Sunday, 27 December 2009

Feast of the Holy Family Year C

The Incarnation is the momentous event where God chose to clothe Himself in time and space. And close at the heel of Christmas, we meet the living out of the Incarnation as we celebrate the Holy Family of Nazareth.

First of all, the Holy Family being presented as the “model” family fails to give due to the reality that when Jesus appeared in time He did not come with guns blazing. Instead, He entered history and was immediately subjected to the harsh reality of human existence; born in a manger because all the inns were full, soon chased out into Egypt because the king was insecure. Under the spotlight of scrutiny, you can count amongst His ancestors, an adulterer, two prostitutes and a pagan. In the end, the description of the circumstances surrounding His birth or the description of His pedigree might just mask that which is most important: Jesus was born into a family. He did not appear out of nowhere.

At the beginning of creation, God created us male and female. In other words, God created us, man and woman and father and mother. Original sin destroyed what God had intended and so, Jesus being born into a family showed that God willed that salvation should come through the family. We cannot really fathom why God chose this path but we can recognise that the loving relationship between a man and a woman is essential to the proper upbringing of children. Is that not a reason why a woman who is raped often chooses the path of abortion? Because there was no love, a woman might want to reject the fruit of what ought to have been love. Love between man and woman, mother and father is essential to the well-being of the family.

Secondly, in the Gospel, we note that Jesus, the Son of Mary is also the Son of the Father. Jesus Christ's coming to us allows us to go to God the Father. In Him, we have become children of God. In the second reading, we are told that we become children of God not of our making but of His making. There is nothing we do that can ever earn the love of God. The Son of Mary has elevated our status to that of the children of God and so what remains for us is that we want to respond to this unmerited love by living it out with dignity.

We can discern that from the moment of the Incarnation to His birth, God has charted the path of salvation; a path that must go through the family. Here, we note that the model family is not restricted to the one- or two-child family. Instead, the family is larger than that as evident in the description of the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Of course, this is not a description about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ but rather a depiction that the family is larger than just the nuclear family. This in itself already gives clue about what the family is about: parents, children and relatives. This is a concept larger than what we usually define of as a family: the “nuclear family” meaning that it basically consists of “father, mother and children”. Cutting away from the family is not good for the development of children. My father and his siblings do not get along but the cousins have no problems with each other. In fact, we help civilise each other.

If the family is necessary to salvation, then, the family is either a cauldron of conflict or a source of strength. The collapse of the Copenhagen’s Climate Change Conference with its concern about the environment is perhaps a reflexion of the failure of Man to address what is crucially important to the “environment”, that is human ecology. In the craze about carbon credit, we speak of justice for the environment forgetting to address what is in the first place crucial to the salvation of the environment. John Paul II highlighted this in Centesimus annus, the encyclical commemorating the 100 years of the first social encyclical of the Church Rerum novarum. He says and I quote: “The first and fundamental structure for "human ecology" is the family, in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person. Here we mean the family founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self by husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny... It is necessary to go back to seeing the family as the sanctuary of life. The family is indeed sacred: it is the place in which life — the gift of God — can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life. [CA#39].

The environment and the family are mirror images. In fact, the term “ecology”, which we interchangeably use with “environment”, comes from the Greek oikos meaning the home. We often fail to see the connexion between the home where the family is found and the environment. For the family to flourish, it must mean that the environment be clean and wholesome. But, on further reflexion, note that the destruction of the environment actually mirrors the silent destruction of the family. In our desperation to save the environment, we are actually driving the family into isolation. Is it any wonder why people dare not venture out in the street for fear of snatch theft? Here, your immediate thought is that the environment is unsafe which is why people refuse to venture out. But, the reality is that the destruction of the family will also render the environment unsafe.

Thus, our concern for the environment must begin with the family. Unfortunately, our tendency is to take for granted that which is vitally essential to our salvation. Husband and wife take for granted that money is more important than relationships between them and their children. Children take for granted that parents will always be there until it is too late.

Today when we celebrate the Holy Family, perhaps it is time to re-think Family. We need to simply because our environment is growing more and more hostile.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Year C

Today a Saviour is born for us.

What does that mean?

At the Credo, the profession of faith, we bow profoundly at these words: “By the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin and became Man”. The operative word is a profound bow and not a head bow. There are four Masses altogether with different sets of readings between yesterday evening and today. But, what unites these four Masses is, instead of a profound bow, we kneel at the same words.

