Monday, 28 June 2010

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Recently, the British PM addressed the House of Commons, where he acknowledged, amongst other things, that British soldiers had fired on unarmed and fleeing civilians in Derry or Londonderry—depending on which side you take. He did this based on the outcome of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and consequently, on behalf of the British Government, he apologised to the families of the victims for the event that took place in 1972. Three days later, on the 18th of June, a headline in the New York Times read “In Bloody Sunday Apology, a Promise of Closure”.

Have you notice that the word “closure” frequently crops up from those who seek justice? It is a word which is important to us not just from a personal perspective. For example, the corporate world is constantly looking out for deals to close. It is possible that we have imported this corporate word into our everyday life as we look for closures in our lives. This Sunday, the Gospel may help us reflect further on this need of closures, their significance in our lives and their place in the theme for today: “The Lord we serve”.

First, the arresting line of today’s Gospel is “Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem”. And mind you, this is taken from Luke Chapter 9. We are not even halfway through the Gospel and we encounter a stiffening of Christ’s posture. Actually, I like another translation better: “He set His face for Jerusalem”. The imagery is evocative… Christ has a mission. He is not distracted by anything, not even righteous revenge on the Samaritans, as He is intent on accomplishing His mission.

Therefore, the severity of Christ’s responses to the man who wanted to bury his father and to the man who needed to say goodbye to his parents must be seen in this context. Setting His face for Jerusalem underlines the unconditional nature of discipleship: “Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”.

Here we may begin to ask what the connexion is between closures and discipleship.

In the second and third man’s responses to Christ’s invitation to follow Him, we find conditions attached to their responses. If you scrutinise them closely, these men’s conditions simply symbolised the closures they needed in their lives. They were not reluctant to follow Christ. In fact, they were eager to follow Christ but, they just needed to finish some tasks before they embarked on the next phase of their lives.

In many ways, we are like these men. We look for closures in our lives because they befit an enlightened existence. First, we do not just leave something half done and move on. Parents who have children changed their major halfway through know the exasperating cost of transferring. Those of us who have had to clean up after somebody know the annoyance and the irritation that comes with the unpleasant task. When a job is completed, there is a sense of accomplishment that opens up to new possibilities and new beginnings. Secondly, some of us carry the pains of unsaid goodbyes; especially of a loved one. Nothing rends the heart more than a death without proper goodbyes.

Thus, closures are important and necessary to our sanity—spiritual, psychological and also physical. The first reading actually attests to that as Elijah allowed Elisha to go home to kiss his father and mother goodbye.

The question for us is this: if closures were necessary to human existence, why did Christ not take note of them? In fact, his responses came across as cold and quite heartless. Now, if these responses sound alien and if they come across as harsh, it could be that they are upsetting the assumptions we have of life. We have somehow lost a vision of life—of eternal life to be exact--because an exaggerated preoccupation with closures may come from a vision of eternity that is impaired. Unfortunately, this is basically the vision of most people—who cannot see beyond temporal life. Two examples—reality TV and documentaries may illustrate the impaired vision of eternal life. Reality TV and documentaries are both entertaining as well as educational, didactical or informative. [1] But what reality TV and documentaries do is to take apart what might belong to the realm of the mysterious. We do not need to know everything in the private lives of people, least of all the salacious and sordid details of their sex lives nor do we need to know everything about nature. The human drive to know is divinely endowed but it is not an absolute drive. That was why God said to Adam: “Eat anything or everything except the fruit of this one tree”. And our Liturgy confirms this when it says, “And on that day, we will see You, God, as You are”. For now, we see murkily and so it is quite alright that we do not know everything because the need for certainty drives us to immediacy whereas mystery allows us to bear with what is beyond our control.

Because we are driven or enslaved by the phantom of immediacy and certainty, the lack of closure usually means people stop living. Those who have fallen in love with people who cannot return their love know how debilitating the feeling of unrequited love is. There is no closure when one is love-sick and one practically pines away for the unattainable. The same goes for those unable to forgive and are forever trapped in a life-sapping or enervating hurt. A lot of energy is used in trying to force a closure.

