Sunday, 22 November 2009

Christ the King Year B

In a few weeks’ time, we will celebrate Christmas. Personally, Christmas, like Easter, does not excite me. They represent more work! But, apart from that, you may be wondering why both Christmas and Easter do not excite me. In a sense both are “matter of fact” type of celebrations. Christmas celebrates the fact that the 2nd person of the Trinity was born of the Virgin Mary. Easter celebrates the fact that Christ suffered, died and rose in order that we might have life. Christ’s birth, passion, death and resurrection are facts for eternal life. We rejoice at Christmas and Easter because of the salvation brought about by Christ.

Today, I am excited so much so that I told Fr AT to take this weekend off because I can’t seem to get enough of the Last Sunday of the year. Why? Luke 24 provides a glimpse of this excitement. In that chapter we find the post-resurrection experience of the 2 disciples on the Road to Emmaus. After their encounter with Christ one of them said: “Did not our hearts burnt within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scripture to us”.

There is a burning in the heart because we are celebrating not just a fact but an ideal of who we can be. I am happy with the fact that we have been saved but I am even more excited by the possibility of who we can be. Christ the King is an invitation as well as the reason for our being here. A part of the preface for the solemnity (that is, the part of the anaphora between the “Introductory Dialogue of the Eucharistic Prayer” and the Acclamation: the Sanctus) shows how it is both an invitation and a reason for our presence here.

You anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son, with the oil of gladness, as the eternal priest and universal king. As priest, he offered His life on the altar of the cross and redeemed the human race by this one perfect sacrifice of peace. As King He claims dominion over all creation, that He may present to you, His almighty Father, an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.

Now, together with the fact of Christmas and Easter, the preface presents a majestic sweep of the Christian vision—an ideal that our hearts can burn with. We have, on the one hand, Christmas and Easter proclaiming the fact that Christ has triumphed over Death. No longer can death hold us captives forever. The birth, passion, death and resurrection of Christ assure us that in our contention with Death, His victory will be ours. Eternal life, lost by man’s disobedience, has now been restored by Christ Himself. On the other hand, this grand vision of Christ as King puts into perspective the struggles that we encounter and will continue to encounter. We struggle because creation is groaning; creation is reaching out for the fullness of redemption. The perspective that creation is groaning helps us answer some fundamental questions arising from the experience of evil: the sufferings of illnesses, the destruction of natural calamities and the evils of injustice etc. We often ask the question, why is God so good and yet He allows such suffering? Suffering is part of creation’s groaning and yearning for the fullness of Christ’s salvation. Christ victory puts us back on track towards God and our so-called suffering here on earth is part of that return to God. A helpful analogy is that the war is over but we still have pockets of resistance to clear. We are not called Church Militant for nothing. We are Church Militant because we are engaged in the cleaning up process. In this engagement, we struggle but we know that we will never be defeated as we are engaged in the furthering of the kingdom which Christ has come to establish. The heart aching for His kingdom prompts each and every one of us to engage in or be part of His enterprise not as some faraway project set in the future but as part of the present because the future is in fact now. The future begins now.

The only way to be converted to this endeavour is through the eyes of love. The Gospel presents us with an image of Christ which makes possible this conversion. He stands powerless before the power of all powers. If you think about it, this image of a powerless Christ runs counter to the rank we ascribe to Him: A King. And yet, this powerless Christ is the very foundation of the Kingdom that He has come to establish. Thankfully, an image presented by St Ignatius may help. He says, “Consider Christ our Lord, standing in a lowly place in a great plain about the region of Jerusalem, His appearance beautiful and attractive. Consider how the Lord of all the world [who is not high and mighty but] chooses so many persons, apostles, disciples etc and sends them throughout the whole world to spread His sacred doctrine among all men, no matter what their state or condition”. This image of St Ignatius is found here in our stained glass. There you will find the majestic King humble in His service. He looks after the lambs and invites us to share in that mission of His.

I can’t tell you how to be excited. All I can say is this: my baptism is meaningless; so too my confirmation. My ordination is useless and so too the Eucharist I am celebrating. All these sacraments I have received are useless unless I am ready and I desire with my heart to be at the service of Christ my King in any way He sees fit for His kingdom. You may say the same for you: Your baptism is meaningless; so too your confirmation. Your marriage is useless and so too the Mass you are attending unless you too offer yourself simply because the very purpose of one’s existence is so that every breath of one’s being is directed to that enterprise of Christ the King that at the end of time, “He claims dominion over all creation, that He may present to His almighty Father, an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace”.

