Monday, 20 April 2009

2nd Sunday of Easter Year B

I have, in the last couple of homilies, made mention of Beauty and connected it with the Sacred. This Sunday, I am not going to talk about Beauty but instead, I would like to make reference to the Sacred. By now, you may have received the You-Tube attachment of the recent “Britain’s Got Talent” about a 47-year old comely lass of Scottish origin—Susan Boyle. In this video clip, she strutted up to the 3 judges (Simon Cowell of the American-idol fame was amongst them) to proudly proclaim that she wanted to be a professional singer in the likes of Elaine Paige (who sang the song "I dreamed a dream" from Les Miserables). When she said that, as the camera panned on the faces of the judges and some of the audience and in their faces, you can plainly see contempt and cynicism. But when she opened her mouth to sing, you could see the shock on all the faces.

My point is not about how well Susan Boyle sang. The point is about our contempt and cynicism. It is not about the “inner beauty” that is hidden within the "unsightly sack of spuds" called Susan Boyle. The point is our sight is impaired because we cannot see, feel or appreciate the Sacred anymore. It explains why one is often sceptical when people speak about their spiritual experience, that is, their experience of the paranormal. When you tell a priest of your experience of such a “spiritual” reality, they would try to find better explanations for your experience. Or in most cases, they would simply dismiss you off as crazy or delusional.

It is true that one should not immediately attribute such experiences as originating from the spiritual realm. But, the consequence of this is that the sacred world becomes smaller, and so, more and more, those who may be in touch with the sacred will come across to those who are seemingly rational as cuckoos and loonies. A parish priest once told me that his parish is filled with these mad people. [If you want to, you can actually interpret that his parish may be filled with people who have had spiritual experiences].

Accordingly, all our experiences must be subject to the canon of reason and reason in most cases is basically scientific reason whose foundation for knowledge is based on observable data [1]. That is why Thomas can say, “I cannot believe if I cannot see or touch or feel or observe”. When reason is restricted positivistically, then everything else becomes a matter of personal judgement or opinion [2].

But, reason is not just restricted by the criteria of science [3]. Faith and reason are not alien to each other. Faith is a form of reasoning too. It takes its assumption from the experience that the other can be trusted. You ask a child to jump off a ledge and the child will hesitate but once the child knows that you can be trusted, he will jump without thinking, without “reasoning” because he knows that the one who asks for it can be trusted. In fact, in many cases when you play with a trusting child, he will jump even when you are not ready to catch him. This shows that belief or faith is a form of reasoning but it’s a reasoning which cannot always be explained scientifically.

We have established that science is not the sole measure of our experience. In fact, reason needs the sacred. If not, how can we explain why the “rational” world that we live in is so fascinated with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and even Twilight”? The increasing interest in the occult is telling us that our world is more than just scientific measurement. Thus, if you like, reason is at home with the sacred.

Today, Thomas leads us in a reflexion about faith and what it means to have faith. He is doubtful but doubt is not necessarily bad for faith. We think of doubt as if it were the antithesis of believing; that doubt is the opposite of faith; that when one doubts one does not believe. But, the contrary is true that we doubt because of faith. Doubt can lead to faith because serious doubt is our reason searching for belief. Doubt or uncertainty does not prevent us from approaching the Sacred.

But, what happens is not that we doubt but rather, we are cynical or even contemptuous. Like the case of the audience looking at Susan Boyle walking up to sing. It was not doubt that showed on their faces. It was cynical contempt.

Thomas can lead us out of the prison of cynicism into freedom of faith. Like him, we move from “seeing is believing” to “believing enables us to see better”. Faith makes us go further because faith sees what the eyes cannot perceive.

However, our challenge is that we “reason” too much but we believe too little. I am not against the use of reason because we organise the world through practical reason. Technology is practical reason at work. But, sometimes our reason is at best cynical and at worst paranoid. Do we all not reason in the most paranoid manner? We tell ourselves that it is better to be safe than to be sorry. Let me give another example from cyberspace. How many of you have received this warning of the presence of a species of spider that hides underneath the toilet seats in a restaurant somewhere in the city? Actually the warning has mutated over the years. The email goes like this: 3 women who fell sick from an unknown illness were found to be connected to one another through the use of the toilet in a particular restaurant. Upon investigation, they found underneath the toilet seat a particular species of spider named Arachnius Gluteus. Never mind that the name translates literally to “Backside Spider”, ladies are advised to check the seats when they use the loo and paranoid that we are, we immediately forward the same email to everyone in our address book. Better be safe than be sorry, we tell ourselves. And with paranoia we grow in cynicism.

