Sunday, 25 April 2010

Good Shepherd Sunday Year C

From the media headlines, broadcast, electronic or print, one gets the impression that the Church is going to Hell. Do you believe this? If you do, then it follows that Christ will go to Hell too. Yes, from the looks of it, people can accept the idea that the Church will go to Hell but they balk at the idea of Christ going to Hell. [1] There is a divide between Christ and the Church. Good Shepherd Sunday, otherwise known as Vocation Sunday, may help us bridge this divide.

I begin by clarifying the statement made earlier. The Church will never go to Hell because She is forever the beautiful and faithful bride of Christ and Christ’s promise to Her is that He will be with Her until the end of time. The Exultet proclaims rightly on Easter Vigil that the Church is “radiant in the brightness of Her King”. Thus, She stands as the light to the nations.

The Church will never go to Hell BUT you may and I may. Each one of us stands a chance of going to Heaven as well as to Hell. The point is when we behave badly, we dim the light of Christ and we tarnish the beauty of the Church, our Mother. But, more than just bad behaviour, our sins disfigure Her.

You can sense that I am trying to establish the credential of the Church so that the proper question may be asked. If each one stands a chance of going to Heaven or to Hell, what is the deciding factor? The Gospel tells us that Christ, the Good Shepherd, is unlike the hired man. He will lay down His life for His sheep and He has. No sheep is ever lost by Christ who did not want to be lost. Therefore, if Christ is the Good Shepherd who is always ready to lay down His life for His sheep and if the Church is the faithful Bride of Christ, then, the deciding factor, according to the Gospel, boils down to whether or not we choose to listen to His voice and follow Him and stay with His Church. The last part of this statement is important because we tend to confuse people with the Church. To leave the Church because of priest or people is understandable but it is analogous to committing “spiritual suicide”. Christ through the Church continues to feed us with His Body and Blood. In short, Christ, through His Church, saves us.

What we face today seems unprecedented. Whilst leaving the Church is tantamount to committing spiritual suicide, some of us priests have “spiritually murdered” those who have been placed in and under our care. Through our actions—our sins—the voice of Christ through His Church is surely shaken and weakened. What can we learn from this and what ought we to do?

As a whole, the current scandals have opened our eyes to an important truth. The truth is not that we are sinful NOW as if we have just “discovered” sin. We are sinful and have always been. There is a lot to be ashamed of. But, if you let the initial feeling of embarrassment subside you will find that there is nothing of which we should be surprised with. History is a great illustrator. Through history, we learn that the Church survived Pope Alexander VI. He had many illegitimate children and he even put out hit-men on his enemies. If you want some perspective, our sins pale in comparison to his. Yet, the Church survived because of Christ’s fidelity to Her. This was proven by Napoleon’s threat to Cardinal Consalvi when he said, “I will destroy your Church”. And the Cardinal’s response was: “No you won’t. Not even we have succeeded in doing that”. He knows the strength of Christ’s promise.

Where does this knowledge bring us to? The Cardinal’s response touches each one of us personally. “Come on, give Christ and each other a break”. How? By committing fewer sins. Another way to describe this is to grow in holiness. History has shown us that whenever moral laxity creeps into the Church, soon scandals will follow. Immorality and scandal are two sides of a coin. The appropriate response to our current evil is a return to holiness. Holiness is the antidote to immorality and the cure for scandal. Our current situation is a clarion call to the Church to return to sanctity. The bridge between Christ and the Church is built upon holiness.

However, there is something more profound that we ought to ponder on. That the world is shocked by the scandals but is not as troubled by the general immorality shows how apathetic it has become. Black Eyed Peas chronicled that quite well: “What’s wrong with the world, mama? People livin' like they ain't got no mamas. I think the whole world’s addicted to the drama. Only attracted to things that'll bring you trauma”. The media’s attraction to the scandals may reveal a journalistic passion for truth as it exposes the hypocrisy of yet another untouchable institution. But, the relentless pursuit also exposes a deeper truth: a world in deep and self-consuming despair; a cynical world bent on proving to itself that nothing can be trusted. [2] It is a curse of the self-fulfilling prophecy. When we believe that we are unlovable we do all in our powers to prove that we are unlovable so much so that in the end we will say, “There you see. I am unlovable”. When we believe nothing can be trusted, then we will unconsciously search to destroy everything. [3]

In a world where being media-savvy is equated with wisdom, what should our response be? A priest warned me that I would get into trouble for speaking up. It seems that apologies are not enough. The Pope’s "sorry" was not good enough. [4] So, my response was this. Take a gun, shoot the Pope. Kill all the priests. Then ask this question: Are our problems solved? Would killing all priests make up for the lack that apologies do not supply? You know the answer. If killing is not an adequate solution, what is?

