Sunday, 28 November 2010

1st Sunday of Advent Year A

There is a financial crisis affecting some Eurozone countries. These economies are not willing to bite the bullet of trimming their budget, suffer the consequences of their past excesses so that they can arrive at a stable future. Instead, some have sought to bail their way out of their mess. In a certain way, these crises reveal an inability or unwillingness to live in the present; to bite the bullet.

Today the 2nd Reading speaks of the present. Much like the economic crisis, this present to which we are called to is not unrelated to the past and the future. The 1st Reading points toward that future where we will truly worship God our Lord and be guided by His ways; a future that will see us walking in the light of God. The Gospel recalls an ignorant past; a past tainted by the sin of unpreparedness.

Thus, the 1st Sunday of Advent sets the tone for the present. It invites us to wake from our hypnotic slumber. The word hypnos simply means "sleep" in Greek. But, in English, it has taken the sense of “induced trance”. To be hypnotised means to be under the spell of someone or something. In the 2nd Reading, St Paul, in his concern for the present, exhorts the community to awake from their “hypnosis”—their sleep. What was understood literally as sleep in St Paul may now be understood for us as hypnosis.

What do I mean by hypnosis? In the context of living in the present, both the past and future can have a hypnotic grip on us. Firstly, when we are hypnotised by the past, we are caught in it. For example, people who re-live their past hurts are often trapped in the past. How many times have you quarrelled with your spouse, your friend or your colleague and resort to bringing up the past? “You did this”. Whilst there is justification that for some whom the past continues to repeat itself, for example, a husband’s repeated infidelity, the fact remains that some of us are trapped by our past history of hurts and the inability to move beyond mistakes made.

Our focus is on the present. But what sort of present? Watch out also for the possibility of a hypnotic and enclosed present. This enclosed present which is not really “living” may be observed in a young child especially a boy playing his computer game. He is so engrossed that he often loses track of time, he forgets to eat and he does not have an inkling of what is taking place around him. Watch what happens at a wedding dinner where the adults interact and there are also children there. Instead of teaching the children to have a sense of what is around them, the child is encouraged to enter into this enclosed world of the Game-Boy, iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad. Usually the argument is that they are too young to understand and one day they will. And this leads me to the third hypnosis.

It concerns the future. In fact, some people live in the future or they simply fear the future. On the one hand, for those who live in the future, they are somewhat hypnotised by a “perfect” future to come. Do you know that 98% of the population in this country is waiting for the perfect moment to begin eating healthily? I like to eat unhealthy barbequed meat and usually the eating habit is like 'This will be my last piece’ and then when I have finished this last piece, I take another one and say, ‘this really will be the last’ until the whole 1kg is gone. For those who need to gain their optimal weight [I try not to say lose weight because we tend to look back for what we have lost], is not their usual excuse “Tomorrow I will start or stop”? "Tomorrow I will start to exercise". "Tomorrow I will stop smoking". Just like those children socialised into an enclosed present, that future often does not arrive. What about those who live in fear of the future? They are so crippled by the anxiety of an imperfect future that they unilaterally decide not to bring new life into such an uncertain future forgetting that Christ is and always the Saviour.

At Advent, we catch a glimpse of how the past, the present and the future all come together. The season of Advent is the liturgical expression of our understanding of eschatology—about the nature of the end time. How is the end time characterised? The end time is not a description of an end that is in the future. Instead, the end has already begun with the coming of Christ. There is a quote from the Letter to the Hebrews which reflects the coming together of time: “Iesus Christus heri et hodie ipse et in saecula”—Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus, when Christ our Lord is with us, the past, the present and the future flow into one, where the present is necessary and is the only place possible to straddle ours and God’s time. It is the only time we have to redeem our past and to prepare for the future envisaged by Isaiah in the 1st Reading. This means, the present, unlike Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, is never enclosed as if divorced from the past and distanced from the future. St Paul's exhortation to wake up challenges us to be open to the present; a present where we endure the painful purification of our past sins as well as prepare ourselves for the realisation of the future so beautifully described by Isaiah in the 1st Reading.

