Sunday, 26 July 2009

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We are in for a treat. For the next four Sundays, the Gospel readings will come from chapter six of John’s Gospel. The Evangelist has no account of the Institution of the Eucharist but this chapter makes up for the seeming “deficiency” of the Gospel.

There is a connexion between physical hunger and spiritual satisfaction; between food and the Eucharist. Thus, an understanding of the Eucharist begins aptly with a basic human need: food. In the multiplication of the loaves, the scenario set up by John gives us a picture of 5000 hungry men. But in reality, when we include the women and children present there, a figure closer to 15000 might be more accurate. In feeding such a number, we are shown the abundance of God’s generosity.

The first reading confirms this generosity with Elisha becoming the sign or sacrament of God’s concern for His people. At first glance, Elisha seems to have dispensed with bureaucracy. He takes the bread, the first-fruits, meant for offering to God and distributes it to the people. That can be interpreted as a doing away with the “red-tape” surrounding the temple worship. But at a deeper level, the first-fruits, which are rightfully offered to God in thanksgiving, are but a reflexion of the generosity of God. The left-over shows that God is always generous in providence.

The Gospel reflects this providence. We have a boy with only 5 loaves and 2 fish. And yet, a miracle of stupendous proportion took place. How? Our scientific minds search for the plausibility of belief as we try to make sense of the possibility of it happening. But, the Gospel only records the instruction of Jesus to His disciples to make the crowd comfortable. Beyond that it remains silent. It only echoes what we hear each time we celebrate the Eucharist that “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks and gave them out to all”... The emphasis was not on “how” He multiplied bread. The emphasis was on the Eucharistic tone of the miracle.

Thus, generosity is a foretaste of the greatest gift God gives us: The Eucharist. The multiplication of the loaves and fish shows us what God can do for us. But, when we are interested in the “how”, we tend to forget this side of God’s strength. When we think of the “how”, we come face to face with the impossible. That is where we will get such replies like: “My faith is not strong enough”. “I don’t have the strength”. “How can it be”, and etc.

The miracle is possible because it consists of bringing whoever we are and whatever we have to the Lord. He will make wonders out of what we dare to entrust Him with. The result is whatever God does will be enough for us and also enough for others.

But, sometimes God’s providence is presented as a Gospel of Prosperity. It simply tells us that the more you give, the more God will bless you. After all, this does tie in with the giving up of the boy’s 5 loaves and 2 fish. However, the miracle is not about our benefit as it is about who God is. It is not about the advantage of our giving nor is it about the receiving. Instead, the Gospel of Generosity is about our giving as God gives.

This is what it means that we are called to give so that others may have life. All we have, our talents, gifts, wealth, are considered blessings from God. But, the converse is not true that what we lack is to be considered a curse from or of God, if one follows the Gospel to its logical conclusion. The generosity of God’s blessing is an encouragement for us to give to those who are in need and in giving, nothing that we have is ever too small, too insignificant or too little.

The Miracle of the Multiplication is at once an affirmation of who God is and what we can be: generous like God is generous. The heart is the measure of the world and not the measuring tape. It is not the square miles of arable land, the square kilometres of potable water. But, instead, the bigger the heart is, the bigger the world—the smaller the heart is, the smaller the world.

The feeding of the 5000 or 15000 is indeed a miracle accomplished by no less than God. Yes, it is a miracle in which human effort is not missing because it is also a miracle of the heart. The boy who dared to share found that there was more than enough rather than not enough…. When one is worried and starts to grab, then there can never be enough.

In conclusion, the greatest of all miracles is the Eucharist. In order for us to grasp its possibility, Christ begins with what we can see: food. Food, a basic human need, can always be shared. Jesus worked his best miracle through food and now He will do it through the Eucharist.

Monday, 20 July 2009

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

In the noviciate we were presented with a classic case of “rationalisation” and how Jesuits were skilled at it. It goes like this. Would it be alright to pray whilst we were smoking? Yes was the answer. Would it be alright to smoke whilst we were praying? No was the answer. This subtle rationalisation about the connexion between prayer and work has led many a Jesuit down the road of activism. It does tie in with the theme, the Good Shepherd, for He is one who cares for the sheep; whose life is dedicated to the marginalised. Jesuits tend to rationalise that their active life must revolve around the apostolate, the ministry and the people. After all, everything can be prayer or contemplation. But, today, the Gospel actually shows us a side of the Lord’s way of proceeding and how important this side is for the apostolate, the ministry, the people and most of all, the Church.