Let me make a little detour here. When the Pope issued the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum [in English—Of the Supreme Pontiff] motu proprio [of the Pope’s own accord] he approved the celebration of the Eucharist and most of the sacraments according to the liturgy prior to the reform of 1970. The Eucharist celebrated with the Missale Romanum is now called the Extraordinary Form. According to this form, the people and the priest face a common direction: the East or ad Orientem—the direction where Christ was to come again. Sometimes this is derogatorily spoken of as the priest celebrating the Eucharist with his backside turned to the people.

What has this to do with the scandals? A good question! “Ad Orientem” directs the focus of both the priest and the people to what we are doing and to whom we are praying. When the priest faces the people, it is possible that we begin to view him as a celebrity. He becomes a performer and with him, we are subtly drawn into a cult of personality. The cult of personality feeds on the "Gospel" of Nice and according to this Gospel, the priest is often reduced to his functions. He is nice because he can do this or that. He is nice because he is friendly and cool. But, much as I personally like it, this is not what the Church has in mind. If you think about it, if we glorify the cult of personality or celebrity, should not our lives be tainted with scandals? This should not surprise us because a celebrity becomes more famous because of scandals. The more sordid the life of the celebrity is, the more famous he or she becomes. So, let us enter further into another reflexion.

The scandal of the priesthood is not really the abuse scandal. It is far deeper than that. Here, I want to be clear that this is not an attempt to trivialise the injustice suffered or the pains inflicted. Neither am I advocating that we hush them up. The scandal is rather the claim that the priest is Alter Christus—another Christ. It is a scandal because in the face of what is happening, the Church still dares to claim Her priests to be such. Alter Christus is NOT friendly according to the model of the Gospel of Nice, which is what the world likes. Instead, Alter Christus means 3 things—first, the priest is servant of the Word. Therefore, he must stand ready to be mocked and laughed at like Christ was. Second, he is servant of the Sacraments. This means he is the servant of the sacred. He gives God’s holy people God's holy gifts—the 7 Sacraments; he is a channel of God's holiness. Thus, he is to be holy. Thirdly, he is servant of authority. The exercise of authority is a service. Current model of authority is to be at the top and lording it over others. But in Christ, authority is service as we witnessed on Maundy Thursday where he washed the feet of the 12 men.

Let me tell you a story of what an Alter Christus is like. This was told to me by another priest. It concerns Father A and it took place during Holy Week. Father A has been debilitated through stroke and as far as his liturgical functions go, he is pretty much useless. As there was a shortage of priests, Father A was sent to “supply” for a chapel. When the parish priest visited the chapel, he asked how Holy Week went, one of the parishioners said, "Thank you Father, thank you, for sending Father A. We saw Christ in him".

Ad Orientem and Alter Christus open our vision to another world. Perhaps you will begin to realise that the deeper scandal is that the Church, through useless men, dares to propose a vision of a world that is shot through with the presence of God. The scandals expose not only the sinfulness of priests but really a desperate world toying with the atheistic idea of whether or not there is such a thing as God; just like the Cross—a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles. The divide between the Church and Christ is really a divide between the profane and the sacred; a divide between this world and the next world. Alter Christus and ad Orientem are both pointers to the presence of God and that our worship and sacrifice are directed to Him.

The end result of a personality cult is that the priest becomes more “human” [more like us] so that we can identify with him instead of we becoming like “him”, who is more like Christ. Today, it is frightening to be a priest. But it is also a challenge. According to Fulton Sheen, even a dead body can float downstream. It is easy to be a Catholic when everything is well and good. What is more courageous is to stand against the current. To bridge the seeming divide between Christ and the Church, priests must become more like Christ. Thus, the model of the celebrity-priest based on the cult of personality must now give way to a priest whose life is nothing but a mirror of Christ—like Fr A was. A priest is “another Christ” teaching us to face God the Father. The more he is like Christ, the more human he becomes. Not the other way around.

[1] If you think about it, the Church might as well be in Hell. The whole furore surrounding the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom does not just reflect a prejudiced and illiberal attitude towards the Catholic Church. It could also mean an understanding there is nothing divine that can be discerned in the Church. Thus, liberation is not found in organised religion. Instead it is left to the individual’s faith to find the way to Heaven. Being in religion could endanger one’s soul.

[2] In a sense this is nothing new. It is the old heresy of Gnosticism born anew in a hermeneutics of suspicion. Gnosticism denies the possibility of the Incarnation. The Incarnation can never take place because “matter is evil”. If we accept this thesis, then the “Sacraments” are not possible because they are premised on the possibility of the Incarnation taking place. Thus, the Church as the Sacrament of Christ is not possible. The Church is the only institution that unabashedly claims to be divine. Is there anything divine at all in our sad world?

