Sunday, 30 August 2009

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing—a quote from Edmund Burke, a Irish statesman and philosopher. We can connect this quotation to our theme today: The commandments of life. How is it so?

Christ in the Gospel tells the Pharisees that they honour Him with their lips but their hearts are far from Him. The context for Him saying that is the controversy over ritual cleanliness. The Pharisees are more concerned with the observance of Jewish ritual practices than with the purity of intentions or motives. In the first reading, Moses urges the people to be faithful to God’s law without addition or subtraction. The Israelites tend to add their particular traditions to the Law and over time these traditions will come to be regarded as equally authoritative and binding as God’s Law. Finally, the Letter of St James states that “Pure unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world”.

All the three readings have a general theme running through them: We ought to live in such a way that God’s commandments are not empty but instead are life-giving. This is where Edmund Burke’s quote may apply to us. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Let us break down the quote to analyse what it really means and how it may be applied to us.

First of all, to do nothing, that is, inertia could be a symptom of an age gone wrong. What it means is that we may have lost a sense of sin, characterised by a lack of reflexion or examination of conscience. Or we may just have a dead conscience. But, if we have not lost a sense of sin or our conscience, perhaps sin is perceived in a generalised sense that something is wrong and no more. It is out there and I am somehow unaffected. However, the fact is we have not totally lost our conscience because, in this age gone wrong, the yearly Petronas adverts actually reveal a collective yearning for a time when race and religion do not really matter. Sadly though, beyond our lamentation or our nostalgic yearning, we stop short.

Are there no more wrongdoings or is our sense of what is wrong no longer acute that we simply do not think that there are “rights” worth our standing up for or principles worth our embracing? We all know something is not right but what is truer is that we have collectively and individually become moral pygmies. A good example is corruption. We reason that everyone is doing it or why bother since nobody seems to be able to change the status quo.

Secondly, proof that we have become morally stunted may be corroborated by the increasing preoccupation with the “self”. Check out the number of weight-loss programmes available. You might think that the Pharisees were shallow and superficially concerned with ritual cleanliness but really, we too are preoccupied with the “cleanliness” of the body as evidenced by the focus on our “image”. We may not be too concerned with ritual or religious purity. Nevertheless, we are obsessed by how we look or smell to others. We are about projecting the perfect “image”. In this concern for the “perfect” image, we are also quite worried about the water we drink or the food we eat. In short, we are anxious about pollution.

But, evil is the worst kind of pollution. When St James says “Keep yourself uncontaminated from the world”, he is not referring to environmental pollution. Instead, he asks us to keep ourselves uncontaminated from the evil of the world. This task is not about barricading ourselves. We cannot run away or escape the world by building Christian ghettoes. Instead, the quote clearly indicates a way to go forward because good men or “good people” is clearly not a reference to “perfection” and neither is it about purity. Instead, it is about us... ordinary folks who have come to believe that we are so small that we are insignificant. On Wednesday, at the celebration of the thanksgiving Eucharist for Fr OC, at least 8 cars were broken into. Many of the car owners felt that nothing will change or that it was not worth the inconvenience of making a police report and felt that the best option was to get on with life. Many helpless parents look hopefully at Australia, New Zealand or Canada as our solution to this malaise called Malaysia.

I don’t blame you, but, in the meantime, evil is proliferating. I am not referring to the exorcism type of evil. Evil is as simple as when the heart is far from the lips—when our actions are different from our intentions or beliefs. Evil will proliferate not because “good men” keep quiet but because everyone keeps quiet. First, it is about receiving Holy Communion only to be spat out and photographed. Now it is about a cow’s head in front of a building. What will be next as most of us remain silent?

The readings speak about the commandments of life. What is life if we maintain silence in the face of evil men or women? I am not condemning any religion or criticising any government. Economic, social or political progress cannot be bought with silence for our silence could only mean we condone the actions of evil men or women. The commandments of life mean that we must not only be those who hear the word of God but we must also be doers of God’s word.

