Monday, 27 December 2010

Holy Family Year A

This homily, I would like to take my cue from the Mass of the Day for Christmas. [1] At this particular Mass, the Gospel of John takes us beyond the human origin of Christ, as he unveils the curtain that allows us to catch a glimpse of Christ’s Divine origin. Rightfully, the symbol of John’s Gospel is eagle because the Gospel soars into the celestial mysteries of God’s wisdom.

There is a continuation of the unveiling of the mystery of who Christ is as Matthew’s Gospel shapes our celebration for the Feast of the Holy Family. His symbol is that of a winged man—indicating Matthew’s interest in providing us with a theological insight into the Man named Jesus. For Matthew, the Christ is to be the new Moses and in the circumstances surrounding the Flight into Egypt and His return, you catch many parallelisms between the lives of Moses and Jesus.

First, Moses was rescued from the wicked Pharoah and Jesus from Herod’s blood-thirsty sword. Pharoah’s massacre of the Hebrew first-born is re-enacted in Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents. In the Exodus, Moses led the people out and now, the return from Egypt signalled the rise of the New Moses: Jesus Christ. Later parallelism will include His forty days in the wilderness as mirroring the Israelites wandering forty years in the desert.

What appears to be a straightforward account of a family’s harrowing refugee experience is actually a theological disclosure of Christ’s true identiy. This is Matthew telling his Jewish readers not to make any mistake about Jesus Christ. The Gospel ends with the return of the exiled family to Nazareth, a village whose name rhymes with being set apart. This new Moses, the one set apart, is the Holy One, the Son of God who has come to save His people.

What has this hifalutin theological unveiling do with us all?

It may be “high” theology but it is certainly earth-bound. From Christmas Vigil till yesterday’s Dawn Mass, we heard all there was to hear of their unfortunate circumstances. And this is where the Holy Family’s life intersect with ours. They may be the Holy Family and certainly they may have the Son of God in the family, what is clear is that they did not have it easy.

Perhaps it is better to say that they never had the entitlement attitude. What does it mean that one has an entitlement attitude? It is like, “I am of this skin colour therefore I am entitled to scholarship, to buy houses at a discount or to take loans that I do not need to repay etc” or if you do not have the correct skin colour, “I am of this rank, therefore I am entitled to better service etc”… For many of us with means, it is easy to slip into entitling this or that.

But, if you protest that you are not like that, then perhaps this might make sense. I pray, therefore I am entitled to God hearing my prayers. I try to be good, I lead a good life, I try not to sin, therefore I am entitled to a trouble-free life. Better still, “I don’t deserve this”. And this has been my experience. There are times when I get really not nice parishioners and during those times I would complain, “I am already working so hard, I am stressed out and I am serving God, I don’t deserve this”. The truth is, I am not special!! As someone would day, “Don’t flatter yourself”.

So, let us enter into a “perhaps” consideration. You see, we have this wonderful myth which associates the Son of God with cleverness or intelligence etc. The 12-year old in the Temple having a discussion with teachers surely lends us this idea that this was a clever child and after the incident of being lost and found in the temple, the Gospel of Luke also tells us that the boy grew in wisdom, stature and knowledge. A smooth transition, you would say.

But, many clever children are often hyperactive and close to unmanageable. In those days they called it precocious. Today we term it as ADHD [attention deficit, hyperactivitiy disorder]. And so, on top of having to undergo the arduous journey for a census taking, heavily pregnant and giving birth in a stable and then fleeing down to Egypt and most probably staying in the poorer part of the immigrant’s shanty, both Joseph and Mary may also be dealing with this super child or “special child” whose categories are not always normal. Some of us who feel it really bad that life has not given us any break should turn to Joseph and Mary because this “perhaps” consideration does bring them closer to earth, to where we are.

It is a funny thing that we seek sympathy but we seem to shy away from what we have. For example, clever priests have often asked what significance the Holy Family has for us today: Mary was virgin, Joseph was a celibate and the boy was divine. What do they know of life’s struggles? Well, surely, they know our sufferings and feel our sorrows. Both Mary and Joseph may be descended from royal lineage and with the Son of God on their side, one would naturally expect some slack cut but God has not spared them. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier about “I do not deserve it” attitude, well, there is no assurance that the good will not suffer. In fact, the “goodest” of us all, if there is such a word, the Son of God suffered grieviously at hands of wicked men. God did not think to spare the most exalted one: His Son.

So, if you think that God is absent because your life “sucks” or it seems to be this never-ending ride of misfortunes, then perhaps a relook at the Holy Family might disabuse you of this notion. God is even closer when you feel His absence. They are called “holy” not because they are better than us; certainly not because they are one class higher than us. They are holy because they never allowed any misfortune to come between them and their faith in God.
[1] There are four Masses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 1st Mass—Christmas Vigil, we get acquainted with the human origin of Christ. 2nd Mass—Christmas Midnight, we experience the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ. 3rd Mass—Mass at Dawn can be said to be a sort of Epiphany because of the visit by the Magi and finally, 4th Mass—Mass of the Day which takes us into the Divine origin of Christ.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Vigil Year A

English is a dynamically inclusive language. Wikileaks has already entered the language. Another coinage in the language is flash mob. I have seen the phenomenon before and you may have too, but I never knew it was called flash mob. It simply means a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place to perform an unusual act for a brief period of time and then the crowd dissipates as if nothing happened.

There is this YouTube of a flash mob that has been going around since 13th Nov 2010. In it, a group of people began singing, in a crowded food court, a part of the Handel’s Messiah that we are familiar with. What caught my attention was the line “King of kings” that this group thunderously acclaimed. This evening and tomorrow, we will have four different Masses with different sets of readings. The emphases may be different but a common theme running through them is that we are celebrating the solemn birth of the King of kings.

We launch it by wading into a genealogy resembling a credit background check on Christ whose ancestry stretches as far back as Abraham making note that the character composition of Christ’s ancestry embraces a spectrum as diverse as the human race. What does this teach us?

If the Son of God could come from such a background, royal but with a lineage stained with scandals, it shows that no human condition is excluded from salvation. No one is so condemned that he cannot be saved. The only thing that stand between us and Christ’s salvation is us. We provide the obstacle to our salvation. The truth is the whole of creation is groaning for the salvation which only Christ can give, as echoed by the first reading: “Like a young man marrying a virgin, so will the one who built you wed you, and as the bridegroom rejoices in his bridge, so will your God rejoice in you”.

No part of human history is excluded from the saving presence of Christ the new-born King. The 2nd Reading tells us that God will raise up for Israel one of David’s descendants, Jesus, as Saviour. In unfolding before us the whole tapestry of Christ’s ancestry, Holy Mother Church invites to open ourselves to Him whose saving love embraces even what we dare not or are too embarrass to embrace.

But guess what? We are quite like a flash mob. There is a crowd here which is larger than the usual—a condition ripe for a flash mob. Do not worry though. There will be no sudden singing by the choir. However, this is where I think that the genealogy may just help expand our vision a little bit more. Whilst it is true that the genealogy invites us to come with our human weakness, it also challenges us to a vision beyond what is merely personal like my weaknesses, my history, my ancestry and etc. Like the flash mob, the liturgy prepares us to enter into the proclamation of salvation. Christ is born and He is the King of kings. Perhaps it is time to re-examine the motive for coming to Mass at Christmas.

Recently, there was an inter-religious gathering—the subject matter discussed was about universal values applicable to all religions. At the end of the so-called dialogue session, a defensive and to-be-expected statement was made by one of the religionists who said that his religion does not consider the other religions as equal.

I am not interested in entering into a debate about which religion is the greatest but it does turn the spotlight to us in a way which challenges us.

There is a tension which both our Easter and Christmas liturgies reveal. The crowd is larger than usual. It means that people have stayed away from Church. And yet, there is an instinctive sense that both Easter and Christmas mean something enough to attract people out of the woodworks.

The disparity between a normal Sunday Mass’ attendance and the Easter/Christmas liturgies begs us to ponder deeper into why such a disparity should exist. But, whatever the reason for staying away, it can never outweigh the necessary proclamation we must make with our lives and not only with our words.

There is no condemnation for those who come only once in a while. If you hear that, you heard wrongly. There is however an invitation to a deeper and honest reflexion for those who are baptised. If we accept that Christ is King of kings, then where and how does our lives fit into that proclamation that we are celebrating tonight. There is no need to announce that our religion is better than all other religions.

The agenda is not ours tonight, not even the deepest pain we feel. Instead the agenda belongs to the King of kings. As we hearken to greet His birth, let us do all that is within our power to ensure that He is truly the King of kings and doing it twice a year is really not enough. I would like you to watch the You-Tube clip of the flash mob now.