[3] This cannot be helped if you look at it. “Establishments” so necessary for the organisation of common life have consistently failed us—political and economic institutions, governments and the financial establishments—beginning with Enron, followed by Bear Stearn, Lehman Brothers and the likes. From these, it does not take much to extend this mindset to the Church. Of course, the Church does have her share of sinful men. The difference which the present mindset has with the Church is this: She is both divinely instituted and humanly constituted.

[4] It is not easy to draw the line between the demands of justice and the rage of revenge. When our “justice” is fuelled by revenge, no apology is ever enough.

Monday, 19 April 2010

3rd Sunday of Easter Year C

Today, the Gospel gives us a glimpse of Peter and his role in the early Church. What image of Peter do you think the Gospel is proposing to us?

Now, we know that the world is sorely in need of heroes. One of the principles that defines democracy is the principle of equality. According to this principle, everyone is equal before the law and everyone has equal access to power. I am not as interested in the definition as I am in how it is worked out. In a world that celebrates victimhood [1], this would mean that everyone also has access to “weakness”; and not just to power. As we wallow in weakness, we also search for models of weakness; models to be like us. Thus, the rise in scandals should not be a surprising revelation. The mushrooming revelations might seem like a world-wide crusade to expose the truth. But, could this crusade suggest that the search for “weakness” is also an attempt to excuse ourselves? There is a palpable sense that lawlessness is unbridled or uncontrollable in this country. We attribute this to a failure in enforcement. But what is closer to the truth is that it reflects the paucity or shortage of inspiring heroes. First, if “leaders” were weak, why should we then hold on to ideals? Second, the result of the current Church scandal has been people leaving the Church. If the co-called shepherds can behave like this, what hope do the folks in the pews have? Third, on a smaller scale, if parents behave like this, why should children behave otherwise?

More profound than an excuse, the glorification of weakness is also an evidence of our stunted search for eternity—there is a divine longing for eternity which is unfulfilled. When our ideal is bereft of the vision of eternal life, we begin to wallow in the mud of sins and more.

Now, as a digression, if there is anything that the quest for the historical Jesus can teach us, it is this: we look for a Jesus who is like us. Albert Schweitzer remarked that the many histories of Jesus tended to exhibit the biases of the historians—each historical version of Jesus was a reflexion of the personal ideals of the researching scholar. For example, in countries where there is socio-political injustice, it is common to read into Jesus the characteristics of a freedom fighter or a liberator.

So in our search for heroes, we have in a way invested on them weakness. Today’s Gospel is frequently read as the rehabilitation of Peter. In a sense, it is true for if we follow strictly the Gospel of John, then last week’s Gospel passage should be considered the end of the Gospel. But, today’s Gospel is taken from an additional part, an epilogue added to make Peter look good. We interpret the triple affirmation as a correction to the triple denial. We do this because we can deal better with a broken Peter. We like this interpretation because it resonates with who we are: “weak”.

But why do we do that? Why predilection or preference for weakness? Why do we like heroes who are weak? Well, the truth is that we are weak. Nowhere is this clearer than in the lives of saints for they acknowledge the first truth about themselves: that they are weak. Still the question remains: Why weakness? Just maybe, it is because we fear the resurrection. We do not think beyond this world. Or even if we did, we cannot really imagine it. Many of us take this position with regard to faith, to God and to heaven: everything to gain and nothing to lose. If there is a heaven, I gain. If there is not, I have not lost anything.

A “weak” Peter as an "excuse" may be the case that misery seeks company. His weakness allows us to accept our weakness. But, look at Peter in the 1st Reading: He rejoiced at being humiliated. Do we not have difficulty resonating with him in this instance? We can relate to a weak Peter because he is so much like us BUT, we do not think that we can stand with him and rejoice at suffering and being humiliated. If anything is characteristic of us, it is this: we shy from pain.

When we glorify weakness, we feel pain more acutely. Why? When we fear the resurrection, that is, if our vision of life does not stretch into eternity, then suffering is accentuated. It is true that life is contingent and our medical care is so much better and yet we seem to “suffer” more. Is it because we are unaccustomed to pain or we have grown soft? I wager that this is because we have lost the sense of eternity. When we do so, we naturally shy from pain. To shy from pain is symptomatic of a loss in the vision of heaven. Take a moment to think of our reaction to the pains of childbirth. We have traditionally explained the pains associated with childbirth as the punishment for sin but there is another way of looking at it. The pains of childbirth is an earthly glimpse into eternity. “A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world”. Pain is necessary to the birth of anything good.