I am not pouring cold water onto those who choose to go to Singapore or Australia etc. I spent 5 years in Ireland and I had thoughts of settling there because they were also in need of priests plus I had relatives living there. But I chose to come back. The choice to come back does not make me more virtuous than those who choose to migrate. I made it with hope and trust. It is a choice that shows how important the sacraments are and the Church is. About 15 years ago when I was with Campus Ministry, I told the Catholic students that they should build networks. They cannot stand up to evil men and women alone. They will be overwhelmed or discouraged or worse, succumb to the forces of evil. Since these students will belong to the upper strata of the movers and shakers of society, they will be placed in positions of power to effect changes. Now, you will understand why the sacraments and Lifeline, BECs or prayer groups are important. In order to defeat evil men or women, the sacraments provide us with strength and the BEC or our prayer groups provide us with support. God gives us strength and our brothers and sisters give us courage. We will never be alone in standing up to evil men and women when we have God on one side and our brothers and sisters on the other side.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We come to the final instalment of a series of passages from John’s Gospel. It is climactic. We have seen Jesus feeding the five thousand. Then, when He calmed the sea He was crossing, He reveals His divine identity as the “I AM”. After that, as He preached in the synagogue, He presented Himself as the Bread sent by the Father. Now, just like Joshua in the First Reading who asked the people to make the choice of either serving the one true God or other gods, Jesus in today’s Gospel stood His ground—and so like Joshua or Peter, we have to make a choice.

Jesus presented Himself without quibble, without hesitation as the Bread of Life. To have life was to eat His flesh and to drink His blood, no less. Such language did not sit well with those who heard Him. They left Him but as proof Jesus meant what He had said, He did not chase after them. He simply let them go.

Jesus was the choice they had to make. It was either to choose Him or to leave Him. Today, we are challenged too. Jesus is the choice we must make for in the Eucharist, the Church presents Him to us not as symbols but as Real Presence.

In some way, the way we choose Jesus is a reflexion of what is known as the phenomenon of cafeteria Catholicism; we pick and choose what we want to believe. But, this image is perhaps too simple and dismissive because it paints a rather dismal picture that is black and white. The challenge is not what we pick and choose but rather how we pick and choose.

We all choose as a matter of fact. Choosing is part of the experience that makes us human. In some matters, we have no choice. We cannot choose the natural colour of our hair [even though you may choose to colour it] or which family to be born into [even though you may wish that you had been born into a more peaceful family than your present quarrelsome one]. In some other cases, the choosing had already been done by others. For example, the faith we profess. Many of us were baptised without our consent [we may have been screaming and kicking as the priest poured water over our heads] and as such, our decision to come here is perhaps the consequence of someone’s choosing. Our faith is derived from the authority of someone else. Or, if not, we may come here as a matter of habit or preference. In conclusion, some of our defining characteristics are conferred upon us by nature, whereas others by the choices of our parents etc. Those choices beyond our control, we are not interested in. But those we can control, we are interested in, because when we choose, we define ourselves.

Choosing is an exercise in self-identity—or self-definition. We can choose to be British, that is, if the United Kingdom wants us. We can choose to be of the opposite sex, that is, if we decide to go for a sex change. We can choose not to be a Catholic because the Protestant vision of Christianity is more vibrant, or being of another religion makes better economic sense.

However, to define who we are is more than the exercise of choosing as if we were in a supermarket. In order to properly exercise this ability to choose we need to get away from the supermarket type of choosing. It requires that we clarify why and what we want. It demands clarity of the purpose of life. It requires discipline and discipline equates to self-denial, self sacrifice and purification of motives and intentions. Choosing requires discipline because choosing has to be in conjunction with what it means to be human. [1] The key word is “human”—we choose in order to be fully human and today, Jesus presents the picture of humanity not just in itself. His picture of humanity is set within the context of eternal life. It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer.

