But life is not described as mundane for nothing because there are vocations that are by and large hidden and unglamorous, just like John the Baptist whose life’s motto was “He must increase, I must decrease”. For John, life has always been in the shadow of Jesus. Even then, there was no less dignity in being the herald of Christ.

For a Jesuit too, after a long life of service (actually after a life of long service) and after all the publicity of the vocation is gone, he will enter a period of inaction characterised by nonentity. He becomes nobody. In our Jesuit catalogue, what appears next to the name of this Jesuit will not be, “Parish Priest”, “Director of Retreat House”, “Treasurer” but simply “Praying for the Society of Jesus and the Church”. These Jesuits are also those who are aged, sick or dying. But, what they do is no less important that the Jesuit who is quote left and right and courted by the intelligentsia.

To those whose lives are neither exciting nor dramatic, this Sunday marks ordinary time. The call and response of Peter, Andrew and John is a reminder that ordinary time is not less than extraordinary. Ordinary is by and large characteristic of our vocation or state of life. It means that where we are, no matter how hidden, we may be able to give praise and glory to God. But that can happen only if we believe that our vocation is the living out of our grace of baptism, the grace of a life with Christ Jesus our Lord.
[1] You know that people do not like priests to wade into political waters. Reflect upon this. It is because the laity has by and large remained uninvolved in living out their vocation that the priests step in to fill the void that is left by social and political inaction. Perhaps when the laity is more conscious of their greater involvement in body politics that the priest can go back to doing what they do best.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Baptism of the Lord Year B

Sometimes a pithy phrase can mean the world. “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”. Firstly, Psalm 2:7 is used for the coronation of the kings from the House of David. This verse in Psalm 2 is echoed in Mark as he points to Jesus as the Royal Messiah—the one anointed by God. Secondly, Isaiah 42:1 refers to the suffering servant who bears the infirmities of many and here, in Mark, Jesus becomes the Suffering Servant in whom God’s favour rests.

Just a voice from heaven at Baptism and Jesus is revealed as the Christ or Messiah and the Suffering Servant. St Paul in the letter to the Romans says, “When we were baptised, we were baptised into the death and resurrection of the Lord”. This means that baptism not only opens for us the gate to salvation—to the other 6 sacraments but baptism also imprints upon us, the very charisms of being the anointed of God and also His suffering servant. Put it in another way, baptism means that the path of Jesus from Calvary to the Resurrection will also become our path. In short, suffering is part and parcel of the resurrection.

Why must suffering be part and parcel of the resurrection? The 2nd Reading puts it rather well: We can be sure that we love God’s children if we love God himself and do what he has commanded us; this is what loving God is—keeping his commandments. If we keep his commandments, we know that there will be a price to be paid because in John 15, Jesus says, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too”.

We often think of vocation narrowly as vocation to the priestly or religious life. But vocation is more than being a nun or a priest. It is also to be married, to remain single or to be a professional. However, all these are what I would call “secondary” vocations. Our “primary” vocation is that of being called. Baptism is primarily the sacrament of calling because we are called to be sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. It is only in embracing this primary vocation of being called that we begin to express it by becoming a nun, a husband and a father, a wife and a mother, a priest, a teacher, an accountant and etc.

Sometimes we forget that the secondary vocation is the embracing and living out of the primary vocation. What does it mean to embrace this primary vocation? In some countries, the sacrament of baptism has degenerated into a social event. Parents, as a matter of fact, baptise a child because it is the social convention. But if you look at the ritual of baptism, then you begin to understand that it is truly a sacrament which is the foundation of all else. The rite of baptism, properly celebrated takes place at the entrance of the church where the priest welcomes the parents of the child to be baptised and asks two questions. The first question asks the name of the child to be baptised; the name given must not conflict with the faith or recall anything unsavoury. The next question asks the parents what they want for their child. The appropriate answer is “faith”. And during the rite, the parents will be reminded of the faith that they are to hand on to their child. To baptise means that one takes seriously the responsibility of handing on the faith—it is handing on the faith of the Apostles upon which the entire Tradition of the Church rests.

Next week there is going to be a celebration of another sacrament, namely, the sacrament of confirmation. In the Catholic tradition of the Eastern Rite, confirmation is given to infants immediately after their baptism. In the tradition of the Latin Rite, this sacrament is conferred on to teenagers who had been baptised as infants. I am not interested in the theology of the sacrament. However, I want to comment on the “late” age which this sacrament is conferred. It is given that late that it almost becomes a sacrament that somewhat confirms the primary vocation that we have been called to be sons or daughters of God our Father. Whenever we struggle with our vocation in life—be it a husband, an engineer or lawyer etc—apart from the fact that we may have chosen the wrong vocation, often it is because we have not clarified our original intention or we have not fully embraced the reality of our baptism.