I received a cartoon e-mail which I cannot project onto the wall because it has a four-letter word. It showed two dinosaurs standing on a rock outcrop surrounded by water and pelted by rain and in the distance was Noah’s Ark sailing into the horizon. The dinosaur’s extinction was explained by a caption that they had missed the boat. They forgot it was today that the ark set sail!

Christ by coming 2000 years ago set in motion the beginning of the end time. Advent reminds us not to be trapped by a painful past, hypnotised by an enclosed present and fooled by an unrealised future as to miss the boat of Christ's salvation today. Today is the only day to board the Ark of Christ’s salvation, not yesterday and not tomorrow.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Solemnity of Christ the King Year C

This coming Tuesday we will commemorate Blessed Miguel Pro—a Jesuit priest—who lived at a time when the Mexican government was rabidly anti-Catholic and anti-clerical; an era considered by a writer to be “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth I of England”. He was executed publicly before a firing squad—a move by the government to shock the Catholics into submission but grossly miscalculated. At the time of his execution, with one hand clutching the rosary and another a crucifix,

he raised his arms in imitation of the Crucified Christ and as the shots rang out he shouted: “Viva Cristo Rey”. Long live Christ the King.

At the time of Fr Miguel’s death in 1927, the Solemnity of Christ the King had just been instituted two years before. But, the idea of proclaiming Christ as King was not new. For example, the Gospel today clearly referred to Him as the “King of the Jews” and the Second Reading spoke of His being the preeminent one. The novelty of the Solemnity lay in the fact that it was established as a response to the rising totalitarian tide of communism and fascism. Communism was entrenched in Russia and at about that time Benito Mussolini was emerging as a dictator in the Italian political scene. The encyclical Quas primas of Pius XI addressed the Kingship or the “kingliness” of Christ and its relevance for the individual Christian. Communism and fascism were premised on the principle that the government’s ideology was the sole reference for people’s lives. Thus, against the absolutist claims of totalitarian regimes, the encyclical reminded Christians that their ultimate allegiance was to God. [1]

We have been celebrating this Solemnity for 85 years and we speak of Christ as King almost without second thoughts. But, how do we conceive of Him as King? Today I would like to dwell on how our imaging of Christ as King has the power to inspire or not.

Last count, there were about 200 countries in the world with just a handful of them monarchies. Some of these monarchies are on the path to irrelevance. In the context of democratic equality, children cannot connect with the image of Christ the King. Let me give an example. This was a painting started by Hubert Van Eyck who died and so was completed by his brother, Jan.
Look at the painting and you would agree that it confirms the accepted convention that the image of Christ as King may not be that relevant.

In fact, if you take a closer look, He looks stern, remote and inaccessible.

He is like the “cannot-touch type” of royalty we read of today. We are familiar with this type of royalty, the type that yearns for our adulation but live in fear of our obsessive stalking. The idea of a remote or formal king does not resonate with us. What we want is one whom we can identify with, one who is like us; an approachable, compassionate and gentle king.

It is a very appealing image of a Laughing Christ.

The question is: Do we want an accessible king, someone who is approachable OR is our desire for a compassionate and gentle king a revelation to the world that gentle compassion is short in supply? The projection of an ideal we desire may just be a confirmation that the ideal is wanting. We, in yearning for a laughing Christ, reveal a world that is sad. This hunger for a loving king who is understanding and who reaches out to us reveals our feeling unwanted and unloved. Humanity is not at peace with itself and perhaps it explains why we find a stern image of Christ as King disturbing—convicting us even. At a time when we feel insecure with ourselves, the best image for our king is one who is non-threatening and non-intrusive.