Thus, we must choose eternal life and in Jesus, eternal life is assured through eating His body and drinking His blood. That was why Jesus was unequivocal. He did not mince His words. Choosing Jesus is big decision. He cannot be just someone at the side—like your side-dish of mushrooms or asparagus as you eat your main meal. He has to be someone at the centre of our lives. We choose His life or no life. We eat His flesh or no flesh at all.

It is true that the Gospel presents us with this climactic and dramatic choice that we are to make. However, the plain truth for so many of us is simply less climactic, less exciting and certainly less dramatic. It is closer to mundane. In this, we share a lot in common with the martyrs for in their case, their choosing had already been done a long time ago. They exercise their faculty of choosing—decision by decision, choice by choice. They did not just choose to be martyrs; they certainly did not wake up in the morning and suddenly decide to be martyrs. The choice to be martyrs came from a life-long practice of choosing Jesus every day and which they only and ultimately paid with their lives. Martyrdom is more the fruit of perseverance than an act of bravado.

We can take heart for the examples of the martyrs give us hope as they illustrate the life-long process of conversion necessary if we were to choose Jesus. So, if we have not counted Jesus as the cost of our lives, now is the time to choose Him so that we may begin on the slow road of conversion that one day, we may, if called, have no second thoughts paying the cost of our choosing with our very lives.
[1] The current ennui we encounter, with regard to life, may be due to the fear of choosing.

Monday, 10 August 2009

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

This week we continue with the 3rd instalment in the series of 5 passages from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. The theme is the Father draws us to Himself. To understand how the Father can draw us, let us take a look at an important Gospel moment found notably in Mk 8:27, Luke 9:18 and Mt 16: 13. When Jesus asked whom people thought He was, His apostles answered: Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah. Elijah was mentioned simply because he was a great champion of Yahweh, and was expected to come back to usher in the Messianic age. Today, in the first reading, we witness the greatest of the prophets brought low; a man of broken spirit. He had taken on the establishment but in retaliation, Queen Jezebel had him running for his life. Elijah was dispirited and wanted to opt out of being God’s prophet.

Even the greatest amongst us know defeat, despair and discouragement. When we lose our spirit, we are like birds without wings or trees without roots. Without our spirit we cannot soar. So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus offers Himself as the food that will feed our spirit. Some Catholics think that Viaticum is given just before a person dies. But, the truth is Jesus is Viaticum not just before a person dies but He is The Viaticum because He is food a person needs on the way to the Father. He is food that draws us to His Father.

In the context of the previous two Gospel passages, let us expand the understanding of Jesus as Viaticum. It is unfortunate that by and large we often think of Jesus as food in a restricted sense that He is food for our “private” journey. Not that this is not true but this idea of Jesus as "my" nourishment is in some way a reflexion of a “narrow” philosophical framework where the reference is basically the subject or commonly understood as “I, me and myself”. When “I alone” is the frame of reference, the result of this subjective reference is disastrous in the long run for things like moral absolutes, dogmas, and revealed truths. It is disastrous for society.

As you can see, this “I" or the subject alone in relation to Jesus has immense ramifications or consequences sociologically. A notion of “private” food for one’s journey and a concern with one’s “private” feeding may blind the person to a reality which is beyond the “I" or the subject. We often fail to realise or see that a broken spirit is not just restricted to a person (ie., the individual). It applies very much also to a people and this is what we are: we are a broken people. We are a broken nation.

However, our national rhetoric will paint a picture of a nation that has gloriously propelled herself into the 21st century and beyond. We never think of ours as a nation broken in spirit if we look at our architectural wonders. We no longer have the world’s tallest building but we console ourselves that we have retained the title of the world’s tallest twin towers. The tourism authority consistently showcases our cultural diversity and recently, we have ventured into the territory of medical tourism.

But, for a moment, consider this: a parishioner on the way to Church on Friday evening, at a traffic light had her side window smashed and handbag taken away. Yesterday, someone in broad daylight tried to remove the tyres of our very own Fr Albert’s car parked inside Church grounds. We routinely hear such horror stories. Don’t tell me what you hear or read has not driven you to despair or discouragement? What about after 50 years, we are expected to swallow yet another vision of integration that is riddled with the same racism and discrimination? Foreign investors have to factor in the entrenched and accepted norm of bribery as a necessary component of doing business here.