Do you know the meaning of the word Agoraphobia. It is the fear of open spaces or the fear of the “market-place”. In short, a phobia of crowds. Most Catholics are agoraphobics. Why? We dare to proclaim Christ as King within the confines of the Church. But, it is to the outside world—the agora or the marketplace—that we need to proclaim Him. Doing it twice a year is not enough for it can only be done through a lifetime of words and deeds

Finally, here is our wish to each one of you that Christmas will be a blessed one and that at every corner you turn, you may find Christ the Lord already there waiting for you.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Gaudete Sunday Year A

The entrance antiphon from Phil 4:4 says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!! The Lord is near”. But it is the Latin “Gaudete semper in Domino” that gives us Gaudete Sunday—a Sunday marked with joy because the Lord is near. Unfortunately, it is at best a misplaced Sunday or at worst, it is quite meaningless.

Why? It is a misplaced Sunday because Christmas began right after Deepavali. If you like, it should have been placed at the First Sunday of Advent. Otherwise, it is meaningless because the word “Gaudete” is not a description but rather a prescription for Sunday meaning we are commanded to celebrate today with joy. But what does it mean to break into a joyful celebration when all the while we have been celebrating already?

This shows that we are celebrating two Christmases—maybe two understanding of Christmas. One Christmas begins even as before the dying amber of “diya” lamps of Deepavali are extinguished. We know this Christmas very well. In fact, a sight to behold is Orchard Road in Singapore. I do not believe I am promoting Singapore—but it is true that it is shimmeringly sparklingly at night. Our closest version of Orchard Road, which is really an insulting comparison, is Jalan Bukit Bintang. There you may find the masseurs probably all lined and dressed up like Santa’s little elves trying to lure you in for a relaxing reward of reflexology. And please, I am not promoting the masseurs.

The point is, this Christmas supposedly can begin anytime before—like in the Philippines, I am told that it begins as soon the month ends with a “-ber”—like September. But never mind when it begins, the important thing is that it officially ends on 25th December. 26th feels old, used and ready to be discarded.

The second Christmas is where “Gaudete” makes sense. It is a Christmas that begins with the Vigil of the 24th and will last until Epiphany.1 The command to rejoice is set within a penitential period of preparing for the Lord’s arrival. The first reading speaks of joy at the nearness of the Lord. In fact, when God is near, we dare to rejoice. We are enboldened by God’s closeness. However, the quality of this joy is not familiar to us. As we are unable to live in the suspense of God’s coming, we have turned to manufacturing our own joy. Today, everything we need for “successful” living or “meaningful” existence is determined by the criterion of instant fulfilment. It explains our constant impatience with anything that does not deliver the result here and now: “I have to have it and I mean now”.2

It is easy to dismiss this impatience to be the result of the need for instant gratification until we remember that the People of Israel were so anxious at the waiting for Moses to return from Sinai that they fashioned a calf of molten gold to dance around in the belief that that experience would be as close as it can get to the true worship of God. We often mistake manufactured joy or happiness to be the expression of God’s nearness. The contrary is true. Our joy does not mean that God is near. Ask someone who is drunk or someone who tries to make himself happy through sex, drugs or drinks, if God is near.

So, the joy of Gaudete Sunday is different. The two readings and the gospel give us signs of how different joy is. The first reading speaks in terms of a barren wilderness being transformed into a oasis of abundance and links it to the second reading where St James speaks of the farmer’s patience in waiting for the rain to come and for the harvest to yield its plentiful produce. A key word to appreciating “joy” is the word patience because the Gospel leads us not into an oasis or a farm but into the life of this man named John the Baptist. Imagine him driven by the passion of God as he preaches penitence and harkens us to holiness, all in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. But now, he is in prison and very soon his life will come to a violent end. He hears of his cousin’s exploits and he is filled with doubt with regard to his credentials. Jesus eats with sinners, drunkards, prostitutes and from the sound of it, it does not seem like Jesus is the Messiah. And worse, Jesus’ answer is not in the affirmative. Instead of “I am the Messiah”, he directs John’s disciples to the first reading: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy”. And Jesus ends with “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”.

The point here is not the “conversation” between the cousins via intermediaries. Faced with knowing that he would never be able to continue his mission or see its ending; confronted with the imminent knowledge of losing his life, surrounded by a situation that could have defeated even the best of us3; the answer of Jesus provided one single spark of joy that broke through the walls of John’s prison and fears. John’s joy is knowing that his life has not been in vain.

A Life lived in vain. This is a question many of us have to contend with. Is it a wonder why more people commit suicide in a season of manufactured joy; a season where we are expected to feel happy when the prevailing question in our mind is simply this: “is this all there is to it”? Have I wasted my life doing what I have been trying to do?

Gaudete teaches us patience in our “lacrimarum valle”—our valley of tears. True joy or happiness cannot be manufactured but is a gift from having lived faithfully for Christ believing that though our lives may experience the long dry desert of waiting patiently for an answer, the answer has already been given – Christ is the answer. He is the joy and hope of all ages. He gives us this assurance that our lives will never be in vain, if we are faithful like John the Baptist was. Christ is the answer to those who, despite all evidence to the contrary, are faithfully living as husband or wife, parents to forgetful children, children burdened by the weight of caring for an ailing parents, siblings who care for disabled sibling, families who continue believing even though debilitated or discouraged by deaths, civil servants who despite the stench corruption around them, strive to provide excellent service, youth who blocked by the glass ceilings of colour or creed, labour on valiantly—Gaudete Sunday is yours. Your life can never be in vain because Christ is near.

In conclusion, I started with the two Christmases we have. We straddle them both because we do not live in a ghetto or a theocratic state which dictates only one possible way of celebrating Christmas. Some of us have to entertain clients, or have obligations to fulfil like a chain of parties to attend leading right up to Christmas. All the festivities before Christmas might be necessary but remember4 not allow this Christmas of false happiness and joy to crowd out the real Christmas we will celebrate. Do not lose faith in Christ, who is our hope and joy even in the midst of our worst troubles. Otherwise, our deserts will remain barren wastelands, the deaf will remain dumb, the blind will remain sightless. That would truly be a life lived in vain.
[1] Epiphany is 12 days after Christmas and should fall on 6th Jan. It is the basis for the Christmas carol “On the first day of Christmas…”. In countries where Epiphany is shifted to Sunday, it will fall between 2nd and 8th January.

[2] Instant coffee, instant insurance claim, instant food, instant baby, instant perfect marriage, etc.

[3] This is so familiar to us. We know that we are surrounded by such a situation when the newspapers are crowing the numbers that we have successfully combated corruption and that our international ranking has credibly shot up. The truth is many of us have been defeated in our hope.

[4] Manufactured joy can only do so much. I say this because I share the suffer the same temptation you do. My idea of a manufactured joy is to go out and blow whatever resources I have on something that I do not need. It is a “joy and happiness” to buy what I do not need. But how long before I need another dose of happiness?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Triduum Day 3 Year A

Statistics are mesmerising. For example, there is a fascination bordering on obsession if you watch American sports like baseball and football. St Francis Xavier provides a useful illustration of how captivating the statistics can be. For example, he ranked second to St Paul as his missionary expeditions carried him across a wide swathe of Asia. In this part of the world, he laboured for about 10 years and converted about 3 million souls to Christ.

What has this obsession with statistics to do with our Triduum?

It provides a clue to the working of a modern mind. In fact, as a science of numbers, statistical science is relatively young. It emerged with the rise of the modern nation-states which at their initial founding discovered a need for demographic or economic figures to base their planning on. In fact, both “statistics” and “states” share the same root-word. Useful as it may be for good governance, distorted statistics has also served the purposes of many despotic regimes. [But, that is not our concern here].

In general, we gauge the efficiency of our enterprises, projects and ventures by the numbers they generate. Profit is a number that reveals the viability of a business. The case of St Francis Xavier, a missionary who converts 3 million over a period of 10 years, presents a staggering statistic that we know may never be repeated. However, a pertinent question to ask is if he was efficacious. What was the quality of the conversions he made?

Perhaps you know what I am getting at. We measure efficiency by numbers. The Catholic Church counts more than 1 billion believers but statistics alone is not enough for it often does not disclose the full picture. On the one hand, we may be proud that Catholics form the biggest religion in the world. On the other hand, poor catechesis has resulted in many also leaving the Church for Evangelical and Pentecostal sects in Philippines and Latin America. Likewise in local terms, this parish has the highest number of baptisms in the Archdiocese if not the country. But, what about those who have departed, disappointed or disgruntled?

