Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Day Mass Year B

This is the final instalment of a four-part homily. In the 1st instalment, I spoke of salvation in terms of the "already and not yet". Christ already reigns through His Church but all the things of this world are not yet subjected to Him. Even if that may be the case, the Vigil Mass was considered joyful because we were anticipating the coming of Christ. We dared to celebrate because we acknowledged and trusted God’s providence. The focus of the 2nd instalment was on the "already" whilst we kept the "not yet" at bay. We broke into the midnight celebration of Christ’s birth. We lingered, marvelled and rejoiced at the birth of our salvation. In fact, the appropriate posture was silence before the manger of the helpless Child Jesus. Our reverential silence allowed the mystery of God made Man to emerge. The 3rd instalment explained the significance of the ox and the donkey in the imagination of the crib. They were there because Isaiah spoke of the draught animals as the ones who recognised their owner and their master’s crib.
Let us continue in this final instalment to deepen our experience of recognising God our Lord. The Gospel Reading which consists of eighteen verses is taken from the Prologue of John. It is not an Infancy Narrative like those found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Prologue starts at the very beginning of time and Creation is presented as the framework for announcing the Incarnation. John makes a connexion between Genesis and his Gospel because he echoes the first verse of the Book of Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word”.  It is a profoundly beautiful poem that the custom from the early Church was for the priests of the Church to read it over sick people after anointing them and over newly baptised infants. John’s Prologue was written down and placed in lockets which the early Christians then would wear around their necks, especially in times of danger or when travelling.[1]
With the Prologue, the Mass of the Day is a profound reflexion on why we celebrate Christmas. It is not surprising that the symbol of John’s Gospel is an eagle because soaring above the celestial heights he looks from the vantage point of the mystery of God to illustrate how this same mystery penetrates the stable and enters the flesh and blood of man. “The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us”. (John 1:14) In fact, the Credo which we will profess shortly will include the same words et verbum caro factum est and at about that time, we fall on our knees—much like the carol O Holy  Night—in humble acknowledgement that the mystery of the Word made flesh, this Divine condescension, this holy exchange between divinity and humanity, symbolised by the use of a drop of water at the Eucharist, is the only explanation we can give for why we can be saved. And so at the preparation of the wine, we say, “By the mystery of the water and wine, may we come to share His divinity as He humbled Himself to share our humanity”.
We are celebrating not just any birthday; not least of all a great man, a great guru or a great prophet. We are celebrating the birthday of our Divine Lord in time and according to Pope Benedict, “He came as a child in order to break down our pride. Perhaps we would have capitulated before power and wisdom, but He does not want our capitulation. He wants our love. He wants to free us from our pride and thus make us truly free”.
We, who come, are here to behold His glory, the glory that was His with the Father from before time. As we behold Him, as contemplate Him and as we gaze at Him, we truly see ourselves. So, before we leave the Church today, get close to the crib to stare in wonder and behold in amazement at the Son of God who came to be like us and pray that you may walk out like Him so that you may according to the first reading radiate and let His glory be manifest for all to see.
In summary, Christmas commemorates the dawn of our salvation. As we savour the mystery of the Incarnation, it is also a hopeful reminder of what we can be. Come, let us adore Him.

[1]You know the Taoist custom of writing on pieces of yellow paper (fu), folding it and placing it in a locket to be worn? We did that too. However, here I am make a distinction between an amulet and a sacramental. There is a thin line between magic and faith. An amulet is considered to contain power in itself whereas a sacramental works on the basis of faith.