In a weakened world, when our models fall short of the ideal, we will avoid pain at all cost. Thus, any link between this world and eternity must be severed. In the case of childbirth, epidural is the solution. But, we cannot stamp out the vestiges of the Garden of Eden from our memory. The addiction to adrenaline rushes is the memory’s mechanism to cope with this loss of the sense of eternity. For example: when a skydiver jettisons his body out of a plane, there suspended in the air, neither on earth nor in heaven, he catches a glimpse of eternity.

So, the three questions may not be corrections to Peter’s denial. Like I said, we are accustomed to reading weakness into Peter because it suits us better. But think of Peter as being set on course by Christ. Listen to the Gospel acclamation: Lord Jesus, explain the scriptures to us. Make our hearts burn within us as you talk to us”. Peter has been tasked with the specific mission of feeding the flock—to make our hearts burn within for Christ. And this mission has nothing to do with weakness. Even Christ’s advice to Peter can be read from the position of strength: “When you have overcome Satan, strengthen your brothers”. Why? Because "weak" Peter bears the strength of Christ. Even Peter’s impetuousness can be read not as a weakness but rather a sign of his passion. His impetuosity was indication that his “love” was bigger than his heart can contain.

Peter, despite all his faults, is the model of strength for us and in the light of the resurrection, this is the question each Christian must ask: Not “Is my heart weak enough to deserve God?” but “Is my heart big enough to contain God?”[2] The heart is enlarged by the vision of the resurrection, a vision that enables one to bear all sufferings, trials and tribulations for Christ. There is no such thing as Christianity 1.0 or Christianity for Dummies because with Christ there will always be pain and suffering. There is no "Christianity Made Easy" and certianly no "beta version" of Christianity to be tested before it can be "fully marketed". The "full version" of Christianity is the one released on 26th Dec. The memorial of St Stephen, protomartyr. Immediately after the "joys" of Christmas, we encounter the reality of a world hostile to Christianity. Therefore, no less than the resurrection is needed to enlarge our heart so that we can stand up and proclaim Christ just like Peter, [and Stephen] not with weakness or fear but with strength and courage.

[1] I am not referring to the victims of abuse nor am I downplaying the pain that victims feel. The reference is to the general sense that “we have been done to”.
[2] It is true that we are creatures, dependent on God. But, when we begin celebrate “weakness” or victimhood, we create a culture of sensitivities, dependence. There is no need to elaborate on this for we know what sort of “victims” we have in this country and certainly we know what sort of pernicious dependency this victimhood has created.

Monday, 12 April 2010

2nd Sunday of Easter Year C

Pentecost is familiarly described in the Acts of the Apostles. Today’s Gospel taken from John gives us another version of Pentecost. Christ, risen and triumphant, appeared to the Apostles showing them His wounds, giving them His peace, breathing upon them His Spirit and sending them on His mission to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

The sentence is mouthful, but, it really describes the beginning of the Church. And, guess what is also startlingly revealing? There, right at the inception of the Church, we encounter doubt.

When we speak of doubt, we often associate it with the lack of faith. But, doubt and faith are not mutually exclusive. For example: often the unspoken statement for “I don’t believe in God” is “I believe in something else, namely, the canon of science”. In a sense, doubt might be considered a form of belief; just not a belief in God. And, in terms of faith, doubt may be a prelude to belief as in the case of Thomas, doubt was his faith searching for foundation. Fortunately or unfortunately, the foundation which we know most and are comfortable with is science. The difficulty is that faith has a reason or foundation that is far deeper than science and this explains why faith and science are often thought of as incompatible.

Today we shall try to reconcile faith and doubt because Divine Mercy Sunday can help us address the doubt of Thomas.

First, shall we accept that the greatest threat to “belief” is not science, given that one has a deeper foundation than the other? Instead, the threat to faith comes from doubt of a certain kind and this form of doubt is related to science. How is that so? Science has afforded us greater control than ever before, over ourselves through medicine or psychology [1], and over nature through technologies or applied sciences. This self-actualisation, as a consequence of controlling or dominating our inner and physical world, has lulled us into a false sense of invincibility. [2] Furthermore, science gives the illusion that its propositions or claims can be proven systematically whereas the claims of religion cannot be proven and therefore must be relegated to the realm of private experience. The conclusion is, science is logical, and more dependable, whereas religion is not always so. Is it not true that much blood has been shed because of religion? And now, the Catholic priesthood is in the limelight for the wrong reason. As such, we are left with doubts that religion can adequately answer mankind’s search for meaning. In the absence of “wholeness” or “integrity”, dependable and logical science poses organised religion this challenging question: [3] If God is good, how can He allow bad things to happen? This doubt of a certain kind comes from our experiences and there are so many bad experiences. [4]

Perhaps, the doubt that many people have is not so much with the existence of God. Instead, their doubt resides at the level of logical contradiction. Our problem is not with God. Rather, our problem today is with what God purports to do or what God does not do. And often, the behaviour of religious people do not help.