Thus, a better but difficult measure is denoted by efficacy. It is a qualitative measure that directs our attention to how the Jubilee can be celebrated. In our apostolic planning, we need to consider if our endeavours are both efficient and efficacious. Efficiency focuses on the ease, the speed or the convenience with which an objective can be met. Efficacious asks if what we do has achieved the desired result.

Written within the DNA of this parish is a philosophy which ties in with how we can celebrate Jubilee. It is called excellence. [1] As a quality, excellence is an expression of Ignatian spirituality. For example, at the solemn profession of a Jesuit’s final vows, there are 5 vows he makes not in the eyes of the public. Privately and after Mass, in a side chapel or a sacristy, the Jesuit will vow amongst other things never to change anything in the Jesuit Constitution about poverty--unless to make it stricter. In the matter of chastity, Ignatius has very little to say except: “Be like angels”. In the matter of obedience to the Pope and his superiors, Ignatius says a Jesuit is to be well-disciplined and he describes this well-disciplined indifference using the analogy of a cadaver.

The vows are a description of a word know to Jesuits: “magis”, encapsulated in the motto you know too, “ad maiorem Dei gloriam”. For the greater glory of God is an invitation to excel, not under the mode of efficiency but rather in a spirit of efficacy. The vows are meant to free us to be more efficacious in our ministries and because efficacy is qualitative and not really quantitative, it is often qualified by nuances. As such, we might not always choose the most efficient manner of doing things because the end result is to achieve that which gives God the greater glory. [2]

On the final day of our triduum, the readings can be tied together under the theme of efficacy. The first reading paints a scenario where God’s word is successfully grafted onto the hearts and minds of people. The second reading invite apostles who would be bearers of the word. The Gospel removes all barriers of time and space; no one is excluded from hearing God’s word. In the context of our parish, the readings invite us to ask a difficult-to-quantify question: how efficacious has our parish been for the last 50 years? What is the quality of our preaching and living the word of God? It is a question which quite easily veers us toward the number game.

The change we want for the Jubilee is to be found in the quality of our lives. It is never a measure of what we want to do or how much we have achieved. The Jubilee is hard work, if you like, much harder than staging a play or a musical. It is much easier to think of a number change than to make a qualitative difference. Let me speak a bit about our altar servers by way of illustration. We have tried to modify a mindset which thinks in terms of punishment and a behaviour that responds to fear. The result is nothing but painfully slow. Each server has been given a personal cassock. Not many parishes do that. In almost all parishes, the cassocks worn, if it were symbolic of the worship of God, in truth, it is actually an insult of God. Why? The cassocks are dirty but what is sadder is that the wearing of them reflects an apathetic attitude—that God does not deserve the best of what one can give. What has happened to the individual cassocks? Some boys take reasonable care of their personal cassocks and the rest? Go the sacristy and sometimes you find cassocks and cinctures strewn on the floor.

You would think that I am criticising the servers. Far from it, my point is simply this: I cannot tell you how to be efficacious. I cannot dictate excellence as a mode of behaviour for our servers. What is the point I wish to make, if not to criticise the servers?

First, I am not criticising the servers because similar scenarios may just apply to any individuals and to groups like choir, the lectors, commentators, the Sunday School catechists and the priests. What about you as a parent or a husband or an employer or an employee? You are not free from the demands of excellence.

Second, I have, in relation to the Jubilee, touched on the issue of fallowing in the last two days. The fallowing, the allowing the fields to rest and for the poor to collect the left-over harvest is a form of levelling that removes class division but it is not a Judaeo-Christian form of Marxism/Communism. Instead it is decidedly upward in its character because the fallowing of the soil is a form of preparation for the 100-fold harvest. The Eastern Christians provide us with a powerful theological vision of this 100-fold harvest in which Man is Christified or Deified and thereby God is glorified.

To summarise, this vision cannot be dictated. It is not a statistics and certainly not a number game. It can only be described because the point of reference is God. God wants us to be like Him. Thus, the question to ask is not like what the elder brother of the Prodigal Son parable: “How much more”? but rather lovingly “What more can I do”? Excellence is the appropriate response to God’s grace and the Jubilee is an invitation to live the highest of vocation of Man because he is created to praise, revere and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
[1] The spiritual equivalent for this is “perfection”. However, excellence is a “term” which the secular world will understand.
[2] One can go to the hospital and anoint as many as possible. But what about spending time with one who is suffering. Sometimes the choice to spend time with the sick will result in conversion and reconciliation. The result might not be favourable numerically (spending more time with a sick = less people I can anoint) but certainly it is efficacious.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Triduum Day 2 Year A

I was happy that yesterday someone told me that she could not understand what I had preached. Thank you. So, here is a little recap and I hope it helps. Yesterday, I thought that the celebration of a Jesuit martyr, St Edmund Campion was appropriate to mark the entry into our jubilee Triduum. In general, we have forgotten that Christianity was born of rejection and persecution. Instead, we have cosy up to the world and have come to expect a version of Christianity that makes no demands on and exacts no cost from us. The examples of the English and Welsh martyrs are compelling reminders that flowing through veins of the Church is, has been and will always be the blood of martyrs; her foundation is steeped in their blood.

Incidentally, this recap leads us to the theme that links both readings today which is building on firm foundation. The first reading speaks of a strong city. But, this city is no Jerusalem, and certainly no description of who we are. The invincibility symbolised by an exaggerated or hyperbolic description of this superstructure is really pointing to God. So God is our fortress and the foundation of our lives. The God who is invincible actually ties in with a characteristic of the jubilee which I spoke about yesterday. Again, it is about “fallowing”.

When we over-tax the land, we kill it. Fallowing allows the earth to rest. From an agrarian or an agricultural perspective, such resting is necessary for the earth to replenish its resources. It is not the absence of activity. With regard to the Hebrew idea of Jubilee, that is, with regard to a Sabbath year, Man’s apparent resting is not a sign of inactivity but rather it is to give space to God to work. Imagine that. We often think of Sabbath as a day dedicated to God, a day we give glory to God. This is no thanks to the fear instilled into us of breaking the Sabbath rest. But, the Sabbath “rest” is not only dedicated to the worship of God. It is also a day that God serves Man. Thus, our “inaction” externalises the internal disposition that allows God to continue working. God continues to work during the Sabbath and Man’s rest is an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty. At the heart of Sabbath is a belief that God can be trusted.

Thus, the Gospel invites us to look deeper into the foundation of our faith. Do we dare to trust God? As mentioned earlier, the foundation does not refer any to man-made structure but to God Himself. Therefore, a jubilee year presents an opportune moment to take a step back and look not just at our accomplishment but rather to take a look at ourselves. Have we built ourselves upon firm foundation? How is God present in our lives?

The question of how God is present may allow us to take a glimpse further into areas of our lives hitherto unexamined. For the Jubilee, very easily we can be caught up with the external activities organised; losing ourselves in the many events we have lined up. How is God present leads us into the desert of honest and sometimes painful self-appraisal. Let me give a few examples. First, in the area of marriage. For some people wedding and marriage are synonymous. Once settled into a marriage, they seldom think that a marriage requires looking into. I might be grossly mistaken but a parish where a majority of the couples collectively cannot find time for the many marriage encounter programmes organised? The programme itself certainly can be improved but given what we have, it is a good one to allow married couples to take a look at how their marriage can be enriched and deepened. Even a car needs an oil change regularly. We recognise that for cars but seldom for marriage. Second, what about couples preparing for marriage? The often heard complaint is why it takes so long. Why the need for the CMPC? Is there no short-cut? This reflects the failure to appreciate that time and effort are needed to build solid foundation. Ironically, there is greater attention paid to the frills, the so-called interior decorations. There is a mismatch in priorities and a question nobody asks is what happens to the photos so beautifully taken when a divorce has taken place. I rather that more photographs are taken when all is sagging and wrinkled—a testimony of fidelity through time and space. Third, what about couples in irregular unions? Those who are cohabitating, those who are civilly registered but have not solemnised the marriage in the Church. And what about those living in second union who have not resolved the issues surrounding their previous marriage? Fourthly, let me turn to another area of our faith life—catechesis. We frequently gripe and complain about the inadequacies and flaws of the catechesis of our young by pointing to the end product, our youths who seem to be leaving the Church in droves. We often think that the solution lies merely with the catechesis built up over the years in Sunday School without realising that such catechesis may not stand the assaults of post-modernity. Many parents have failed to appreciate that a firm foundation can only be established in a faith environment built on God as present within families. Thus, the Jubilee presents a year of grace to take an honest appraisal and to make the necessary repair and strengthen the foundation of marriage and family life.

