Sunday, 21 June 2009

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Today, Mark’s Gospel transports us from the province of parables into the territory of miracles. Between Mk 4:35 and Mk 5:43, we have four miracles; the first of these miracles is the calming of the storm. The wind and sea are forces of evil in biblical terms. Thus, calming the storm is an exercise of divine power as we hear in the first reading. But, wind and sea could also symbolise the trials and tribulations which Christians undergo and from which only God alone can deliver. As the earliest of the four Gospels to be written, the account of Jesus calming the storm was instructive for the early Christians because it reflected their post-Easter experience. The early Christians were persecuted and as they scattered, they fled under the impression that the Lord had abandoned them.

Thus, wind and water, either as forces of evil or as trials and tribulations are reminders that the Lord is in charge. And so, whatever difficulties we might experience and when we are most afraid, we are invited to have faith in Him. In other words, trials and tribulations give us the chance to place our trust in God.

To deepen our understanding of faith as trusting in God, we take some moments to reflect. Faith, that is, to trust in God, is difficult because we are afraid to let go. We want to be in control. This need to be in control actually reflects man’s aspiration to be the master of his destiny. Thus, to criticise the phenomenon of individualism as selfish would be to miss the point because individualism, if understood as the exercise of one’s freedom, is but the attempt to fulfil man’s aspiration or desire for self-determination. Thus, one can interpret Adam and Eve’s wilfulness from the perspective of this aspiration. They were not simply “disobedient”. Instead, what went wrong was when they chose absolute freedom as the expression of self-determination. In other words, original sin may be explained as self-determination through the exercise of absolute freedom.

But, the path to self-determination is never free from God’s loving restraint. Thus, faith does not violate our freedom but instead faith allows one to trust that God’s care and concern (or God’s will) will never diminish man’s aspiration; an aspiration which was first placed there by God Himself. The definition of the word Islam helps us to understand how the aspiration of man fits into the will of God. Here, I am not interested in how people practise Islam. Instead, I am interested in the definition or concept. If Islam means submission, then submission is possible because the will of God never diminishes a person.

Many of us fear that submitting to God’s will will ultimately annihilate us. Or God’s will will take away our freedom. Why? Why are we afraid to trust God? Hidden behind our fear is this: that God will thwart our desires. If you like, God is the strict parent who will spoil our fun. This fear is further reinforced by our experience. How so? Well, Murphy’s Law might just explain it. Often enough, when things are going our way, just when everything is falling into place, we find that something has to go wrong. No? We’ve solved a financial problem, then a health problem strikes. Some of us have the misfortune of a streak of bad luck.

But misfortunate, bad luck, trials and tribulations are not signs of God’s displeasure or sadistic pleasure in testing us. They happen as often they do because of the randomness of life—like being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes we by our behaviour may be the cause of our misfortune... But more than anything else, bad luck is just bad luck. Moreover, it is a human trait to complain and harp on our misfortune but never enough to thank God. Perhaps, free from the misconception that bad luck, misfortune, trials or tribulations are punishments, we may appreciate what faith must entail.

What does faith in God mean? Now, hidden within the idea of having faith is that, faith is faith only when it is tested. Otherwise, it is easy to delude ourselves that we have faith. When we are in control, we can’t really be sure that we have faith. Being in control gives us a sense of well-being because we move in a predictable and familiar world. We do not really need God even if we are convinced that we trust God. When everything is going our way, God’s usefulness is perhaps restricted to validating our sense of control.

Thus, our aspiration for self-determination is not an exercise of absolute freedom but instead, it is an exercise of deep faith in God. Otherwise, to say that one has faith is rather a cosmetic exercise for many will say they have faith. But, in truth, they do not. Trusting God is not an exercise of the future but rather the present. So, life, especially daily life, is the crucible of true faith because if we have faith, true faith, then be ready to be tested. The experience of Jesus commanding the elements of wind and water shows us that He can be trusted most especially when we find ourselves in trouble. Trials and tribulations are not punishments but are chances to place our trust in Jesus. And the irony is that only when we cede control over to Jesus will the storms of life be ever conquered. The more we try to control, the less control we have over the storm of trials and tribulations. Some of us try to “control” the storms by going to local shamans or bomohs. Maybe you are too sophisticated; perhaps, you consult a higher class of bomoh: Lilian of the Fung Shui expertise. We seek the help of these elements. What is relevant to us especially when we listen to this Lilian is that in Cantonese, wind is “fung” and water is “shui”. Jesus shows us who the Lord of “fung shui” is. Brothers and sisters, faith means giving to God the need to control our destiny because Jesus has shown us that those who trust Him will never be confounded.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Corpus Christi Year B

Note: For a better read, check out Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's “What Corpus Christi means to me” from the Feast of Faith.

