Monday, 27 December 2010

Holy Family Year A

This homily, I would like to take my cue from the Mass of the Day for Christmas. [1] At this particular Mass, the Gospel of John takes us beyond the human origin of Christ, as he unveils the curtain that allows us to catch a glimpse of Christ’s Divine origin. Rightfully, the symbol of John’s Gospel is eagle because the Gospel soars into the celestial mysteries of God’s wisdom.

There is a continuation of the unveiling of the mystery of who Christ is as Matthew’s Gospel shapes our celebration for the Feast of the Holy Family. His symbol is that of a winged man—indicating Matthew’s interest in providing us with a theological insight into the Man named Jesus. For Matthew, the Christ is to be the new Moses and in the circumstances surrounding the Flight into Egypt and His return, you catch many parallelisms between the lives of Moses and Jesus.

First, Moses was rescued from the wicked Pharoah and Jesus from Herod’s blood-thirsty sword. Pharoah’s massacre of the Hebrew first-born is re-enacted in Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents. In the Exodus, Moses led the people out and now, the return from Egypt signalled the rise of the New Moses: Jesus Christ. Later parallelism will include His forty days in the wilderness as mirroring the Israelites wandering forty years in the desert.

What appears to be a straightforward account of a family’s harrowing refugee experience is actually a theological disclosure of Christ’s true identiy. This is Matthew telling his Jewish readers not to make any mistake about Jesus Christ. The Gospel ends with the return of the exiled family to Nazareth, a village whose name rhymes with being set apart. This new Moses, the one set apart, is the Holy One, the Son of God who has come to save His people.

What has this hifalutin theological unveiling do with us all?

It may be “high” theology but it is certainly earth-bound. From Christmas Vigil till yesterday’s Dawn Mass, we heard all there was to hear of their unfortunate circumstances. And this is where the Holy Family’s life intersect with ours. They may be the Holy Family and certainly they may have the Son of God in the family, what is clear is that they did not have it easy.

Perhaps it is better to say that they never had the entitlement attitude. What does it mean that one has an entitlement attitude? It is like, “I am of this skin colour therefore I am entitled to scholarship, to buy houses at a discount or to take loans that I do not need to repay etc” or if you do not have the correct skin colour, “I am of this rank, therefore I am entitled to better service etc”… For many of us with means, it is easy to slip into entitling this or that.

But, if you protest that you are not like that, then perhaps this might make sense. I pray, therefore I am entitled to God hearing my prayers. I try to be good, I lead a good life, I try not to sin, therefore I am entitled to a trouble-free life. Better still, “I don’t deserve this”. And this has been my experience. There are times when I get really not nice parishioners and during those times I would complain, “I am already working so hard, I am stressed out and I am serving God, I don’t deserve this”. The truth is, I am not special!! As someone would day, “Don’t flatter yourself”.

So, let us enter into a “perhaps” consideration. You see, we have this wonderful myth which associates the Son of God with cleverness or intelligence etc. The 12-year old in the Temple having a discussion with teachers surely lends us this idea that this was a clever child and after the incident of being lost and found in the temple, the Gospel of Luke also tells us that the boy grew in wisdom, stature and knowledge. A smooth transition, you would say.

But, many clever children are often hyperactive and close to unmanageable. In those days they called it precocious. Today we term it as ADHD [attention deficit, hyperactivitiy disorder]. And so, on top of having to undergo the arduous journey for a census taking, heavily pregnant and giving birth in a stable and then fleeing down to Egypt and most probably staying in the poorer part of the immigrant’s shanty, both Joseph and Mary may also be dealing with this super child or “special child” whose categories are not always normal. Some of us who feel it really bad that life has not given us any break should turn to Joseph and Mary because this “perhaps” consideration does bring them closer to earth, to where we are.

It is a funny thing that we seek sympathy but we seem to shy away from what we have. For example, clever priests have often asked what significance the Holy Family has for us today: Mary was virgin, Joseph was a celibate and the boy was divine. What do they know of life’s struggles? Well, surely, they know our sufferings and feel our sorrows. Both Mary and Joseph may be descended from royal lineage and with the Son of God on their side, one would naturally expect some slack cut but God has not spared them. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier about “I do not deserve it” attitude, well, there is no assurance that the good will not suffer. In fact, the “goodest” of us all, if there is such a word, the Son of God suffered grieviously at hands of wicked men. God did not think to spare the most exalted one: His Son.