Yesterday, I mentioned about the mass Christian exodus into the desert as soon as Constantine Christianised his empire. The image of the early Christians celebrating the Eucharist in the catacombs provide a glimpse of how real the faith of the martyrs was. The catacombs were the tombs of martyrs. There was an immediacy to a lived faith tested by sword, fire and the cross. But, eventually, with the institutionalisation of the Church, Christianity took over pagan temples. I was in Split, Croatia and I visited this intact Roman city where the temple is now changed into a cathedral. Yes, we may crow about how we have Christianised the temples but really, once removed from the tombs of the martyrs we began to lose the raw sharpness of our faith. A kind of rot began to set in. If we want our faith to be built on solid foundation, then we must begin to look at where we our rot is and where we have stagnated. To counter the paganising process of Christian culture, one needs to begin an important process of Christianising our home culture. We breathe not only pagan air outside the home but sometimes also in our homes.

Today, tourists and architectural aficionados admire the soaring spires and arches of our cathedrals, basilicas and our churches. Sometimes our vision too may be caught up with the crowd in this myopic and misplaced ceiling gazing. I hope that the parish getting reading to celebrate its jubilee may take this sacred time allotted to us to humbly look down at our feet, to the foundations on which our parish and the faith of her parishioners have been built so that the soil of our hearts may be restored to a renewed vitality and vigour in anticipation of the planting which the Lord will continue to undertake in our lives. The Jubilee year is really a graced moment to do that.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Triduum Day 1 Year A

If ever you go to London, make it a point to visit the Tower of London. There at the Salt and Martin Tower of the complex, you need to take a closer look at some of the graffiti and you find scratched on the wall, a “Henry Walpole”. Who was he? Well, Henry Walpole was 23 years old that 1st Dec 1581 when he stood watching the execution of a Jesuit priest named Edmund Campion. Henry was born of a Catholic family. As he was caught in the raging whirlpool of religious confusion, he found indecision as to which religious affiliation he should embrace. At Tyburn, as Edmund was hung, drawn and as his body was quartered, a splash of blood from his entrails landed on the coat of Henry Walpole. It was enough to confirm Henry’s vocation to follow in the footsteps of Edmund. Indeed, the blood of martyr is the seed of the faith.

We begin the Triduum of launching our Jubilee Year with a Jesuit saint. It would be nice if we could begin with St Francis but perhaps it is better to start with a martyr as it would allow us to size up the Jubilee proper that we are coming into.

How is the celebration of a Jesuit martyr relevant to a better perspective of the Jubilee? One of the features of the Jubilee consists of fallowing—letting the fields rest. Thus, in its original form, a year of fallowing was a year of allowing life to catch up. Thus, question to ask is how a martyr’s death is relevant to this fallowing?

That St Edmund died a painful death is not disputed. The details surrounding his conversion and later torture leading to his death have already been preached before. However, the death he shared with the other martyrs recalls us to our founding inspiration as Church. The Church was born of persecution, beginning first with her Lord and Master.

In the apostolic Church, a martyr meant a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under the penalty of death. The career of the Apostles, with the exception of John the Evangelist took this path. And for the next two hundred years since the birth of the Church, martyrdom was the highest form of witnessing. It was only after the 2nd century that the term confessors was used to denote those who professed their faith, even in times of persecution, but they never reached the point of shedding their blood. With Christianity gaining official recognition, official persecution ended reducing the spectre of martyrdom to a distant memory.

In a sense, confessor-ship emerged whenever the Church entered a period of peace. If this period of peace is not analogous to fallowing, at least it does give the idea that confessor-ship is the primary expression of our testimony. But, think of the monastic flight of the early Church. As soon as Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire, the instincts of Christians was to flee. They fled from such an unqualified accommodation with the world; an accommodation they felt had blunted their witnessing.

The first reading speaks of the Suffering Servant in reference both to Christ and to St Edmund. This image of the Suffering Servant can also be extended to the Church—she too is a suffering servant. And whilst the Gospel may warn us of not accommodating the world, in actual fact, we have lost our witnessing edge. We shun away from persecution. We have opted for “Christianity Lite”.

This fear of persecution is compounded by a certain false philosophy brought about by the age of the Enlightenment. We are led into a form of rationality which is deterministic. What do I mean by a rationality which is deterministic. Let me give a good example. “You should know better”. The truth is, just because you are clever is not a guarantee that you will do the right thing. Intelligence often has nothing to do with moral behaviour. [1]

In the expression of our faith, we have come to expect that behaviour should commensurate with rationality. For example, we expect the government to uphold the rights of minorities enshrined in the Constitution for that would be a rational act. As a result, in our various encounters with intransigent or pigheaded behaviour of officialdom, we come away with a sense that we have been done to; that we have been victimised. The fact is, the forces of evil will never stop railing against the Church and persecution will exist as long as the Church of Christ stands. St Edmund did not return to England expecting anything less. He expected no less than bearing the full brunt of persecution. We should expect no less.

Somehow, there is a “pyramidal” system which we cannot get away from. The conciliar document Sacrasanctum concilium speaks of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church. What does that mean? It means that the Eucharist is linked to all the other sacraments we celebrate. It is also supported by the liturgy we celebrate. Furthermore, the Eucharist is connected even to the medal or the scapula that one wears. It is linked to the sign of the Cross one makes. I am not speaking of scrupulosity nor am I referring to superstitious practices. But, what happens when we neglect the other sacraments and we do away with devotional practices because we view them as merely “external” rituals? When we neglect the other sacraments, relativise the sacramentals and downplay our liturgical actions, very soon the Eucharist will become meaningless. It will become very much an empty ritual and thus appropriately celebrated as a meal.

The same pyramidal system may be said of “martyrdom”. It is the supreme act of love for Christ to lay down one’s life. The truth is red martyrdom is inextricably linked to white martyrdom. Remember the “daily offering”? O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day in union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I am not referring to rushing in blindly to be massacred but really daring to stand up for our faith. It requires that we put up and bear with real sufferings daily. Otherwise red martyrdom remains an ideal. Perhaps you understand why this church is not air-conditioned; a trend that is taken up by many parishes. There may be legitimate reasons for doing so but here there is a greater didactical reason for not doing so. The heat reminds us that we bear our discomfort in the hope that when bigger suffering should visit us, we may be found ready.

So, what relevance is St Edmund Campion to our Jubilee? Expectations are natural for a year to sail smoothly. But, St Edmund’s death shows us that our basic attitude should be a readiness to suffer for our faith, to stand up where it counts and even to die if we have to. If fallowing should mean anything, it is also a time for preparation, a time to ready ourselves for living our faith. Otherwise, the Jubilee is nothing but a celebration of ourselves, a sort of feel-good “pat on the back” but not a witness of the faith sealed and testified by blood and sacrifice.
[1] This explains so much of our unnecessary anger and frustration. We foolishly expect people to behave according to what they know.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

1st Sunday of Advent Year A

There is a financial crisis affecting some Eurozone countries. These economies are not willing to bite the bullet of trimming their budget, suffer the consequences of their past excesses so that they can arrive at a stable future. Instead, some have sought to bail their way out of their mess. In a certain way, these crises reveal an inability or unwillingness to live in the present; to bite the bullet.

Today the 2nd Reading speaks of the present. Much like the economic crisis, this present to which we are called to is not unrelated to the past and the future. The 1st Reading points toward that future where we will truly worship God our Lord and be guided by His ways; a future that will see us walking in the light of God. The Gospel recalls an ignorant past; a past tainted by the sin of unpreparedness.

Thus, the 1st Sunday of Advent sets the tone for the present. It invites us to wake from our hypnotic slumber. The word hypnos simply means "sleep" in Greek. But, in English, it has taken the sense of “induced trance”. To be hypnotised means to be under the spell of someone or something. In the 2nd Reading, St Paul, in his concern for the present, exhorts the community to awake from their “hypnosis”—their sleep. What was understood literally as sleep in St Paul may now be understood for us as hypnosis.

What do I mean by hypnosis? In the context of living in the present, both the past and future can have a hypnotic grip on us. Firstly, when we are hypnotised by the past, we are caught in it. For example, people who re-live their past hurts are often trapped in the past. How many times have you quarrelled with your spouse, your friend or your colleague and resort to bringing up the past? “You did this”. Whilst there is justification that for some whom the past continues to repeat itself, for example, a husband’s repeated infidelity, the fact remains that some of us are trapped by our past history of hurts and the inability to move beyond mistakes made.