What is so special about Corpus Christi? Is not every Sunday Corpus Christi since the Eucharist is the celebration of the body and blood of Christ? What is unique about Corpus Christi is that it is associated with the annual procession during which the priest carries the Blessed Sacrament followed by the congregation, moves through the streets of his parish with stops along the way for adoration and at the end of it, gives a Benediction to the congregation. What is the purpose of the Corpus Christi procession?

Is it, according to some theologies, a pious practice arising from pagan past or just a superstitious feast arising out of ignorance? Consider these cases. A sacristan of a rural parish when running out of consecrated hosts during Communion time was told by the priest to replenish the ciborium. When the sacristan discovered that the Tabernacle had not enough consecrated hosts, he went to the sacristy, got unconsecrated hosts, added into the ciborium and shook them together, in order to “consecrate” them. That is ignorance arising from poor catechesis. In rural parts of a country, where cock-fighting is de rigueur, it is not uncommon for a person to secret away Holy Communion in order to feed his fighting cock so that it can spar better. Apart from poor catechesis, that is just pure superstition. Finally, there are some parents here who, when receiving Holy Communion, also do the same; they break a bit and feed it to their child. That is not just poor catechesis, ignorance but also a blatant disregard for the discipline of the Church.

When these things happen, then the procession of Corpus Christi can feel like a pious practice of pagan past or even be superstitious simply because we do not understand what we are really doing here. When there is ignorance, superstition or abuse, then the procession leads us closer to idolatry than we are to true worship.

So, what is the purpose of our procession? Why are Sunday school children and their parents asked to join in the procession?

The origin of this feast is to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist and the procession with the Blessed Sacrament, in essence, parallels everything that takes place during the great drama of last week of Jesus’ life, namely, (1) the procession on Palm Sunday and (2) as heard in the Gospel today, the procession to the Mount of Olives after the institution of the Eucharist. In the first procession, He enters Jerusalem in triumph and in the second, He enters into His betrayal and death. Both these processions are closely related and they bring us into the heart of every Eucharist. How so? On the one hand, His entry into Jerusalem climaxes with the cleansing of the Temple and that seals His death. On the other hand, His death is a necessary pre-condition for the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. The cleansing of the Temple, resulting in His death, now gives rise to the new Temple no longer of the Law but of Love. In the Eucharist, celebrated in the new Temple of Love, when we are invited to share His life, we do two things: first, we anticipate His death and second, we look forward to the Resurrection.

Thus, you can perhaps appreciate that the liturgy of the early Church with its processions reflected this reality of His death and Resurrection not so much as a remembrance of an event past but rather an active accompanying of Christ the Victor in His triumphal entry to take possession of what belongs to Him. According to Pope Benedict XVI, essentially, the Holy Thursday procession is an accompanying of the Host, a walking with the Lord as He goes to deliver Himself up for us. But, because Maundy Thursday falls within Holy Week, the principal focus of those days must be on the Passion of the Lord.

What we cannot do during Holy Week, with the feast of Corpus Christi, the Church is able to express the elements of the Easter mystery in a manner which is befitting of the triumphant Lord as we invite Him to take possession of our streets and our squares. We are asking Christ to take possession not just of our lives but everything that we have. In some countries, Corpus Christi is celebrated in a manner reminiscence of a state visit by the head of state and here we have not just a head of state but the Head of State, the Lord of the world coming to our streets.

Thus, the manner in which we welcome Him is the measure of our acceptance of Him. In places with a longer Catholic tradition, houses along the route where the Lord is to pass by are beautifully decorated. The route is also carpeted richly with flower petals. Nothing, it seems, is too much to accord to the King.

It is not extravagance, not ostentation and certainly not, according to Judas, a waste of money. Rather, it is exuberance or if you like, euphoria. Why euphoria or why exuberance? According to the Pope, nothing can make us laugh unless we have an answer to the question of death. And only by possessing an answer to death will we dare to live genuine joy. Corpus Christi is our answer to the question of death because it celebrates Christ’s triumph and victory over death. In the Eucharist we find the answer we need to the question of death because the Eucharist is an encounter with a love that is stronger than death.