Christmas Mass at Dawn Year B

This is the third instalment of a four-part homily. In the first instalment, I spoke of salvation in terms of "already" and "not yet". Christ is already reigning through His Church but all the things of this world are not yet subjected to Him. Thus, the Vigil Mass last night might be considered as a joyful celebration in anticipation of Christ’s coming. We dared to celebrate because we acknowledged and trusted in God’s providence.
In the second instalment, the focus was on the "already" whilst we kept the "not yet"  at bay. We broke into the midnight celebration of Christ’s birth. We lingered, marvelled and rejoiced at the birth of our salvation. In fact, we took the appropriate posture of silence before the manger of the helpless Child Jesus. Our silence allowed the mystery of God made Man to emerge.
This third instalment will cover the significance of what is traditionally called the Mass at Dawn. Originally, this was the Mass of St Anastasia because her feast was kept on 25th Dec. She, amongst all martyrs, enjoyed the distinction, unique in the Roman liturgy, of having a special commemoration in the second Mass of Christmas. Gradually, the focus shifted from her to Christ. Thus, the liturgy now continues with the story of the birth of Jesus as found in Luke's Gospel where we find the shepherds making their way to visit the infant Jesus.
In connexion with the second instalment homily, I would like to draw your attention to a particular feature of the crib. It is the presence of two animals. It is to St Francis of Assisi that we credit the origin of the Crib. He directed that these animals be placed therein. “I wish in full reality to awaken the remembrance of the child as he was born in Bethlehem and of all the hardship he had to endure in his childhood. I wish to see with my bodily eyes what it meant to lie in a manger and sleep on hay, between an ox and a donkey”.
In our continuing silence before Christ born in a manger, what significance do the ox and the donkey have? They are not found in any story of the New Testament. Instead they become our link to the Old Testament. According to Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib. Israel knows nothing, my people understands nothing”. As such, their presence shows that there is much more at stake than merely pious sentiments.
Accordingly, Christmas night opens our eyes to recognise who our Saviour is. But do we? Herod did not. In fact, Herod would try to do away with the Child. The scribes and the Pharisees, ironically, those who were specialists in sacred scriptures had failed to recognise Him who was the author of their learned field. The Gospel of Luke today reveals the real oxen and donkeys: the shepherds, and soon after, the wise men from Orient land and of course, Mary and Joseph. Furthermore, the symbolism should not be missed that the Christ-Child, in between the two draught animals, should be placed in a manger, no less a feeding trough. The animal recognised that He who lay in a feeding trough would soon Himself become the feed or the food for the hungry. The Eucharistic connotation is quite apparent in the placement of the Baby in a manger between the draught animals.[1]
But, failure to recognise Christ the Saviour is quite easy. For us, who think we love Jesus, it is easy to miss Him out in the Church, the community, the neighbour and the ones closest to us, our relatives and family. It is easy to turn a blind eye to Him with our smugness. Or when we become engrossed with our comfort zone, it is easy to lose sight of who is important in salvation. Finally, many of us have mistaken facts as wisdom, blinded as we are by the availability of information that we have lost a sense of wonderment of the mystery of the God-made-man.
Last night, way past our midnight Mass, a server thanked me for the “brevity” of the homily but he added that it lacked the “oomph”. My response to him was that he had missed the point. It was supposed to be simple and without "oomph" because the event spoke for itself—God spoke most definitively through His Word—the Christ. Human words can never measure up to the Word. So, Christmas is the time to ask God to grant us the grace of that simplicity of heart so that like the ox and the donkey, we may recognise God Almighty in the Child Jesus, as St Francis of Assisi did whenever he contemplated a crib.

[1] It challenges us today if we understand whom we are receiving at Holy Communion. The irreverence is symptomatic of a kind of ignorance that requires so much more catechising if we were to defeat it.