But, our reason needs to believe in order for it to be healthy. Doubt is part of the process of coming to belief. If you have doubt never take doubt to be the lack of belief. It is because you want to believe that you search for the appropriate reason to give your heart to the one to be believed. But, if you are cynical, then it is a bit more difficult. Cynicism does not look for belief. Instead it is contend to assume that nothing can really be believed [4]. It is not doubt that prevents us from belief. It is not doubt that blocks us from entering the Sacred. It is cynicism that says that nothing can ever be believed.

But, as Van Gogh says, “It is necessary sometimes to believe in something a little in order to see it”. Today, we ask for the kind of doubt that will only strengthen our belief and the kind of faith that will overcome cynicism and contempt.
[1] We have a positivistic understanding of reason which defines knowledge as limited by what can be positively seen, measured and physically tested through hypothesis, experiment and observation.
[2] You can see how suffocating this “personal judgement and opinion” is. We have entered the era of 4th generation communication devices. It is just a sad degree of sophistication with no correspondence to the deepening of relationships. In fact, why are we lonelier even though we are so connected via SMS, Facebook etc? This so-called prison of personal judgement or opinion has a bearing on our process of socialisation which can only be described as retarded. One of the processes of socialisation is individuation. This process of becoming an individual is always in relation to the whole, to consensus, to society. Unfortunately, our process of individuation is markedly selfish and incapable of self-transcendence. In fact, the process is instead marred by the struggle over and against the “whole, the community”. One is one (individual) simply because he stands up and to society. Observe how a young person struggles to be an individual... it often ends up with funny hairstyle or clothing to mark the individual. The exercise of freedom which is part of this process of becoming an individual is understood as freedom from constraints imposed by society. But, it is not always the mark of freedom to go against “society”. In fact, it takes a lot more gumption for the individual to be part of society; to accept consensus as part of the process of being an individual. Jesus our model was an “individual” not because He stood “against” society but because He could stand with society as an when it was necessary. The mark of a healthy individual is a dialectic with community and not always against the community. Personal judgement or opinion may mark a person as an individual but it cannot sustain the cohesion of a society which is needed for the very exercise of freedom of the individual. Does this not explain the morass we are in? Our sense of the individual is trapped by this so-called “personal judgement or opinion” and so, we are condemned to wander the desert of loneliness in search of meaning. That is why beauty is not as “subjective” as we think it to be. It drives us out of ourselves and that drive allows us to breach the walls of loneliness so that we can search for what we are made for: TRUTH. Loneliness ends not when we have found meaning but when we are enveloped by the truth. The truth shall set you free.
[3] In fact, science tells us what can be done. Technology is science applied. But science cannot tell us if something should be done. Science is not competent to enter the realm of morality.
[4] An ever greater threat to belief is smugness. I don’t need anything more...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Easter Vigil Year B

The resurrection breaks every category that can be used to describe human experiences. In the first place, there are remarkable miracles of being raised from the dead—the son of the Widow at Nain, the daughter of Jairus the official and most notable of them is Lazarus, the friend of Jesus; the gospel used for the 5th Sunday of Lent.

The various accounts of raising the dead are the closest we can have to the experience of what takes place today: the Resurrection. These dead may have been brought back to life but, that phenomenon cannot be compared to the Resurrection. It is like the Resurrection but all the categories used to describe the Raising of Lazarus cannot fully describe the Resurrection. It is everything and nothing like it at all.

Today we celebrate this “nothing like it at all” and what it means for us.

It is an invitation to life, not just any life, but life which the best imagination of it is only a fraction, if at all, of what it really is. It is unfortunate that our eyes cannot see beyond the veil of sin. But it is not just the veil of sin that is blinding. It is in the first place. But for so many of us, it is really to be caught up with the phenomenon of an event like the Raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, the Widow’s son and Jairus’ daughter represent possibilities; of what can be.