So, if you think that God is absent because your life “sucks” or it seems to be this never-ending ride of misfortunes, then perhaps a relook at the Holy Family might disabuse you of this notion. God is even closer when you feel His absence. They are called “holy” not because they are better than us; certainly not because they are one class higher than us. They are holy because they never allowed any misfortune to come between them and their faith in God.
[1] There are four Masses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 1st Mass—Christmas Vigil, we get acquainted with the human origin of Christ. 2nd Mass—Christmas Midnight, we experience the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ. 3rd Mass—Mass at Dawn can be said to be a sort of Epiphany because of the visit by the Magi and finally, 4th Mass—Mass of the Day which takes us into the Divine origin of Christ.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Vigil Year A

English is a dynamically inclusive language. Wikileaks has already entered the language. Another coinage in the language is flash mob. I have seen the phenomenon before and you may have too, but I never knew it was called flash mob. It simply means a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place to perform an unusual act for a brief period of time and then the crowd dissipates as if nothing happened.

There is this YouTube of a flash mob that has been going around since 13th Nov 2010. In it, a group of people began singing, in a crowded food court, a part of the Handel’s Messiah that we are familiar with. What caught my attention was the line “King of kings” that this group thunderously acclaimed. This evening and tomorrow, we will have four different Masses with different sets of readings. The emphases may be different but a common theme running through them is that we are celebrating the solemn birth of the King of kings.

We launch it by wading into a genealogy resembling a credit background check on Christ whose ancestry stretches as far back as Abraham making note that the character composition of Christ’s ancestry embraces a spectrum as diverse as the human race. What does this teach us?

If the Son of God could come from such a background, royal but with a lineage stained with scandals, it shows that no human condition is excluded from salvation. No one is so condemned that he cannot be saved. The only thing that stand between us and Christ’s salvation is us. We provide the obstacle to our salvation. The truth is the whole of creation is groaning for the salvation which only Christ can give, as echoed by the first reading: “Like a young man marrying a virgin, so will the one who built you wed you, and as the bridegroom rejoices in his bridge, so will your God rejoice in you”.

No part of human history is excluded from the saving presence of Christ the new-born King. The 2nd Reading tells us that God will raise up for Israel one of David’s descendants, Jesus, as Saviour. In unfolding before us the whole tapestry of Christ’s ancestry, Holy Mother Church invites to open ourselves to Him whose saving love embraces even what we dare not or are too embarrass to embrace.

But guess what? We are quite like a flash mob. There is a crowd here which is larger than the usual—a condition ripe for a flash mob. Do not worry though. There will be no sudden singing by the choir. However, this is where I think that the genealogy may just help expand our vision a little bit more. Whilst it is true that the genealogy invites us to come with our human weakness, it also challenges us to a vision beyond what is merely personal like my weaknesses, my history, my ancestry and etc. Like the flash mob, the liturgy prepares us to enter into the proclamation of salvation. Christ is born and He is the King of kings. Perhaps it is time to re-examine the motive for coming to Mass at Christmas.

Recently, there was an inter-religious gathering—the subject matter discussed was about universal values applicable to all religions. At the end of the so-called dialogue session, a defensive and to-be-expected statement was made by one of the religionists who said that his religion does not consider the other religions as equal.

I am not interested in entering into a debate about which religion is the greatest but it does turn the spotlight to us in a way which challenges us.

There is a tension which both our Easter and Christmas liturgies reveal. The crowd is larger than usual. It means that people have stayed away from Church. And yet, there is an instinctive sense that both Easter and Christmas mean something enough to attract people out of the woodworks.

The disparity between a normal Sunday Mass’ attendance and the Easter/Christmas liturgies begs us to ponder deeper into why such a disparity should exist. But, whatever the reason for staying away, it can never outweigh the necessary proclamation we must make with our lives and not only with our words.