Most teenagers go through a phase of rejecting everything that is passed on them (except the money of course). It is a phase of self-determination as if the definition of the self begins when everything is rejected. It is almost as if they want to shout, “I am not everything that you are”. At confirmation, they must decide to accept or reject the faith that their parents have handed to them. Every teenager must make a choice for Christ or not.

Thus, the sacrament of confirmation which some of you will receive next week may be a test of your immersion or baptism into Christ. It is the test of accepting the responsibility and the price of baptism. When we follow Christ, we may lose our family. Those who have gone against their family’s wish when converting may just lose their family. When we follow Christ, we will certainly lose some of our friends. When we follow Christ, we will begin to ask questions: why there is more justice for some people and less justice for others. We will begin to take notice of the less privileged surrounding us. The test of our immersion (because the meaning of baptism is to wash or to immerse) is when we have acquired the heart and mind of Christ.

Some of us fail because we want the benefits of baptism, which is salvation ,without paying the price, which is discipleship. Today, we ask the Lord for the strength to embrace the grace of our baptism as we grow into the heart and the mind of Him who first called us.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Epiphany Year B

Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi from the East. Today, the three figurines of the Magi are brought out and placed in the crib, thus, making the crib complete. In some places the figurines are, after Christmas, symbolically positioned at a distance from the crib and by the day moved nearer to the crib until today when they enter the stable bearing their gifts. And, recalling the gifts to the Infant Jesus, some families also exchange small gifts.

The root of the word epiphany means to show or to manifest. So, the feast celebrates the showing of Christ to the Gentiles symbolised by the Magi. But, the Epiphany commemorates more than the visitation by the Magi. Christ born on Christmas, Christ revealed to the Magi, Christ baptised at the river Jordan, Christ, according to John, performing His first miracle at Cana were originally the one and the same celebration of the Epiphany. In each of these events, the veil of God’s mystery has been drawn back. Specifically, in the Magi, the strangers, foreigners or pagans, the veil of God’s mystery has been drawn back to allow these Gentiles to receive salvation just like the People of Israel.

At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son. The Letter to Hebrews says as much. God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ. No longer is Israel the Light of the Nation but Jesus Christ Himself and we are the recipients of the Good News of Salvation. The second reading supports this theologically by granting to pagans a place in the Body of Christ.

The Epiphany is thus significant. We have a place at the table of the Lord. What does that mean?

The place we have is not automatically secured by membership. Remember Matt 7:21? “It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord” who will enter the kingdom of heaven”. However, this does not invalidate the fact that the invitation is gratuitous. The call is freely given but the response must be whole-hearted. We have our work cut out for us.

Firstly, this makes us all missionaries. Missionary work is not just pouring water and baptising. In the context of what can be done, Christefidelis Laici, the encyclical of John Paul II says that every person who is baptised is at once baptised to be a priest, prophet and king. The faithful laity exercise their baptismal grace through their participation, each according to his or her vocation in Christ’s own mission as priest, prophet and king. And the role of the ministerial priesthood, that is, of the ordained priesthood, is in the service of unfolding the grace of your baptism. Some people may think that the unfolding of their baptismal grace happens in the Church. But in truth, your missionary vocation is lived out in the world more than in the Church. What is done here is just a small fraction of what you can do outside.

In that sense, what you do in Church—Lectors, Commentators, Choir Members, Hospitality Ministers, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Altar Servers—important as these ministries may be, are but a sign or symbol of your desire to let the grace of your baptism be experienced especially by the people who come into contact with you in your workplace, at home and everywhere.

It is not always easy. I spoke with a young person the other day. We shared about our embarrassment of “being good” in public. It’s funny that we speak of “CSR”, that is companies behaving in a socially responsible manner. They do it through many programmes etc. But sadly, CSR may be “cosmetic” as evidenced by political parties springing up immediately after the recent landslide only to score political points. The trouble is, individually, many of us shy from doing good. Why? We are simply afraid of what others might think. This young person was asked if he would stand up and give his seat to an elderly person and the answer was no and that was not because he didn’t think it was the right thing to do. He was afraid of what others might think of him: a wimp.

There is a lot of goodwill in many of us. In fact, we have more goodwill than we dare to share. Maybe what we need is a bit more courage.