We all want excitement or we may crave the adrenalin rush. But, that excitement gives us a temporary high. The only “high”, the only genuine “high” worth living for is to be in the service of Christ the King [not adrenalin] because in Him, nothing “bad” is ever definitive—a bad job, a broken relationship, an unjust situation... the list can go on. A young doctor who is in compulsory public service came up to me to say yesterday: “I can see now that no matter how ‘crappy’ my job is, it is still possible to be part of Christ’s Kingdom”... Perhaps you understand why we can be excited because in Christ who is King, everything, no matter how bad, is pregnant with the possibilities of the Kingdom to come. It is possible if you say yes. The answer is with you.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Today is the 2nd last Sunday of the liturgical year. There is a feeling that we are neither here nor there because the readings will be some sort of a repeat next week! The 1st Reading and the Gospel are apocalyptic enough as they warn us of the impending end time. Daniel gives a vision of the resurrection and also the reward or the retribution for how we live this life. We know that the end time will come. Just that the Gospel tells that that time is known only to God. Thankfully, we have the 2nd Reading as it ties in very well with the theme: The eternal perfection of all whom Christ is sanctifying.

The 2nd Reading is the occasion for the misunderstanding of some people of what we do here every Sunday. We celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass. But, for some time, especially after Vatican II, we began to call the Mass by any other name except that of a sacrifice. We thought of the Mass as a memorial meal because we were supposed to remember a meal that Jesus had with the disciples before His passion on the Cross. Or, in many cases, it was basically considered a fellowship meal as its function was reduced to helping us build our relationship with one another. But, the Mass is more than just a memory of the past and the occasion for fellowship. It is the perfect sacrifice of Christ offered once and for all. At this point, I would like to make a little digression here. If the Mass were basically a fellowship meal, then both the posture and the music must serve that function. For example: a less solemn and easier going posture and the music light and easy. [One of the Pater nosters that some choirs use sounds like “Puff the Magic Dragon”]. But if the Mass is sacrifice, then the posture, for example, the priest facing the Crucifix, and the music solemn makes more sense. Later, I will say more of why the posture and music is important.

But, for now, let me return to the phrase "offered once and for all" because it raises a fundamental question. There in Hebrews, it clearly says that Christ does not have to offer Himself again and again, like the high priest going into the sanctuary year after year. Thus, if Christ offered Himself as sacrifice on Calvary once and for all, then what are we doing here?

Let us see how we can answer this. First, Calvary and the Last Supper are inseparably linked because they are both the one and the same sacrifice. The Gospel of John gives you a glimpse of that close connexion. When the soldier pierced His side to see if He were dead, according to John’s Gospel, blood and water gushed out. The Church interprets the blood and water to be the fountain of sacramental life, namely the sacraments of Eucharist and baptism. You hear this beautiful description in the Preface for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Second, if we accept that Calvary and the Last Supper were one event, then we begin to understand that there is a difference between "time" and "time". The ancient Greeks make a distinction between two experiences of time. One is chronological in the sense that there is a past, present and future. Our common experience of time is linear which means that an event has a beginning or an ending in time. As such, chronological time is quantitative because you can measure it. However, there is another time which is more qualitative and they call it “kairos” and the quality of this time is an experience of eternity. Why? Because, for God, all time is the same in which the present takes in the past as it projects the future. Even though both the Last Supper and Calvary are chronological events in the past, meaning that they happened some two thousand years ago but they are, in God, events that are still present and so in a sense, they can touch our lives here and now. Therefore, kairos transcends chronos because it is a kind of time in which a reality, even though past, becomes ever-present. This kind of time, kairos, is the basis for us to say that at baptism, we enter into the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, even though chronologically, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ happened more than 2000 years ago.

Hence, kairos is the basis for the “anamnesis” of our Mass. The command, “Do this in memory of me” is not a commemoration of the past in the sense that we are simply recollecting a past event in chronological time. Instead, it is a living memory in the sense that we are calling to mind that there is an event that has the capacity to touch our lives even now. Anamnesis means that we are present in the kairos sense at the Last Supper. The Eucharist we celebrate now is thus a sacrifice because through it, with it and in it, we are perpetually making present the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Now I return to the earlier point I made about posture and music. The posture of facing the Crucifix is appropriately sacrificial. We are making ourselves present to Christ being present to us in offering Himself [and we with Him] as sacrifice to the Father.

It is precisely this re-presenting that allows the theme to speak of the Eucharist as the “eternal perfection of all whom Christ is sanctifying”. Only the sacrifice of Christ can take away our sins and make us holy. And this act of Christ is only possible if we can in some way come face to face with THE event that took place chronologically 2000 years ago. The Council of Trent through the Doctrine on the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass taught that, “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross... For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different”. [22nd Session of Trent. Doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass]. Thus, the sacrifice of the Mass is the very action of Christ washing away our sins with His Blood shed on the altar of the Cross.

So, brothers and sisters, we are warned that chronological time is apocalyptic. It can come to an end and the worst possible scenario is painted by Daniel and Christ: to be caught unawares. And yet, kairotic time gives us the assurance that we will never be caught unawares, that is, if we keep before us the true source of our sustenance: Christ Himself who becomes present to us really through the Sacrifice of the Mass that we celebrate every Sunday.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

To some preachers, the readings are a bonanza because one can develop the theme of generosity and apply it to the congregation. “Give! Give until it hurts! If it does not hurt, then you have not been generous enough”. But, is there more to this “giving till it hurts” generosity for the congregation or parishioners? Yes, and both are found in the two widows of the 1st Reading and the Gospel. There are two lessons to be learnt even though both are centred on one theme: God in whom we trust.