What does that mean? What implication does this action of kneeling have or why do we have to kneel?

To appreciate why we kneel, we need to look at the way we celebrate Christmas. First of all, Christmas celebrates the fact that Christ came amongst us. According to the lofty Gospel of John, which we will use for the Mass during the Day, that is, this Mass, it says simply: “The Word was made flesh”. This means at Christmas, we celebrate facticity; a fact.

However, facticity does not make sense to some of us. “So what?” one may ask. But, this is not surprising considering that our approach to reality or facticity is via meaning. Thus, the usual take on Christmas is from our perspective. He came, which is a fact, but, more importantly we are concerned about how we can celebrate His coming more meaningfully. A good example of how we can celebrate Christmas more meaningfully can be teased from songs such as “Christmas, isn’t Christmas, till it happens in your heart”. That is not a bad thing simply because we are trying to make Christ known and the only way He is known is through people who call themselves Christians. This may explain why people “denomination hop” or “church hop” because they are discouraged by what they see in a denomination or a church. From our perspective, Christ can only be known when Christians live Christ-like lives. Many homilies are based upon this principle that we are the only Bible that some people will ever read.

Whilst this may be true, the danger of this “human” or “our” perspective is to reduce the facticity of Christ coming to us. That means if we were less Christian, therefore, Christ would be less real.

But, is He? The answer is “no”. Therefore, today we are not concerned by “how” Christian we are to the world, even though that is important.

Whilst we must be concerned about making Christmas more meaningful, that is, more relevant, sometimes, we forget that the facticity or the reality of His coming is so that we can be like Him. Without Him there is no reason for a better world. Changing the world follows from recognising who He is: Emmanuel—God with us.

That is why we bow so profoundly at the creed and later after the homily, we kneel. We celebrate that event which according to St Paul to the Philippians, he says, “that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow”.

Why the reality of His birth is so important is illustrated in this story which you may have heard before.

“One raw winter night a farmer heard an irregular thumping sound against his kitchen storm door. He went to a window and watched as tiny, shivering sparrows, attracted to the evident warmth inside, beat in vain against the glass. Touched, the farmer bundled up and trudged through fresh snow to open the barn door for the struggling birds. He turned on the lights and tossed some hay in the corner. But the sparrows, which had scattered in all directions when he emerged from the house, hid in the darkness, afraid. The man tried various tactics to get them into the barn. He laid down a trail of Jacob’s biscuit crumbs to direct them. He tried circling behind the birds to drive them to the barn. Nothing worked. He, a huge, alien creature, had terrified them; the birds couldn’t comprehend that he actually desired to help. The farmer withdrew to his house and watched the doomed sparrows through a window. As he stared, a thought hit him like lightning from a clear blue sky: If only I could become a bird – one of them – just for a moment. Then I wouldn’t frighten them so. I could show them the way to warmth and safety.

At the same moment, another thought dawned on him. He grasped the reason Jesus was born”.

Christ has come even though many of us are unchristian but precisely many of us remain unchristian simply because we are not converted to the facticity of His coming. This is why every year, we are reminded of this fact: He took our flesh in order that we may become more divine. Try bowing profoundly and you will know what I mean.

At Babel, Man wanted to approach God on his own merit. So, Man built a tower hoping to touch heaven in order to tell God, “God, here in heaven, I stand at par with You”. The same is observed when people say, “Why go for Confession when I am going to sin again”. It is Babel Volume II in this sense: “Look God, I am imperfect. Let me make myself perfect before I come before You in Confession”. Is that not trying to make oneself at par with God? The profound bow and the bending of knee restore the proper relationship between God and man, that is, we are creatures before the Creator.

The posture of the creature before the Creator is important in our quest for a meaningful and better world of peace, justice and harmony. Our desire for a better world does not begin with a grandiose plan. It begins when we embrace or better still, kneel, acknowledging the reality that Christ was born. The Creator has come. He is with us. He is the reason why everything is possible: we endure suffering more patiently and more perfectly and certainly we love the world better and more generously. The path to a better world begins with our knees. So, fall on your knees, oh hear the angels’ voices... O Night Divine. O Night when Christ was born. O Night Divine. O Night O Night divine.

Monday, 21 December 2009

4th Sunday of Advent Year C

The 4th Sunday continues with the customary message of Advent hope but it is really a Sunday that belongs to Mary as is suggested by the theme: Mary’s Child: The Prince of Peace. His coming which fulfils Micah’s prophecy requires Mary’s cooperation. The birth of Christ is also the motherhood of Mary and so this Sunday we take a closer look at the blessedness of her faith; the impact of belief in the ordinariness of life.