Christmas Midnight Mass Year B

It is the Midnight Mass. Did you know, minus the Vigil Mass, that the timing of the Christmas liturgies, and there are three of them, revolves around the interplay between light (or its absence) and the co-called three nativities of Christ? The timing, meaning what time a Mass is celebrated, can be said to correspond to the nativity of Christ before (or outside of) time, in time and in our hearts.
Midnight with its darkness contemplates the mystery of the Only Begotten Son of the Father—a mystery written in the vocabulary of eternity—as the Credo goes—born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.
Mass at Dawn recalls the birth of Christ in time—by the Holy Spirit He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became Man. At Bethlehem, the appearance of the Son in history corresponds to dawn dispelling the darkness of the night.
And finally, the Mass during the Day points us to Christ being born in our souls, through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. With the grace of Christ in our hearts we are enlightened.
This timing or the interplay of light and darkness is well and good to know. There is however, another aspect of the Christmas Liturgy which I highlighted earlier this evening at the Vigil Mass. It is the “already and not yet” mark of salvation and also of Christian discipleship. Tonight, this "already and not yet" characteristic of salvation history is best expressed in the sense that we focus on the "already" as we keep the "not yet" at bay.
Why do we do that? We stress the "already" because it is a celebration of how great God is. Thus, our worship calls to linger, to marvel and to rejoice.
We linger because God has come. Have you ever been to a party where the end takes like forever? This type of experience is at times termed as “Stations of the Cross” because people take forever to say goodbye. Fortunately, that is where the analogy ends because this kind of a goodbye is tiring. But, our lingering here is not tiring. We linger because of a marvellous deed that God has done in history.
God has shown his great sense of humour. He whom the universe cannot contain is contained in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So, we marvel at the birth of a child whom the first reading acclaims as the light that shone on a people in darkness. We, like the shepherds, hurry to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Creator of the world lying helplessly in a manger.
And here, to linger and to marvel requires a lot more courage and certainly humility. Instead of lingering and marvelling, what we encounter is the prevailing dynamo driving the spirit of Christmas—a dynamism which consists a lot more of noise and distraction. If we are not eating, then we are drinking. If we are not drinking then we are shopping. If we are not shopping then we are visiting… and so on. The courage is for us to step aside, perform a kind of paradox, to stand in silence before so stupendous a mystery as the Son of God became Man and was born in time. Without having to say anything—our silence allows the mystery of our salvation to emerge.
This is not easy for a generation oriented to results, this kind of lingering to marvel would seem unproductive. But maybe we dare not, not because we are result-oriented but because we have arrogated to ourselves the position of God? Yes, Psalm 8 proclaims that we are little less than a god and we are invited also to behave LIKE God—as in being His co-creators –but the sad reality is we often behave AS God. In short, we dare not allow God to be God which explains our necessity to act as if we were the saviours of the world.
Tonight, we are reminded that there is only one Saviour of the world and He is Emmanuel because He has come to be with us. Yes, He appeared in time as a helpless Babe but we rejoice that this helpless Babe will one day lay down His life so that the world will be restored to the Father’s glory. As we stand before the crib, the only appropriate posture is silence. So, in reverential silence before the manger, whatever problems we have, no matter how heavy our burden of sin may be, and even if the world is still not right, the helpless little Babe invite us to trust Him to bear our burden because He alone is the Saviour of the world. Come let us adore Him.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Vigil Year B