Therefore, the Gospel is apt for the celebration of Divine Mercy as well as to confront doubt. Do you know why Christ, after He greeted the Apostles with peace, showed them His hands and His side? A clean or stylised crucifix does not tell the whole story. In fact, a sanitised cross may belong to a jaded memory. This may explain why Christ kept the marks of His wounds on His risen body. You would think that a risen body should be “perfect”. On the contrary, the wounds were necessary to help the Apostles remember or recognise Him.

Hence, if doubt is not really about the existence of God, you can say that doubt begins with forgetfulness. History tells us that the Church began to use the crucifix as a Christian symbol a few centuries later and not during the apostolic era. Maybe, just maybe, she began to turn to the crucifix because she was beginning to forget what the Lord and Saviour had done for her. When we sanitise our symbols, that is, our sacraments, and our liturgy, we begin to forget. Now, you may understand why some parents do not want to clean the room of their child who has been taken away in an untimely manner. They leave the room as it was because it helps them to remember better the departed child.

Doubt arises when we fail to remember or when we cannot remember. Is that not the case that in a relationship, after a period of inaction, we begin to ask, “Is it true”? When a relationship falls into disuse, we doubt the friendship. But, the doubt does not betray a lack of belief but is rather a symptom of a failing memory. Thus, the command by Christ that we have faithfully carried out for the last two thousand years is “Do this in memory of me”. We celebrate the Eucharist so that we can remember. In fact, as Pope Leo the Great said: What was visible in Christ has now passed into the Sacraments [5] and in the Gospel today, there were at least 2 Sacraments—Confirmation and Confession. Every sacrament is a memory of what Christ has done for us. This is why the use of matter—the outward sign or the ritual—for the celebration of the sacrament has to be generous. That was one of the reasons why we made the Elect enter the pool to douse them amply with the waters of baptism so that they can remember better their being washed clean of sins. Likewise, in the context of the copious use of “water, oil, incense, wine” etc, you begin to appreciate why “dressing up” is important. When a person goes for a date, the place is carefully chosen, make-up applied, expensive perfume is used, the appropriate dress is selected, Miu Miu handbag must match the Prada shoes. Why? It is in order that the date can be memorable. You prepare before an occasion so that you can remember long after the occasion has passed. Now you know why I take the trouble to make sure that the blessings with Holy Water cover everyone. Careful attention to our rituals is an aid to the remembrance of what God has done for us.

Our struggle is always with remembering [6]. Sin is a result of forgetfulness. Adam’s sin was not because He ate the apple but because He forgot God’s injunction to him. The Israelites were punished in the desert not because they murmured but because they forgot God’s goodness to them. They lost faith when they forgot God. [7]

Today, for Mercy Sunday, even though Christ has risen and is victorious, He comes to us with His wounded body to tell us: “Look at my hands and my side and remember that for you I have died. Doubt no longer”.


[1] Just check out the familiar soundtrack from a screaming chorus of “self-help” literature which is premised on a “build-your-own-reality” philosophy of life.
[2] In fact, the whole science of “youthfulness” is premised on the invincibility of the physical world. Our craving for youthfulness is emblematic of this quixotic mission to stave off death—to control our physical world.
[3] One of the things we all struggle with is “illogicality”. Science is logical. This is why computer works because they are programmed to do what is asked of them. They follow a certain logic that what goes in must come out. With Man what we encounter is often the perplexing behaviour of Man. We know something is wrong and yet we often do not follow our moral compass. The contrary is true. We know something to be morally wrong and yet do it.
[4] Actually science is not entirely free of the “illogicality” of emotion. In other words, science is not always “objective. For example, the reason scientists chose to study certain questions may come not from “logic” but rather “emotion”.
[5]Sermo 74, 2: PL 54,358
[6] For parents dealing with a child who is naughty and a child who is ungrateful (read = one who has forgotten), the “pain” inflicted seems to be more acute when coming from an ungrateful child.
[7]Faith does not guarantee that we will not be hurt. In fact, faith sometimes makes us feel even more acutely the pains of suffering—just like Christ did. However, what faith guarantees is that nothing, not even death can be the last word in the world; the resurrection of Christ is.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Easter Vigil Year C

I wish tonight could go on forever. You heard me right. A service of 2 or even 3 hours is just too short. But, the reality is that, like all Catholic services, one always keeps an eye on the clock. It is almost barmy to wish for a long service because people will grow restless. Perhaps “restlessness” is the key to understanding why tonight should be a long service. We celebrate the most solemn of Christian feasts. The larger than usual crowd is testimony that we instinctively know this to be so—that this is a solemnity like no other solemnity and that we have to be here somehow. Why?