In today’s Gospel, right after the Annunciation where Mary had put her life into God’s hands, we find her responding to the needs of others. As such, it is appropriate that Mary became the first disciple of the promised Saviour who was to come because she believed and acted on her faith.

As we approach Christmas and are taken in by the grandeur associated with it, we might forget that the relationship between belief and action is not always easy. In the case of Mary, she had to set out for the hill country of Judah, a journey by foot that might take some time. Women of her time would never travel alone. But she, believing the angel’s description of her child as holy, may have set out with the certainty that she would be protected by the holy child in her womb.

But, you do not get this in a straight-forward re-telling of the episode. Instead, we might labour under the impression that faith makes everything easy. In truth, faith does not guarantee the absence of hardship. Faith makes it possible for us to overcome hardship. In the case of Mary, she set out alone without a thought of her safety, relying on the protection of her faith. In summary, we see a correlation between faith and action where one must lead to the other. The implication of faith is action but we know that belief does not always flow into action.

The blessedness of Mary’s faith becomes an inspiration for those who are discouraged either by the futility of their faith or failure of their actions. Many of us may be failed idealists at best or plainly cynical at worst. Either way, a failed idealist or a cynic, both are crying out for faith. As such, Mary is so much more relevant as an icon of faith simply because in a “faithless world” or a “failed world”, the complication is when the “individual” is reduced to “nothingness”. No matter what station in life, almost everyone here knows the powerlessness of being small, marginalised and treated indifferently.

Part of our frustration is somewhat of our own making, meaning that we have all come to believe that all we want we can achieve on our own. In many cases, we sell the myth that faith in our dreams rests simply upon sheer strength. We have come to believe in the invincibility of our efforts or endeavours. Our faith is not in God but in our ability.

If our faith is fundamentally our strength, then Mary as the icon of faith does not make sense. A description of her powerlessness and her faith may essentially be reduced to a description of “Deus ex machina”; that moment in story telling which allows for “divine” intervention of an insolvable difficulty. Just like Cinderella’s fairy godmother appearing at a time when she had no other way to go for the ball. This formula is mostly acted out in our “feel good” movies of the “happy-ending” kind.

But, precisely, the faith of Mary is God’s strength. What she does makes sense only because she believes. Her faith seems “ridiculous” only because we have become more disbelieving or we have come to rely on ourselves. The faith of Mary will always stand out sharply as naïve against the backdrop of a technologically-driven self-sufficient scientific culture or mentality. For example, at Copenhagen, as world leaders engage in useless semantics on climate change, the polar ice-caps are melting faster than the curbing of greenhouse gas emission. To speak of faith other than of our capability suggests “inaction” bordering on a dereliction of duty. Closer to our home-front, even as we hope for the Herald’s outcome, we are left with a sinking feeling that we will lose out anyway because we have not “done” enough. You can discern how faith is related to what we do but often our action is not because we have faith. In fact, our action flows not from believing in God but in ourselves. Faith necessarily leads to action. For us, action is taken to be proof of faith and we know that is not necessarily the case.

Mary teaches us that our faith is God’s strength. She beckons us today not to give up hope because God can be relied upon and the only way we can be sure that God can be relied upon is that we, like Mary, say yes to God and like her, we act believing that God will help us because we allow Him to. Christmas is not that God needs to come but we need God to come. Faith is our call to God and faith is the reason for our actions in the world. Mary’s generous faith gave the Father the permission to send the Son into the world. In these next few days, may Mary’s example encourage us to do likewise: be generous in our faith. We will never be confounded and only then will our actions confirm that.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent Year C

Today is called Gaudete Sunday for the simple reason that some Sundays take their names from the first line of the Entrance Antiphon, the “Introit”. The entrance antiphon is taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (4:4) which is the first sentence of the 2nd Reading “Gaudete in Domino semper”, translated as “Rejoice in the Lord always”. The Jerusalem Bible translates it tritely as “Be happy” making it sound like a bit like a Bob Marley song. Some priests even try to avoid celebrating Mass this Sunday or the 4th Sunday of Lent because they do not like to be dressed in “rose”. So, apart from the rose-coloured vestment, what significance can we derive from this celebration?