There is no condemnation for those who come only once in a while. If you hear that, you heard wrongly. There is however an invitation to a deeper and honest reflexion for those who are baptised. If we accept that Christ is King of kings, then where and how does our lives fit into that proclamation that we are celebrating tonight. There is no need to announce that our religion is better than all other religions.

The agenda is not ours tonight, not even the deepest pain we feel. Instead the agenda belongs to the King of kings. As we hearken to greet His birth, let us do all that is within our power to ensure that He is truly the King of kings and doing it twice a year is really not enough. I would like you to watch the You-Tube clip of the flash mob now.

Do you know the meaning of the word Agoraphobia. It is the fear of open spaces or the fear of the “market-place”. In short, a phobia of crowds. Most Catholics are agoraphobics. Why? We dare to proclaim Christ as King within the confines of the Church. But, it is to the outside world—the agora or the marketplace—that we need to proclaim Him. Doing it twice a year is not enough for it can only be done through a lifetime of words and deeds

Finally, here is our wish to each one of you that Christmas will be a blessed one and that at every corner you turn, you may find Christ the Lord already there waiting for you.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Gaudete Sunday Year A

The entrance antiphon from Phil 4:4 says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!! The Lord is near”. But it is the Latin “Gaudete semper in Domino” that gives us Gaudete Sunday—a Sunday marked with joy because the Lord is near. Unfortunately, it is at best a misplaced Sunday or at worst, it is quite meaningless.

Why? It is a misplaced Sunday because Christmas began right after Deepavali. If you like, it should have been placed at the First Sunday of Advent. Otherwise, it is meaningless because the word “Gaudete” is not a description but rather a prescription for Sunday meaning we are commanded to celebrate today with joy. But what does it mean to break into a joyful celebration when all the while we have been celebrating already?

This shows that we are celebrating two Christmases—maybe two understanding of Christmas. One Christmas begins even as before the dying amber of “diya” lamps of Deepavali are extinguished. We know this Christmas very well. In fact, a sight to behold is Orchard Road in Singapore. I do not believe I am promoting Singapore—but it is true that it is shimmeringly sparklingly at night. Our closest version of Orchard Road, which is really an insulting comparison, is Jalan Bukit Bintang. There you may find the masseurs probably all lined and dressed up like Santa’s little elves trying to lure you in for a relaxing reward of reflexology. And please, I am not promoting the masseurs.

The point is, this Christmas supposedly can begin anytime before—like in the Philippines, I am told that it begins as soon the month ends with a “-ber”—like September. But never mind when it begins, the important thing is that it officially ends on 25th December. 26th feels old, used and ready to be discarded.

The second Christmas is where “Gaudete” makes sense. It is a Christmas that begins with the Vigil of the 24th and will last until Epiphany.1 The command to rejoice is set within a penitential period of preparing for the Lord’s arrival. The first reading speaks of joy at the nearness of the Lord. In fact, when God is near, we dare to rejoice. We are enboldened by God’s closeness. However, the quality of this joy is not familiar to us. As we are unable to live in the suspense of God’s coming, we have turned to manufacturing our own joy. Today, everything we need for “successful” living or “meaningful” existence is determined by the criterion of instant fulfilment. It explains our constant impatience with anything that does not deliver the result here and now: “I have to have it and I mean now”.2

It is easy to dismiss this impatience to be the result of the need for instant gratification until we remember that the People of Israel were so anxious at the waiting for Moses to return from Sinai that they fashioned a calf of molten gold to dance around in the belief that that experience would be as close as it can get to the true worship of God. We often mistake manufactured joy or happiness to be the expression of God’s nearness. The contrary is true. Our joy does not mean that God is near. Ask someone who is drunk or someone who tries to make himself happy through sex, drugs or drinks, if God is near.