The reason is a celebration that is out of this world—the resurrection. The gathering of the Elect is tied to the hope of the resurrection. In the Letter of St Paul to the Romans, we discern the strong connexion between baptism and the resurrection. “When we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in His death; in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Him and joined Him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life”. The basis for baptism is so that we can enjoy the resurrection.

The central proclamation of the Church is the hope of the resurrection. In the Acts of the Apostles, truly a class act, Peter’s preaching or kerygma forms the basis of the apostolic teaching that has come down to us—a kerygma that witnessed to the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

So, how can we appreciate the resurrection 2000 years later? Imagine the 3000-strong Pentecost crowd and as the Acts says, “they were cut to their hearts”. But that is not the end of the story because they asked Peter and the apostles what they must do; just like the Elect asking for baptism. I can imagine how it must have felt like to be there to hear the Apostles’ testimony of their experience of the resurrection of the Lord. The Apostles ate, joked, talked, walked, roughed it out in the open, and finally, after the resurrection, they touched the wounds on His hands and side.

In a sense, they were truly a privileged lot. Would it not be nice to be where they were? It would make what we have here pale in comparison. One almost wishes to be where they were and surely faith would be much easier.

But, is that true? This is plain wishful thinking, just like what we often hear people say: Seeing is believing; seeing makes believing easier. If only we were there, would not faith be easier? In a sense, it might be but being there is no guarantee of faith. If Jesus were to appear today, many of us would have difficulty believing Him to be He. Why? You see, in the matter of belief, probably there are broadly two categories of people. First, the gullible people we read about in the newspapers. For example, the people who believe that paper can turn into US dollars… Gullibility cannot be equated with belief. Believing everything is not necessarily faith. [And the gullibility level of our country has gone up because our education system has gone to hell].

If we are not gullible, then we belong to the second category of people. We believe that Christ will come again but if He were standing here telling us that He is really the Messiah, we would have difficulty believing Him. All you need is someone in the congregation who tells you, “I am the Son of God” and immediately your “cuckoo counter” will start blinking. So, in a sense it must have been harder for Peter and the Apostles. In fact, John 6 is best proof of that. If you want to be where Peter was, preaching to the 3000, you would have to be at John 6 because it had taken a lot for Peter and the Apostles to stay put and not slowly disappear like most of everyone.

So, in the matter of faith, seeing is not always a matter of believing. Instead, faith is an act we have to make, a bridge which only we can cross ourselves. Thus, the Elect tonight should know that for Peter and the Apostles, seeing Jesus was basically that. They know Jesus, they may have many first-hand experiences of Jesus but in the matter of faith, they too had to struggle to come to believe in Him.

Earlier on, I mentioned something about restlessness. We are restless not because the service is long. We are restless because we struggle with the resurrection. We are restless because we fear to live the resurrection. [1]

You see, the best time to celebrate the resurrection is during funerals. Almost every one of us, like Peter and the early Christians, struggles with the resurrection. The two disciples left Jerusalem for Emmaus because they felt let down. Many of us believe in the resurrection but when death assails a person we love, we behave as if this were the only life there is and there is no resurrection. Faith in the resurrection is a vision that can peer beyond the veil of death to see a life awaiting us beyond the here and now.

So, in the end, perhaps “seeing is believing" becomes true when we are able to bear fruit by the way we live our lives. It is when we live our belief in the resurrection that people will be drawn to follow us. The early Christians came to believe Peter and the Apostles because they sense the apostolic faith; believing must bear fruit for others. For so many of us, we need to bear the fruit of our belief so that others can see and sense that we are alive because of the resurrection.

Today we are baptising a small number of people. What a feeble number! Indeed, it is a testimony that our faith is not scintillating enough to draw people to Christ. The resurrection has given us meaning for the next life. But, it has also given us so much more to think about, about how we can make others come to believe in Christ and His resurrection. Elect soon to become Neophytes and all the baptised, we all have our duty all cut out!!

[1] If the resurrection is of another world, would we not want to be at any of the celebrations that allow us to catch a glimpse of the other world? A good indication of our fear of the resurrection is when we try to solve every problem we have in the world. A world fearful that the resurrection may not be true is one which will seek “certainty” in this world. Of course, younger people are more susceptible to this because they have been fed on the milk that brute strength itself is enough to shape the solution that we are seeking for. Those who live on the edge of life’s winter will perhaps have a more benign view that life is too short to be perfect and that perfection can only be found after the resurrection, as according to St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (3:21) where “He will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of His glorious body” and so aptly echoed in the Eucharistic Prayer III used for funeral: In baptism, he died with Christ: may he also share His resurrection, when Christ will raise our mortal bodies and make them like His own in glory… See brothers and sisters, because of the resurrection, divorce, death, disaster cannot be the final dissertations in this life…

Good Friday Year C

Modern mentality is allergic to the Cross. In fact, it takes a dim view of the Cross as evidenced by the reaction to Mel Gibson’s version of The Passion of the Christ. The accepted view is that our Catholic fascination with the Cross seems to border on masochism. Go to St Peter’s Church in Malacca and you find that for Good Friday, the corpus is replaced with a bloody and mutilated “body” of Christ.

