Sunday, 6 September 2009

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Mark Twain says: “It's better to keep quiet and have people think you stupid, than to talk and confirm it”. A lot of times this remains the wisest option—to keep quiet because when Shakespeare says: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, he is telling us that when we try to deny something, we may actually be confirming what we are trying to deny.

However, the duties of the ordained ministers are stipulated by the three munera. [1] The first of the Munus triplex (three-fold ministry) is munus docendi which is the duty to teach through preaching based on Christ’s role as Prophet. The second is munus sanctificandi which is the duty to sanctify through worship, based on Christ’s role as Priest and finally, the third is munus regendi which is the duty to shepherd through the pastoral office based on Christ’s role as King.

If you accept the quotations of Mark Twain and Shakespeare, you would know that one of the most difficult and loneliest roles for an ordained minister to fulfil is the ministry of the Word, the munus docendi. This is because everyone is an expert. In our internet-connected postmodern world, this might well be true. [2] We have canonised an experience that different people have different perspectives into a gospel truth. Whilst this may be true, it is subjectivism at its worst. A characteristic of postmodernism is this breakdown in a shared world, a breakdown of stories that can bind us together. Thus, truth is not something which we search together through reason—it is no longer “objective”. Instead, truth is defined by what is meaningful to me. And in an unjust relationship, my truth has a greater claim than yours. [3]

When truth is about what I think and how I feel, then, often enough we encounter chasms over which we cannot cross. Is it any wonder why we have condemned ourselves to live in ghettoes? A good example of this chasm, under the guise of seeming respect that must be accorded to the other, is the attempt to ban beer in a particular precinct in a nearby city.

Today, I would like to bridge this chasm or propose a bridge beyond an entrapped self. The chasm is created in the context of what this parish has been doing—it is contextualised firstly, by the question asked by Judas. “Can’t the money be used for the poor?”. It is the same concern that is found in the 1st and 2nd Readings. Secondly, the chasm gives rise to the question “why this particular form of exercise that we have embarked on”?

Firstly, the Judas question is valid and important. How come so much money was spent on this roof and why assistance to the poor cannot be matched by the same amount we had spent? The fact is that we have been giving through many channels to the poor. Saying this is defensive and it misses the point. The point is, what we are doing here is related to the poor (to justice in particular) and I know the audacity of this statement will surprise many of you. How is what we have done or are doing related to the poor? Well, the option for the poor is not just an economic option. Furthermore, liberation (which we desire so much) should not be understood only in the social, political or economic sense. In a liberated world, despite all that we can achieve, we will still encounter alienation. We all suffer from loneliness. We conceive of liberation as freedom from loneliness—that is social liberation. We all suffer from oppression. We conceive of liberation as freedom from oppression—that is political liberation. We suffer privation. We conceive of liberation as freedom from hunger—that is economic liberation. We want freedom from loneliness, oppression and hunger. But, the truth remains that when we have everything we want, when we are no longer lonely, when we are free from oppression and when hunger is banished, it does not mean that we will be happy or saved. The answer to alienation is not liberation even though it is so important. The answer to alienation is redemption. All desire for liberation must lead to the desire for redemption from sin!

This desire for redemption from sin brings us immediately into the horizon of God. Note that the centrality of God is the only sure way to salvation. The centrality of Man, that is, his social, political and economic needs, no matter how pressing they are, is not the solution. Instead, a focus on Man solely often leads to dehumanisation—as we are witnessing in North Korea [4] now and as we have witnessed in so many failed socialist projects. Poverty—the Judas question—is a pressing issue that we must not overlook. But, in looking at poverty, in trying to give an answer to Judas, that is, in trying to solve the world’s hunger problem, many of us forget that poverty arises because we have forgotten to put God first. [5]

Thus, a way out for us, the way to bridge the chasm, is to put God first. [6] That is why we have embarked on this whole exercise because it is related to a phrase we are all familiar with—anamnesis. “Do this in remembrance of me”. Sin can be conceived of as the act of forgetting. Israel forgot God’s goodness in the desert. She forgot and she murmured. Anamnesis is thus to remember—for the memory, our memory, is also God’s reaching out to us. In the sacraments we celebrate, God does so through the rituals that we have—the solemn music, the incense, the ringing of the bell, the consecrated bread held high. And in our Gospel, Jesus poked his finger into the man’s ears and used spittle. Both are sacramental signs of God reaching out to us. Thus, our exercise—what we do and what we have—is an attempt to remember God.

In trying to remember God, we acknowledge that we have actually forgotten God’s beauty. Thus, the choice for whatever we have here is not as important as understanding why Beauty is necessary. The choice we make is not nostalgic. It is not harking back to days gone by though it seems like it. We are not here to wallow in nostalgia. So, let me tell you why we chose what we chose.