Our focus is on the present. But what sort of present? Watch out also for the possibility of a hypnotic and enclosed present. This enclosed present which is not really “living” may be observed in a young child especially a boy playing his computer game. He is so engrossed that he often loses track of time, he forgets to eat and he does not have an inkling of what is taking place around him. Watch what happens at a wedding dinner where the adults interact and there are also children there. Instead of teaching the children to have a sense of what is around them, the child is encouraged to enter into this enclosed world of the Game-Boy, iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad. Usually the argument is that they are too young to understand and one day they will. And this leads me to the third hypnosis.

It concerns the future. In fact, some people live in the future or they simply fear the future. On the one hand, for those who live in the future, they are somewhat hypnotised by a “perfect” future to come. Do you know that 98% of the population in this country is waiting for the perfect moment to begin eating healthily? I like to eat unhealthy barbequed meat and usually the eating habit is like 'This will be my last piece’ and then when I have finished this last piece, I take another one and say, ‘this really will be the last’ until the whole 1kg is gone. For those who need to gain their optimal weight [I try not to say lose weight because we tend to look back for what we have lost], is not their usual excuse “Tomorrow I will start or stop”? "Tomorrow I will start to exercise". "Tomorrow I will stop smoking". Just like those children socialised into an enclosed present, that future often does not arrive. What about those who live in fear of the future? They are so crippled by the anxiety of an imperfect future that they unilaterally decide not to bring new life into such an uncertain future forgetting that Christ is and always the Saviour.

At Advent, we catch a glimpse of how the past, the present and the future all come together. The season of Advent is the liturgical expression of our understanding of eschatology—about the nature of the end time. How is the end time characterised? The end time is not a description of an end that is in the future. Instead, the end has already begun with the coming of Christ. There is a quote from the Letter to the Hebrews which reflects the coming together of time: “Iesus Christus heri et hodie ipse et in saecula”—Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus, when Christ our Lord is with us, the past, the present and the future flow into one, where the present is necessary and is the only place possible to straddle ours and God’s time. It is the only time we have to redeem our past and to prepare for the future envisaged by Isaiah in the 1st Reading. This means, the present, unlike Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, is never enclosed as if divorced from the past and distanced from the future. St Paul's exhortation to wake up challenges us to be open to the present; a present where we endure the painful purification of our past sins as well as prepare ourselves for the realisation of the future so beautifully described by Isaiah in the 1st Reading.

I received a cartoon e-mail which I cannot project onto the wall because it has a four-letter word. It showed two dinosaurs standing on a rock outcrop surrounded by water and pelted by rain and in the distance was Noah’s Ark sailing into the horizon. The dinosaur’s extinction was explained by a caption that they had missed the boat. They forgot it was today that the ark set sail!

Christ by coming 2000 years ago set in motion the beginning of the end time. Advent reminds us not to be trapped by a painful past, hypnotised by an enclosed present and fooled by an unrealised future as to miss the boat of Christ's salvation today. Today is the only day to board the Ark of Christ’s salvation, not yesterday and not tomorrow.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Solemnity of Christ the King Year C

This coming Tuesday we will commemorate Blessed Miguel Pro—a Jesuit priest—who lived at a time when the Mexican government was rabidly anti-Catholic and anti-clerical; an era considered by a writer to be “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth I of England”. He was executed publicly before a firing squad—a move by the government to shock the Catholics into submission but grossly miscalculated. At the time of his execution, with one hand clutching the rosary and another a crucifix,

he raised his arms in imitation of the Crucified Christ and as the shots rang out he shouted: “Viva Cristo Rey”. Long live Christ the King.

At the time of Fr Miguel’s death in 1927, the Solemnity of Christ the King had just been instituted two years before. But, the idea of proclaiming Christ as King was not new. For example, the Gospel today clearly referred to Him as the “King of the Jews” and the Second Reading spoke of His being the preeminent one. The novelty of the Solemnity lay in the fact that it was established as a response to the rising totalitarian tide of communism and fascism. Communism was entrenched in Russia and at about that time Benito Mussolini was emerging as a dictator in the Italian political scene. The encyclical Quas primas of Pius XI addressed the Kingship or the “kingliness” of Christ and its relevance for the individual Christian. Communism and fascism were premised on the principle that the government’s ideology was the sole reference for people’s lives. Thus, against the absolutist claims of totalitarian regimes, the encyclical reminded Christians that their ultimate allegiance was to God. [1]

We have been celebrating this Solemnity for 85 years and we speak of Christ as King almost without second thoughts. But, how do we conceive of Him as King? Today I would like to dwell on how our imaging of Christ as King has the power to inspire or not.

Last count, there were about 200 countries in the world with just a handful of them monarchies. Some of these monarchies are on the path to irrelevance. In the context of democratic equality, children cannot connect with the image of Christ the King. Let me give an example. This was a painting started by Hubert Van Eyck who died and so was completed by his brother, Jan.
Look at the painting and you would agree that it confirms the accepted convention that the image of Christ as King may not be that relevant.

In fact, if you take a closer look, He looks stern, remote and inaccessible.

He is like the “cannot-touch type” of royalty we read of today. We are familiar with this type of royalty, the type that yearns for our adulation but live in fear of our obsessive stalking. The idea of a remote or formal king does not resonate with us. What we want is one whom we can identify with, one who is like us; an approachable, compassionate and gentle king.

It is a very appealing image of a Laughing Christ.

The question is: Do we want an accessible king, someone who is approachable OR is our desire for a compassionate and gentle king a revelation to the world that gentle compassion is short in supply? The projection of an ideal we desire may just be a confirmation that the ideal is wanting. We, in yearning for a laughing Christ, reveal a world that is sad. This hunger for a loving king who is understanding and who reaches out to us reveals our feeling unwanted and unloved. Humanity is not at peace with itself and perhaps it explains why we find a stern image of Christ as King disturbing—convicting us even. At a time when we feel insecure with ourselves, the best image for our king is one who is non-threatening and non-intrusive.

After Vatican II, we removed all the communion railings, the tabernacle in some Churches was moved to the side, all in the name of making God more accessible or approachable forgetting that distance [inaccessibility, or remoteness] creates space for us to appreciate a reference point. Why do you think the institution of the royalty and celebrities attract us? We may think that the doing away with the institution of the royalty is a triumph of democracy but actually, the demise of the royalty corresponds to the rise of the cult of celebrity. [2] Their captivating spell lies in their inaccessibility—their remoteness. But, when they get too close, they lose the allure. [3] When they become common, they lose the power to inspire—for good or for bad. [4]

How many of you pray when you need God? You should not put your hands up for you might just embarrass yourself. The point is, when we do that—pray only when we need God—we prove the point I have been labouring on. When God is reduced to the familiar, when we demystify Him, He becomes forgettable; like the pair of pliers or the spanner we have in the tool-box. We do not care about them until we need them.

The image of a Laughing Christ is not bad in itself. It might even inspire. But, in the imaging of Christ, the distance is a reminder that He is the reference point and not we. A good way to understand the necessity of distance or remoteness is through the formula of the Council of Chalcedon: He is like us in all things but sin. When we forget the “but sin” part of the formulation, then we will become the reference point and not Him—we begin to fashion Him into our image and likeness. In short, when we want Christ to look gentle, soft and warm, then He will no longer be a challenge. When we are comfortable in our mediocrity—sin of any kind—then we will not relish any challenge. What then?

Various choirs for today’s Solemnity sang “Majesty” followed by “Hail Redeemer King Divine” for the entrance hymns. The wording and phrasing do not really mean much because by and large, our imaging has neutered and emasculated our King. He is one of us. Full stop. Period. Never mind that He is forever the sinless one.

A principle of iconography might help us understand how we depict Him does not have to fulfil our criteria of a nice, warm and “emo” King. Look at this icon.

The truth is I have deliberately chosen a “softer” and less stern-looking icon of Christ.

However, the compassion, the so-called gentle, nice and warm feeling you want to remind you that Christ is near—so much one like us—and not far is to be found in His eyes.

This next icon shows a remoteness in His face that is mitigated by the nearness of His compassionate eyes. The eyes are in fact riveting because they are windows into His world.

In conclusion, if we erase the distance, wipe away the blood and hide the painful suffering of the crucifixion and demythologise the divinity of Christ, we sanitise the image of our King to the point of an empty symbol. He serves a purpose to make us feel good in our otherwise miserable existence. But, Christ the King came down to be with us to inspire us to follow Him to heaven. He can only do that if in our imaging, we do not turn Him into nothing but an image of ourselves. Otherwise, Blessed Miguel Pro and the countless martyrs in our 2000-year history had died in vain. Only a Christ who is both near and mysterious has the power to inspire. Viva Cristo Rey!

