Sunday, 29 March 2009

5th Sunday of Lent Year B

Jesus talked about life and what it meant. Life, in order to be meaningful, involves sacrifices. He used the example of a grain of wheat dying in order to yield a rich harvest. He spoke it as a matter of fact as He talked of His own imminent death. Even though He believed and accepted that in order to fulfil the purpose of His life, sacrifice was involved, the truth was, still His soul was troubled. As St Paul said so elegantly, “During His life on earth, Christ offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save Him from death... Although He was Son, He learnt to obey through suffering”.

Jesus knew that the hour had arrived and yet He chose to forge ahead and give of His life. From the perspective of faith, we believe that Jesus sacrificed His life for us but from the perspective of human experience, there is a certain heroism in the decision of Jesus. This is where the Gospel reminds me of Bonnie Tyler.

Some of you might remember her. She sang this song: I need a hero. The lyric goes like this.
I need a hero. I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the end of the night. He’s gotta be strong. And he’s gotta be fast. And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight. I need a hero. I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the morning light. He’s gotta be sure. And it’s gotta be soon. And he’s gotta be larger than life
We are a generation that feeds hungrily on a staple of “entertainment” personalities. We hunger for larger-than-life heroes. That being the case, Jesus would have failed to meet the criteria of Bonnie Tyler. We often mistake a persona for a hero and seem to identify heroes with personalities. The truth is personalities are just that: personalities or roles. What saves us is not a persona. A politician will not die for you. Most politicians are skilled in the art of self-preservation at best or at worst possess the dexterity of mass-deception. A Churchman will not die for you. The role or personality does not sacrifice itself for us. It may inspire but what saves us is the man or woman who dies for us. In the Gospel, Jesus showed us what it meant to be a true Hero. He was the “troubled” Hero who knew what He was up for and yet He went for it. Let me tell you about a modern day “hero”. He was a Churchman: Archbishop Romero.

Who was he? He was appointed the Archbishop of San Salvador. His appointment wasn’t exactly welcomed because those aligned with Marxism or with liberation theology felt that he was too much an “establishment” man. He was seen to be supportive of the government simply because he was a safe Bishop; a kind of a “yes” man. However, one of his personal friends, a Jesuit priest, was assassinated and his death had a profound impact on Romero. Whilst looking at his dead friend lying in the coffin, he thought to himself, “If they killed him for doing the right thing, then I must walk the path as well”. He asked the government to investigate the death but they ignored his request and the censored media also remained silent.

I am making the long story short but the gist is one can see Romero the man emerging from his personality or role as a Bishop. Not because he wasn’t a good Bishop. He realised that it was not the Bishop who made the man but rather the man who made the Bishop. He was like a man coming alive as he found his voice in speaking up against injustice and for irregularity in governance. For that, he was also assassinated. He was assassinated not because he was Bishop but because he allowed the man inside to emerge.

What is interesting for us is that we all can be personalities. We can play our role. Admittedly, sometimes the role we play in life calls for heroism but, still, it takes a man or a woman to be the grain that falls on the ground and dies. Just as it does not take a crown to make a man a king, so in the same way we can safely say that, in a marriage, it takes a man not to beat his wife. It takes a woman to be a mother or daughter. We sometimes say that a person is not “man” enough to assume a role.

In revealing Himself as troubled, we know that Christ was heroic. And He was most heroic at His humanity. This really is very comforting for us. Why? Our heroism does not come because we are famous or because we are some personalities or we play a role. Our heroism comes because we struggle with our human weakness and yet step up to life’s challenges.

Lent is a trying period. There must be something life-giving about Lent; that is why it is so trying. I realise that I tend to eat more when the season calls for fasting and penance. I tend to get more impatient when I should be less annoyed. But, Christ in the Gospel shows us that our struggles do not necessarily define us and that we can still be heroic despite our weakness. To be the grain that dies in order to be a rich harvest does not require us to be a manager, a banker, a politician. All it requires is for us to be a man or a woman.