The Corpus Christi procession helps us to see or better understand that the meaning of “receiving” Holy Communion is not restricted to lining up and coming up to receive Holy Communion. In the procession, the meaning of receiving Holy Communion is expanded and is expressed fully because it means that we accompany the Victor over death in His triumphant procession through the streets. With an expanded understanding or vision, receiving also means to give the Lord the proper reception that is due to Him as the Victor over death. Now you understand why the Church is so insistent on the discipline with respect to reception of Holy Communion. I am sure the language of the sequence shocks you. The bread for God’s true children meant, that may not unto dogs be given. Why? The harshness of our language is more a statement of what we hold the sacrament to be and not, as it seems, a statement of those who are unable to receive Holy Communion. Indeed, the manner of our reception is the measure of our acceptance of Him. If we dressed shabbily, we shabbily receive Him. If a priest celebrates poorly, then he poorly receives His Lord.

Today, Corpus Christi means 3 things to us. First, it reminds us of who it is that we are receiving and what we are doing when we approach the Eucharist. Second, it gives us the chance to be grateful to the Lord, for so great a wondrous gift. Thirdly, we all want fellowship very much. Corpus Christi reminds us that we ought to look at the Lord together. It is He who has the power to unite us into one. It is like the Tower of Babel overturned or reversed. Then, the people wanted to go to God and they believed in their own strength. But, here we realise that unity is not our gift to God but rather unity is God’s gift to us and if we want unity, we need to look at the Lord.

We are not yet a Eucharistic people. We may think that we are as long as we receive Holy Communion on Sunday. But, Corpus Christi has broadened and deepened our understanding. Corpus Christi helps us to understand that Holy Communion also means 3 things. The Procession where we give proper reception due to the Lord of all creation; the Holy Communion at Mass where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ and finally the Adoration which is the continuation of the Mass and where we also receive Jesus spiritually.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Trinity Sunday Year B

“Father God, we ask that you send your Spirit, the Spirit of your Son upon your people so that they can be filled with the Spirit, Father God... Yes Father God, we need your Spirit to make us strong Father God”.

Putting aside the devotion and passion expressed in the prayer, there is no Father God. For if there were, then, we would be guilty of what another religion accuses us of. For not far from Father God is Mother God and further away and lurking in the corner, we could perhaps have our Kitchen God. If you follow the dictum or the traditional axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, the law of prayer is the law of belief, [how we pray is what we believe] nowhere will you find in the prayers of the Church this formulation, “Father God” because that could indicate that we believe in a community of gods. We don’t. Instead we believe in one God.

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday and the theme is appropriately Abba, Father. Like Jesus, we call God Father but this name Father is totally different from what you heard in the prayer I composed off the top of my head: Father God. Even a tiny little comma can make a heresy of a difference. These two formulations, “Father, [comma] God who is ever loving” and “Father God who is ever loving” are as different as the East is from the West. The God we worship is not Father God but the God who has revealed Himself to be God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity, as God’s own self revelation, lies at the very heart and centre of Christian faith. In this, we catch a glimpse of who God really is. The Christian understanding that God is one but three in persons, can be found, firstly, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, secondly, in the post-Easter experience of the Spirit and thirdly, in the worship of the early Christian communities. Contrary to another religion that is afraid of how we address God, our understanding is not an “invention” [as they claim] that came from about the 4th century or thereabout. Sacred Scripture itself recorded that Christ on the mountain told them most explicitly: “Go. Baptise all the nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. There on the mountain, it was clear that there was only one name, not “names” and thus, only One God whom we, since that time, have called Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Christian community has always been able to deal with the notion that there are three persons in one God. Even though the Trinity is beyond our reason, there is no contradiction because it is not against reason. This is because our reason can function as it grasps things analogically. For example, I have a brother and a sister. Three of us make one family. What seems to be a logical contradiction that 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, has been dissolved in a family, where 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. This is just one example where our finite minds have tried to grasp an infinite truth.

