Monday, 17 May 2010

7th Sunday of Easter Year C

The 7th Sunday is a “waiting” Sunday. After the Ascension, we now wait for the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. What characterises this waiting? The 1st Reading gives us a clue and so too the Gospel.

The most striking feature of the 1st Reading is the description of Stephen’s death. His death bears a similarity to Christ’s death. What Christ went through Stephen did too. The Gospel on the other hand gives us a glimpse into Christ’s priestly prayer. First, He prays for Himself. Then, He prays for His disciples and today, He prays for you who have come to believe through the teaching of the Apostles. Christ prays for us that we may be united in our faith; a unity that reflects His unity with the Father and the Spirit.

Now the question to ask is what this “waiting” has to do with the martyrdom of Stephen and with unity that Christ prayed for?

Waiting is not easy. It means that we suspend everything in order to do nothing. And that is exhausting. A good example of this type of waiting can be borne out in marital relationship. An appointed 5 pm departure becomes a 6:15 pm exit. The 75 minutes is always a wait in anticipation if the spouse is to come out. Within this waiting, a person can grow restless and resentful. Those who are married and have to wait for a spouse to get ready for a function knows the cynical feeling of a promise not kept. Thus, an anticipated night of revelry begins with annoyance. When a person waits without certainty, his resolve is weakened.

But, in Christ, waiting is fruitful and faithful. The first mention of Stephen is on 26th of December. Immediately after the birth of Christ, the Church proposes a model for our reflexion. Faithfulness to Christ is fruitful in martyrdom, that is, in active witnessing. Today, we hear Stephen again… in the context of waiting for the Spirit to come, Stephen already stands up for the faith. But, mind you, martyrdom is not always about blood. But, it is always about witnessing to Christ.

Thus, waiting does not mean that we stop living. Unfortunately, for many of us, waiting means just that. A married couple stop looking at each other because they are busy looking after the children. They have stopped living as a couple because they are waiting for the children to grow up. They think that they can resume their couple-ship after the children are grown. Many have discovered too late that when the nest is empty, when their common interests have flown the coop, they have nothing in common anymore.

It is the same way we can look at serving the Church. Young people often think of a time when they will be able to serve God. In general, if you do not start now, you may never start in the future. I know of a lady who started serving this parish at 34 and is still serving the parish. And there are many who have made their commitment young are still doing so. Although an important caveat needs to be highlighted that one must not neglect one’s duties as spouse or parent. It is a tough balance but the point is that important things often are done during the time when we wait for something else to happen. One does not become a saint at one’s death. If one is not a saint now, one will never be a saint after one’s death. Stephen did not wait for martyrdom to come. As he lived Christ fully, martyrdom came to him.

Here, we begin to discern an important criterion for our Christian living. The martyrdom of St Stephen whilst waiting for Pentecost may be read in the context of our larger and longer life as we wait to enter heaven. There is really “no waiting”—you cannot wait for a right time to be good, honest, patient or kind. Therefore, you cannot wait for a day to stop drinking (if you are an alcoholic) or stop gambling (if you are a gambler) etc. Of course, you may try and you fail but that is another matter altogether.

So, in this period of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, we must wait as if the Holy Spirit is already with us. He is the Spirit of truth and unity as we heard Christ prayed. This prayer is even more striking if you consider that Christianity is to be a reflexion of the unity that exists between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Yet, we are divided and are still dividing. We know how far we are from that reality but again here waiting for unity may be in vain because that unity of Christ does not come at the end. It must begin now especially when we begin to make right our personal lives. There is a unity (that is, a one-ness) when one’s conscience is at home with Christ’s will and His teaching expressed through the Church. Furthermore, the unity of the Church is not up there but really down here because “up there” is but a reflexion of the unity at home and at our local Christian community. You know how it can be like when we disagree. The surat layang (poison pen letters) we receive are testimonies of how vicious we can become at the local level. Ecumenism, if it is to succeed, must begin at home and at our local Church.

Today we celebrate Communications Sunday and according to the Pope, all media must be directed to unity and truth. In that, let there be a resolve to communicate better with one another so that as witnesses, we may spur each other on to victory. This is what we owe each other—an expression of the love Christ has called us to.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

6th Sunday of Easter Year C

This Sunday we continue to reflect on the topic of love. This love is not airy-fairy because set within this reflexion is the controversy surrounding the early Church where we witness a concrete instance of Apostolic intervention. What can we learn from it?