Monday, 16 March 2009

3rd Sunday of Lent Year B

Today’s Gospel is “noisy”. The commotion centres on Christ cleansing the Temple. But, beyond the distraction of the noise, there is an air of majestic calmness in the action of Christ. It is just before the Passover in Jerusalem. Note that we encounter a Christ at the beginning of His ministry and not towards the end just before His Passion as is in the other Gospels. Here at the beginning of His ministry, as He meets the Temple, He encounters a corrupt religious system—a system which desecrates and diminishes the Temple through the business of religion—buying and selling of cattle, sheep and pigeons, an exchange bureau operating within sacred grounds.

But, the reaction of Christ is more than just a reaction to business conducted in the premise of the Temple. He is reacting to the narrowing of Israel’s mission as embodied in the Temple. This mission is rooted in the First Reading. The Decalogue is Israel’s map for life—a way of living for a people in a special relationship with God. But, this special relationship is not an end in itself. Instead, this special relationship was to flower in Israel fulfilling her God-given destiny to be the Light of the Nations. Unfortunately, instead of living this mission, the Jews made religion narrow, nationalistic and they turned God into their exclusive possession. God’s plan for the Temple to be a house of prayer for all the nations has been thwarted by Israel’s narrow vision as evidenced by the stringent laws preventing Gentiles from entering the Temple. The furthest a Gentile could venture was into the Court of the Gentile.

Thus, the cleansing of the Temple is not just a struggle between “spiritual” worship and “sacrificial” worship even though the evidence, that is, of Christ driving out the traders, seems to point to it. In upsetting the Temple arrangement, the majesty of Christ’s action is in re-claiming the Temple for its original function: to be a house of prayer for all the nations, and recalling Israel to her original mission: to be the Light of the Nations. In upsetting the status quo, Christ shows that salvation is not just for the Jews, but as originally intended by God, to be for everyone.

That’s where our trouble is because God’s vision is often narrowed by our human horizon. We see this narrowing horizon from Israel down to the Corinthians in the 2nd Reading. The Corinthians were attracted by every new fad and fashion that washed upon their shores. Like the Jews, they looked for signs of God presence. Signs usually associated with wonders, miracles if you like. And they also wanted the wisdom that came from Greek philosophy. It is against this narrow vision that Paul writes eloquently that his vision is Christ Crucified—truly a stumbling block because the Jews cannot accept a Crucified Messiah and Greek philosophy cannot comprehend a Suffering God.

The vision of Christianity is paradoxical and the paradox is that God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. This 3rd Sunday of Lent brings us into the heart of God’s vision and the readings preceding today are leading us there. “The stone rejected by the builders will become the cornerstone”. “The Cross, a sign of shame, in Christ will become a sign of victory”. “Christ, emptied of life will become the source of life for us”.

The vision of our God is His Son crucified and we are invited to have faith in Him. The tragedy of humanity is that we struggle to accept the wisdom and the strength of the Crucified Christ. Christ in throwing wide open the Temple is majestic but we who enter the Temple are met not by grandeur but by His pierced Heart.

This is why Paul’s teaching is central to what we are doing today. We are about halfway through Lent. Here we encounter the paradox of an infinitely wise God who in our estimation seems foolish enough to let His Son die on the Cross; an infinitely powerful God who appears helpless in the face of suffering and often senseless suffering imposed upon humanity. But, the paradox is where there seems to be only failure, sorrow and defeat it is there that we find the true power of God.

St Paul in his own life testifies to this. He tells us of the “thorn in his side”. In his struggle to overcome this “thorn” (sin) and his anxiety at repeated failure, Christ tells him, “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). This is relevant to us because we are powerful and our strength is delivered in an instant. In fact, it is in our finger tip. We do not have to physically grind our coffee beans. We get our caffeine fix at the push of a button. Because power is at our finger tip, we have come to believe that we can rely on our sheer strength. But the strength to be a faithful husband and a good father, to take care of an aged parent or a retarded child, to survive an unexpected death in the family, to bear the burden of a debilitating disease dogging us for months, to understand and forgive someone who has hurt us, that strength comes when we embrace the Crucified Christ. Christ Crucified makes more sense than we think.