After Vatican II, we removed all the communion railings, the tabernacle in some Churches was moved to the side, all in the name of making God more accessible or approachable forgetting that distance [inaccessibility, or remoteness] creates space for us to appreciate a reference point. Why do you think the institution of the royalty and celebrities attract us? We may think that the doing away with the institution of the royalty is a triumph of democracy but actually, the demise of the royalty corresponds to the rise of the cult of celebrity. [2] Their captivating spell lies in their inaccessibility—their remoteness. But, when they get too close, they lose the allure. [3] When they become common, they lose the power to inspire—for good or for bad. [4]

How many of you pray when you need God? You should not put your hands up for you might just embarrass yourself. The point is, when we do that—pray only when we need God—we prove the point I have been labouring on. When God is reduced to the familiar, when we demystify Him, He becomes forgettable; like the pair of pliers or the spanner we have in the tool-box. We do not care about them until we need them.

The image of a Laughing Christ is not bad in itself. It might even inspire. But, in the imaging of Christ, the distance is a reminder that He is the reference point and not we. A good way to understand the necessity of distance or remoteness is through the formula of the Council of Chalcedon: He is like us in all things but sin. When we forget the “but sin” part of the formulation, then we will become the reference point and not Him—we begin to fashion Him into our image and likeness. In short, when we want Christ to look gentle, soft and warm, then He will no longer be a challenge. When we are comfortable in our mediocrity—sin of any kind—then we will not relish any challenge. What then?

Various choirs for today’s Solemnity sang “Majesty” followed by “Hail Redeemer King Divine” for the entrance hymns. The wording and phrasing do not really mean much because by and large, our imaging has neutered and emasculated our King. He is one of us. Full stop. Period. Never mind that He is forever the sinless one.

A principle of iconography might help us understand how we depict Him does not have to fulfil our criteria of a nice, warm and “emo” King. Look at this icon.

The truth is I have deliberately chosen a “softer” and less stern-looking icon of Christ.

However, the compassion, the so-called gentle, nice and warm feeling you want to remind you that Christ is near—so much one like us—and not far is to be found in His eyes.

This next icon shows a remoteness in His face that is mitigated by the nearness of His compassionate eyes. The eyes are in fact riveting because they are windows into His world.

In conclusion, if we erase the distance, wipe away the blood and hide the painful suffering of the crucifixion and demythologise the divinity of Christ, we sanitise the image of our King to the point of an empty symbol. He serves a purpose to make us feel good in our otherwise miserable existence. But, Christ the King came down to be with us to inspire us to follow Him to heaven. He can only do that if in our imaging, we do not turn Him into nothing but an image of ourselves. Otherwise, Blessed Miguel Pro and the countless martyrs in our 2000-year history had died in vain. Only a Christ who is both near and mysterious has the power to inspire. Viva Cristo Rey!

[1] St Thomas More showed good example when he said, “I die the King’s good servant but God’s first”. He was faithful to his king to the best of his availability but when the King’s purpose went against God’s law, he chose God and paid the price of his conscience.
[2] If we think the monarchical system were slavery then we have exchanged one form of slavery for another. It explains why we are enamoured with the sordid details of socialites and celebrities’ lives
[3] Sometimes it is good that priests should not be too “human". Why? The reason is if they let slip a wrong word, especially a wrong word, the person hearing it will say, “If a priest can speak in such a manner so can I”.
[4] Closer at home, think of priestly or religious vocations. In times past, priests and religious were set apart. They were set apart not because they were holier or better but because they had been called by God to mirror as best as they could, a life that was to come. The reference point was God’s calling. We are set apart because of God’s call and not because of what we can achieve. Instead, a period has passed whereby priests and religious felt that the call was best expressed by becoming just like anyone with the end result: “Why do I want to embrace your life when you are trying so hard to live my life”. And we keep wondering why there are no vocations. Many of our Sisters congregations are dying because sisters try to look like lay people. The Brothers congregations suffer from an image problem—being neither here nor there. The worst part is their being measured in terms of "not a priest". But, priests are not really in a better position because they are pathetically “saved” by their function. Without their sacramental functions, they are as irrelevant as religious brothers and sisters are. Perhaps we are challenged in this age of "utility" where a person's worth is measured by how useful he is. In this age, especially religious priests, brothers and sisters need to rethink that their first calling might be to "who" they are in themselves--not so much to what they can do.