So, the joy of Gaudete Sunday is different. The two readings and the gospel give us signs of how different joy is. The first reading speaks in terms of a barren wilderness being transformed into a oasis of abundance and links it to the second reading where St James speaks of the farmer’s patience in waiting for the rain to come and for the harvest to yield its plentiful produce. A key word to appreciating “joy” is the word patience because the Gospel leads us not into an oasis or a farm but into the life of this man named John the Baptist. Imagine him driven by the passion of God as he preaches penitence and harkens us to holiness, all in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. But now, he is in prison and very soon his life will come to a violent end. He hears of his cousin’s exploits and he is filled with doubt with regard to his credentials. Jesus eats with sinners, drunkards, prostitutes and from the sound of it, it does not seem like Jesus is the Messiah. And worse, Jesus’ answer is not in the affirmative. Instead of “I am the Messiah”, he directs John’s disciples to the first reading: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy”. And Jesus ends with “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”.

The point here is not the “conversation” between the cousins via intermediaries. Faced with knowing that he would never be able to continue his mission or see its ending; confronted with the imminent knowledge of losing his life, surrounded by a situation that could have defeated even the best of us3; the answer of Jesus provided one single spark of joy that broke through the walls of John’s prison and fears. John’s joy is knowing that his life has not been in vain.

A Life lived in vain. This is a question many of us have to contend with. Is it a wonder why more people commit suicide in a season of manufactured joy; a season where we are expected to feel happy when the prevailing question in our mind is simply this: “is this all there is to it”? Have I wasted my life doing what I have been trying to do?

Gaudete teaches us patience in our “lacrimarum valle”—our valley of tears. True joy or happiness cannot be manufactured but is a gift from having lived faithfully for Christ believing that though our lives may experience the long dry desert of waiting patiently for an answer, the answer has already been given – Christ is the answer. He is the joy and hope of all ages. He gives us this assurance that our lives will never be in vain, if we are faithful like John the Baptist was. Christ is the answer to those who, despite all evidence to the contrary, are faithfully living as husband or wife, parents to forgetful children, children burdened by the weight of caring for an ailing parents, siblings who care for disabled sibling, families who continue believing even though debilitated or discouraged by deaths, civil servants who despite the stench corruption around them, strive to provide excellent service, youth who blocked by the glass ceilings of colour or creed, labour on valiantly—Gaudete Sunday is yours. Your life can never be in vain because Christ is near.

In conclusion, I started with the two Christmases we have. We straddle them both because we do not live in a ghetto or a theocratic state which dictates only one possible way of celebrating Christmas. Some of us have to entertain clients, or have obligations to fulfil like a chain of parties to attend leading right up to Christmas. All the festivities before Christmas might be necessary but remember4 not allow this Christmas of false happiness and joy to crowd out the real Christmas we will celebrate. Do not lose faith in Christ, who is our hope and joy even in the midst of our worst troubles. Otherwise, our deserts will remain barren wastelands, the deaf will remain dumb, the blind will remain sightless. That would truly be a life lived in vain.
[1] Epiphany is 12 days after Christmas and should fall on 6th Jan. It is the basis for the Christmas carol “On the first day of Christmas…”. In countries where Epiphany is shifted to Sunday, it will fall between 2nd and 8th January.

[2] Instant coffee, instant insurance claim, instant food, instant baby, instant perfect marriage, etc.

[3] This is so familiar to us. We know that we are surrounded by such a situation when the newspapers are crowing the numbers that we have successfully combated corruption and that our international ranking has credibly shot up. The truth is many of us have been defeated in our hope.

[4] Manufactured joy can only do so much. I say this because I share the suffer the same temptation you do. My idea of a manufactured joy is to go out and blow whatever resources I have on something that I do not need. It is a “joy and happiness” to buy what I do not need. But how long before I need another dose of happiness?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Triduum Day 3 Year A

Statistics are mesmerising. For example, there is a fascination bordering on obsession if you watch American sports like baseball and football. St Francis Xavier provides a useful illustration of how captivating the statistics can be. For example, he ranked second to St Paul as his missionary expeditions carried him across a wide swathe of Asia. In this part of the world, he laboured for about 10 years and converted about 3 million souls to Christ.

What has this obsession with statistics to do with our Triduum?

It provides a clue to the working of a modern mind. In fact, as a science of numbers, statistical science is relatively young. It emerged with the rise of the modern nation-states which at their initial founding discovered a need for demographic or economic figures to base their planning on. In fact, both “statistics” and “states” share the same root-word. Useful as it may be for good governance, distorted statistics has also served the purposes of many despotic regimes. [But, that is not our concern here].