In cleansing the Temple, Christ opens the door of salvation to all people and invites us to embrace His vision. It might be perceived as madness and weakness but in the end, it is the power of God, for the Cross is not weakness but strength. In the Cross, we embrace the strength of God in Christ Crucified.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

1st Sunday of Lent Year B

Temptation is a universal human experience and overcoming it is also a universal struggle. Oscar Wilde, the celebrated Oirish playwright and poet, once said, “The only way to overcome temptation is to give in to it... I can resist everything but temptation”. Our ordinary understanding of temptation is in terms of the temptation to commit sin and as such, the aim of Christian perfection is to overcome it.

In the Gospel, Christ underwent a forty-day period of testing in the desert. Mark’s Gospel is brief and does not say much about what He was tested on. Our detailed knowledge of the temptation is supplemented by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These two Gospels tell us what they are and they give us the accounts of how Christ overcame each of Satan’s temptation. But the brevity of Mark’s Gospel is good. It directs us to the first reading. There, we are told that after the flood, God established a relationship with Noah and his descendants—a covenant signed with the colours of the rainbow. And to remind us, the 2nd Reading looks back at the Covenant that God made with Noah in the light of Christian Baptism. Baptism replaces the Flood. In the Flood, we were vanquished but through Baptism we enter a covenant of life with God. We enter the waters of Baptism knowing that there will be life not death when we come out of it.

Thus, the readings this Sunday help us see that temptation is not just to commit sin. How is that so? We know that right after His Baptism, Christ was driven into the desert. But before that what happened in the River Jordan was this: Just as He was baptised, a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved”. Therefore the desert temptations were not just about turning stone to bread, jumping off a parapet or worshipping Satan. Instead, the temptations were simply invitations to break covenant with God, to break the covenant that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved”. Perhaps you will appreciate how appropriate it is that we enter Lent focussing on the Temptation of Christ and not the Temptations of Christ; the focus is not the committing of sins but the breaking of our covenantal relationship with God.

Since Christ was tempted, we can rest assured that His temptation will become a reality for those who enter into covenant with Him. We will be tested to trust His relationship with us. At the beginning of the year, the US President gives a “State of the Union” address; at the beginning of Lent, we take a look at the state of our soul to see how our covenant with God may be strengthened. But, if we think of sins in terms of committing this or that particular sin then it is much easier to give up on cursing, smoking, drinking or eating. But, if we think of our relationship with God, then it requires a much more honest look at where we place God in our lives. Where God is cuts through everything that we do.

Sometimes we do miss out on this covenantal relationship with God. A good example is Sunday Mass. Why do we come to Mass on Sunday? The usual answer is “it is an obligation”. Yes, it is an obligation, but that in some way misses the point as shown in the court proceeding of a Christian charged for violating the Roman prohibition to worship on Sunday. The accused was asked by the judge why he broke the law against Sunday gathering. At first he gave the excuse that his friends came and he couldn’t turn them away. But when pressed for a better answer, he said, “It is Sunday... the Day of the Lord. Without the Lord, we cease to be”. That is the meaning of Sunday. It is more than an obligation for it expresses our covenant with God.

The good news according to the CCC (540) is that Christ’s “temptation reveals the way in which the Son of God is Messiah, contrary to the way Satan proposes Him and the way men wish to attribute to Him”. In overcoming His temptation, He has shown us what it means to be God’s sons and daughters.

Thus, the beginning of Lent is an invitation to reflect on how to strengthen our filial and covenantal relationship with God our Lord. Christ has shown us how we can overcome the temptation to break that covenant with God. “For we have not a high-priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15). And because He himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested (Heb 2:18).

We will always be tested but that’s not the point. The point is Christ is there to show the way. Turn to Him with trust even if you continually fall. You can approach Him with confidence, knowing that in Him there is mercy and grace in your time of need.