Sunday, 17 May 2009

6th Sunday of Easter Year B

The theme of this Sunday’s gospel is on the familiar subject of love. However, the first reading sets this love which Jesus invites us to in the context of community expansion. The Christian community hitherto had primarily been made up of Jewish converts. However, Cornelius represents the opening of the Church to the gentile world. His baptism highlights the universality of God’s salvation. Salvation is no longer restricted to a particular race but is available to all people.

Therefore, we are to love the world and in loving (the world) bring the salvation of God to the ends of the world. In the days of old, this was a straightforward process. God’s saving love was interpreted in terms of making available the grace of baptism. Thus, missionaries blazed across the known world bringing with them the bible on the one hand and baptising on the other. In fact, our very own St Francis Xavier was reputed to have baptised 10000 people in Southern India within a period of two months in 1544.

However, these days, the process has become a little more complicated. We now have a greater respect for diversity and we generously embrace tolerance and inclusion. The result is that some people are given the impression that every religion is the same and baptism is not necessary.

This is where we are challenged. In loving the world, in mediating God’s saving love, the Church has to hold firm to the belief that baptism is still the ordinary means of salvation. She cannot, if She wants to be faithful, ignore the last command given by Her Lord and Saviour before His Ascension: Go, baptise all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And, this is the crux of our challenge. Whilst the effect is the same for what we termed as the ordinary and the extraordinary means of salvation, that is, the effect is the same whether God saves ordinarily or out of the ordinary [1], the difference between them is a minefield for the Church. When God saves, He saves and it does not matter how because the effect of His salvation is the same, that is, we are saved. The minefield is this: We accept that God’s saving love is intended for all. We accept diversity. On the one hand, we like to think of ourselves as enlightened liberals and it is far easier to think that God’s vision is larger than our narrow understanding of salvation and that He can save however He wants. But, on the other hand, according to the Catechism,

[T]he Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptised are "reborn of water and the Spirit" [CCC #1257]. [2]

You begin to understand the difficulty or the tension involved—if God can save, why the necessity of baptism.

I think we excuse our failure at bringing the Gospel of salvation to people everywhere by saying that God is a far greater Lover than we are capable of being the good news. Thus, the question remains that if we are to remain faithful to Christ, how are we to propose the ordinary means of salvation to people whom we meet? The answer is through love as in the Gospel today.

And it is often that Christians fail at the task of loving as Christ loved us. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said that he believed in Jesus but he did not believe in Christians? The word “Crusade” itself is a reminder of much suffering brought about by Christians. In the name of God, the crusaders set out to free the Christian land from non-Christian control. In the process of doing God a favour, Christians poison the wells of their enemies. Is there any wonder why Christian—Muslim relationship is such a delicate issue? One of the Crusades even deviated from its original goal that instead of setting free the Holy Land, it plundered Constantinople which is present day Istanbul. Is it any wonder why the Orthodox Churches are suspicious about our Latin Rite Church?

The point is not to pass judgement upon generations past as if we were such saints but to note that we often have done a great disservice to the message of the Gospel through our behaviour. The disservice is when we preach the Gospel of love but fail to live that love. Each time when a person leaves the Church scratching someone’s car but driving away quietly; when a person is rude to the Hospitality Ministers who are trying to perform a duty, the person has made the Church poorer in the esteem of the world and made the Christian message a little more difficult to accept. I was reflecting about this and realised how often I myself have been such a poor excuse of a witness to this saving love of God. I feel like a hypocrite when I was thinking of these examples because my life itself is a sorry excuse for poor Christianity.

The Gospel message, however, does not call us to a generic. It is easy to love everyone because it does not require any commitment. Perhaps, we have been preaching the wrong thing, that is, we’ve been preaching “love one another" in a generic sense. The message of Christian love is lost in the generic.