I think the people with the best eyesight in the world are Filipinos, well, rich Filipinos, at least. For security reasons, the windscreens and windows of their cars are heavily tinted. I get extremely claustrophobic sitting in one of these cars not knowing where I am or in which direction I am heading to. Analogously, there is also a quality of uncertainty in all our Christmas liturgies and it is perhaps strongest in this evening’s liturgy. There is a quality of uncertainty that is associated with the injunction to “watch and pray”.
Uncertainty is quite a  disturbing state of being especially to a generation accustomed to pressing buttons. We have come to expect that life’s solutions can be got from merely a push of a button. However, the vigil’s liturgy is pretty much that of “uncertainty” as in “already and not yet”. If you like, this is best captured by the caricature of children in a car asking incessantly: “Are we there yet”.
How can one understand and describe this notion of "already and not yet"?
Listen to the Preface II for Advent. For all the oracles of the prophets foretold Him, the Virgin Mother longed for Him with love beyond all telling, John the Baptist sang of His coming and proclaimed His presence when He came. It is by His gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of His Nativity, so that He may find us watchful in prayer and exultant it His praise.
An observation may be made here. This Mass is called the Vigil Mass. The Latin vigilia, from which we derive the term "vigil", means to keep watch. The Church designates the day before a feast or a solemnity as a Vigil because its nature is to prepare for a greater day that is to follow. Through the liturgy, this is one way the Church keeps close to the injunction of Her Lord and Saviour to “keep watch and pray”. So, in some countries, today is also a day of fasting. They fast to heighten the reception of the day that is to come.
Thus, in this so-called interim period, there is a profound sense that what we want is already here but not completely yet. It is by His gift that already we rejoice and this is important. Why?
"Already and not" yet allows us to catch a glimpse of heaven. For many of us, "already and not yet" is unnerving because we want to catch heaven instantaneously. If you take a moment to reflect, all our experiences of exhilaration are but glimpses of heaven. What it means is that we want the access to heaven on tap—as in we devise ways and means to heighten our exhilaration. Is it any wonder why recreational drugs are part of the culture of our youths?
It is not to say that we should not have any excitement or wonderment. In fact, it is a testament of trust in God that we dare leave aside our worries and concentrate on the moment, to enjoy the moment, to savour the moment… even if we are at a loss, even if we have no work and even if we are struggling to come to terms with the death of our loved ones.
Why? Because it is already and also not yet.
This is why Jesus dared speak to Judas in a way which was shocking, a way which seemed to canonise an aberration which today we are trying so hard to eradicate. He said, “The poor you always have with you”. What this means is that we may banish all hunger in the world but it is still not heaven. We may resolve every conflict in the world and we would not even approximate paradise. And the list goes on. Yet, this is not an admission of defeat as the Catechism reminds us that Christ the Lord already reigns through the Church, but all the things of this world are not yet subjected to Him. But, one thing certain is that with Christ at the helm of His Church, in a nation, in our family and of us, we dare to celebrate. In fact, when God seems to be at His weakest as in the helpless babe, we encounter His greatest providence.
Thus, this evening’s liturgy is full of hope. "Already and not yet" points us in the direction of God. Already as in God will be there and we do not need to play God. Thus, tonight, let us leave God to be God and let us joyfully wait for the moment when the Saviour of the world will burst into our lives.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

4th Sunday of Advent Year B

The 4th Sunday of Advent continues with a panoramic sweep of the salvation history but this time the spotlight will come to rest on Mary. It makes sense because the birth of a child is also a celebration of motherhood.
So the Gospel tells the story of how this motherhood is prepared. But, it is a preparation that goes further back than the Gospel. In the first reading, we hear of a settled and victorious King David who intended, in thanksgiving, to build a dwelling worthy to house the Ark of God’s covenant but only to be put in his place. God was gently reminding David that no man was ever going to build a house worthy of God. Instead, God reminded David of his humble beginnings and made a promise that He was going to make of the House of David one that endures forever and this came to fruition in one of his descendants: Mary.
The Lucan focus on Mary is based on a kind of typology of which anyone familiar with the Jewish or Hebrew Scriptures would not miss the connexion. To speak of an enduring dynasty is to speak of God’s desire to be close to His people in a special way. In the Old Testament, Moses was instructed by God to build a tabernacle in order to house the Ark of the Covenant. Within the Ark are found the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.
The completion of the Ark saw the cloud of glory covering the tent of meeting as the glory of God filled the tabernacle. The noun “cloud” and the verbs “to cover” or “to overshadow” are metaphors for the presence and glory of God. Here we find the link between the first reading and Mary. It is easy to miss the parallel between the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Ark and the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, between the Ark of the Old Covenant as the dwelling place of God and Mary as the new dwelling place of God. David’s intent on building a house worthy for God is now reversed to God building a house worthy of Himself: in Mary.
Now we understand why Mary is called the Ark of God’s Covenant. She plays an immensely important role in the history of salvation. The Ark of the Old Covenant signified the spiritual presence of God but in Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, God comes to dwell with his people not only spiritually but physically. He takes residence in the womb of a specially prepared Jewish girl.
According to the Old Testament, only one item was placed inside the Ark: the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments whereas the author of the Letter to the Hebrew (9:4), revealed that two additional items were added in: the golden bowl holding the manna and the budding rod of Aaron. Here another parallel should not be missed. In the Ark, we find the law of God inscribed in stone; in Mary's womb we encounter the Word of God in flesh. In the Ark, the golden bowl is placed and it contained the manna, the bread from heaven that kept God's people alive in the wilderness; Mary's womb housed the Bread of Life come down from heaven that brings eternal life. In the Ark there is the budding rod of Aaron, the proof of true priesthood; Mary's womb bears the true priest. Thus, David’s wish for a worthy house of God is now come true.
Our Catholic veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not just the Blessed Virgin Mary, is not a scriptural aberration because she is the living shrine of the Word of God. She is rightly the Ark of the New and Eternal Covenant. Our insistence with the virginity of Mary is not an indication of a Catholic puritanical obsession but instead, the ancient dogma of Mary’s virginity is really a statement about Jesus Christ and who He really is. The Ark which contains the Real Presence of God cannot be used for any other purpose, no matter how honourable.
Today, we are standing right at the front door of Christmas and before we enter, this Sunday is an invitation to pause a while, to ponder a little bit more on the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is where we are involved. In an analogous manner, her motherhood is also ours. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the archetype of the Church now preparing for the birth of Christ. She bore the Son of God in her womb. We must bear the Son of God in our hearts. She is the Ark of the Covenant. We become the Temple of God’s Holy Spirit.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