When our vision of life is purely temporal, the messiness and the uncertainties of life become added burdens. Now, even though it is good to say goodbye or to complete a task, we learn from the Gospel today that discipleship in Christ falls within the context of His Father’s eternal project. If you like, in the context of discipleship, Christ’s responses to these men were: move on. We move on because in the bigger vision of life eternal, everything, even the unfinished business, has a place. A present and incomplete picture is not always disastrous but rather it may be an imperfection waiting for completion. So, the messiness of life is not a final verdict. We must not let it detract us from giving what we have and all we have to Christ. That is the meaning of service. [2]

Christ invites us to follow Him. His discipleship is intense and often we do not feel up to the demands of the call; we feel that we do not measure up. As a result of this perceived failure to measure up and coupled with a temporal view of life, we will certainly feel the pressure to find closure in this life. It is as if we need to complete everything here in this life. Sometimes we find our closure by “perfecting” ourselves in order to give God a better present than we are. [3] But, St Paul says otherwise. As he tried to get rid of his so-called favourite sin, he came to the realisation that he had only Christ’s strength to rely on. With Christ’s grace, our strength grows out of our weakness. Therefore, when everything is not complete, and even when our lives find no closures, God can still do great things through us…

To serve the Lord, we need a better grasp of eternity but not only that. To serve Him better, we need a spirituality of the “Other” world because a temporal vision of life will only trap us in the closures of false perfection in this life. We ought to seek for closures but we need the wisdom to recognise that some closures are only possible in the next life and because of that, it is possible to serve the Lord despite our pains and sorrows. The other world of Christ our Lord allows us to put our hands to the plough of incompleteness and not look back. According to St Paul, we can run the race and finish it.
[1] I like the Jerry Springer Show. The hair-pulling histrionics and slapping antics make for great entertainment and titillation. What about emails? How many of us have received emails giving us details on how we can prevent our future stroke. We are being informed to death!
[2] You may begin to see that in serving the Lord, sin (the lack of closure) is not a good reason to stop serving. I guess this explains why divorced Catholics in an irregular relationship, meaning a divorced Catholic in a second marriage outside the Church, [in the old days, we called that living in sin] is still obliged to attend Mass on Sunday even if he or she cannot receive Holy Communion.

[3] It explains why people shy away from confessions. The usual excuse is “Why go for confessions when I am going to commit the same sins again”? The flipside of this question is an assumption that confession is meant to wipe the slate clean (therefore denoting a closure) so that the end result is a perfect gift of ourselves we present to God. It is no less than the pride of Babel in which we are really saying to God, “Let me be as perfect as You and only then will You be worthy of me”.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Corpus Christi Year C

When a non-Catholic married a Catholic about 50 years ago, the usual custom was for the non-Catholic to convert. But, after Vatican II, the rule sort of changed. It says that the non-Catholic party may choose to remain in his or her original religion simply because religion is a matter of conscience and for an adult, religion cannot be a matter of coercion. However, the Church lays stringent conditions that the Catholic party must not defect from the faith and all efforts must be made by the Catholic party to baptise and bring up the children as Catholics.

Why does the Church require this? As we celebrate Corpus Christi, it would be a good time to refresh our understanding of the reasons for this requirement.

First, we begin with a phenomenon known as “taking things personally”. A really good example is when we are excluded from a good friend’s party. We had expected an invitation and when we were not invited, we take it personally that we have been rejected. God is different. He takes things personally, but not in the sense that we sometimes do. God takes our sin personally because Christ who was sinless took upon Himself our afflictions. He bore our sufferings and healed our wounds.

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi invites us to know this God who takes things personally through the event of today’s Gospel. Luke tells us that Christ welcomed the crowd and performed the miracle of feeding 5000 and more. This is a “wow” type of miracle and in John’s Gospel, we are told that the crowd who had been fed by Christ came looking for more. Christ told them not to work for food that cannot last. Notice the change that took place in the synagogue at Capernaum, as the conversation took a turn from earthly food to eternal food. Christ told them that the food that He had provided would not stave their hunger forever. Earthly food cannot satisfy spiritual hunger. Hence, the only food that would stave off spiritual hunger would be the bread from heaven. And, Christ equated this bread of Heaven as His own flesh. To be exact: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world”.

Now you begin to see how God becomes personal with us. In Matthew 28, just before He ascended, Christ promised to be with us till the end of time. How? It cannot be that He makes this promise without any way of fulfilling it. Thus, through the Holy Spirit who acts in His Church, Christ becomes present to us. He does so in a manner by which we can recognise Him. The Creator communicates with the creature in a manner by which the creature is able to understand the Creator. Through the Eucharist, Christ communicates with us as He does two things: first, He fulfils His promise to be with us. Second, He provides us with the means to gain eternal life: "The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world".

When we celebrate the Eucharist, His flesh becomes available to us for eternal life. However, we may appreciate that He promised to be with us, but the challenge is that we might have a little more trouble understanding or appreciating the mode or manner of His presence. But, observe how Christ did not modify His language even when the crowd began to disperse. “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” And, as they left Him, one by one, He turned to Peter’s Eleven and asked: “What about you”? We know Peter’s answer for himself and the Eleven.