The point here is not to highlight what is wrong but to illustrate that every horror story we hear only confirms our intuition of how far down we have travelled on the road to a failed nation. Despite a determined denial, spiritually we are a broken people and a broken nation. And the telling signs are when our newspapers have more advertisements than news and we are reduced to eating, movies, shopping and travelling.

If I may borrow a phrase from John Paul II, a people or a nation with a broken spirit, despite her vaunted achievements, belongs to the civilisation of death. You may think that JPII’s “civilisation of death” is a reference to abortion or euthanasia but abortion and euthanasia are just symptoms telling us that we may be alive individually but we are surrounded by death. [1] In such a situation, many of us respond individually by not caring or by becoming apathetic.

In feeding the 5000, Jesus is telling each and every one of us that He is not just food for one’s journey to the Father. He is also food for our journey. The emphasis is OUR journey. The Father can draw us to Himself. He not only gave bread to Elijah. As the manna was bread for the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land, the Eucharist is the Father’s invitation to come not just as an individual but also as a people. The healing in our country begins with an individual and it is made more effective when we are a people. Perhaps we understand better why Mass cannot be a private affair on a Sunday but it must reflect the celebration of a community within which the individual is fed by the Lord Himself. [2]

You know the Mediæval Age is often depicted as an age of obscurancy where people were living in a darkness that is marked by superstition etc. This cannot be further from the truth because the mediæval cathedral is testimony to a period where the spirit of the individual and the people were fed and enlightened by a vision of a God who is beautiful. Even a scholar, not entirely sympathetic to the Church, could speak admiringly of the devotion and patience that attended the construction of the cathedrals, notably of Chartres in France. To be able to construct such a magnificent structure, men, women and children [the community] were encouraged by their priests to work and to build. When at night they stopped, worn out with the day’s toil, their spare time was given up to confession and prayer [the individual]. Thus, the mediæval cathedrals are impressive evidence of an age where there was a more coherent integration between the individual and the community. [3] The individual must always and can only stand in relation to the community. In other words, one can only be a Catholic because there is the Church [the Body of Christ].

The cathedrals remind us that the Eucharist should never be “privatised” but instead they are concrete proofs of the possibility of integration wherein the Lord feeds us individually and draws us together into a people. Jesus does not nourish just the individual. If you listen to Eucharistic Prayer III (EPIII), you will begin to realise how many references are made to the “we”, the “us”, the community or the Church. The Father through the Body of Christ draws us into a body that is bound together by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the community [by extension the concrete church building] and not just the individual, must also be an image of Christ. Come, brothers and sisters, let us make this Eucharist mine, yours and ours.

[1] Euthanasia is alive because we think we care for the person (put to death) but in reality, it reflects more the culture of convenience expressed through the disposability of the individual. It is ironical that in a society that prizes the individual, the individual is easily disposable.
[2] If Mass is boring, apart from not bringing yourself there (individually), it is because you have not made yourself a part of the community.
[3] They also tell us that not only are individuals oriented to God but that the community too must be oriented to God.

Monday, 3 August 2009

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Last Sunday, the Lord fed the hungry and this week we see them coming back for more. He tells them not to work for food that cannot last but for food that endures to eternal life. Physical hunger is therefore set within the context of spiritual sustenance and satisfaction. The manna from heaven in the first reading is but a foreshadowing of the spiritual food which is being offered by Jesus to those who choose to follow Him. Manna provides temporal and physical sustenance whereas the Bread given by Jesus will give spiritual nourishment and is necessary to sustain eternal life.