In general, we gauge the efficiency of our enterprises, projects and ventures by the numbers they generate. Profit is a number that reveals the viability of a business. The case of St Francis Xavier, a missionary who converts 3 million over a period of 10 years, presents a staggering statistic that we know may never be repeated. However, a pertinent question to ask is if he was efficacious. What was the quality of the conversions he made?

Perhaps you know what I am getting at. We measure efficiency by numbers. The Catholic Church counts more than 1 billion believers but statistics alone is not enough for it often does not disclose the full picture. On the one hand, we may be proud that Catholics form the biggest religion in the world. On the other hand, poor catechesis has resulted in many also leaving the Church for Evangelical and Pentecostal sects in Philippines and Latin America. Likewise in local terms, this parish has the highest number of baptisms in the Archdiocese if not the country. But, what about those who have departed, disappointed or disgruntled?

Thus, a better but difficult measure is denoted by efficacy. It is a qualitative measure that directs our attention to how the Jubilee can be celebrated. In our apostolic planning, we need to consider if our endeavours are both efficient and efficacious. Efficiency focuses on the ease, the speed or the convenience with which an objective can be met. Efficacious asks if what we do has achieved the desired result.

Written within the DNA of this parish is a philosophy which ties in with how we can celebrate Jubilee. It is called excellence. [1] As a quality, excellence is an expression of Ignatian spirituality. For example, at the solemn profession of a Jesuit’s final vows, there are 5 vows he makes not in the eyes of the public. Privately and after Mass, in a side chapel or a sacristy, the Jesuit will vow amongst other things never to change anything in the Jesuit Constitution about poverty--unless to make it stricter. In the matter of chastity, Ignatius has very little to say except: “Be like angels”. In the matter of obedience to the Pope and his superiors, Ignatius says a Jesuit is to be well-disciplined and he describes this well-disciplined indifference using the analogy of a cadaver.

The vows are a description of a word know to Jesuits: “magis”, encapsulated in the motto you know too, “ad maiorem Dei gloriam”. For the greater glory of God is an invitation to excel, not under the mode of efficiency but rather in a spirit of efficacy. The vows are meant to free us to be more efficacious in our ministries and because efficacy is qualitative and not really quantitative, it is often qualified by nuances. As such, we might not always choose the most efficient manner of doing things because the end result is to achieve that which gives God the greater glory. [2]

On the final day of our triduum, the readings can be tied together under the theme of efficacy. The first reading paints a scenario where God’s word is successfully grafted onto the hearts and minds of people. The second reading invite apostles who would be bearers of the word. The Gospel removes all barriers of time and space; no one is excluded from hearing God’s word. In the context of our parish, the readings invite us to ask a difficult-to-quantify question: how efficacious has our parish been for the last 50 years? What is the quality of our preaching and living the word of God? It is a question which quite easily veers us toward the number game.

The change we want for the Jubilee is to be found in the quality of our lives. It is never a measure of what we want to do or how much we have achieved. The Jubilee is hard work, if you like, much harder than staging a play or a musical. It is much easier to think of a number change than to make a qualitative difference. Let me speak a bit about our altar servers by way of illustration. We have tried to modify a mindset which thinks in terms of punishment and a behaviour that responds to fear. The result is nothing but painfully slow. Each server has been given a personal cassock. Not many parishes do that. In almost all parishes, the cassocks worn, if it were symbolic of the worship of God, in truth, it is actually an insult of God. Why? The cassocks are dirty but what is sadder is that the wearing of them reflects an apathetic attitude—that God does not deserve the best of what one can give. What has happened to the individual cassocks? Some boys take reasonable care of their personal cassocks and the rest? Go the sacristy and sometimes you find cassocks and cinctures strewn on the floor.

You would think that I am criticising the servers. Far from it, my point is simply this: I cannot tell you how to be efficacious. I cannot dictate excellence as a mode of behaviour for our servers. What is the point I wish to make, if not to criticise the servers?

First, I am not criticising the servers because similar scenarios may just apply to any individuals and to groups like choir, the lectors, commentators, the Sunday School catechists and the priests. What about you as a parent or a husband or an employer or an employee? You are not free from the demands of excellence.