But, say you live with a person who behaves outside the boundary of rationality or accepted norms of behaviour. How do you deal with that? Thus, the Gospel of love becomes real because “a man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”. We all marvel at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She was the epitome of what it meant to love because her love stretched out to all and that seemed to be generic enough. But really, she was able to do that simply because she must have taken to heart the Gospel injunction to lay down her life for a friend. She embraced the leper on the street because she saw in him none other than Christ Himself. Only when a Christian believes that there is someone worth dying for, will that Christian truly know the meaning of "love one another". It is a great price to be paid. The Greek word "martyr" means witness and from the time of the Apostles until now, whoever witnesses to the Gospel must be prepared to die for it. The world is not convinced by Christianity not because it’s not true but because our love is not convincing enough. Like Light FM, we have been fed on a diet of “light” Christianity, abandoning our conviction at the slightest inconvenience.

So, brothers and sisters, true love requires a readiness to die for the Gospel. Are you prepared? I know I hesitate and fail often and that is why the Eucharist is so important. St Maximillian Kolbe did not sit in his cell eagerly waiting for the moment to die for the Gospel. He stepped up when that crucial moment called for it and I believe the Eucharist he had celebrated and the Holy Communion he had received must have given him the necessary grace to stand up for the Gospel. So, let us ask God for this grace in the same Eucharist that gave both Blessed Teresa and St Maximillian Kolbe the courage to love as Christ Himself did.
[1] We need to allow for God to save extraordinarily, that is, God to save out of the ordinary, because baptism, as a means of salvation, is not always available to people everywhere. It means that a God who offers salvation to all cannot, in justice, condemn those who through no fault of theirs, are not privileged to be baptised
[2] God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments. This is the meaning of God saving extraordinarily.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

5th Sunday of Easter Year B

Today’s Gospel must be understood from the perspective that it was spoken at a time before the Passion began. Christ was with the disciples either at the Last Supper or during the journey to Gethsemane. The situation was tense. They knew the end was coming though they didn’t really know how it was going to end.

You can imagine how reassuring these words meant as the parting between them was about to take place. The use of the vine and branches imagery was appropriate and it gives rise to a few characteristics worthy of our consideration. First of all, there is a unity between the vine and the branches indicating the unity that exists between Christ and His disciples. Secondly, the branches have no life once separated from the vine and thirdly the branches need to be pruned to bear much fruit.

Today I would like to consider on a particular characteristic, which is important and that is, how we are to understand this unity between the vine and the branches.

Some of us conceive of this unity on a “personal” basis. As individuals, we acknowledge that without Christ, we cannot do anything. The challenge, however, is to rise above a purely “personal” understanding of our relationship between the vine and the branches. It is important to go beyond just a “personal” relationship with Christ because it has an implication on our understanding of Church and community.

Even though the image lends itself to a “personal” interpretation of the relationship between Christ and me, a deeper reflexion tells us that the image of vine and branches is more suitably a description of who we are as Church.

The idea of a “personal” relationship with Christ is important. But this “personal” emphasis or stress could also be a result of our experience of an impersonal world. In short, the world is cold and as such, we are driven to search for this “personal” relationship and find it most fittingly answered by a relationship with Christ. In such a case, the more we stress the need for a “personal” relationship with Christ, the more we are saying that the world is cold. Thus, He becomes more a security blanket than He is the vine from whom we draw our sustenance.

Whilst the relationship with Christ is meant to be personal, it must also be set within the context of discipleship, within the community, within the Church. Otherwise, our “personal” relationship with Christ makes no sense. If “personal” were the only defining characteristic of our relationship with Christ, then baptism does not make sense. We would not have infant baptisms. A child can’t possibly baptise itself. Neither does it make sense that an adult does so. You can’t take water, pour over yourself and say, “I baptise myself in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Baptism shows very much the “ecclesiality” of who we are as branches of the vine; it brings out the necessity of the Church in our relationship with Christ.

Furthermore, there is the common argument against sacramental confession that starts off with “Why confess to a priest when I can go directly to God”. This mentality comes from a purely "personal” conception of our relationship with Christ; a personal relationship which does not take into consideration that Christ's relationship with the 12 as individuals was also a relationship with the 12 as a whole—You are Peter and upon you, I will build my Church and I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail, and you, once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.