So today, I want to speak of sin in the context of our search for spiritual sustenance. How are we to think of sin? For an understanding of sin, let us turn to a debate between the Dominicans and Franciscans. They debated on whether or not Christ would come if Adam had not sinned. In this debate, the Franciscans held the position that Christ would have come even if Adam had not sinned. My interest is not which position was right. Instead I am interested in how the Franciscan position can help us understand how we behave the way we do and better still, how we should behave.

First of all, our usual understanding is that Christ came to save us from our sins and bring us back to God. He became like Adam in order to undo Adam’s sin. Thus, through His obedience, He is able to lead us back to God. This, in a nutshell, explains what St Irenæus would call the doctrine of recapitulation. St Paul himself had given the idea in his Letters to the Ephesians (Eph 1:10) and also to the Romans (Rom 5:12ff).

The Franciscan position is helpful because it gives us an insight into the nature of created reality. If there had been no sin and yet Christ would still come, this position is telling us something about our orientation—our human constitution or make-up. Even if creation were perfect, that is, even if it had not been vitiated or weakened by sin, it would still be incomplete because creation would still exhibit its in-built dependence on the Creator.[1] We are made for God and Christ’s coming is to fulfil humanity’s search for God. In other words, there is in humanity an insatiable desire for God. Therefore, sin in this context can be seen as distortion of our orientation or compass for God. Sin blinds us to our need for God.

What does this mean?

It means that we are always searching for God and hunger is an expression of our existential need for God. Since creation is dependent, it means that there will never be a time when humanity will never hunger for God. This is where we run into trouble because our hunger sometimes leads us to deadly places.

Given this, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta provides us with a key to understanding how deadly unruly appetites can be and how the Bread of Life is the only adequate antidote to this existential hunger. She said that the biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted. What has happened is that we have turned what is for us existential human needs, that is, to be loved, to be wanted, to be recognised into obsessions. We have become obsessed with possessing things mostly and people sometimes. We are obsessed with status or image. We are obsessed with comfort and convenience. Our existential needs as expressed through our hunger have become the obsessions of our unruly appetites. Sin is when hunger turned into unruly appetites.

However, when we consider our unruly appetites, we are often weighed down or laden with guilt, and perhaps with a sense of hopelessness or despair; a feeling that one ought to be ashamed of oneself—thinking that one is beyond redemption. I know this through hearing confession. It does not matter what the sin is—we are not concerned to describe what the sin is—but it does matter that people despair because of the recurrence of the same sin.

Such feelings only obscure the truth that our hungers-turned-unruly-appetites merely mask the strength or degree of our need for God. The more unruly our appetites the more we are searching for God. Think of something you are most ashamed of. Behind that shame is your search for God. Thus, the greater the sinner does not mean the greater the condemnation. Instead it just means the greater the search for God.

So, if only we pause a while, if we take a look at our insatiable needs. Whenever we are afflicted by an addiction, realise that our search for God has just quickened. Our addictions only confrm that we need God even more. Now we may begin to appreciate and recognise how important it is to stop halfway, sit, think and allow God to interrupt our “usual” way of doing things. It helps us re-align our existential needs with our true orientation. In the context of sin, we never have bad appetites. We never have poor appetites. We only have unruly appetites.

But, in a sense, the Gospel tells us that we are, of all people, most truly blessed. Today, we have with us a group of people who are in the RCIA journey. They will look to us for the example we can give, that we are truly blessed. Why? We have been given the Bread of Life to remind us that nothing comes close to satisfying our deepest desires. Thus, the Bread of Life is a reminder to us that only Christ is the answer to our hunger. He is God. Only God alone can satisfy us fully. If this does not sound convincing, then that’s because we have been duped or misled into thinking—like the crowd--that hunger is just physical or material. It is not. St Augustine tells us that our hearts are made for God. Let us search for Him.
[1] That you are seated here for Sunday Mass is ample proof of this dependence of creation on the Creator. You are here primarily not because you have sinned and are in need of salvation, even though that may be true. Your being here is an expression of created reality’s dependence on God. Created reality is always dependent reality. We have this from John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word...Through him all things came to be...