Monday, 25 January 2010

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The 2nd Reading continues last week’s focus which was on the community. The metaphor used by St Paul to describe the Christian community was the body. “Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body”. Through baptism we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. [1]

However, the theme is “The Law of the Lord” as we heard in the 1st Reading. In the 1st Reading Ezra the priest solemnly read the Law of Moses to the returning exiles. As they prostrated themselves before the Lord, it was a moment of re-dedicating themselves to God and as such it became a sacred day of rejoicing. That sacred day came to its fulfilment in the Gospel when Jesus at the synagogue proclaimed the programme of the new covenant.

How is the community, that is, the body related to the new programme of the covenant, that is, the laws? They are related because laws necessarily flow from a community as the community will always make its demand on the individual. Laws are expressions of a covenantal community. In the Church, the concrete demands of the “Law of the Lord” are set down through what is called the Code of Canon Law. It is defined as a codified set of norms or procedures that spell out the rights and duties regulating the well-being of this spiritual or mystical body called the Church. Generally, Catholics are not affected by Canon Law. Specifically, the effects of Canon Law are only felt when a Catholic wants to get married. Most of the time, the laws that apply to marriage are straight-forward. But, sometimes, they are not and this is when we encounter the oft-quoted complaint: Why is the Church so rigid?

The rigidity of Church discipline or law becomes a moment of reflexion for us. Are there laws in the Church that need to be updated? Maybe there are but that is not our concern here. Our concern is rather the attitude or the response we ought to take with regard to the law. Let me elaborate what attitude we should have by speaking of contrition.

What is contrition? It is defined as the “heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed, along with the intention of sinning no more”. Contrition can be described as perfect because it is based on the love of God or imperfect when it is based on the fear of punishment or some lesser motive. Our approach to contrition can help us to appropriate the law. For many of us, our relationship with God is not based on love but rather it is based on fear. So, in terms of contrition, this means that we often do all we can to avoid hell.

Sadly, when we do all we can to avoid hell the consequence is the law will become duty and therefore an imposition or an obligation. The response to an imposition is often calculative. The best example of this attitude is the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story. His retort to the father was: "Have I not slaved all these years for you?" He was a dutiful son. Whilst being dutiful is commendable, it often leads to resentment. Those of you who have to take care of your ageing parents because your siblings have shirked their responsibilities know what this means. The same goes for parents. You have worked hard and the test comes when your son or daughter does something you consider to be illogical—like choosing a career which he likes but to you, it does not have a future or when the choice of your daughter’s life partner does not meet your approval. A common reaction can be: “Do you know how much I have sacrificed for you?" Does this sound familiar? When we approach life dutifully we often end up just fulfilling our bargain; calculating how little is needed in order to fulfil what is required. As stated above, duty is not bad but it may lead to resentment. In marriage it is often like that. One of the spouses is dutiful and the other takes advantage. Here I am not advocating turning the other cheek or accepting the status quo. What I am saying is that when fulfilling our duty is our approach, then watch where the anger, hatred, resentment come from.

On the other hand, perfect contrition is based on love and devotion. This is how our relationship with God should be as we aspire or go forward in such a way that the question to ask is not “Do you know how much I have slaved for you?” but “Is there more that I can do?" It was love that drove the Psalmist to cry out “The law of the Lord is perfect”. The basis of St Ignatius’ motto “ad maiorem dei gloriam” is this: “what more can I do, my God whom I love above all else”. It is in this context that laws or the covenant become liberating rather than enslaving. As long as we seek to fulfil the minimum requirement, we tend towards legalism like the Pharisees. But when we seek to do more than what is required, then our attitude towards the law will become moral. We will not stop at the minimum requirement of the law. And this is where we enter the terrain of sanctity or holiness, the territory of excellence and valley of suffering and loneliness and the feeling of being stupid because nobody shares your passion. This commensurate with who we are: Imago Dei. The image of God and the highest of all God’s creation.

Our guide is no longer the minimum requirement of the law but rather the moral compass of what is right and good. It becomes the freedom to embrace God’s will, no matter how difficult it may be.

In summary, as long as there is a community and because we are social and political beings, there exists the inevitability of the law. The demands of the law can be a source of tension because the temptation is for the individual to go at it alone, to live outside the demands of the community. Our approach to the demands of the community must be more than a dutiful response because the new covenant of Jesus in the Gospel is marked by love and that covenant can only be fulfilled if we dare to love. Duty can only take us this far. Devotion brings us to do more in order that the Good News will not just be news but good news of salvation. If we want to advance along the path of holiness, then our conversion must be from duty to devotion.
[1] Even though the word sounds a bit too “corporate”, in Latin, it actually points to the body and so, baptism draws us into the Body of Christ.

Monday, 18 January 2010

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Today’s Gospel completes a series of the epiphanies of God’s glory beginning with the birth of Christ at Bethlehem, followed by the visit of the Magi from the East, and right after the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, we witness the first miracle which launches Christ’s public ministry. What can we say about the glory of Christ changing water into wine?