In biblical times, even amongst the poor, there is probably a hierarchy and widows are placed right at the bottom of the social class. In a culture which places a great emphasis on honour, widows often have no one to defend their honour. The word “widow” itself can also mean, in Hebrew, one who is silent.

Thus, we might think that the Gospel is highlighting the generosity of a voiceless widow. It is, but, Christ is not so much praising the widow as He is lamenting how she has become poorer. Her worsened position must be seen in the context of who the Scribes are and what role they play in society. The Scribes are those who know the Law. If widows are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, then the scribes must belong to the upper stratum and this is confirmed by their preoccupation with honour. From their position, they have the authority to teach. That they love themselves too much is not the problem. The problem is Christ points to them as “men who swallow the property of widows”. Why? In giving all she has, the widow has further worsened her situation. Never mind that she trusts God. Her abandonment to God is actually a condemnation of those who have allowed her to be in such a situation. Thus, Christ is lamenting that the Scribes, whose teaching must have included the sacrifice of giving generously, has effectively reduced the woman to such dire straits. What they teach has further increased the depth of the widow’s penury or poverty.

As such, the widow in the Gospel challenges us on two counts. First, you would think that we have come a long and enlightened way. But, when you read of personalities (who have to remain nameless) and their making a show of their "noble largesse", we know that the phenomenon of shameless parading is still alive. In the context of this benevolence, what is worse is that much of the wealth has been ill-gotten in the first place. But, that is not the point. What is more important is to become more aware of how our actions affect the poor. That is the challenge of the Gospel’s widow. By what we do or what we do not do, have the poor become poorer? This is the part where we begin to be more aware of what we do with what we have. Parading our “generosity” is not enough. Nowhere does Christ condemn the wealthy for being wealthy. Wealth may be God’s choicest blessing but for those who do not know how to use it, it becomes a curse.

Thus, the widow in the Gospel teaches us, that apart from generous giving and trust in God, those of us who are more blessed need to be aware of what the true nature of blessing is. The blessing of having more is never for oneself. What we do with what we have is also an act of trust in and a response to God’s providence and this allows us to take a look at the widow of the 1st Reading.

First, consider her “double” silence. She is not just a widow but a “foreign” widow with a child to support. As such, she is doubly disadvantaged. Her encounter with Elijah teaches us that no matter how disadvantaged, one can still be generous. In a way our widow in the 1st Reading is like the widow in the Gospel because objectively by giving everything she has, she has also worsened her situation—"we shall eat and die". But unlike the widow in the Gospel, the situation is made different by her subjective response. We are never impoverished if we begin to share what we have. Thus, the difference between the two widows teaches us that we may be made poor objectively but our response to an objective situation must always be subjective, that is, personal.

Whilst the widow in the Gospel is made poorer by her objective situation, the widow of Elijah by her subjective response has freed herself to receive God’s providence. This is where we are challenged in our giving. There will be a lot of times where we will not be in control. The political landscape shows that injustice abounds in the country. The environment is not cooperating with us as we experience floods in the East Coast. We are told that the economy is improving but a neighbouring country known for its corruption is now even more transparent than we are and drawing foreign direct investment. All these factors may come together to restrict our freedom or narrow the scope of our action, like the widow in the Gospel. But the widow in the 1st Reading illustrates that freedom, no matter how restricted, is never so that we cannot be generous. That generosity comes only when we believe that God will provide. Otherwise we remain always in the territory of giving from our abundance or from our surplus and not from what we need. In short, we give what we do not need. Let me stress that there is nothing to be ashamed of even though many of us are like that. It is a natural response to any situation of lack or want. The parish is like that too. I tell other parish priests not to come to our parish for their fund-raising believing that there is only this much of generosity and we cannot spare. It actually betrays a lack of trust in people and more so in God.

That is why true generosity is a gift of the Holy Spirit for it is a heroic virtue. Any preacher who sets about asking people to give until it hurts may work on the sentiments of people who are shamed into giving—like telling the congregation that the "Proddies" give 10% and by our calculation Catholics on average give less than 1%. But, in the face of God’s Providence, to be shamed into giving would be a slap in the face of God whom we can trust. We give not because we are shamed. We give because God can be trusted for He is the giver of all things good. The 2nd Reading is our confirmation. If God can give His Son who sacrificed Himself to do away with our sins, what would God not give since He has paid the price for our salvation, with no less than the blood of His Son?

Generosity is a companion of freedom. When one gives freely, the result can only be freedom on our part—a freedom that no wealth or money could ever buy. The path to this freedom is to desire this faith and generosity to trust in God. We pray for that freedom to be generous.