The number “three” refers to WHO they are: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One is not the other two [1] and so the question “Who are you?” will draw these answers “I am the Father”, “I am the Son” and “I am the Holy Spirit”. The number “one” refers to WHAT they are. One Divine Godhead because each person of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will answer to this question: What are you? The Father will say, “I am God”; the Son will say, “I am God”; and the Holy Spirit will say, “I am God”.

It is a mystery why God is like that but it is not an unbelievable or unliveable mystery. First, it is believable because we accept it on the strength of God’s word. He chooses to reveal as much as it is possible for our minds to comprehend but what is beyond reason’s grasp is not always against reason. Second, this mystery is liveable because it is deeply embedded into who we are and is crucial to how Christianity is to be lived. For example: We began this Eucharist in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit and we shall end also in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And throughout the Eucharist, we see how the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are there for us, not as three gods but as one God.

The entire Eucharist is directed to the praise and glory of God as it opens our eyes to how the Trinity is at work. We acknowledge God the Father because He created the world. We acknowledge God the Son because He saved us. And we acknowledge God the Spirit because He sanctifies us. God works as one. Whenever there is a mission, only one God is at work. Our liturgy helps us to appreciate how God who is the Father creates, God who is the Son redeems and God who is the Spirit sanctifies. We assign the work of creation, redemption and sanctification to each person of the Trinity. And the way the Trinity works is a help for the organisation of our communities.

When we begin to enter into community, we will begin to understand the Trinity. According to Saint Augustine, he says, “If you see charity, you see the Trinity” and the Pope echoed this in Deus caritas est. Charity or love is the only way to understand the mystery of the Trinity and conversely, the Trinity is the perfect model of our relationship. Even though we assign different tasks to each person of the Trinity, we find that there is one-ness in their mission—there is a unity of mission that is a reflexion of the unity of relationship amongst the three persons and the fruit of the unity of these three persons is the one mission to create, to save and to sanctify.

The nature of who God is in Himself impacts greatly on how Christianity is to be lived. First, the Trinity is the model of how we ought to love one another. Christ, all through His earthly life, pointed towards this mystery as we often hear in John’s Gospel. Christ in relation to the Father and the Spirit tells much about our relationship in and with the community called the Body of Christ, the Church. In that way, Christ taught us how to truly become the image of God, the imago Dei, the image of love, the image of charity.

Thus, there is something so different in the Trinity that makes God different from any other gods. In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of love, the Father invites us through His Son to share in His life in the Spirit. It is an invitation to the mystery called love, an invitation into the very life of God. The way we love, the way we dare to love is the only proof that we have to show that we have appreciated God’s gift of Himself to us, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
[1] The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. The Son is not the Holy Spirit and vice versa, etc.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Pentecost Year B 2009

For the Jews, Pentecost commemorates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. According to a legend, a mighty wind turned into fire that divided into 70 tongues of fire corresponding to the 70 nations. Thus, the Law was proclaimed, not only to Israel but to all mankind. In a way, Luke exploited this Jewish tradition and used it for Christianity where, instead of the Law, he had the giving of the Spirit taking place at Pentecost. Note the close parallel where in Luke, a mighty wind and tongues of fire came upon the disciples. Whereas, at Babel our sin of pride had scattered mankind, at Pentecost, when the Good News was proclaimed, the sentence of Babel was undone. Now, one voice could be heard by all.

Pentecost is often associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit—the gift of prophecy, the gift of speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit, these are amongst the favourites of the charismatic movement. Pentecost is also an appropriate day for conferring the Sacrament of Confirmation, that is, if we are privileged to get our Archbishop.

Today, instead of focusing on the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, I thought it might be a good time to deepen our understanding of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church.

There is a necessary bond between the Holy Spirit and the Church—a bond that is sometimes taken for granted. Pentecost is rightly the birthday of the Church because at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit initiated the mission of the Church. However, this does not mean that the Spirit was not active before Pentecost. Luke is able to attest the Spirit’s presence prior to Pentecost since he is the author of the Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles. For example, Luke tells us in Acts 17:23 that the Holy Spirit was already at work as the “unknown God” worshipped by the Athenians. He was present at the Annunciation where the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you”. Jesus Himself experienced this at His Baptism. Later in Luke 4 where upon His returned to Nazareth He read from the scroll in the synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me”. Last but not least, John the Baptist tied the mission of this Messiah to a new baptism "in the Holy Spirit."