The lack of “personal” relationship with Christ, which is a stressing point of many Evangelical Churches—“have you got a personal relationship with Christ”—may be a contributory reason why there are so many “churches”. The Church is the Body of Christ and as the Body of Christ, it is THE Body of Christ and not THE BODIES of Christ. And we know this so-called phenomenon of “Christians” further disintegrating is still going on.

Therefore, a pertinent question for us to think about is how we are to conceive of this “personal” relationship with Christ. In the context of Church, it is personal relationship that must draw life from Christ and to draw life from Him is to avail ourselves of the sacraments. Why? Because "I am the vine and you are the branches" only makes sense if there is something we can get from Christ and that something is to be found concretely through the channels called sacraments. According to the Catechism,
[T]he sacraments are "of the Church" in the double sense that they are "by her" and "for her." They are "by the Church," for she is the sacrament of Christ's action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are "for the Church" in the sense that "the sacraments make the Church," since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons. (#1118)
Without the sacraments and the Church, the image of the vine and the branches is a dead one. Now we begin to see how the Eucharist is so crucial to who we are as Christians and as Church.

More than ever in an image conscious world, a visual media world, there is need for Christians to bear fruit in plenty. And the Saints have shown us the way to bear fruit in plenty. For them, the image of vine and branches is alive both personally [they pray, they fast] and ecclesiologically [they are always somehow related to the Church]. They have a personal relationship with Christ and at the same time, they are always close to Holy Mother Church. From her, they draw the very life of Christ in the sacraments so that sustained by the very life of Christ they can bear fruit in plenty.

Last week, we celebrated Vocation Sunday and sort of focused on vocation in particular to priestly and religious life. You will find that every founder of a religious congregation had placed strong emphasis on the sacraments notably the sacrament of the Eucharist because it is the sacrament of the life-giving body and blood of none other than Christ Himself. You will also find that the founding of every religious congregation had always been within the context of the Church. It is said that when two Protestants disagree, you probably end up with two new “churches” but when two Catholics disagree, you often end up with two new religious congregations. It shows the ecclesial dimension of the practice of our faith.

This phenomenon with religious life or priestly life is by no means far from each and everyone of us. In fact, the saints and religious or priestly life point us in the direction of how we can better live out this imagery called: The vine and the branches. We live best through the Sacraments and within the Church.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Good Shepherd Sunday Year B

Today is Vocation Sunday. It is usually the Sunday where we speak about vocation in particular to priestly or religious life. But, I would like to tackle the topic of vocation in general to help us understand why vocation in particular to priestly or religious life is not flourishing.

I am fascinated with what Rene Descartes, the French philosopher tried to do. He is sometimes called the father of modern Western Philosophy. The truth was he did not start to be that as he was actually trying to save a crumbling philosophical framework. It was during his time that the accepted pathway to knowledge was disintegrating to the point of “how do you know you really know”. It was an age of doubt; in an age where epistemology was a major concern, he thought that what could not be doubted was surely the mind’s process; “je pense donc que je suis”—his famous: Cogito, ergo sum or I think, therefore I am. This effort to shore up a regime ancien ushered in modern philosophy.

This “I think, therefore I am” of the modern age is very much characterised by an emphasis on “meaning”. Since we are not entirely sure about what is really “out there” [how do you know you really know?], at least, we can be sure about what is really “in here” [I think and it proves I am real and am not a fiction of any imagination]. Here one can discern how Descartes’ cogito in some way has ushered us onto this long lonely search for meaning. Meaning is often understood from the perspective of the subject, that is, from the perspective of “meaningful to me”. Now, if this does not make sense, perhaps this will. Some people (especially the young) find the way the Eucharist is being celebrated to be boring and therefore, meaningless to them. Observe how this “meaninglessness” is partly the reason why we choose hymns that appeal to our feelings etc. Note that young people will often be frustrated because they have come searching for meaning whereas the purpose of the Eucharist we celebrate is not entirely devoted to this search for meaning.