Even today, the life of technological advances represents at best a life of possibilities. Yes, we are able to send space craft to the furthest reaches of the universe and we might be able to perform the minutest of micro-surgery. Yet, the fact remains that life is contingent. People still die and Lazarus, for all his glory of being raised to life, lived a couple of years before he died again. So, Jairus’ daughter, the Widow’s son and Lazarus were just a taste of this real thing to come: The Resurrection. And nothing we have in this world, not even the best of possibilities, can measure up to the Resurrection.

Easter invites us to enter the Resurrection, that is, to live a life beyond possibilities.

How are we to do that?

We are invited to this life of grace that opens for us the treasure of the Resurrection. Tonight, we will witness how some people have come to discover this treasure so immense. They will be led through the waters of the Great Deluge of Noah, the Red Sea of Moses and Jordan of John to arrive at the Life of the Risen Christ.

What does this Life of the Risen Christ consist of? It consists of a surplus of possibilities. Our concept of a new life is often tied with the excitement of novelty. Novelty is just an excitement and every excitement must enter its inevitable phase which is characterised by the predictable, the dull, the boring (I am describing so many of you married for 15 years and more) and that is best described by the word: Mundane... defined in the dictionary as “of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one”.

If, the raising of Lazarus is mundane, that is, being raised to a life which is still within this world, then is it possible to live the Resurrection, here and now?

I had a conversation with some young people about some of the struggles that they had been having. It consisted of smoking pot, pornography, lying, fighting and cheating (and many of our young ones cheat in their exams), etc. They were somewhat embarrassed and so I asked if they thought I was disappointed with them for what they did? Their answer was a “yes”. My reply was a “No”. What they did was because they could not see beyond the possible. That they did something wrong wasn’t what disappointed me. (As a matter of fact, that we all sin does not surprise me [1]. That they didn’t do what was right was disappointing. There is a difference. To do what is right belongs to the surplus of possibilities.

The Risen Life that Christ invites us to is one which is marked by a surplus of possibilities. It is not particularly marked by avoidance of what is wrong even though that is very important. To avoid what is wrong is a good thing. But, it pales when compared to the great that we can be. That is why people have difficulty believing in the Resurrection.

Why? Because Christians are not convinced that in a world which is less loving, they can love more, in a world of poverty, they can give more, in a world of selfishness they can serve more. Instead, we are content with just the possibility that Lazarus can be raised to life... We are content with simply the possible and often we are no different from people who are not Christians. It is because of the Resurrection that we have saints who are like this Paschal Candle burning out their lives for others. Saints live for others.

Today, when our brothers and sisters walk through the waters of baptism, we ask that they be guided by the only light that is important in their lives: Christ the Light risen for all to see. We also ask that we who are lukewarm be given the grace to regain what lustre we ourselves have lost and once again shine with the surplus of possibilities which the Risen Christ has brought for us by His Life, Death and Resurrection.
[1] We read in approved popular devotion the Sacred Heart of Jesus as being unhappy because of our sins may be re-interpreted not as unhappiness that we’ve sinned but rather as a divine sadness [if God can be said to be sad] that we often not choose the better but settle instead for the mediocre.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Good Friday Year B

If you are Catholic, at certain point in your life, you would have come across the Rosary. It is undoubtedly a Marian prayer in character... “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you”. But, it is at heart a prayer that is centred on Christ: “And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus”.

What is the significance of the Rosary for Good Friday? Nothing much but it has something to do with yesterday’s homily where I preached on beauty. According to John Paul II, his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he says, "In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium. It is an echo of the prayer of Mary, her perennial Magnificat for the work of redemptive Incarnation which began in her virginal womb. With the rosary, the Christian people sit at the school of Mary and are led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love" (RVM, 1).

We begin to see the beauty of Christ at work today as we join Our Lady as she contemplates her Son who for our sins chose to die so that we might have life. As the Rosary leads us through the various stages of Christ’s life, it will also lead us to Calvary where we will encounter the deep meaning of suffering that is salvific.

