Sunday, 28 February 2010

2nd Sunday of Lent Year C

We are into the 2nd Week of Lent and the Gospel comes up with the Transfiguration. The 1st Reading speaks of the covenant God made with Abram and the 2nd Reading urges the Christians to remain faithful to Christ. What connexion can we make between the Transfiguration, covenant and fidelity?

First, let us take a look at the Transfiguration. What is it about? It is a foretaste of a future to come. In the first place, the radiance of Christ’s face shows us who He really is. We get this confirmation at the end when the voice broke through the cloud to announce: This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to Him”. The radiance on Christ’s face is a reminder that the kingdom that He has come to establish is not of this world. The 3 apostles got a foretaste of the life that awaits them and us.

But, a foretaste is just that. No matter how blessed the moment, it is not meant to last. This is what Peter may have missed because he asked if he could build 3 tents for the 3 personages of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In the pilgrimage of life, a foretaste is also preparation. Perhaps the best way to describe the Transfiguration experience of Peter, James and John is to take a look at the “lay-bys” of the highways. They are never meant to be destinations. No matter how wonderful they may be constructed—grand motels, food courts, picnic parks—the fact remains that they are just stops, watering holes in the on-going journey.

So, the Transfiguration may be the most wonderful experience but it is not meant to be a permanent one. Just like nobody would ever mistake a lay-by or a pit-stop of the F1 to be the final destination. In this sense, we can now understand how the covenant of the 1st Reading comes into play. God makes a covenant with a people on the pilgrimage of life giving them the assurance that He will never be far from them. And He is not.

We begin to appreciate God’s nearness when we examine the details that make up this covenant between Abram and God. In the ancient rite of making a covenant, the ratification of the covenant between the contracting parties requires that an animal or animals be cut in halves and the contracting parties are to walk between the divided parts. When they do so, they invoke the fate of the animals on themselves should they fail to observe the terms of the covenant. In this covenant between God and Abram, we actually do not have two contracting parties. Instead, we have only one. It is God Himself who makes this covenant with Abram as symbolised by the smoking furnace and a firebrand passing between the slaughtered halves. The birds of prey symbolised Israel’s enemies. In the encounter of Abram, we meet a God who is more than faithful as you will discover soon.

This faithfulness of God brings us immediately to what we are doing at Lent. It is an invitation to fidelity on our part. The 2nd Reading gives us the clue as to how we can be faithful. It speaks of “food” and here we enter into familiar territory. Many of us instinctively know that our relationship with this world is temporary. We may acknowledge this temporality or choose to ignore it. But, when we do penance, we tacitly acknowledge the temporal nature of our relationship with the world.

Lent reminds us of this for at its outset, many would have decided to make sacrifices with regard to alcohol, chocolate or tobacco—to refrain from the fleeting joys of these pleasure-inducing substances. St Paul reminds us that when we make earthly satisfaction the aim of this life, then we have made what is impermanent our god.

As such, the Transfiguration, this little foretaste for us, is both a temptation as well as an encouragement. Temptation, because we might mistake it for the real thing—just like sometimes we mistake food to be. This temptation is reflected in the larger life. We often make plans for this life without thinking of which life as being more important. If you like, our plans are often short-sighted because our vision does not pierce beyond the horizon of temporal life.

Therefore, the Transfiguration must be better thought of as encouragement as we hear St Paul exhorting the Philippians to think beyond and to remain faithful; an encouragement to look beyond the tip of Tabor to the crown of Calvary. Both what we have been given and what we choose to deny ourselves of are directed to the summit of Calvary and importantly beyond. At Tabor, the Apostles were prepared not just for the passion and death of Christ, but also His resurrection. The exhortation of St Paul is couched in the language of a God who is faithful. Yes, we will fail and fall surely we will but take heart because throughout the whole history of human failure since the time of Abram, God Himself could have abandoned us but He did not. In fact, He will seal that covenant with Abraham with no less than the Blood of Christ His Son. The liturgy of the Eucharist, which is the covenant made real for us, is so real that the 2nd Reading speaks of it in a language which we resonate with, whereby the wretched bodies of those who eat of the Body and drink of the Blood of Christ will be transfigured into copies of His glorious Body.

So, we are still at the beginning of Lent and experience will bear us out, that during Lent, temptation will be even more acute. We would be tested even more. Why should it not be when our Lord Himself was tested for forty days? So, take heart. If Satan is near, God is nearer. Let us not take our eyes from the goal, which is to be transfigured into copies of His glorious Body.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

It has been remarked that Ireland leapt from the pre-modern era to the post-modern age without going through modernity. [1] The remark basically described the immense change that the Irish society underwent. A feature of this change was the increase of wealth. In the past, the main export of Ireland had been her people. There are 4 Provinces in Ireland—Leinster, Ulster, Connaught and Munster. The fifth province refers to the Irish Diaspora and we have benefited from their presence. For the first time, in those heady Celtic Tiger years, emigrant Irish people were returning home. The entry into the European Union has brought wealth of unimaginable proportion into the history of Ireland.