All the readings share the same theme: the nearness of the Lord. And so, in Prophet Zephaniah, God’s nearness is painted in the royal colour of a faithful God steadfast to His unfaithful and unworthy bride. St Paul, believing that the 2nd Coming is imminent, urges the people to give witness to God’s nearness by letting go of their anxiety and living in a spirit of prayer and thanksgiving. Finally, the theme of the Lord’s nearness is at the centre of John the Baptist’s preaching: Escape the Lord’s judgement by preparing for His coming because judgement is always associated with His coming.

In the context of waiting for the Lord, the knowledge that our salvation is near is the cause of our joy. The three readings tell us that it is so near that we can almost taste it. And this joy in relation to His coming becomes for us a moment of reflexion.

In a nutshell, both Lent and Advent are actually seasons which capture the history of salvation between Christ’s Incarnation and His 2nd Coming. There is not a moment in salvation history that Man is not waiting for Him to come. But, in the context of the long wait, the rose-coloured vestment makes sense, not only because it is sacramental in nature but because it helps relieve the tedium of waiting.

The human spirit, in order to be human, needs rest. The word that appropriately describes this necessary rest is recreation. Here we are brought back to the genesis of creation: paradise. Recreation is recalling that moment before the human spirit was injured by sin. Recreation is the restoration of the human spirit so that refreshed, it can continue along the path of salvation. We are, after all, pilgrims on a journey.

However, we have taken “rest” as necessary for the journey to be the end in itself. Two nights ago, we had to send someone home to Bangsar and the remark about Bangsar was that it was no longer the place “to be seen at” at night. Now, the “to be seen at” places are Sri Hartamas and the Curve. I am not interested which “being seen at” place is the most happening one but instead, I am interested to question the meaning of these places. You see, in terms of rest, there is a similarity between Gaudete Sunday and Sri Hartamas or the Curve. But, that is where the similarity ends. These places represent not so much the search for fun but rather this pre-occupation with “never-ending” fun—where night becomes day, where recreation actually results in tiredness because people have to sleep during the day to regain what they had lost at night. It is not sin but a form of sickness. In short, the journey is not punctuated by rest or the journey is not made lighter by recreation. On the contrary, our preoccupation is basically recreation in itself. Is that any wonder why Christmas is so blasé on the 26th December when the decoration would have lost its glitter? Our life’s mission is condemned to this relentless search for one “high” to another “high”.

On the one hand, this reveals a tiredness in the human spirit. Thus, “fun” or the search for "highs" is our escape from the tedium of life. But on the other hand, the inability to look beyond earthly happiness is indicative of this lack of a vision beyond this world. We are caught up with what this world has to offer forgetting that the offering of this world is only a tease, a foretaste of the real deal that awaits us all. Dim sum is a good phrase to use. Many of us eat sio mai or ha kao with nary a thought but dim sum means “to gently tease the heart”. All food and all good things are meant to tease the heart because fun is eschatological. It points to the end time.

Everything that we have, in the context of journey or pilgrimage, is given as means and not as the end. That is why John the Baptist spoke of sharing the two tunics, exacting no more than the rate required, refraining from extortion and intimidation. Everything we have is dim sum—temporary—given as a respite in this vale of tear—lacrimarum valle. Clinging on to dear life or to everything that we have betrays a lack of trust in the eschaton or the resurrection. Here, I make a digression because earlier I had mentioned about sleep and night. Well, night is a form of death and our acquiescence through sleeping is actually a tacit acceptance of the eschaton or the resurrection.

Coming back to the image of this lacrimarum valle, I like it. Why? Life is hard... or it is supposed to be hard. Let me clarify this. Life is hard but not necessarily that we make it harder. There is a difference between accepting that life is hard and making it hard. So, when life is hard, whatever good that comes, we begin to appreciate it better and it helps us to rethink about the world in such a way that we use whatever good we have to help us and others further our journey. It helps us to put into proper perspective that nothing in this world is to be forever.

Thus, the significance of the rose-coloured vestment is that it breaks the “monotony” of the purple of waiting by introducing joy in an otherwise sad world. Rose is the halfway of the red of martyrdom and also halfway of the purple of penitence. So, by all means, have fun, go to Sri Hartamas or the Curve but remember that the “good times” point to somewhere else, they are simply the dim sum of the eschaton and our life’s mission is to work for that somewhere else. Gaudete Sunday serves to give us a correct perspective of the life to come as we catch a glimpse of the goodness that God can be to us all.