The beauty of Christ’s strength is in self-sacrifice. By His wounds we are healed. If by His wounds we are healed, then it gives those of us who are suffering some measure of hope. For if we follow Him to Calvary, then all suffering, even though seemingly meaningless, can have meaning. Today Christ invites those who are suffering to come to Him. Those who cannot seem to find meaning in life, those who are hurt in relationships, those who are suffering from terminal illnesses, those who are struggling with a sin which they don’t seem to be able to overcome. He says to us: no suffering is meaningless when you unite what you go through with mine for the good of the world. John Paul II says in Salvifici doloris, (22) “In weakness He manifested His power, and in humiliation He manifested all His messianic greatness”. Christ manifests His Beauty in our suffering and our death, which will one day lead to the resurrection.

We who travel with Him to Calvary will also arrive with Him in the Resurrection. This is the promise of Christ our Saviour, Christ who died for us, Christ who rose for us.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Holy Thursday Year B

What can we say of Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples? The early Church interpreted it as a symbol of baptism and later as the sacrament of reconciliation. Today, a common interpretation brings together three themes, namely, the Priesthood, the Eucharist and Service. In the first place, Priesthood and the Eucharist are inter-related. Without the Priesthood there is no Eucharist and without the Eucharist, there is no Priesthood. [1] Both the Priesthood and the Eucharist must flow into service. The example of Jesus calls for humility and thus we are invited to embrace the humility of the God made Man, the humility of God Himself.

Today I would like to link humility with beauty because the humble action of Christ can be seen in the context of beauty. There is beauty in the action of Christ in washing the feet of the disciples. In some way I am embarrassed because the linkage of humility and beauty seems to be a justification for what we are doing with respect to our renovation project. But, give me a hearing and perhaps you will see where I am coming from.

I received an email the other day from a parishioner. It was about the fear of retrenchment. This parishioner’s husband was the “oldest” in the office and as the oldest, when the axe falls, he would be the first to go. I suspect this scenario is not alien to many of us.

Why am I telling you this? Well, first of all, when the economy is in a crunch, the first to go is the inefficient (theoretically, but it is not always the case in the present government... but that’s neither my concern nor criticism). The economy which affects a very large section of our everyday life is governed very much by the law of the practical. What is most practical when there is only so much money is to get rid of the older staff and to hire younger ones. For the same amount of output that is desired, the saving is made from paying lower salary. Experience is important but still most multi-nationals are primarily governed by this criterion. They go to where they can get the cheapest labour.

Whenever the criterion of practical reason is applied to the fullest, the disabled, the poor, the aged, the sick will all fall through the cracks. Euthanasia, which is seemingly governed by a compassion for the sufferer, is actually acting out this principle of practicality. What’s the point of hanging on to dear life when you cannot enjoy it at all?

So, what can protect us from such practical harshness?

It is beauty. Beauty has with it an element of the impractical. Beauty is not useful. It is inspiring but not necessarily useful. But, beauty draws us out of ourselves, out of our practical world into another realm. Beauty belongs to the realm of the Sacred. Interestingly, the Priesthood deals with the Sacred. In a world technologically advanced, the realm of the sacred is getting smaller. When the boundary of the sacred recedes before us, the priest is either loved [2] or maligned because he is no longer practical. [3] But his function is needed to protect us from the inhuman brunt of practical knowledge. Practical knowledge is good because we need it to organise the world we live in but if this world that we live in is not in touch with the sacred, it becomes harsh. It looks at people as useful or useless... it proceeds recklessly along the path of utility.

Today, the washing of the feet is inviting us to service, if you like, humble service. But it is also inviting us to contemplate the beauty of truth who is Christ the Lord because humble service, good as it may be, can also be infected by practicality. Mother Teresa was able to serve the poorest of the poor not because she was humble but because she saw the beauty of Christ AND because she embraced Him, she embraced those whom society would reject as not useful.

It is sobering then that we come today to witness not just the humility of Christ in service. We come to witness Christ who beautifully serves those whom He chose for His own. It is an invitation for us to gaze at Him and right after Mass, this is exactly what we will do during the Solemn Adoration and after midnight, the Silent Adoration in the chapel. Hans Urs Balthazar says, "We can be sure that whoever sneers at Beauty's name…can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love”. (Preface to the Glory of the Lord).