In the Gospel, Jesus in His final discourse with the Disciples gave them a defining mandate. To love Him was to keep His word and to obey it. How to keep His word and to obey it would soon be tested as we hear in the first reading. There, in the Antiochene community, [1] the issue centred on whether or not the Laws and traditions of Moses came within the scope of keeping and obeying Christ’s word. In short, does keeping the Word of Christ or loving Him extend to the Laws and traditions of Moses?

Here, let us take a step back. There is a close connexion between love and commandments or laws which we do not always appreciate. In fact, not sure if you have noticed that Christ issued the “command” to love. If He gave to His disciples the law of love, then, the question is why, on our part, is there a lack of appreciation of this link between love and law? The poor appreciation may be due to an understanding of love, which to the mind of the community of Antioch, is quite incomprehensible. How so? Let me clarify. First, a parody, a mockery or extreme caricature of our understanding of love is that which is defined by the “Flower Power People”—the people of the “If you are going to San Francisco” tune [2]. This type of love disdains boundary. Love should be unhindered; free from the shackles of any constraints. Furthermore, this understanding of love sees a gap between the intent and the expression. It was salutary [helpful] that the Flower Power People tried to turn love on its head drawing our attention to a certain form of love which was “Pharisaical” in its expression. What I mean was that the Flower Power People did not like the hypocrisy of one’s words not matching one’s actions. Young people—the generation we called post-modern—are especially sensitive to this and rightly so

But, this is where a disconnexion begins to take place. The Flower Power People came to believe that all rules or regulations were hypocritical. Somehow, written into their code for interpreting the world was suspicion. Rules and regulations necessarily belong with the “Establishment” be it the government, the Church, a parent, any powers that be and an institution. Anything that wields power or authority is perceived as incapable of being true to itself. It had not helped that governments, organised religions or institutions have been untrustworthy. Nothing could be trusted. Hence, there was a withdrawal from the public sphere into private space and as such, a greater insistence that the interior was more important than the exterior. You can see that it did not take much to jump to the next stage: God cares about what is inside and not what is outside. Laws were just man-made.

Let me just say that the Antiochene community will have a tough time understanding this divide between what is “exterior” and “interior”. For them, the external obedience to the Laws and traditions of Moses was nothing but an expression of their internal love for Christ.

Jump back to the present! The Flower Power People may have faded from the fashion scene but their mindset has remained with us. How? They were allergic to rituals because rituals [a form of law], apart from it being empty and hypocritical, also kill spontaneity. And so, we who consider ourselves liberated from the oppression of unnecessary rituals may find their quarrels about Laws and the traditions of Moses vacuous or petty. But, the early Christians were fighting for the most appropriate expression of their love for Christ. The intensity of their conflict was a reflexion of their desire to make the love even more genuine and real. For them this was the question: How else to love Christ if not by keeping His commandments?

I remember this terrifying theology teacher (not terrific but terrifying because the students are terrorised by and were terrified of him; a Jesuit by the way) who said: “There is no such thing as love which is unbounded. Each time you say you love, you concretise it and it becomes limited. Thus, you love by not abusing your spouse. You love by not shouting at your mother even though she keeps asking you the same question, again and again. You cannot say that you love if you do not make the attempt to express that love for whenever you love, you bind yourself in some way or another”. Thus, the Flower Power People whose idea of love was being unencumbered was really aiming for nothing. [3] You cannot go around saying, “I love”.

Thus, the Antiochene conflict challenges us in our understanding of how love is related to “laws”. For many of us, laws are too rigid to express love. [4] But for the early Christians, laws were the very expressions of love because Christ made the connexion between loving Him and obedience to His commandments.

The idea that love and commandments are mutually exclusive is misguided and so too, the notion of love as merely spontaneous is glamorous but empty. When we love, we must have laws, rules or restrictions to regulate our love. "Love is not everything or anything can do". For example, in Greek, a person who loves children is a paedophile just like a person who loves books is a bibliophile. But we cringe at the words paedophile or paedophilia. What are they but expressions of love gone wrong? There are lines we do not cross even when we love. So, to those who are preparing for marriage, there are lines couples do not cross until after marriage.