3rd Sunday of Advent Year B

Some priests will not be caught dead in this chasuble but the change in colour might be a good time to speak of the joy that should express itself. What does it mean to have joy even in the midst of trials and tribulations?
The seasons of Lent and Advent have for their liturgical colour Violet. In the midst of these two seasons we discover the colour Rose. The Sundays characterised by the colour Rose are called Laetare or Gaudete. At Masses when we do not sing, we should recite the Entrance Antiphon. Both Laetare and Gaudete are translated from the respective Antiphons as “Rejoice”.
The colour Rose reveals the wisdom of the Church who perceives the coincidence of nature with the mysteries of salvation. Both light and life are the two natural phenomena of nature. From darkness and death, light and life emerge and so the change from darkness to light is captured by the season of winter and the transition from death to life is proper to the season of spring. The liturgical cycle of the Church is therefore based on these phenomena. The progressive diminishment of light and the silence of life germinating are both captured most fittingly by the colour Violet and not, surprisingly by Black. Why? Black is not really a colour. Instead, Black may be described as the absence of colour and of light, whereas, Rose which brightens the shade of Violet stands as an anticipation of the reality of the birth of Christ at Christmas and the new life of Resurrection at Easter.
The colour Rose in the midst of these two seasons places us within the mystery of the “already, and not yet” of Christian life here on earth. It leaves behind the dark of violet but it is not completely white yet. So, we have been saved and yet we wait for Christ to come. 1 Cor 13:12 says it most aptly: Now we are seeing a dim reflexion in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face. This Rose of “already, and not yet” may help navigate our discipleship through this lacrimarum valle, this valley of tears.
We often hear of the three comings of the Lord. In times past, He came to us in our weakness and in our flesh. In the future, He will come again in glory and with majesty. At Christmas, He comes in Spirit and in power. Now, there is continuity or integrity at Advent whereby the three comings are at once celebrated and anticipated. We rejoice with the Prophets of old who waited for the coming of the Messiah and marvel at how His coming has made a profound difference in history. We also long for His Second Coming with the clouds of heaven so that our journey to life’s completion may come to a happy conclusion. However, there is a meantime whereby we wait for His coming more deeply into our life now, so as to prepare for His final coming.
Amongst the three comings, two are visible—in the past and in the future. The present coming is invisible and this is the one which is not easy because waiting is not an easy exercise. We are readily distracted by the cares of the world and weighed down by the burdens of life. So, Holy Mother Church dares us to hold our heads high not because of pride but because she believes with her being that salvation is near. As the colour Rose lightens the dark of Violet, we dare to rejoice because Christ’s salvation approaches us. So we are joyful that Christ can come more deeply into our lives.
As He comes, the Church encourages us to ask for the virtues of fortitude and patience. It is always easy to try to change something outside of us. You can repaint a house or renovate a kitchen. You can do up your car and decorate your house. But, the work of inner conversion requires fortitude. It is a virtue needed for our journey. Imagine the number of people who have given up hope especially with regard to a recurring sin. They think that confession once will remove their propensity to sin but their experience is otherwise. They keep failing and falling and as result they lose courage. Fortitude is the strength not to lose hope whereas patience is the ability to wait in anticipation as God works His miracle upon us. Thus, patience is fortitude over time because there is hardship involved in waiting especially when we are changing. We live in an instantaneous bubble expecting that what we want is always on tap and all we need is to press the button. But, as in all interior conversion, it is a life-long journey which often involves letting go of that which is beyond our control, a letting go which is not despairing but is full of trust in God.
Let me tell you a story of which I am not proud. But, it may give you a glimpse of how our joy is to be like. It was a Gaudete Sunday Mass. The procession started and the manner the entrance hymn was sung, I wanted to kill myself because it sucked the joy out of me. Now, you see, a lot of times our reaction to the joy being sucked out of us is to blame the other person as in “I was pissed off. You made me angry. You made me do it.”. It was difficult to shake off the annoyance whilst I was celebrating Mass. Sometimes, we may say to ourselves, “I already have a difficult day and I do not need this”… and so we justify our anger or worse our rage.  For me, as priests, these are the “reasons” for my anger or annoyance: stupid parishioners who do not seem to understand, sacristan who keeps missing out on things, choir that sings so that nobody wants to sing, altar servers who continually make the same mistakes. Objectively, there may be a lot of truth in what I have just mentioned and there is need for improvement. But, the truth is this, many a times life is never organised according to what we think it should be and whilst it can be trying, Christian joy should still be able to break through not because it is falsely optimistic. It is less emotion and more an attitude because it comes from an inner strength that is based on trust in God and support by both fortitude and patience.
Thus, fortitude and patience are needed so that joy may radiate from us even if we should stand in the shadow of the Cross. Since we cannot give of ourselves these virtues, we need to beseech the Lord for them. As the darkness of night envelops us, we know that soon light will prevail. So in the joy of fortitude and patience, we keep watch. As Christ came once before, we dare to cast our anxieties onto Him, as we wait and watch for the day when He will come again at Christmas or at the end of time.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent Year B