Second, I have, in relation to the Jubilee, touched on the issue of fallowing in the last two days. The fallowing, the allowing the fields to rest and for the poor to collect the left-over harvest is a form of levelling that removes class division but it is not a Judaeo-Christian form of Marxism/Communism. Instead it is decidedly upward in its character because the fallowing of the soil is a form of preparation for the 100-fold harvest. The Eastern Christians provide us with a powerful theological vision of this 100-fold harvest in which Man is Christified or Deified and thereby God is glorified.

To summarise, this vision cannot be dictated. It is not a statistics and certainly not a number game. It can only be described because the point of reference is God. God wants us to be like Him. Thus, the question to ask is not like what the elder brother of the Prodigal Son parable: “How much more”? but rather lovingly “What more can I do”? Excellence is the appropriate response to God’s grace and the Jubilee is an invitation to live the highest of vocation of Man because he is created to praise, revere and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
[1] The spiritual equivalent for this is “perfection”. However, excellence is a “term” which the secular world will understand.
[2] One can go to the hospital and anoint as many as possible. But what about spending time with one who is suffering. Sometimes the choice to spend time with the sick will result in conversion and reconciliation. The result might not be favourable numerically (spending more time with a sick = less people I can anoint) but certainly it is efficacious.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Triduum Day 2 Year A

I was happy that yesterday someone told me that she could not understand what I had preached. Thank you. So, here is a little recap and I hope it helps. Yesterday, I thought that the celebration of a Jesuit martyr, St Edmund Campion was appropriate to mark the entry into our jubilee Triduum. In general, we have forgotten that Christianity was born of rejection and persecution. Instead, we have cosy up to the world and have come to expect a version of Christianity that makes no demands on and exacts no cost from us. The examples of the English and Welsh martyrs are compelling reminders that flowing through veins of the Church is, has been and will always be the blood of martyrs; her foundation is steeped in their blood.

Incidentally, this recap leads us to the theme that links both readings today which is building on firm foundation. The first reading speaks of a strong city. But, this city is no Jerusalem, and certainly no description of who we are. The invincibility symbolised by an exaggerated or hyperbolic description of this superstructure is really pointing to God. So God is our fortress and the foundation of our lives. The God who is invincible actually ties in with a characteristic of the jubilee which I spoke about yesterday. Again, it is about “fallowing”.

When we over-tax the land, we kill it. Fallowing allows the earth to rest. From an agrarian or an agricultural perspective, such resting is necessary for the earth to replenish its resources. It is not the absence of activity. With regard to the Hebrew idea of Jubilee, that is, with regard to a Sabbath year, Man’s apparent resting is not a sign of inactivity but rather it is to give space to God to work. Imagine that. We often think of Sabbath as a day dedicated to God, a day we give glory to God. This is no thanks to the fear instilled into us of breaking the Sabbath rest. But, the Sabbath “rest” is not only dedicated to the worship of God. It is also a day that God serves Man. Thus, our “inaction” externalises the internal disposition that allows God to continue working. God continues to work during the Sabbath and Man’s rest is an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty. At the heart of Sabbath is a belief that God can be trusted.

Thus, the Gospel invites us to look deeper into the foundation of our faith. Do we dare to trust God? As mentioned earlier, the foundation does not refer any to man-made structure but to God Himself. Therefore, a jubilee year presents an opportune moment to take a step back and look not just at our accomplishment but rather to take a look at ourselves. Have we built ourselves upon firm foundation? How is God present in our lives?