The Holy Spirit has been present all through human history but at Pentecost, 2 things happened. First, Christ, who was now glorified after completing His mission, poured out the Spirit to fill the apostles and all believers with divine life. [1] Second, the Church was publicly displayed to the gathering outside and the Gospel began to spread among the nations.

According to the Decree Ad gentes of Vatican II on the Missionary Activity of the Church, that gathering was the indication of the unity of all peoples in the catholicity of the faith by means of the Church of the new covenant, a Church which speaks all tongues, understands and accepts all tongues in her love, and so supersedes the divisiveness of Babel" (AG 4).

Such is the intimacy of the relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit that one can say that the Church stands for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, it does not make sense to speak of the Church as the instrument of salvation. This intimate relationship is possible because of the promise of Christ in Matthew 28: “Know that I will be with you always, yes, to the end of time”.

However, our challenge today is not because we are blind to the intimate relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit. We may have trouble appreciating this simply because our understanding of the individual is one who is over and above the group. [2] The best representation of this individual is the “rugged individual”. However, check out the 2nd Reading used in Year A. 1 Cor. 12. 3-7; 12-13. "There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord; working in all of them. Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink".

The passage from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians speaks of gifts of the Holy Spirit in relation to the “group”, that is, the Church. But, because our individual is the “rugged individual”, the Holy Spirit has somehow been reduced to becoming the guarantor of “individual freedom”; in a way that often pits the individual’s “inspiration” against the Church’s “inspiration”. In fact, the Protestant practice of compulsory tithing (10%) that some Catholics marvel at because it helps in the fund-raising could be a result of a failed understanding of the relationship between the Spirit and the Church. If you follow St Paul’s thought, all gifts are given for the Church not for the individual. If a person understands that, why is there the need for compulsory tithing then?

Sometimes we hear of this person or that person leaving the Church. Sometimes people leave the parish as well. I am told that there are many people who have gone to the Assemblies of God. But think about it. The reason for leaving the Church is often because of disagreement with people. And that is a normal occurrence; sad but it does happen. But, to say that one has left because of a disagreement with the teaching of the Church needs a little bit more clarification. One can leave because of the manner in which the teaching has been conveyed. One can leave the Church because of the way it is run. One can leave because one feels that the teaching is no longer applicable. Some do because the teaching of the Church is inconvenient. But, to leave because the teaching is not true is to call the Holy Spirit a liar. This is the implication of the intimate relationship between the Church and the Holy Spirit; the promise of Christ in Matt 28 is either true or Christ had lied to us. Ultimately, it is a question of the truth.

To leave the Church means that one no longer believes in the Holy Spirit’s power to work despite the weakness of members of the Church. My point here is not to defend the Church and not to say that whatever the Church, especially the Bishop or the priest, says is right. The point is that if one feels that he or she has a strong sense of the Spirit moving in his or her life, that is, the person feels that the Holy Spirit is speaking to him or her directly, then, he or she must have a stronger sense of the Church and vice versa. If you feel that you have a strong sense of the Church, then you must have a stronger sense of the Holy Spirit to know that He does not always work according to our convention—just like Peter had with the experience of the Council of Jerusalem in the 6th Sunday of Easter Year C. This is where the hierarchical Church must be attentive. It is a delicate balancing act.

If the Holy Spirit is intimately linked to the mission of the Church, then there is need for humble discernment and also the courage to obey. It is not always easy, especially when we work with weak and sinful people in the Church, especially in those who have been placed over us. But, the promise of Christ is to the Church and if we stick close to the Church, we know that Christ will never confound us. When there is a conflict between the opinion of brilliant theologian expounding scintillating theological insight and the teaching of the lowly Catechism, I would choose to stand on the side of the Catechism because it is guaranteed by the Church that carries His promise. As St Peter says in Acts 15, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves”... We trust Him because it is His Spirit that animates the Church, His same Spirit that makes the bread and wine become His body and blood. It is the same Spirit that guarantees that the other 6 sacraments are actions of Christ done in the Church and that the Church shall be guarded from all errors.
[1] Accordingly we pray at every Eucharist “May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit”.
[2] Our sense of the “individual” is too enclosed to the point of solipsism. It is too individual to the point of loneliness. The phenomenon of “Facebook” may reflect the ease with which we cross the digital divide or maybe an indication of our desire to reach out of our prison of individualism.