Love is not as free and as easy as a 4-day, 3-night tour of Bali. Love means keeping Christ’s commandment and it is not easy. There is a perceived or felt chasm or lapse between the Pope or the Bishops (the shepherds and teachers of the Church) and the laity because it seems that the official Church is so out of touch in Her teaching and lately so sinful in Her shepherds. Guess what? Co-incidentally, it is Mother’s Day. The Church is but our Mother. And in the light of the current crisis, we need to make a distinction between infallibility and impeccability. For many cannot see the difference and thus are despaired by the “peccability” of Christians. Christ promised infallibility to His Church. He did not promise impeccability. It means that He promised that the Church will be infallible in Her teachings but He did not promise that the conduct of Her children (in particular Her shepherds) would be blameless. It is here that the unpopular needs to be said: There are some teachings I may not agree with but I will obey and let my conscience catch up with the infallible teachings of the Church. But, my conscience may not catch up in this lifetime and yet I am not worried. Why? Because the commandment by Christ to love is ALSO lived as the love of Christ’s commandments as expressed in Church teaching. This is the only infallibility She has been promised and is sustained by none other than the Holy Spirit. Only then will we begin to appreciate this statement: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves” because the intervention by Peter is the foundation and the beginning of the Apostolic teaching of the Church.

If we can learn anything this Sunday, it is this: the controversy surrounding the early Church and the Apostolic intervention ground us in the love of Christ and the love for His Church because She is the only Mother Christ has given to us.
FOOTNOTES: [1] Antioch is located near Antakya, Turkey and is known as the cradle of Gentile Christianity. It was here that the followers of Jesus were called Christians.
[2] If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…
[3] One can say that the Flower Power People are children of “individualism”. But, individualism is not exactly “selfishness” as we often think it is. An “individual” is one who must stand “against” others in order to establish his or her own identity.
[4] Garden weddings are a perfect example of this perceived rigidity. Some couples who are preparing for marriage cannot understand why the Church does not allow for “garden weddings” and the comments have been “Why is the Church so rigid”?

Monday, 3 May 2010

5th Sunday of Easter Year C

There must be times when being who we are is really an embarrassment or a nuisance. For example, after 11th Sept, travelling for a male Indian Malaysian became a nuisance if one had the shortened form of “anak lelaki” [the a/l, translated son/of] in one’s passport.

Likewise, these days, it is more an embarrassment than a nuisance to be a Catholic. The Gospel today preaches the new commandment to love that Jesus gave to His disciples. What should characterise a Christian is love. But, this new commandment to love can be an inconvenience and a nuisance because it can be used as a weapon against Christianity. “Aren’t you a Christian? Aren’t you supposed to love”? Of course, priests must get a special mention because they are supposed to be “holy examples of Jesus’ love”. Once, a parishioner who was denied an impossible request said, “I pray for you because you are not a loving priest”. Believe you me that we get this all the time, but, the point I am making is not so much what priests get but rather to highlight the expectation that comes with the Christian commandment to love. What does it mean to say that a Christian is to love?

If you think about it, the truth remains that we [priest and people] have constantly fail to live the commandment to love. Therefore, the earlier parishioner’s accusation was not entirely unfair. The tapestry of our record as a people of God is “soaked also” with blood not from what people do to us but what we do to each other as Christians: The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in France where Catholics slaughtered the Huguenots, the conflict between the Orangemen and the Catholics in the North of Ireland, the monks in Bethlehem fighting over how to clean the birthplace of Christ and etc. The words “soaked also” refer to more than martyrs’ blood because Christians have killed each other in the name of Christ, etc. Clearly, we have not lived up to the commandment to love.

In order to avoid the “embarrassment” of failure we ask ourselves what Christian love should be like. What form should it take?

First, we need to get away from a romantic notion of love. Let me clarify what I mean by this. By this I do not mean getting away from romantic love. Let me give an example of romantic love as expressed through contemporary music: “If loving you is wrong, then I don’t want to be right”. Are you ready to vomit now? You remember the first Transformers movie, Shia La Boeuf said in response to his teacher giving him a solid B+? “What would Jesus do”? This notion of love which is touchy-feely is prevalent and is certainly in need of purification. But, this is not my concern now. What I want to get away from is the nostalgic but naïve notion that the early Church was an example of perfect love as if everything then was hunky-dory.