The question of how God is present may allow us to take a glimpse further into areas of our lives hitherto unexamined. For the Jubilee, very easily we can be caught up with the external activities organised; losing ourselves in the many events we have lined up. How is God present leads us into the desert of honest and sometimes painful self-appraisal. Let me give a few examples. First, in the area of marriage. For some people wedding and marriage are synonymous. Once settled into a marriage, they seldom think that a marriage requires looking into. I might be grossly mistaken but a parish where a majority of the couples collectively cannot find time for the many marriage encounter programmes organised? The programme itself certainly can be improved but given what we have, it is a good one to allow married couples to take a look at how their marriage can be enriched and deepened. Even a car needs an oil change regularly. We recognise that for cars but seldom for marriage. Second, what about couples preparing for marriage? The often heard complaint is why it takes so long. Why the need for the CMPC? Is there no short-cut? This reflects the failure to appreciate that time and effort are needed to build solid foundation. Ironically, there is greater attention paid to the frills, the so-called interior decorations. There is a mismatch in priorities and a question nobody asks is what happens to the photos so beautifully taken when a divorce has taken place. I rather that more photographs are taken when all is sagging and wrinkled—a testimony of fidelity through time and space. Third, what about couples in irregular unions? Those who are cohabitating, those who are civilly registered but have not solemnised the marriage in the Church. And what about those living in second union who have not resolved the issues surrounding their previous marriage? Fourthly, let me turn to another area of our faith life—catechesis. We frequently gripe and complain about the inadequacies and flaws of the catechesis of our young by pointing to the end product, our youths who seem to be leaving the Church in droves. We often think that the solution lies merely with the catechesis built up over the years in Sunday School without realising that such catechesis may not stand the assaults of post-modernity. Many parents have failed to appreciate that a firm foundation can only be established in a faith environment built on God as present within families. Thus, the Jubilee presents a year of grace to take an honest appraisal and to make the necessary repair and strengthen the foundation of marriage and family life.

Yesterday, I mentioned about the mass Christian exodus into the desert as soon as Constantine Christianised his empire. The image of the early Christians celebrating the Eucharist in the catacombs provide a glimpse of how real the faith of the martyrs was. The catacombs were the tombs of martyrs. There was an immediacy to a lived faith tested by sword, fire and the cross. But, eventually, with the institutionalisation of the Church, Christianity took over pagan temples. I was in Split, Croatia and I visited this intact Roman city where the temple is now changed into a cathedral. Yes, we may crow about how we have Christianised the temples but really, once removed from the tombs of the martyrs we began to lose the raw sharpness of our faith. A kind of rot began to set in. If we want our faith to be built on solid foundation, then we must begin to look at where we our rot is and where we have stagnated. To counter the paganising process of Christian culture, one needs to begin an important process of Christianising our home culture. We breathe not only pagan air outside the home but sometimes also in our homes.

Today, tourists and architectural aficionados admire the soaring spires and arches of our cathedrals, basilicas and our churches. Sometimes our vision too may be caught up with the crowd in this myopic and misplaced ceiling gazing. I hope that the parish getting reading to celebrate its jubilee may take this sacred time allotted to us to humbly look down at our feet, to the foundations on which our parish and the faith of her parishioners have been built so that the soil of our hearts may be restored to a renewed vitality and vigour in anticipation of the planting which the Lord will continue to undertake in our lives. The Jubilee year is really a graced moment to do that.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Triduum Day 1 Year A

If ever you go to London, make it a point to visit the Tower of London. There at the Salt and Martin Tower of the complex, you need to take a closer look at some of the graffiti and you find scratched on the wall, a “Henry Walpole”. Who was he? Well, Henry Walpole was 23 years old that 1st Dec 1581 when he stood watching the execution of a Jesuit priest named Edmund Campion. Henry was born of a Catholic family. As he was caught in the raging whirlpool of religious confusion, he found indecision as to which religious affiliation he should embrace. At Tyburn, as Edmund was hung, drawn and as his body was quartered, a splash of blood from his entrails landed on the coat of Henry Walpole. It was enough to confirm Henry’s vocation to follow in the footsteps of Edmund. Indeed, the blood of martyr is the seed of the faith.

We begin the Triduum of launching our Jubilee Year with a Jesuit saint. It would be nice if we could begin with St Francis but perhaps it is better to start with a martyr as it would allow us to size up the Jubilee proper that we are coming into.

How is the celebration of a Jesuit martyr relevant to a better perspective of the Jubilee? One of the features of the Jubilee consists of fallowing—letting the fields rest. Thus, in its original form, a year of fallowing was a year of allowing life to catch up. Thus, question to ask is how a martyr’s death is relevant to this fallowing?