The Good Shepherd tells His disciples “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while”. Why does He do that? An analogy might help. Have you ever entered the expressway, going in the wrong direction? If you’re unlucky, you will need to travel many kilometres before you can find an interchange to make a U-turn. Many of us are not so much on wrong expressways as we are trapped in the information superhighway of immediate gratification. We want an instant connexion with the world faster than the speed of light. But, even if we were not, and were living a sedentary life, the rhythm of our life revolves around appointments, meetings, deadlines, and social engagements. But, beyond our immediate needs and this is critical, when we consider the immensity of needs around us, we are often driven by this incessant urge to fill the gap for a God who is seemingly helpless.

But, is God that helpless? Apparently not because, in the overwhelming face of hunger and sickness, there were many moments where Christ showed us how He escaped to some lonely places, to be by Himself. His going away was an act of creative absence. In fact, Christ’s absence after the Last Supper gave us the perpetual presence of His Eucharist; His absence through death gave rise to faith in His resurrection and His absence after the Ascension gave us the testimony of the Gospels.

The point here is that absence is not nothingness. Instead, absence is part of the rhythm of creation. In a sense, the Church follows this as she provides us with seasons, solemnities and feasts to remind us that our rhythm of life is not supported by our activism. Instead, the seasons, solemnities and feasts remind us that God is the foundation of our activities. Thus, doing nothing is not nothing doing. It actually allows God to enter into our space. It interrupts our “activism” to allow for “being” to stand out. As God enters our space, we come into His presence. One of the experiences I had in the Ateneo Manila University was the Angelus. The minute the Angelus bell chimes, everything stops. Conversations cease; those walking remain standing, those eating take a pause. Perhaps, an image by Jean-Francois Millet speaks a thousand words for us. He depicts a farmer and his wife both caught up in the mystery of the Annunciation. In the distant horizon, you can discern a Church spire—the reason for the silence of reverence.

Here, we are speaking ordinarily for it does not mean that the surgeon stops operating; the fireman stops putting out fire etc. In the ordinary an interruption is good. According to a historian, he says that the whole rationale of symbolic gestures requires that they disrupt and disturb the secular order. Their power to witness—not only to others but to ourselves—comes precisely from their awkwardness. It is awkward to put ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday. It is awkward to say to your colleagues, “I don’t eat meat on Friday”. It is awkward to process in the streets.

Unfortunately, we have removed the “awkwardness” of the Epiphany on 6th January and of Corpus Christi on Thursday after Trinity Sunday and have conveniently moved them to a Sunday. When we do away with the awkwardness of our symbolic actions, we have not just accommodated ourselves to the spirit of the world. Instead, we have failed to understand that tradition is the distinctive language of belief. When we do away with the awkwardness of our symbolic gestures, we cannot be far from devaluing our Catholic beliefs. When holy days of obligation become a matter of convenience [and Sunday Mass is celebrated on a Saturday] to make time for the practicality of our life, we have entered a slow ritual of suicide for what we believe in. Faithfulness is not restricted to doctrines to be believed or teachings simply to be obeyed but it is also the disciplines which are expressed through our symbolic gestures—ashes, abstention, pilgrimages, processions and fasting.

The Year for Priest, inaugurated at the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart this year, is offering us the opportunity to come away to some lonely place. In fact, some of us have actually been “going away” even though there is so much to do. The bombing in Jakarta, again? A young man about to be married allegedly committing suicide at the place where he had been interrogated. Finally and not the least, we are worried about the case of Herald’s restriction and our freedom to worship God. Thus, “coming away” before the Blessed Sacrament is a powerful symbolic gesture. And the parish is providing time for us to come away to be with Christ who can do for us what we cannot do.

Furthermore, in conjunction with the Year for Priest and as part of the Golden Jubilee celebration, the parish will launch an initiative where there will be semi-perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. People will be asked to come and offer an hour to accompany the Lord and to pray for the Jesuit priest serving in this part of the world. Like Jesuits, we can be so caught up with our “ability” to organise forgetting that it is God whose grace we need most to be more effective.

Someone asked me about how we are to put the initiative into practice. I told the person the “how” was not so much my concern but the “why” would be more important. Let me make a distinction between the Priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of a priest. This distinction helps explains why sacrifice is necessary. If the mystery of the priesthood is to be appreciated as God’s gift to the Church, then your prayer before the Lord is to ask that the His priesthood will become more and more the priesthood of the ordained person. Beyond what L’Oreal crudely put as “Because I am worth it”, your prayer is needed simply because of the nature of the ministry, the apostolate and the Church. So, you can see the “how” is not as important as the “why” is.