And this leads me to our response that must be whole-hearted. The root of the word courage is “heart” because the Latin for heart is “cor”. The heart remains a powerful metaphor for inner strength. But courage, I believe, is not found just in “brute” strength. Courage is found when the heart is given away. People in love actually give their hearts to the one whom they love. That is why a person who loves go through great lengths and sacrifices for the one he or she loves. I asked a server why he was wearing some “stupid-looking bangles” and he said, “My girlfriend gave them to me”. Nothing is ever too much or stupid when we love. But, when we dare not give our hearts away, we dare not love. That perhaps explains why we are lukewarm in our response to Christ. Our missionary zeal is strong only when we dare to give our hearts to Christ. Epiphany is significant because Christ's revelation is an event of cosmic proportion. Our lukewarm-ness may be an indication that we believe but not enough. We accept that Christ is God and He is Saviour of the world but just a god or saviour who is NOT BIG ENOUGH for the world. That is why we hesitate to give Him the entirety of our hearts.

In summary, as Christ is revealed to the world, it is also equally true that the Magi represent humanity’s hunger and search for the newborn King. Epiphany reminds us that the Church must continually make known the Christ who is God and Saviour of the world to those who are waiting for the Gospel to be brought to them. But, before the Good News can reach them, Christians, that means we, must first give our heart to Christ the Lord. When we give Him our heart, nothing is too much; nothing is too difficult for us to do for Him. The Good News will become for us our confidence, pride and joy. If we cannot share it outwardly as we are prohibited by law, we must certainly do it with our very lives.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God Year B

In the next few days traffic will pick up as students return to schools and warrior-mothers take to the road of sending children to school. The year end and the beginning of the year are marked by a return to school and in a way, the Liturgy is no different. As we continue to deepen our appreciation of the Incarnation, we herald in the new year with close attention to the Mother of Christ.

The 2nd Reading serves as an invitation to enter the school of Mary—this Mary whom Paul spoke of as the Woman through whom the Son of God came to be born. Luke’s Gospel not only tells us that she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart but points out to us that Mary is also the great Theotokos because she is the bearer of God our Saviour. To celebrate Mary at the beginning of the year is to enter the school of her discipleship.

What does it mean to enter the school of Mary?

The theme of the World Day for Peace is Fighting Poverty to Build Peace. Peace is the desired goal of our struggles. The abolishment of poverty is the means to attain that goal. If we understand poverty to be material deprivation, then the creation of wealth is as an exercise in the abolishment of poverty.

But, from the school of Mary, we learn that wealth or its possession is not the end poverty. Benedict XVI in his Message for the World Day of Peace speaks of the conditions of moral under-development or the negative consequences of super-development in wealthy country. A country may be wealthy but suffers from poor moral or spiritual health, that is, moral or spiritual poverty. Hence, poverty is not always material deprivation. But, what is significant is that wherever you encounter any form of externally imposed poverty, you will find that it has as its root a lack of respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person.

And, from Mary we learn that the transcendent dignity of the human person is to be found in the acknowledgement of who we really are before God. We are nothing and if at all we can boast of any possession, then we can boast of only one thing: our nothingness. This nothingness is the basis for Mary putting her entire trust in the Lord.

Mary’s posture before God teaches us that we will never win the fight against poverty out there if we do not, in the first place, acknowledge not so much the poverty that is imposed upon us but the poverty that is us. Poverty is the condition of the human person before God.

The acknowledgement of our nothingness is the basis for overcoming our selfishness—the selfishness which is an attributable cause for the current systemic failure in the world’s economic system. There is something lacking in our fight against “material” poverty when we think that the change of structure is going to solve our problems. At present there are talks that governments in the world are trying to reform the international financial system. Reform may just offer a temporary relief before the next wave of greed overwhelms the economic system again. This country, we all know, is awashed in natural resources. It has all ingredients for a truly amazing economy. But, no matter how much we have, it is never enough to withstand the rapacious or the systematic pillage of a few greedy people.

Reform must begin with the human heart. Greed is not what people do but rather an attitude which denies our true state of being as nothing before God. What we have witnessed as the unbridled amassing of wealth beyond an individual’s, a family’s or country’s need is not proof of greed but a sad confirmation that we have failed to address our poverty before God.

God created us poor not because He wants us to be poor but because He wants us to acknowledge our dependence on Him alone. He created us poor so that we may share His riches. Unless and until we acknowledge our nothingness, we cannot hope to arrive at peace. This is important as we enter a period of economic downturn that will affect everyone.

Only when we begin to acknowledge our nothing and that our being or our salvation comes from God alone that we will begin to acknowledge the other as brother or sister. In Mary, we learn that poverty is the expression of who we truly are. “He looks on His servant in her nothingness” became Mary’s impetus to visit Elizabeth her cousin. When we acknowledge our nothingness, then everything we have is a blessing from God and can be a blessing to others. Otherwise, material abundance becomes the curse of division and disunity.

So, as we enter the New Year, with hearts desiring peace for ourselves, our family and our nation, we ask Mary to teach us how to be true disciples who with faith and prayer accepts our nothingness and place our trust in God who alone can grant salvation and who desires to give to those who trust in Him.