That St Edmund died a painful death is not disputed. The details surrounding his conversion and later torture leading to his death have already been preached before. However, the death he shared with the other martyrs recalls us to our founding inspiration as Church. The Church was born of persecution, beginning first with her Lord and Master.

In the apostolic Church, a martyr meant a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under the penalty of death. The career of the Apostles, with the exception of John the Evangelist took this path. And for the next two hundred years since the birth of the Church, martyrdom was the highest form of witnessing. It was only after the 2nd century that the term confessors was used to denote those who professed their faith, even in times of persecution, but they never reached the point of shedding their blood. With Christianity gaining official recognition, official persecution ended reducing the spectre of martyrdom to a distant memory.

In a sense, confessor-ship emerged whenever the Church entered a period of peace. If this period of peace is not analogous to fallowing, at least it does give the idea that confessor-ship is the primary expression of our testimony. But, think of the monastic flight of the early Church. As soon as Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire, the instincts of Christians was to flee. They fled from such an unqualified accommodation with the world; an accommodation they felt had blunted their witnessing.

The first reading speaks of the Suffering Servant in reference both to Christ and to St Edmund. This image of the Suffering Servant can also be extended to the Church—she too is a suffering servant. And whilst the Gospel may warn us of not accommodating the world, in actual fact, we have lost our witnessing edge. We shun away from persecution. We have opted for “Christianity Lite”.

This fear of persecution is compounded by a certain false philosophy brought about by the age of the Enlightenment. We are led into a form of rationality which is deterministic. What do I mean by a rationality which is deterministic. Let me give a good example. “You should know better”. The truth is, just because you are clever is not a guarantee that you will do the right thing. Intelligence often has nothing to do with moral behaviour. [1]

In the expression of our faith, we have come to expect that behaviour should commensurate with rationality. For example, we expect the government to uphold the rights of minorities enshrined in the Constitution for that would be a rational act. As a result, in our various encounters with intransigent or pigheaded behaviour of officialdom, we come away with a sense that we have been done to; that we have been victimised. The fact is, the forces of evil will never stop railing against the Church and persecution will exist as long as the Church of Christ stands. St Edmund did not return to England expecting anything less. He expected no less than bearing the full brunt of persecution. We should expect no less.

Somehow, there is a “pyramidal” system which we cannot get away from. The conciliar document Sacrasanctum concilium speaks of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church. What does that mean? It means that the Eucharist is linked to all the other sacraments we celebrate. It is also supported by the liturgy we celebrate. Furthermore, the Eucharist is connected even to the medal or the scapula that one wears. It is linked to the sign of the Cross one makes. I am not speaking of scrupulosity nor am I referring to superstitious practices. But, what happens when we neglect the other sacraments and we do away with devotional practices because we view them as merely “external” rituals? When we neglect the other sacraments, relativise the sacramentals and downplay our liturgical actions, very soon the Eucharist will become meaningless. It will become very much an empty ritual and thus appropriately celebrated as a meal.

The same pyramidal system may be said of “martyrdom”. It is the supreme act of love for Christ to lay down one’s life. The truth is red martyrdom is inextricably linked to white martyrdom. Remember the “daily offering”? O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day in union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I am not referring to rushing in blindly to be massacred but really daring to stand up for our faith. It requires that we put up and bear with real sufferings daily. Otherwise red martyrdom remains an ideal. Perhaps you understand why this church is not air-conditioned; a trend that is taken up by many parishes. There may be legitimate reasons for doing so but here there is a greater didactical reason for not doing so. The heat reminds us that we bear our discomfort in the hope that when bigger suffering should visit us, we may be found ready.

So, what relevance is St Edmund Campion to our Jubilee? Expectations are natural for a year to sail smoothly. But, St Edmund’s death shows us that our basic attitude should be a readiness to suffer for our faith, to stand up where it counts and even to die if we have to. If fallowing should mean anything, it is also a time for preparation, a time to ready ourselves for living our faith. Otherwise, the Jubilee is nothing but a celebration of ourselves, a sort of feel-good “pat on the back” but not a witness of the faith sealed and testified by blood and sacrifice.
[1] This explains so much of our unnecessary anger and frustration. We foolishly expect people to behave according to what they know.