Our service must be marked by humility. But it is decidedly inspired by the beauty of Christ. Let us gaze at the Beauty of Christ so that we may pray better, love better and serve better.

[1] This has grave implication for the promotion of vocation to priesthood. If we accept the premise that the ministerial priesthood belongs to the definition of Church, then it cannot be that Christ has stopped calling for more priests for His Church, His Body.
[2] The so-called “so priest-centred” phenomenon is coming from here. Lay people are not as necessarily priest-centred as they are in desiring that their conduit to the sacred not be cut off.
[3] In this, we can see the ferocity of the anger against paedophilia. First of all, it is heinous to take advantage of the young and helpless. We may be more conscientised or have become more aware of the crime against the young... but the fact is, sexual predation has always existed in the past. This does not excuse the actions of the paedophile but the ferocity against the so-called “priest-paedophiles” may be seen from this perspective that it is because the “sacred” is no longer relevant for the “everyday life” that it explains why we are angry with this “useless” priest for intruding into our lives. When mediation with the sacred is important, I suspect that’s also when the less perfect behaviour of the priest is tolerated. The function of a priest is either important or he is ignored.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Palm Sunday Year B

Mark’s depiction of the Passion of Christ is quite severe. But, at least two things jump out at us. First, Christ faced His death alone. He was derided and taunted by enemies, onlookers and soldiers. He was deserted by His closest Disciples. Finally, He was abandoned by God. Second, the veil of the Temple torn in two signals the end of Israel’s privileged relationship with God. Now, access to God is opened to all and is symbolised by the words of the gentile Centurion who came to recognise who Jesus was: In truth this man was God’s Son.

The severity of Mark’s Gospel challenges us. First of all, it is about God’s Son and faith in Him. We are like the Centurion who was given access to faith in Christ. How do we appropriate that faith, the privileged relationship with God? This God’s Son is not just a son. This God’s Son according to the 2nd Reading is one whose state was divine but He did not cling to His equality with God. On the contrary, He emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave. The 1st Reading tells us that He made no resistance and did not cover His face against insult and spittle.

This quality of not clinging to His divine state helps us to understand a facet of life, a big facet of what it means to live earthly lives.

For many years, Jesus could go about as He wished. But, when He was handed over to His enemies, that freedom came to an end. The Passion basically revolved around how, little by little, life was drawn out of Him. In short, the Passion was Christ being done to!

In like manner, much of our lives too is shaped not so much by what we can do but by what is done to us. In the matter of health, one is struck by a prolonged illness not of one’s choice—cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons. When aged, one becomes dependent on children who are either too busy or domestic helpers who are not sensitive. In our professional life, in a country governed by “kulification” (skin colour) instead of qualification, many will share that they have often been passed over in promotion. In business, you may have bad luck dogging you as you stagger from one venture to another. In love, relationship may turn out unexpected and the one whom you choose to live your life with has gone away either through divorce or death. You may choose to have a child but you often cannot choose how your child will turn out.

The freedom we have, just like Jesus in His earlier years, gives us a sense that we can make a life for ourselves—that we are in control. But, in reality much of life is thrown at us. No matter how much we try, no matter how much we plan, we are often not in control. So what is our response when we are not in control?

The Passion was life thrown at Jesus. But, what was the outcome of the unfairness of life for Jesus? Our Salvation. With all that life gave Him, He could have been a vengeful God, but no. He took the violence rained upon Him and converted it to love and forgiveness. Love and forgiveness conquered death and destruction. Here, we are not sentimental about “a life of suffering”. People get hurt by the unfairness of life. As the poet says, “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”. Thus, it is not a question of idealising suffering but the Passion shows us how we can confront it with hope. Christ who conquered destruction and death with love and life is the basis for our hope. Today, as we contemplate His Passion, He invites us to do the same. The value of what life throws at us is not in the pain we endure but what we who undergo it can make out of it. No matter how pressed we are, we can still choose to respond to His invitation. His passion is our strength, our hope and our salvation.