Finally, the coming away to some lonely place is our simple exercise in the Year for Priest to reclaim the awkwardness, the rhythm of practice that allows the Church to be Church and in so doing, allows Christ to be more visible in the priests that He has called to serve Him and His Church. We always talk of renewing the Church. We seem to think that renewal is for the Laity. But the 1st Reading reminds us otherwise. Vatican II started the renewal of the Church through the liturgy. Many took that seriously but forgot that the process of renewal must also involve the renewal of the priesthood and the conversion of the priest because the priest is the sacrament of Christ and the custodian of the other sacraments of the Church.

Monday, 13 July 2009

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

In the first reading, the Prophet Amos was sent to prophesy to the people of Israel. The Gospel gives an account of Jesus sending out the Twelve. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians also speaks of being sent. All these 3 readings lend themselves to this Sunday’s theme: The Missionary Church. What are we to make of the “Missionary Church”?

First of all, the phrase missionary church might be redundant in the sense that the Church is Mission. Jesus sent out the Apostles and the sending has never stopped. The Good News or the Gospel is not a message to be kept to oneself. The word “apostle” is derived from the Greek “apostolos” meaning messenger or person sent forth. In English, the word Missionary is related to the Latin word “missio” meaning “send or to be sent”. Hence, belonging to the so-called Apostolic Church is to be a part of the Missionary Church.

Secondly, we must expand our understanding of the meaning Missionary Church. To some, the word mission is related to evangelisation and evangelisation is often understood as “to preach” the Gospel and to convert people. That is not wrong because those who are waiting for the Gospel must not be denied the grace. But, still, there is more to missiology than just preaching. We are missionary not in the restricted “Pentecostal or evangelical” sense that the goal of “missionary” activity is just baptism. Today’s Gospel is quite clear that this sending or the Twelve’s apostolic ministry is situated within the context of authority over unclean spirits. The mission is both spiritual and physical. They set off to preach repentance and they cast out many devils, and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them. Thus, the Lord’s concern over the spiritual health of the person extends to the concern for his physical well-being.

Thus, there is no dichotomy or split between the mission to proclaim the faith and to work for justice. The mission is NOT faith or justice but BOTH faith and justice. Faith because the Gospel has been entrusted to us to bring to the world and there is a world that is hungry for the grace of the Gospel. It is also justice because the Gospel is also the good news of liberation.

Thirdly, in the context of the first reading and the Gospel, the mission is not restricted to just “missionaries”. Amos was an unsophisticated shepherd whose vocation was to tend to sycamore trees. The Twelve need no introduction for none of them has any degree to shout about. Instead, the Twelve comprise a motley crew of fishermen, a zealot, a tax-collector and most of all, and humanly possible, a traitor. Their merit lay not in their qualification. Instead, their only qualification they have is that they were sent by Jesus.

If that be the case, then perhaps we begin to appreciate that everyone in this congregation is already a missionary. No one is exempted. Perhaps the word “justice” is too much for us? Perhaps people are tired of hearing the usual “fight for justice or struggle against injustice”. We may be uncomfortable because these phrases are evocative of violent means used to achieve the end intended. In some circles, Jesus has been portrayed as a revolutionary leader.

But, it doesn’t have to be so. The mission of faith and justice is not alien to us. Listen to the final hymn later. The wordings go like this: “You shall be my witnesses, unto the ends of the earth; witnessing to my truth and to my love”. What is truth but the proclamation of the faith and what is love but working out of justice? Furthermore, the sacrament of baptism makes us part of this mission. Today, the launching of our Golden Jubilee celebration in preparation for 2011 becomes a wonderful occasion to deepen our understanding of what it means that we have been missioned and how our mission can be worked out. The GJ Committee chose Acts 2:42 to help describe what our mission is to be like. In the logo that won the 1st prize for the competition, there are 4 tongues of flames emanating from the letter “X” of our name and these four tongues of flame represent the 4 characteristics of the early Christians as described in Acts 2:42: “These remain faithful to the teachings of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers”. “These” refers to the preceding sentence which reported that 3000 were added to the number of the believers.

The connexion between faith and justice is in the practice. You can see that to preach the Gospel is to live the Gospel. Some of us might be called to the ministry of preaching but everyone is called to witness to it by living it out so that we are not only apostles in name but also in fact. When these four characteristics can be discerned in the Parish, it will become an evangelising Parish. It will draw people to Christ simply because it becomes a Parish that walks the talk. When Acts 2:42 can be used to describe the Parish, then we will find that justice becomes the way we want to act. Justice is how we want to behave.

Do you believe this? It might be slow but we will get there. If we want to live the Church as Missionary, then the thing we have is to slowly acquire the practice as found in the early Christian community: These remain faithful to the teachings of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.