[1] St Thomas More showed good example when he said, “I die the King’s good servant but God’s first”. He was faithful to his king to the best of his availability but when the King’s purpose went against God’s law, he chose God and paid the price of his conscience.
[2] If we think the monarchical system were slavery then we have exchanged one form of slavery for another. It explains why we are enamoured with the sordid details of socialites and celebrities’ lives
[3] Sometimes it is good that priests should not be too “human". Why? The reason is if they let slip a wrong word, especially a wrong word, the person hearing it will say, “If a priest can speak in such a manner so can I”.
[4] Closer at home, think of priestly or religious vocations. In times past, priests and religious were set apart. They were set apart not because they were holier or better but because they had been called by God to mirror as best as they could, a life that was to come. The reference point was God’s calling. We are set apart because of God’s call and not because of what we can achieve. Instead, a period has passed whereby priests and religious felt that the call was best expressed by becoming just like anyone with the end result: “Why do I want to embrace your life when you are trying so hard to live my life”. And we keep wondering why there are no vocations. Many of our Sisters congregations are dying because sisters try to look like lay people. The Brothers congregations suffer from an image problem—being neither here nor there. The worst part is their being measured in terms of "not a priest". But, priests are not really in a better position because they are pathetically “saved” by their function. Without their sacramental functions, they are as irrelevant as religious brothers and sisters are. Perhaps we are challenged in this age of "utility" where a person's worth is measured by how useful he is. In this age, especially religious priests, brothers and sisters need to rethink that their first calling might be to "who" they are in themselves--not so much to what they can do.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Funerals are amongst the hatch, match and dispatch functions of a priest. Some funerals are routine—ripe old age, expected time-to-go deaths. Some are difficult—tragic and unexpected death. A funeral not easy to conduct is when a child predeceases his or her parents. Even if a parent were already 85 years old, still the 65-year-old offspring would be the “son” or the “daughter”. No parent ever wants to live longer than his or her children. They say that time heals all pains but for a parent who has lost a child, the pain is particularly piercing.

I started this homily by describing an experience which may help us empathise with Habakkuk, the prophet of the first reading who felt deserted by God. Many who have had to experience unexpected and tragic deaths, felt forsaken by God. They are often muted by God’s silence and their faith is badly shaken.

In the light of God’s promise to fulfil Habakkuk’s trust in Him, perhaps we can speak more about the faith God is also inviting us to. Firstly, we already know more or less the content of our faith because St Paul, in the second reading, encourages Timothy to be faithful to his ministry and to witnessing to Christ. Secondly, we know that the result can only be astounding as the Gospel reminds us that great wonders can be achieved with just a little faith.

But, for many of us, when we speak of faith, we buy into a myth that we may not even be aware of. Let me clarify, by myth, I am not referring to the content of our faith. It means what St Paul affirmed in the second reading about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as Saviour of the world is not a myth. By myth, I mean rather our approach to the content of our faith. For many faith is believing the believable. This is a reasonable statement in the sense that we believe in what can be believed. "Seeing is believing" is a form of believing in what can be believed.

But, faith is not just content, that is, what to believe in. It is also whom we believe in and how we believe. Our approach to faith, what we understand by having faith, actually describes our relationship with God. In fact, having faith is a description of the quality of that relationship, which is the “how” of faith. Often, with God, we delineate the “how” of faith as we define the parameters and set the rules for engagement. In short, we want to control the environment. What is a controlled environment if not a laboratory? In a controlled environment, something is believable only if it can be tested empirically. However, as long as we move within a controlled environment, what is faith but proofs—proofs that God has answered our prayers. The “how” of our relationship reduces God to one who exists only to grant our desires. In that case, faith still falls within the realm of science and our need for control.

Let me share with you on what struck me most in our recent experience. When we embark on a pilgrimage, we pretty much enter an environment beyond our control. The fact was, we did arrive safely at our destination and we did thank God that He had answered our prayers etc.

But, what about not arriving at our destination safely? If the weather or natural calamities had delayed our journey in such a way that we were stranded in transit or along the way, the coach met with an accident and some of us were injured and some even died?

Like Habakkuk, the first question would be, “Where were you God”? and second, “We set out on this pilgrimage of trust, and yet you have abandoned us”? As long as the result does not fall within our controlled expectations, then the usual interpretation is that God has abandoned us.

GK Chesterton mentioned something about faith and in a piece he wrote on the difference between Christianity and paganism and it makes sense in the context of the Gospel. He says, “Charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all”.

The quality of our relationship with God must accord with what the Gospel says at the end: “We are merely servants”. It means that in our relationship with God, we must restore God’s sovereign freedom to its rightful place. Faith as believing the incredible is believing in God even when He seems to be silent.

We have established that faith has a content—"what to believe", and a subject—"whom to believe in", God. Our struggle or challenge often is how to believe against all evidence that He is not present.

At Altöting, the Chapel dedicated to Our Lady, we found many votives. A votive could be anything—candles, stitches, paintings, photos, poem and amongst them was one which may help us understand how faith should be lived. Someone wrote to Our Lady: Thank you for not answering my prayers for 18 years. The person must have placed much faith in Our Lady to act according to her desires but only to encounter the sovereignty of Our Lady’s intercession. In the 19th year, her prayers must have been answered in a way more suitable for her than if, through the intercession of Our Lady, the Lord had granted it the minute it was made. Sometimes our request cannot be answered for reasons only known to God.

Today’s Gospel is an invitation to many of us who have found life to be unbearable because God seemed to have abandoned us or God seemed to be silent. Faith is trust, not certainty. Our restoration of God’s sovereign freedom to Him will enable Him to forge for us a solution beyond our expectation.

In conclusion, sometimes people say that, in response to the tragedy they have encountered, they have lost faith, as if they have lost their house keys or their wallets. The truth is, we can never lose our faith, we may be struggling to allow faith to shape our lives according to God’s sovereign desire. In the light of the apostles asking the Lord to increase their faith, we ask that He will grant us the grace on how to allow our lives to be more and more shaped by our trust in Him.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Have you heard this alternative story about four people who went to see the Wizard of Oz to ask for gifts and these four were not Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion. One asked for valour, the second for courage, the third for patience and finally the last for humility. Guess who went away looking like the Ugly Duckling?

It is a joke but never mind if you did not get it because it was just an illustration of the theme of this Sunday’s readings. In general, they point in the direction of humility. The first reading praises the person who is humble, a person who is conscious of who he really is. This person will find favour with God. It ties in with the Gospel where the key phrase is “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted”.

However, in a world where cosmetics is champion, humility is certainly a virtue that is best forgotten or ignored like the Ugly Duckling. And yet, it was humility that saved the world. Christ humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on the Cross. The second reading does not exactly put it in that way but it certainly gives the impression that the gathering of the New Jerusalem is around the Mediator of the New Covenant. Who is He but the one who is humble, whom God has exalted and given a name which is above every name and at whose name, all creation must bend.

If humility saves the world and yet we are caught in a world which views humility as the Ugly Duckling, how can we better appreciate the humility necessary for the salvation of our souls?

St Ignatius speaks of humility as three modes of being. The first mode of humility is characterised by lowering myself in as much as I can, so that I will be obedient to God’s law. In this mode of humility, I will not commit mortal sin. This basically characterises many of us. We try to live decent lives and not commit mortal sins. The second mode of humility is better than the first as it consists of a “detached” disposition. In as much as God can be glorified and my salvation can be assured, I choose neither poverty nor riches, neither honour nor dishonour, neither long life nor short life. The analogy here is the equilibrium of a see-saw. And here, I would not commit a venial sin. It is the nature of holiness that when we embark upon the path of holiness, not only do we try to refrain from mortal sins, we also try to conquer venial sins It is an ascetical ascent as we dispose ourselves to God’s grace. But, for many of us, the difficulty might be in the commission of venial sins. We are too attached to them to let go. For example, gossip is a sin too delicious to let go of. Finally, the third mode of humility consists of this: All things being equal, for the greater glory of God and for the salvation of my soul, I desire and choose to be with Christ poor rather than wealth, contempt with Christ laden with it rather than honours. Even further, I desire to be regarded as a useless tool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such, rather than a wise and prudent person in this world. This is close identification as I choose to follow Christ on the royal road to Calvary.