In these days of make-over, God has not been left out. In fact, in some churches, the corpus on the Cross is now replaced with the corpus of the Risen Christ. The God of vengeance has given way to a God who is gentle, less forbidding and incapable of anger. This desire for a “cleaner” image of God reveals not so much our superficiality but rather our schizophrenia. Just for wanting to focus on a Christ bloody and crucified, we are judged to exhibit masochistic tendencies. But, who is to judge all the addictions—alcohol, adrenalin, drugs, food, gambling, and even womanising. The list is actually very long but the point I am making is this: we forget that all these addictions are forms of self-mutilation. Humanity is no less masochistic than the Catholic Church is.

Self-mutilation is part of who we are. In fact, sin is a form of self-mutilation. And this where the Catholic focus on the “suffering” of Christ makes sense.

Watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion and look beyond the so-called gratuitous violence. You begin to appreciate that those last moments of Christ’s life mean the world to salvation history. It is easy to be enthralled by the many wonders and miracles performed by Christ. They are proofs that God works mightily. But, often we forget that when Christ was not preaching, teaching or working miracles, He was saving the world.

In the midst of unspeakable anguish and pain, suspended between earth and heaven, Christ was painstakingly recreating the disfigured face of humanity. Hanging on the Cross, the Sinless One took upon Himself our “self-mutilations”—our sins in order that we might be healed. By His wounds we are healed and thus, the silence and powerlessness of the Christ on the Cross is far louder than any of our words and stronger than any of our actions.

Today, there will be a large crucifix set on the altar for our veneration. The main cross is covered and has been since the 5th Sunday of Lent. Being creatures of habit, we can get so used to the Cross as to take it for granted. But the crucifix on the altar unveiled and presented to us, draws our attention to how much of our self-mutilation Christ has to take upon Himself in order that we might be healed. Hence, the whole Passion Liturgy is punctuated by very uncomfortable silences to allow us to contemplate that the price of our many self-mutilations is no less than the death of the Son of God; the death of God Himself. Therefore, the suffering of Christ is not pointless because there on the hill of Calvary, our many sins at their worst meet God’s love at its best. The assurance of the mutilation of Christ is that no one present here is a lost sinner because the death of the Son of God has brought us life.

It is a day of solemnity! A day of remembrance! A day of penance!

Friday, 2 April 2010

Holy Thursday Year C

Our liturgy commemorates the first Eucharist. But, it is much more than a commemoration. Ever since that holy night, Christians have gathered faithfully to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The 2nd Reading, taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, is crystal clear about this. “This is what I received from the Lord, and in turn passed on to you”. The Church, through the sacred [1] ministry of Her priests, is where the Eucharist we have received from the Apostles is passed on. The Eucharist and the Priesthood were born on the same night!

However, the Gospel seems to go off-tangent because it remains quiet on the sacraments of Eucharist and also the Priesthood. There seems to be a silence in the Gospel because the Eucharist and Priesthood are wrapped in the towel which Christ uses to wash the feet of His disciples. The Gospel’s focus may be on service.

In a sense the focus on service is not so off-tangent because priesthood together with marriage are sacraments specifically directed to the service of the community—each according to its vocation—priesthood to serve the Church and marriage to serve the family. What is not so clear is the link between the Eucharist and service.

How is the Eucharist related to service? We take our cue from the great commandment which echoes both Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. Love your neighbour as yourself. In Christ, the Eucharist is His love for His Father and service is His love for His neighbour. Tonight, in the Washing of Feet, Christ teaches us that both the Eucharist and service are inseparable. The Gospel’s focus may be on service but it actually leads us back to the Eucharist.

The command to love God and neighbour is best lived through the Eucharist and service.

Firstly, the Eucharist without service often degenerates into a form of spiritual selfishness. It is like using God to legitimise who we are and it may even lead to self-righteousness. Take a look at the Carmelites or any of the cloistered religious orders. They live behind walls and seemingly have nothing to do with the outside world. What relevance is the Eucharist to them? The fruit of the Eucharist is selflessness as it draws a person out even to the sacrifice of his or her life. And that is precisely what the nuns or monks do—the life of prayer they lead is directed to others—they sacrifice themselves for the good of the Church. In that sense they mirror the Eucharist as the sacrifice of Christ’s life. Once we have this understanding of what the Eucharist means, it will lead us out of ourselves, our comfort zones, our securities to risk all for Christ. You see this in every saint of the Church. It was their love of the Eucharist that led them to all sorts of endeavours for the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, service without the Eucharist is humanistic activism. It is bound to fail because it will never be the kingdom of God. It might be a political or economical solution but it will never satisfy the spiritual need of people. There are many people of goodwill and they have great desires to serve. However, have you noticed that goodwill is just good for a while? When goodwill runs out, people usually end up fighting. Look at the current state of the opposition coalition—there was goodwill at the beginning but now infighting.