This is where we enter the world of our Gospel. We measure wealth or riches from an economic point of view. In the time of Jesus, being poor was not a measure of possession but rather a measure of one’s social position. Rich or poor were basically social terms. Today, possessions, riches or wealth do determine one’s social standing. But, during the time of Jesus, to be high in social standing, that is, to be rich or wealthy basically meant that a person had power to acquire possessions, meaning that one is rich because one can wrestle or obtain wealth from those who are powerless. There is a relationship between being rich and being poor, in other words, rich does not mean possession of wealth but in reality, it implies the ability to forcibly obtain it from the poor. This definition of "rich" is not unfamiliar to us. You experience this in the structure of our society as you would have noticed that those who are powerful, through pitiless plundering, determine the fate of those who are powerless.

In biblical times, the powerless are the orphans who have no adults to protect their rights and widows who have no sons to protect them from exploitation. Hence you find that the description of the poor always includes the widows and the orphans—the poor, the widows and the orphans. Thus, the categories “rich” and “poor” for Jesus may be understood by us as the “powerful who are greedy” and the “socially unfortunate who are defenceless”. From here, we enter into the Lunar New Year.

The Chinese or Lunar New Year is marked by this pre-occupation with wealth. “Fatt Choy” or “Fa Cai” is all about increasing wealth. May you be blessed with prosperity and wealth! You know, in those days, when we were poorer, but the Ringgit could still float above water, angpows were RM1.10. The numbers or amount cannot add up to an odd number and so RM1 was ruled out as inappropriate. Subsequently, it became RM2. Nowadays, angpows can be denominated as 118, 238, 328 or 888 because the recitation of the numbers all makes a reference to the Cantonese sounds for “to prosper”.

So, right smack in this focus on wealth and prosperity, the Beatitudes seem to be saying otherwise as it appears to bless those who have no wealth and condemns those who have. Note the difference between Luke’s Beatitudes and Matthew’s. Luke addresses the materially “poor” and not the “poor in spirit”. Matthew “spiritualises” poverty whereas Luke’s poor is more “earthy”, more concretely here and now. This subtle distinction gives the impression that Jesus condemned that wealth.

Here, in light of the Chinese New Year celebration and the Gospel demands of the Beatitudes, clarifications might be helpful. First, Jesus did not condemn wealth in itself. Wealth, riches or possessions are therefore good and are necessary for the generation of good. The wisdom of St Teresa Avila helps understand wealth as a good or a bonum. She said, “Money may be the devil’s excreta but it is certainly a good fertiliser”. Smart woman! Second, He did not glorify poverty. He did not approve of abject poverty or privation and neither did he give His blessing to starvation. Granted that Jesus neither condemns wealth nor glorifies poverty, we now enter the province of principles or morality. How do we to obtain and how do we use our wealth?

Firstly, in the manner of obtaining our wealth, there really is no need to talk about it. It is as simple as through honest means. It means that one must be just in the accumulation of wealth. This is where Liberation Theology’s concern kicks in because it addresses concretely the poor in our midst and how our structures in the accumulation of wealth are less than ideal—structures which are desperately in need of liberation but better still, in need of redemption. Secondly, it is in the use of wealth that we enter into the heart of today’s reading. Religious (eg: DSP, FMM, SJ) take the vow of poverty because they follow Christ poor. An explanation for vowing the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience and chastity is that they follow the pattern of Christ poor, humble and chaste. Thus, the renunciation of wealth and the condemnation of wealth are two different things. We follow Christ poor because His renunciation of wealth is His proclamation of His reliance on God. This is where wealth’s weakness is exposed. Often our over-dependence on wealth makes us less trusting in a God who will provide. Muslims believe that Allah has 100 names. Well, one of God’s other names is “providence”. If there is anything negative about wealth, riches or possession, it is this: they stifle our trust in God.

In conclusion, Christ’s renunciation of wealth is not a glorification of poverty. Instead, it is a proclamation that providence can be trusted. Wealth is good but it has a weakness, making us think that it is dependable. In truth, only God can be depended on. So, today as we celebrate Chinese New Year, let our wealth grow, let our riches multiply but more than that, let our dependence and reliance on God grow even greater and stronger. Let that be our constant prayer.
[1] A way to understand this leap can be generalised by how we approach knowledge. In the pre-modern era, knowledge is “certain” because it is backed by authorities and the main authority in Western Civilisation is the Church. In modernity, knowledge is ascertained through science. Scientific knowledge is basically the criterion for our knowing. And the authority that resided in the Church shifted to political structures as we experience the rise of national consciousness. Finally, in the post-modern age, there is great distrust of power and structures and so knowledge is not obtained by science alone but also includes perhaps revelation (which is pre-modern) and intuition etc.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


Haven't been posting homilies for the last two weeks. Sorry! Will be back again this weekend 14th Feb. God bless. A Jesuit.