Now, not only do we live in a world where cosmetics is champion, we also live in a world where competition is champion. For example, those of us who give the “middle finger” at a car that cuts into our lane, we may view it as a venial sin which we no longer think twice of committing. But, a closer inspection will reveal that it is not so much a venial sin as it represents an insatiable need to win. Tell me you have never purposely inched your way closer to the car in front of you so that the car in the emergency lane cannot cut into yours? Of course, you reason that the manners of Malaysian drivers leave much to be desired and that is why you will not allow the person in but still, the real rationale is because we do not want to be a loser—the one who has no guts to challenge the other driver. Humility = weakness.

The truth is, it is not a mark of humility to let the other person through. It is not a mark of humility that sends the message out: step all over me. What is humility is perhaps the curbing of our desire to win all the time. And it cuts across every facet of our lives and not just our driving etiquette. In arguments, I do not need to have the last word. Let me give an example. By telling you this story, I think I am going to “sin”. At our recent pilgrimage in Lourdes, I had a fall in the toilet. According to an email sent to me, I fell because I was pissed drunk. I attempted to reply to the email but it back-fired. Finally, I just left it at that. Why? I did not have to justify myself and more importantly, there was no need to win the argument. Now why have I “sinned”? I am well aware that even by this little revelation I have “attempted to justify myself”. I seemed to have the last word! The point is, between friends, siblings and spouses—this is often the scenario—the need to justify or have the last word.

This is where we need to differentiate between “neurosis” and “kenosis”. Humility is self-emptying—kenosis—like Christ who emptied Himself of His divinity. But, some of us may mistake “neurosis” to be “kenosis”. What is neurosis? Let me give a working definition. Let us say we have a student who is a masochist and a teacher who is a sadist. At the end of the year, the teacher decides not to set an exam. Everyone cheers except this one student, the masochist. Humility and suffering are companions and the point is that not all suffering endured is humility. It could just be a neurosis; much like the masochistic student who loved to be "punished" with exams.

A holy priest in Manila used to remark that those who seek humility may be sinful. His explanation was that in order for us to feel humble, somebody has to sin. There is truth in what he said. Neurosis is a false sense of humility and there is a thin line between neurosis and kenosis. Here, the Ignatian principle might help. “All things being equal” meaning that if it does not involve sin, then we choose to stand with Christ humiliated. This is where true kenosis is. A suitable interpretation to explain this is when a situation is really beyond our control, it is when we begin to exercise humility. Humiliation is not something we actively search for but whenever we choose to follow Christ, be assured that there will be humiliation.

Finally, humility as a virtue needs to be supported by the Resurrection. Perhaps, humility’s struggle to be accepted as a viable virtue is but a reflexion of our struggle in believing the Resurrection. In a world where competition has gone wrong, humility is crowded out because we believe that the last and final word must be uttered in this world. But we are assured by the Gospel. “When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; that they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate, because repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again. The final word does not need be uttered in this world because the Resurrection gives us the assurance that our faith will be vindicated. Thus, to be truly humble, you need to hold to the truth of the Resurrection.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Salvation is a touchy issue for some of us. In this country, it is called a “sensitive” issue. But, seriously, how can we conceive of salvation but more importantly, whom is it intended for? In the Gospel, someone asked Christ pointedly: “Sir, will there be only a few saved”? The question was a number game and the person who asked probably had in his mind that salvation was restricted to the Jews. He was not wrong because the Jews thought themselves to be God’s chosen people. They still do. But, note that even as early as the time of the first reading, the question in the Gospel was already rendered academic or moot because the concept of salvation there was unmistakeably universal. God willed the salvation of all mankind. There was no restriction as to how many and whom was to be saved because God’s blessing on Israel was always meant to be shared amongst the nations of the world. “I am coming to gather the nations of every language”.

If God wills the universal salvation of mankind, then the relevant question is how is this universality to be achieved? This is where it becomes touchy or sensitive. Let me give an example.

Once I had to celebrate a Mass for a particular place. There was a purpose for the Mass: to pray that the students will pass their exams. I had been told that a large section of the congregation would be made up of non-Catholics and the suggestion was to tone down the “catholic” feel to it. No need to be so “catholic” about Jesus as the Saviour of the world.

I actually said to organiser, “Personally, I don’t really care what you want to do but what you are requesting begs this question: ‘Why do it when you need to apologise for being Catholic?’”

The Church believes that Christ is the Saviour of all mankind. He did not come to save Christians only. He came to save everyone. The theory that Christ’s salvation is intended for everyone is known as apokatastasis or apocatastasis. At the end of time, everything will be restored in Christ. Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution of Vatican II, described the Church in relation to this work of restoration that Christ is doing. In respect of Christ restoring all creation, the Church is the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’.(GS45).

We now wade into deeper waters. Some Catholics already have difficulty accepting that Christ is the Universal Saviour of the world—a claim which sounds arrogant. [1] And now, the Church is brought into the picture—to be the “universal sacrament of salvation”. According to the controversial document Dominus Iesus, what we say of Christ can be said of the Church as well. Christ has a significance and a value for mankind and its history and so does the Church for He did not merely constitute a community of disciples but He constituted the Church to be His instrument of salvation. As such, He and the Church forms the “whole Christ”. Thus as there can be no salvation apart from Christ, there can also be no salvation apart from the Church that is one with Him.

This is intolerable language in this age of “inclusivism”. How dare we?

The point is, when I go to a mosque or a temple, I do not expect a Muslim to pray quietly or a Buddhist monk or Hindu priest to chant softer because I am there. When the Buddhist speaks of Karma, he means that everyone and not just Buddhists are subjected to the judgement of karma. In other words, religion, if it were to be true to its character, must necessarily make ultimate truth claims. And even if it sounds alien, that is what it does and it should never apologise for its claims. For us, the name Jesus means “God who saves” and would it not be a contradiction that God can only save “Jews” or “Christians”? If God can only save this or that group of people, then He is no better than a magician for God is Saviour only in so much as He saves creation in its entirety and creation includes the whole of mankind.

Thus, from the universal claim of salvation, we come to what is personal to each of us. The universality of Christ’s salvation is not a guarantee that we will be saved. The mere fact of being baptised does not equate to “salvation”.

In conclusion, three questions can be posed from today’s readings. First, who is to be saved. Everyone is to be saved. That is the meaning of the universality of salvation. Second, how are we saved? The unequivocal answer is that salvation comes from Christ through His Church. This explains the Catholic focus on the sacraments. She is the sacrament of Christ and so she makes available His life-giving sacraments to those of us who have been incorporated into His Body. The role of the Church is to make the means widely available. It explains why the Church is evangelical in her mission. In bringing Christ to the world she becomes a part of His apokatastasis. Third, the Gospel speaks of entering the narrow gate. The question now is “Are you saved?” The narrow gate indicates that salvation is not cheap. It is not expensive from the point of view that we have to “earn” our salvation. "Salvation is not cheap" means that we need to cooperate with the grace of God in order that we may avail ourselves of the salvation that He wants to give.

I often say this to underline how privileged we are and what a heavy burden it is to be a Catholic. I tell people that there are more popes in hell than there are bishops. There are more bishops in hell than there are priests. There are more priests in hell than there are laypeople. But, consider the proportion. There have only been 200+ popes and you will work out that there are actually more laypeople in hell than there are priests, bishops and popes. But that is playing the number game as in the Gospel. What is important is to note as Christ Himself pointed out in the example of the narrow gate. The more you are given, the more will be expected of you. This may sound like some kind of “work” or duty enjoined upon you, but, the truth is we have been immensely blessed to be called by Christ into His Church. Let us live that vocation to the fullest of our abilities. Let us exude the joy of our Christian calling so that the world will know that indeed Christ has come to gather all peoples unto Himself.

[1] Part of our problem is the result of mutually excluding “sensitivity” and “expressing the truth”. Some of us think that “expressing the truth” would make us “insensitive”. The philosophy of “inclusivism” seemed to have placed a premium on “sensitivity” to the detriment of truthfulness. Expressing the truth and being sensitive are not mutually exclusive. What we should strive is to be truthful without being strident or that we should sound “triumphalistic”. In a world characterised by competitive capitalism, the challenge is to “sell” the truth of a religion without the arrogance of aggression and superiority. In the marketplace of shifting opinion, the truth of a religion is to be found in the authenticity of one’s life.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Assumption Year C

In glossy tourist brochures, Malaysia is pictured as a country that is representative of Asia. You may have come across the tagline and advertisement Malaysia, truly Asiaemblazoned over double-decker buses in London, for example. One of the distinguishing features of our fabulously Asian country is the mix of peoples. However, I cringe each time we speak of Malaysia in terms of Malays, Chinese and Indians because it is a form of patronising arrogance that can only be explained as a blindness peculiar to Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysia is more than Malays, Chinese and Indians because she is also the true indigenous natives or the Orang Asal of the Peninsula, the Sabahans and the Sarawakians of Borneo Malaysia. In fact, the Sabahans and Sarawakians make the Church in Malaysia a Bumiputera Church simply because they make up the larger proportion of Catholics in Malaysia.