Firstly, there is a sense of progression. In the preceding 3 epiphanies, the angels broadcasted the birth of the Messiah to the Shepherds in the hills, the Magi announced His birth to the waiting world and at the baptism in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit testified to Christ Himself. But, at Cana, the glory of Christ is manifested by none other than Himself. Secondly, we encounter a promise fulfilled. In the 1st Reading, we hear a message of hope. God has not forgotten his spouse Jerusalem. There is a promise that after the Exile, God and His people will be like newlyweds again. “Like a young man marrying a virgin, so will the one who built you wed you”. This promise is fulfilled at Cana. The wine of the Old Law has run out and when water was transformed into wine, we witness the start of the new dispensation. The six jars of water for ceremonial ablution have become the waters of baptism and forgiveness. Thirdly, further ahead, we will witness even more. Later, at the Last Supper, wine will be changed into blood which is a symbol of the Eucharist.

Thus, there is progress in the Lord. But, more than progress, promise and fulfilment, we see how the relationship between God and Man is brought to a higher level. It starts with Mary. John’s Gospel presents a Mary of divine purpose. Christ, in calling Mary “Woman”, harkened back to Genesis as He recognised His mother to be the new Eve: the new mother of the living. This recognition was confirmed when at the foot of the Cross, the Son gave us to His mother as He commanded, “Woman this is your son”. Mary inaugurated the reign of Christ which He accomplished at Calvary by making Mary the mother of all creation made new by His obedience to the Father.

Thus, the changing of water into wine is more than merely a miracle. It has implications on how we are to understand deeper and conceive better the mystery of the Church and what it means to live the 2nd Reading.

Firstly, the mystery of the Church is the mystery of the relationship between God and Man. How is this so? This relationship between God and Man can be described in various ways and one of them is through marriage. The Church is called the Bride of Christ as the theme today “the Church’s Bridegroom” is a reference to Christ. In this divine union, the Bride is forever faithful to the Bridegroom. Therefore, the Church must be ever attentive to the voice of the Bridegroom.

Secondly, this is how the 2nd Reading is to be lived out. At times, the Church (who is the Bride) is also called the Body of Christ. It is in this context that there are many gifts given to the Body in order for the Body to function more effectively. “There are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord”. All gifts are given so that the Body can obey the Head and the Bride can be attentive to Her Bridegroom.

Thirdly, if we return to the specifics of the Gospel, 6 stone jars mean literally 600 litres or bottles of wine; enough to send a hamlet to the moon. The public ministry of Christ is inaugurated through this overwhelming gesture of generosity on the part of God. It shows that God’s giving is never miserly. This gives us a way to look at our gifts and talents in relationship to one another. If the Church is poor, and here poverty is not measured monetarily, and if the community does not prosper, and here prosperity is not measured materially, it just means that we have not honoured God the best way we could, considering all we have is given by Him.

We are simply challenged because our sense of ownership is highly “individualised”. This partly explains the deterioration in the standard of public utilities. We may excuse the fact that it is “Malaysian” [1st-world infrastructure with 3rd-world mentality] but it goes deeper because the general trend throughout the world is a breaking down of “public” services and spaces. Why? Because, in a highly “individualised world”, we are accustomed to think that my gifts are mine. It may also explain why religious life is not attractive because religious life is premised on the assumption that one’s gifts and talents are received for the good of the whole.

Finally, given the context of the readings today is marriage, perhaps it is time for those who are married to think of their relationship not for themselves but for the community. Maybe as we enter 2010 and march toward the Jubilee Year 2011, it is time for married couples to renew their relationship. If your marriage is good, do not take it for granted. Make it better. For those whose marriage is in difficulties, when the wine of novelty and excitement run out, do not give up hope but seek necessary help. For those whose marriages have broken down irretrievably and they find themselves in the unenviable situation of separation or divorce, look for healing and forgiveness. To those who are in irregular relationships like a marriage outside Church or in a second marriage, try to rectify your situation. And finally, those who are getting married should take pains to prepare themselves for the sacrament which they will receive. It means conducting themselves in a manner which is chaste bearing in mind that the question asked at their wedding has to be answered in the “present” and not in the “past”. The question “Do you take N. to be your husband or wife” has to be answered with “I do” and not “I did”.

All these scenarios do not say that people cannot make mistakes. They are just reminders to us that mistakes do not define us but instead we learn from them. Marriage is necessary for the well-being of the community, namely the Church, because marital relationship is the most appropriate mirror of God’s undying love for us all and Christ faithfulness to the Church. The wealth of the Church is not to be found in gold. The wealth of the Church is you married couples. Your faithful love for each other is the joy of Holy Mother, the Church. In the past, we held in high esteem both religious and priestly life. That was possible only because the vitality of priestly and religious life was dependent on healthy family life.

Cana shows that God is abundantly generous and He gives us good things for the good of His Church. Let us be more responsive to His generosity.