In the Letter to the Corinthians, Paul spoke of love. This passage remains a favourite amongst people getting married. But, what was the context of Paul’s letter to that community? The community was fighting and roughly they could be divided into different factions. Each faction had its own agenda and each one convinced that it had the right interpretation of how Christianity should be lived. Note that a large faction was probably made up of the “usual man or woman in the pew” not interested in taking sides in the conflict. Unfortunately, it is usually the man or woman in the pew who suffers when interested parties fight. Anyway, in this struggle about who was right or wrong, Paul told the warring factions that they were right and they were wrong. When a Corinthian faction believed that its experience was the ultimate truth, it did not take long before love left it. When we are adamant that our experience is the only one, then the avenue for love narrows. In conclusion, if a man were utterly convinced that he has the monopoly of the truth, soon his life will empty of love and self-righteousness will also creep in.

Paul’s description of love helps us to understand how we can love in spite of and despite our disagreement. Today’s first reading is taken from Acts 14 but in the next chapter of Acts 15, we find that Paul and Barnabas themselves disagreeing. But, even though they went their separate ways, they were united in one thing: their love for Christ and their willingness to lay down their lives for Christ and for their brothers and sisters.

So, if we can get away from the nostalgic and naïve notion of “perfect” expression of love in the early Christian community, then we can perhaps understand what true love requires. This is relevant to us because disagreements of the kind between Paul and Barnabas are often reflected at home, in Parish Groups and BECs.

Earlier I asked the question what Christian loving should be like. St Augustine gives this wise counsel: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus autem caritas. [In things essential, unity. In things inessential, diversity. But in all things, charity.] Caritas is Latin for love. Just like for Paul and Barnabas. They clearly differed in their approaches to the ministry but both were united in their love for Christ and for His teachings. Today, more than anything, there is a great need for charity because the question about what is essential and inessential has been reduced, at best to a matter of interpretation or at worst, it is a reflexion of preference.

For example, is Latin essential to our worship? Or it is a preference? The Latin-rite Church believes it to be essential but many of us who are comfortable with the vernacular languages believe it to be a preference. Have I opened a can of worms? I may have but what I am highlighting is that the loss of the sense of a shared world has rendered many discussions about what is essential or inessential almost impossible. Now you can appreciate how much more charity or love is needed in our world. This love which is the mark of a Christian in the context of a broken world requires a lifetime to practise it.

To help us, let me return to the nostalgic and naïve notion of love in the early Christian community. How to reconcile the failure of the community with Christ’s command? The Preface for Virgins and Religious is instructive. “What love you show us as you recall mankind to its first innocence and invite us to taste on earth the gifts of the world to come”. If you follow the principle of “Lex orandi lex credendi, the prayer points us in a certain direction—religious life is a taste of the perfection of the kingdom to come. Religious life is where you encounter what true love is like. But, guess what? Most ironically, if you want to experience the absence of love, go to a religious house. Live religious life and I guarantee you will blush at how absent love can be in religious life. Hence, what is the purpose of the preface? It points, despite the very failure of real religious, to something far greater that we can imagine. It points to a life more real than the one we have. This vision allows for the possibility that what cannot be fulfilled in this life can find its fulfilment in the next. Thus, we live with hope. When Christians fail, it does not mean Christianity is a failure. Instead, it just means you have to wait a bit longer. Or maybe even never. Yet, it is not entirely hopeless. Thus, at the sign of peace, when people do not respond to your gesture of peace, it is not the end of the world.

If you have noticed I have not given a prescription of the commandment: this, this and this. Rather, conscious that one does not have the monopoly of truth, I have attempted to give a feeble description of what love may be like. It is an attitude, a state of the mind and a posture of the heart. A way to check if we are living Christ’s commandment is this: If what we receive does not commensurate with what we have given out, then we are entering the territory of His love. Is it not true that for many of us, love is quite self-serving? I love you only because you can love me.

Thus, love is not meant to be convenient. It can be a nuisance and certainly daring to love can be an embarrassment. But, the commandment Christ gave is clear. Love one another; just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. And the ultimate example of love is hung on the Cross reminding us that Christian love is always sacrificial in nature. When you love you have to give and sometimes the only sacrifice you can make is with your life. This is Christian love. So, remember this when you love.