It would seem that Descartes’ cogito has condemned us to this insatiable search for meaning. Since our contact with the outside world is tenuous at best, it would seem that “meaningful to me” is the only available validation of who we are. This long lonely search for meaning is also marked by the road towards science especially technology as the tool to reorganise the world according to the simple criterion of “I, me and myself”. Descartes’ cogito is markedly analytical and as such carries the seed for an aggressive transformation of the environment according to the measure of the subject—the “I, me and myself”.

However, I am not dismissing this “I, me and myself” as simply selfishness. Instead, let’s take a look at how it impacts on vocation in general. From the perspective of this “I, me and myself in search of meaning”, there is a tendency to keep one’s option open. And the world of business offers us this whole array of careers to help us keep our option open. The “meaningful for me” that we seek is satisfied by careerism and not by vocation. But, the question to ask is if we are not sometimes paralysed simply because there are too many options. We dare not make a choice because we are afraid that we may make a wrong choice. Thus, we keep our options open. Amongst other reasons like financial security or career, I suspect keeping one’s options open is a reason why people marry older.

The truth is that meaning is not the only definition of who we are. If it were only so, why are successful movie personalities trapped in a world of drugs. They have money to go to the moon and back, enough booze to light up a July 4th fireworks and enough sex to populate an entire continent of Australia. They have everything—in other words, their lives should be meaningful—and yet they enter a world of further make-believe.

How are we to get away from this lonely search for meaning? Firstly, to define us, we need to choose. Individuation starts when we make choices in life. [1] That is why freedom is not the choices available but the ability to choose. In a boy-girl relationship, choosing a person to be our fiancé or fiancée closes our options for other. It’s as definitive as that. Thus, we are drawn to a conclusion that the funny thing about meaning is that it does not always reside in the self—the “I, me and myself”. “Meaningful to me” is a Cartesian enterprise of the lonely self; a modern gospel which is translated into self-congratulation or self-protection.

The truth about meaning is found not within the Cartesian enclosed self because the human heart is meant to be given away. Meaning is found when you choose to give yourself away, that is, when you have given your heart away to a larger enterprise, you will find meaning... So, marriage is meaningful not because of what you can get out of it: satisfaction etc... Marriage is meaningful because you choose to give of yourself to whom you pledge your life to... And that’s what vocation means.

I started out with Descartes because I think we need to understand how we are to deal with this Cartesian search for meaning before we can really talk about vocation and in particular to priesthood. When John the Baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease”, it wasn’t the pronouncement of a person who had no self-esteem, a loser; in short, a person who has no meaning in life. It was the authoritative annunciation of a person who was an individual strong enough to allow himself to be used as how God was pleased. A true or genuine individual is never afraid of losing himself or herself because that act of letting go is the beginning of life. When meaning is paramount, you will always be afraid that there is nothing left for you... and that is why the keeping options open.

Let me invite the many young men and women here to give themselves away to an enterprise—in our case the enterprise is not “justice” but a person for meaning is to be found in the service of truth. And, we know what truth is. It is not a thing but a person—Christ—the way, the Truth and the life. Do not allow yourself to be trapped by this search for meaning. Otherwise, it is very hard to hear the call of Christ because your vocation will be a struggle to find meaning. On the contrary, I think, when we answer God’s call, we will find meaning. So, to all you young men and women out there who are keeping your options open, trying to make sense of your life, trust me, put out into the deep and there you will find that Jesus is there waiting for you. He says to those who answer the call to serve as priests or religious: “Do not be afraid for I am with you”.
[1] Not only are we afraid to choose but also our fear is compounded by a mistaken notion of freedom. Some of us may have this mistaken notion that the more choices available, the greater will our exercise of freedom be. In a conversation with altar servers I asked whom they think have greater freedom, the man with 25 different types of shampoo to choose from in a supermarket or the man with 2 different types of shampoo in 7-Eleven, inevitably, they will point to the man in the supermarket. The fact is both may be unfree as far as their faculty to choose is concerned. The man in 7-Eleven has fewer options to choose from and that makes the choosing easier but does not equate to freedom to choose.