Monday, 7 December 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent Year C

The 1st Reading is deeply sacramental. Look at how the 3 great monotheistic religions that claim common ancestry from Abraham—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are engaged in the contestation, at times violent, for the patch of plateaux, mountains, hills and valleys called Jerusalem. The Prophet Baruch describes how the Exiled will be brought back to Jerusalem, the city of God; the place where God’s peace can be found. The etymology of its name connotes “completeness, wholeness and soundness”. Jerusalem was to be the radiating heart of the world of completeness and wholeness. Perhaps, you can discern why this constant desire to return to this city explains the sacramental character of the 1st Reading. Jerusalem is the outward sign of God’s presence in the world.

John the Baptist, in the Gospel today, cries out, “Prepare the way for the Lord and make straight His paths”. In light of the sacramental character of the 1st Reading, the place where God’s peace or wholeness is to be found is now translated into a person: the Prince of Peace. Jesus is the person where wholeness is to be located. In short, in Him, all mankind shall see the salvation of God.

In order to see God’s salvation, we must want it or we must need it. The theme this Sunday is the “Joy of Salvation”. In a world which is seemingly perfect because of our capability, it is not easy to discern how we can ever be saved or why we even need it in the first place. Since we function along the principle of efficient self-management, it is hard to comprehend the joy that comes with salvation. Thus, God cannot save if we do not need Him. And if we do not realise that we need God’s salvation, since we are made for God, the simple result is that there will always be emptiness in our hearts.

A way in which the principle of efficient self-management is worked out is a form of spiritual pride. Some of us fail to see it that way but there are times when we believe that God cannot love us because of our imperfections and our sins. You know how often we punish ourselves by thinking such? This is borne out by the reluctance to go for confessions and for good reason. People ask earnestly: “Why go for confessions when I am going to sin again?” [1] Confession, in essence, is the acknowledgement that we need God’s salvation but, for many of us, the basis for confession shows that we do not really need God. How so? For many of us, confession makes sense only if one does not sin or one is incapable of sin. And so the reason goes that “I will only go for confession if I am assured that I will not sin again. But since I cannot assure God that I will not sin again, I shall neither waste my time nor God’s time by going for confessions”. You can see that intention is good but the reasoning is spurious. If that is not spiritual pride, I don’t know what is.

Here, let me be clear that I am not making a pitch for confessions or the necessity of it. I am merely trying to explain why the apprehension concerning confession masks the spiritual pride of a generation that believes salvation is the fruit not of God’s doing but its own machination. We can manufacture our salvation. This does sound like the tagline from The Six Million Dollar Man: Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. Translated: We can rebuild ourselves without God. Does this not remind you of communism? Communism was an attempt to save mankind from itself and it tries to do it without reference to God. But, sadly, a world without God is joyless.

However, salvation brings joy or if you like, the appreciation that salvation is near brings joy. The 2nd Reading radiates the joy of the salvation which Christ brings. If you read further, you will find the context of Paul’s joy is that he writes to the Philippians even though he is in prison. Paul is in prison and yet he can still write. This is how the joy of salvation is brought home to us. For Paul to encourage the Philippians even though he is in prison shows an appreciation that no time is ever out of the scope of salvation. It is an optimism which is founded on no less than the person of Christ. In Him, all mankind shall see the salvation of God. It is the only reason why Paul can exhort the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:8ff): "We are in difficulties on all sides, but never cornered; we see no answer to our problems, but never despair; we have been persecuted, but never deserted; knocked down, but never killed; always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus". The nearness of salvation gives us the sure hope of joy.

We live in troubled times, do we not? As The Star report states on 4th Dec that more than 304,358 people seemed to think so last year as they left the country. The Herald may have won a reprieve in the use of the word Allah but will judges who dare to stand up for judicial independence be subjugated by "routine administrative processes"? Will our need for greater transparency in governance be stymied by vested interest of a few? The depressing and disappointing list goes on.

But, we dare to labour joyfully knowing that it will not be in vain because salvation has not only been promised to us; salvation is much closer than we think. Advent’s wait is a reminder that the joy of salvation is a distinct possibility for those who embrace Christ. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth because only in Christ shall mankind come to know the fullness of salvation. Advent is ever pregnant with joy.

[1] Sometimes the contrary is true. It is not the fact that one will sin again that makes us reluctant to go for confession. Sometimes we feel that our sin is so big that we feel ourselves hopeless. We are in effect saying that God’s mercy is not big enough for our sins; God is not bigger than our sins.