How many of you use credit cards? Do you know what the ordinary entry level is for your credit cards today? It is the gold card. But, sometimes your gold card is not enough. You need platinum or beyond platinum to titanium. What has happened to the “simple” original silver-looking plastic credit cards that nobody wants anymore? Banks market it as the “classic” card. It is grossly a wrong use of the word classic. You see, nothing fades like fashion. Our teenagers will be the first to tell you that. Look at architectural structures of the 60s or 70s or even 80s... they betray their age. Nobody wants to be caught dead with bell-bottoms! But, when we look at something classical we see “timelessness” or the quality that speaks of “enduring”.

Thus, the choice we made reflects timelessness. And yet, it is not just simply anything “classical” because we could have chosen the Taj Mahal or turned this place to look like the Great Wall. After all, these are classical too and they better reflect our Asian background. [7] We could not because our choice of the “classical” was guided by the scandal of particularity. The Church which is truly Asia (not only Malaysia is) because Christ was Asian and the Church’s birthplace was Asia, when she spread she was immediately coloured by the particularity of what is known as the Graeco-Roman philosophy and culture. This is significant because Graeco-Roman philosophy enabled the Church to give a rational explanation of the experiences of the early Church and thus ensured the spread of Christianity. Thus, we had to look back at our particular Christian classics or tradition for direction because the quality of “timelessness” embodied in our tradition reminds us that the exercise of beautification is an attempt to remember who the Church is.

She is timelessly beautiful, that is, she is forever the Ecclesia Formosa, because she is the beautiful Bride of Christ—the meeting place of salvation. [8] She is where we remember that God saves us. We want to be saved and thus we are concerned with God’s truth. We want to be saved and thus we are concerned with God’s good. But according to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Idiot: Prince Myshkin, the not-so-clever prince who gave the title of the book Idiot, says: Beauty will save the world. Thus, the choice, for want of a better choice, is an exercise to reflect the timelessness of God’s beauty.

So, my dear brothers and sisters, I am not so hung up on the fact that the altar should look like this or the altar-piece should look like that. In fact, when the original sketches were presented, they had to be scaled down because people would not be there to make the connexion yet. So, I am not offended that people do not like what has been done. I recognise that in this exercise, I find greater affinity with Don Quixote of La Mancha—embarking on this foolish quest. I further recognise that my vision may not fit into some kind of preconceived big picture of how the parish should be run. But I look at Benedict XVI, my Pope and yours, I hope, and I try to see what he sees. With him, I am deeply convinced of the necessity to return beauty to the liturgy and to the church—this sacred space—so that we may, in giving God His due, then together with Him, look at the world and make it reflect the Beauty of Christ the Son.

Thus, in this exercise, I am humbly guided by Albert Einstein...who had this to say about his achievements, “You imagine that I look back on my work with calm and satisfaction. But there is not a single concept of which I am convinced that it will stand firm, and I feel uncertain whether I am in general on the right track. I don’t want to be right—I only want to know whether I am right”.

I am nowhere near the shadow of Einstein but I live with this vision that what I am doing, though far from what many other Jesuits are conventionally doing, is actually trying to remind you, through the beauty of our liturgy and our sacred space, of the central reality which is none other than this: Christ is the only Saviour of the world. We are only instruments. No programme, not even Liberation Theology, not even the best BEC, can ever take His place. He alone is the Saviour. If we want to save the world, the beauty of the liturgy and sacred space bid us turn to Him. From Him we draw our vision, courage and transfusion of love to help re-shape the world to reflect His beauty so that we might be saved.

[1] The root of the English word remuneration (salary) comes from this word which means “mission, ministry and office”.
[2] We do not need libraries. All we need are Google and Wikipedia.
[3] The result is usually an unjustified use of force. Government against people. Parents against children. And in reversal, career children against aged parents.
[4] They are concerned with Man and have banished God.
[5] By extension, the same can be said of social and political problems. They arise because we forgot to put God first.
[6] Recently I met with all the choirs of the parish. I told them that there is too much "WE" or “US” in the liturgy and too little of God.
[7] Our choice does not mean that Asian architecture has no merit. There are places which have used indigenous artefact effectively. We had to work with limitations of time, expertise available and finances. An important thing to note about this exercise is the act of choosing. Many of us understand the act of choosing as a function of “likes”. A major criterion of choosing is “one’s likes or dislikes”. However, if truth is one’s concern, something which commands my attention, then choosing is a function of the good, the true and the beautiful. What a person likes or dislikes may come into play in the act of choosing but the main reason for choosing is because the choice reflects what is good, true or beautiful. When “likes” or “dislikes” are canonised, then morality will tend to take on an arbitrary characteristic—more to do with emotion than with volition. Imagine a person being good because he or she feels like it.
[8] Beauty is sometimes impractical. In being impractical, it breaches the limiting dome of practical reason. This means that beauty does not always have to be “functional”. Functionality is part of practical reason but when coupled with a culture of convenience has a dehumanising effect. Imagine our friendships based on functionality. Friendship is reduced to utility. Thus, without beauty, the very people we want to protect will be the first to “enjoy” the practical consequence of “functionalism”. Take the example of our elderly. What good are they when they cannot contribute to society? In adopting a practical attitude towards beauty in the guise of helping the poor, we have actually harmed those whom we are sworn to protect: the poor, the orphans and the widows.