Service without God, at its worst, is like communism. But, if you look at the history of religious life, you will find that every religious congregation of the Church will have a sense of devotion to the Eucharist. The Congregation with a strong emphasis on service, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity leads the way in Eucharistic adoration. This link of service to the Eucharist is a reminder to those who serve that Christ alone saves the world and that we are merely instruments in His service. Otherwise, we would be tempted to think that we can save the world. Communism was humanity’s pride in thinking that it, not God, is humanity’s saviour.

The Washing of the Feet within the context of the Eucharist is a reminder that the Eucharist leads to service and service is strengthened by the Eucharist. It is natural that some of us want the benefits of the Eucharist without embracing its responsibility. But, Christ has shown that the Eucharist must come alive in us through our service of our neighbours. And some of us are convinced that goodwill is enough to sustain our service but we are shown by the examples of the saints that our service always brings us back to the Eucharist to beseech our Saviour for strength so that we give the best of ourselves. [2]

In conclusion, for Catholics, the Last Supper is by no means the last. Instead, it is perpetually the Lord’s Supper given for the love and service of the world and Christ Himself showed us the best example of loving service when, at the Eucharistic table, He also washed the feet of His disciples.

[1] The crowd is phenomenal and it could be an occasion to take a swipe at those who come only once in a while etc… but no, I shall not take that path. People are here for some reasons of their own. Sometimes people stay away from the Church because the Church has hurt them in the past. It is funny that no matter how much we try to “deny” the Church, somehow, we are connected to her. For example, people who do not want to be Catholics define themselves as ex-Catholic. In the face of the current crisis, and we read every day the same salacious and sordid exposé, let me comment on this. Earlier, I deliberately used the word “sacred” in reference to the ministry of the priests because our morality has become too “earthly”. Have you noticed that we judge the truth of a statement or even an institution based on the failure of those who are supposed to uphold it? As such morality has become “earthly” simply because we are now the gauge, rule or standard of what morality should be. We fear the use of the word “sacred” because of the failures of the members of the Church. But, do not judge the truth of Christ’s Church by the failure of Her priests and religious. Despite our failure as priests or religious, Christ’s Church is sacred or holy because She is forever the faithful Bride of Christ. And we lovingly call the Church our Holy Mother and for that reason, Her liturgical actions are considered sacred because they are actions of the Church done through fallible men. Therefore, in the face of seeming systemic failure, when everything seems hopeless, as these days do feel, instead of withdrawing, all the more we ought to turn to our Saviour to ask for His help rather than depend on our own strength. It is the right thing to do because our entire liturgy is centred on the proclamation that Christ is our Saviour. To whom do we go if not to Him? Further to the current imbroglio, perhaps we can better understand how we ought to proceed if we know where the world is coming from. The world's reaction is indicative of how sad the world has become. The world looks at itself and it does not like what it sees. Since salacious scandals are staples for the entertainment media, it should come as no surprise that the world is in such a sordid state. However, I suspect that the world actually does not like what it sees of itself. Thus, when the world looks at the Church it realises that some members of the Church are reflecting back its ugliness. Instead of saying, "we have a problem and we need to change", what has happened is the world re-channels the rage it has against itself to the Church. It is a form of self-hatred and also it is more convenient that the fault lies elsewhere. [Here I am not giving excuse for the wrongs of the members of the Church. We have a lot to answer for].
[2]Our cynicism with regard to failed governance can probably be explained by the fact that we believe that goodwill is enough to will the good. It is not enough and when goodwill fails to achieve what we have set out to do, we turn cynical. If you think about it, most "activists" are people of goodwill who desire to change the world. They are fired by a vision of a better world. And they set their hearts and minds on the goal of making the world a better place. Often they get burnt out and after years of service without any result, they become cynical. Is there not a saying that "Cynics are failed Idealists"? Whereas, the previous footnote highlights the need to turn to our Saviour for salvation. A corollary of trust in Christ who redeems is courage not to succumb to despair or cynicism. The failure of governance does not negate the need for it and therefore, instead of cynicism, we reaffirm our dependence on the Lord as we endeavour even more to engage civil society in the enterprise of justice, love and peace. This is how Christian hope can be lived.