Corpus Christi, in which the highlight is the procession, allows us to recognise how incredibly Real Christ’s presence is in the Blessed Sacrament. His presence is as real as He walked 2000 years ago, albeit His reality is sacramental through the species of bread and wine.

As we live in a world whereby our conception of reality is measureable, we need proof in order to believe. This is also in line with the canon of science. This where our faith in Christ’s Presence is challenged. Not because there is no proof but with the Church Militant in such a disarray, no proof is enough. We ask if God was ever present at all and most of all, how can He be present in the Catholic Church? It is not uncommon for people to leave the Church because of what they see around them. Corpus Christi is a timely reminder that Christ has kept His promise to us and through the Eucharist, He strengthens our feeble faith as He urges us to make our faith the measure of the world instead of the contrary. It is the same faith that brings us to the requirement I spoke of earlier, of why children of a Catholic parent needs to be baptised.

First, baptism is the gateway to all the other six sacraments. It is the passport to receive the sacrament of eternal life. Second, at baptism we are incorporated into the Body of Christ—we become a member of the Body of Christ. As the saying goes—we become what we eat. Thus, the regular reception of Holy Communion allows us to become more and more authentically the Body of Christ.

Remember that we used to make the announcement before Holy Communion. Well, the reason was not because we wanted to exclude but to remind people that persistence in sin is not in consonant with the desire to be incorporated into the Body of Christ. For example: a divorcee in an irregular relationship is disallowed from receiving Communion not because we judge him or her to be bad. [1] Good or bad is a matter between the divorced person and God. Instead, what we are saying is that the action of remaining in the irregular relationship contradicts the desire to be a member of Christ’s body. [2]

From my observation, very humbly, I submit that some people do not realise the depth of what it means to be incorporated into the Body of Christ. It explains why there are parents who want to delay the baptism of their children under the guise of the freedom to choose. In the matter of schooling, you enrol your child into the best school. I know of parents who fake their home address in order to enrol in Catholic High School, currently the best school this side of town. In the matter of talents, as soon as you detect some musical inclination, you put your child through the discipline of music. In the matter of health, you rush to the hospital when a child is suspected of H1N1. All these done without giving a second thought about the child’s freedom to choose.

But, here is where the irony is. Communion is not just “holy” Communion. When you line up here to receive it, you signify your acceptance that firstly, the host is truly the Body of Christ [albeit in the form of bread] and secondly, the Communion you receive is the assurance of your eternal life. A parent who receives it but denies the child the baptism which gives it the same right to receive Communion at the proper age is not committing a sin, but living a contradiction which reveals a lack of understanding of what he or she is receiving. In short, a person does not really know what he or she is believing, let alone receiving.

I preach this homily not because of people who have made their choice. There are people who are in a difficult situation and I empathise with them. Instead, I preach this homily because we live in a small world and the chances of falling in love with a non-Catholic is far higher than with a Catholic. And in my line of duties, the baptism of children can be problematic. So, this is like a wake-up call to Catholics to think of this whilst dating and not wait until it becomes too late when all preparations have already been made and the solution lies in a compromise which is contradictory to the Catholic’s belief. The Church’s requirement for baptism of the child and the subsequent education of the child in the Christian faith is based on this precept that we try as best as we can not to live in contradiction. It cannot be that I believe it but only for myself but not for my child. Now you know why the Church’s mission cannot stop. We evangelise not because we are better than other religions. The truth is we often behave worse than many others. But, still, we cannot refrain from evangelising because we want to share the bread of eternal life with the world. Thus, it behoves that we live in a manner which makes us worthy recipients of this bread so so precious for eternal life.

Finally, remember the Chinese custom during the 7th lunar month. Paper money, paper effigy of cars, houses, or servants are burnt. But, no matter how rich a person is, NOT a single cent will follow him into the next life. Therefore, the only important thing is the assurance that we will have eternal life because the life we have today is a fraction of the eternal life God has promised us.
[1] In this sense, the announcement is not a personal “attack”. Instead, it is an invitation to reflect on one’s “actions”. Christ when He dealt with the woman caught committing adultery zeroed in on her actions rather than judge her personally. He merely told her to refrain from sinning again.
[2] The Church obliges her children to attend Mass on Sundays. She does not oblige them to receive Holy Communion. Thus, a divorcee, like any other person who because of an objective situation of not being able to receive Holy Communion, is still related to the Church. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in Reconciliation and Penance, the Church desires such couples to participate in the Church's life to the extent possible (and this means participation at Mass, Eucharistic adoration, devotions, etc).