Anyway, it is precisely this narrow blindness that Malaysia is Malays, Chinese and Indians that the Solemnity of the Assumption has something to say to. Why? Despite the picture that is painted for all and sundry that everything is hunky-dory in this Asian melting pot of cultures and peoples, all we need is to scratch the surface and beneath the false façade of racial and religious harmony, we discover a debilitating despair and also a collective denial. There is a disquieting despair because the future for freedom and the health of the financial system (politics and economy) does not seem to inspire confidence. Otherwise how to explain the brain haemorrhage? I wrote this homily at 4:30 in the morning and I wanted to describe this cloud of gloom as a kind of malaise, when I realised that I could be opening myself to trouble because some people may jump to the conclusion that I have spoken badly of the Malays when in fact, the word malaise spelt as “malaise” merely described our depressing condition rather than defined a race. If everything were hunky-dory in what we claim to be a functioning democracy, why do we need draconian laws? [1] The point is, we all know that it does not take much to ignite a situation. In fact, it does not take much to lob a Molotov cocktail or an animal’s head into any religious place of worship. There seems to be no future for some people under the Malaysian sun. Here I want to be clear that I am not interested in making a critique of the political or economic system of the country but I am trying to verbalise the hopeless desperation that many of us feel quietly. Tell me that I am wrong but you know that I am not.

Thus, the temerity of the Catholic Church is relevant to our current despair. The point is how audacious we are to celebrate the Assumption on a Sunday, the dies Domini, the day of the Lord? Who is this Mary that even Christ the Lord makes way for her? Crucially, how can she be relevant to what we are feeling inside but dare not express openly?

Let me start by re-telling a nursery rhyme which many of you are familiar with. There are different ways of reciting this rhyme but here is how I would do it. It is called “For want of a nail” or “For lack of a nail”.

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, a horse was lost. For want of a horse, a general was lost. For want of a general, a battle was lost. For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost. All for want of a tiny insignificant nail. All because a tiny nail went a-missing.

The rhyme illustrates for us that small things can have significant consequences. In the economy or the history of salvation, Mary is that tiny insignificant nail. But, here is the twist. She may be the insignificant nail but the story is not about the nail but rather about how God uses the nail to prevail against evil.

Look at the 1st Reading. On one level, it speaks of the past. It points to the rescue of Israel from the forces of the great Pharaoh and the mighty Egyptian army. The imagery is poignant because here you have the woman given a pair of wings, reminiscent of what God said, “I will give you eagle’s wing”. And where does she flee to? The desert. The desert brings the reader back to the past event of the Exodus. But, on another level, the reader is brought into the present Roman Empire which does not think twice when she snuffs out kingdoms along her conquering march. No one in the known world of the Evangelist could withstand the power of this Empire. The past and the present point to the future. For, history has proven that this tiny little ostracised Jewish sect was to be the downfall of the empire. Christianity was to conquer the Roman Empire—not by force but by conviction.

The Assumption is definitely a reminder that in the schema of God’s plan, there is a future. We call it the Resurrection. Death is not a sign of defeat but rather God, by the death of His Son, has prevailed over darkness. And it all started with a tiny and insignificant nail. The proof is found in the Gospel. There, you find a young woman, in danger of being stoned to death for adultery, audaciously singing the Magnificat extolling the great deeds of the God who saves. The Magnificat is both a promise of the future and a hope for the present. We can only arrive at the future when we live in the present. But, unfortunately, in the current climate of despair, we either fear the future or we live in the past. When we have no faith in the future, it is possible that we are struggling to believe the Resurrection. Many people question what could possibly come out of the present. And the usual response is either we cling to the nostalgic past [like the honk of the “roti- man" (bread-seller), according to a Deejay] or we languish in the pessimistic present.

According to the 2nd Reading, the Assumption points towards the future fulfilment of a pledge and yet it is grounded in the hopeful present that even though the evil and corruption that surround us may seem insurmountable, we are assured that Christ is even more powerful and He has prevailed. Therefore, the Assumption is not irrelevant. Instead it offers us consoling hope in our present pessimism. We may be small nails but Mary shows us that God can make something out of nothing. It just means that we must dare to sing the Magnificat for “He has shown the power of His arm. He has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted” the lowly insignificant nail.

Later, after the Profession of Faith, you will sing the offertory hymn. Listen to the words as they point us out as insignificant nails but really, the hymn is a faint echo of the Magnificat as it extols what God can do even if we are small and insignificant.

[1] Like a neighbouring country where people are “law-abiding”. The truth is that they are only law abiding in as much as there are fines for every minor infraction of the law. Plato gives a cynical explanation of why people are just, that is, why people keep the law. He says, “Justice is for those who have no courage to be unjust”.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

This evening we have the Rite of Acceptance. The readings are pertinent to what we do. The first reading describes a future unknown—the after-life—which we should not be afraid of. The second reading speaks of how we are to conceive of the after-life—in terms of faith and hope. We are to live in faith and hope as we long for the after-life. Turning to the Gospel, we find the same focus on the after-life but this time, with a twist. Instead of the servant springing into action, it would be the master who serves the servant.

How are the readings relevant to the Rite of Acceptance?

First, the spotlight shines clearly on a topic many of us are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with—the after-life. This after-life is a reality that catches many unawares. We never know how close we are to death and different people respond differently. In general, there is a universal fear of death. For some cultures, it is a taboo subject and so, the first reading addresses this fear on the basis of historical experience. “That night had been foretold to our ancestors, so that, once they saw what kind of oaths they had put their trust in, they would joyfully take courage”. Trust has a historical basis as we see God’s faithfulness to Israel during the Exodus. But, because we cannot fathom what the after-life holds, the second reading encourages faith and especially holds up to us, the figure of Abraham, our father in faith. He left the very place he had called home for an unknown land promised to him and his descendants. According to the author of the Hebrews: Faith is the assurance of things hope for, the conviction of things not seen. However, nowhere does trust and faith encourage complacency—the complacency we are warned against in the Gospel. Instead faith leads to vigilance and the Gospel ends positively by describing the vigilance of the servant who is rewarded with the unthinkable. It the end, it is the Lord who becomes the servant.

We have two possibilities before us. The first possibility belongs to our faculty of choosing. We can choose not to fear and put our trust in the God who never fails. Thus, be vigilant because the reward is beyond expectations. Or second, and this is not always a matter of choice. Many are most “stuck” because of the “unpredictability” of death. Death is almost like a veil of darkness beyond which we peer.

Our response to the unpredictability of life often takes us along the path of a planner. In order to navigate the unknown we plan for any eventualities. We would want to make sure that every variable is under our control. For example, we are encouraged to engage a financial planner as we plan our financial future.

But, our response should not be just the mode of a planner. We must keep before us that no matter how much we plan, life has a way of behaving independent of our planning. When things do not turn out the way we have mapped out, planners usually develop cynicism. Cynicism is often a response to repeated failed attempts at corralling or controlling life.

A pilgrim, on the other hand, is one who accepts life as it unfolds. When I was studying in Dublin, I remember my complaints were always met by my Jesuit brother who used to remind me that “it could be worse”. A planner like me got really annoyed with such a view of life that seemed rather fatalistic bordering on apathetic. But, as I struggled to shape my life according to my schemes and schedules, I began to realise that he had not been wrong. Neither had he been fatalistic. Instead, he had a better pulse of life. Life’s failures and disappointments were the final statements in life but they were real occasions for spiritual growth. A pilgrim dares to accept life as it unfolds because he knows that there is a planner who is larger than the life we know.

This Sunday, the pilgrim invites the planner into a life of faith. Like Abraham who uprooted himself for a new country to stay. The only compass a pilgrim has is his faith in God. However, faith is not foolhardiness in the sense that it is an “either or” option—that one is either a planner or a pilgrim. In fact, we are both. We plan, in as much as we are a logical and a rational people. Organising life is part of what makes us human. And yet, we must never forget that we are pilgrims—people on a journey—recognising that this is not our homeland forever.

The rite of acceptance we celebrate invites this group of people to embrace a life which makes them pilgrims on a journey towards life eternal. The only price the pilgrims pay is faith and vigilance to the Lord’s call. The fulfilment of God’s promise is always beyond our expectation. At the end of this pilgrimage, the vigilant will be rewarded by the Lord who will come to serve him Himself. That is a promise we can stand on.