There is a certain tyranny in relevance makes the writing of homily daunting. Why? One has to find something relevant to say. Until one remembers, we are to preach Christ in and out of season.  We began a journey into Mark’s Gospel last Sunday and the key to the whole Gospel of Mark is found right the beginning: It is the Good News about Jesus Christ.
Mark’s Gospel at the beginning makes it clear that Jesus Christ IS the Son of God and unlike the other Gospels that established credentials either before creation or in time through the Infancy Narratives, he gets straight down to the business of proclaiming the good news of the same Jesus Christ the Lord.
We live, for all intents purposes, in a world where money can buy just about anything and yet it is a world which is markedly joyless. In this worry weary world, what is so good about Jesus Christ? How can He be good news when we face before us, brokenness, misery and loneliness? Nonetheless, before we dismiss the Gospel as irrelevant, both the Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist give us a vision of how this news is good.
Isaiah consoled the people by recalling them to how God would bind the wounds of those whose sins have been forgiven. John recalled those who came in repentance to wait for the only One who could baptise with the Holy Spirit.
We are presented with this vision of a future world which, if we think about it, is one which calls us to make ourselves ready for it. In short, this vision will not come to fruition if we are not prepared for it. Again, in a world of silver platters where we expect all good things to be served on, this sounds like a little letdown. Perhaps, our idea of good fun may help illuminate our attitude towards gratuity. For us, fun means as little effort as possible with the maximum return in pleasure. When something is given free, we believe that we are entitled to it without any effort. In other words, God’s gratuitous gift is not as free as it seems. The truth is, grace may be given freely but it will never violate our freedom to accept or reject it.
In that way, the vision proposed by both Isaiah and John the Baptist is not without our effort. We have a part to play which is why John the Baptist said, “Make straight your path”.
Today, we are encouraged to prepare the way so that God’s vision of a world which He can recognise and in we can flourish may come true. It requires that we change so that the world can change. It is about conversion. But change is not easy.
You remember the Catholic Business Fraternity drive last week or so? They were trying to get more Catholics to register so that Catholic businesses can reach the wider Catholic audience. Firstly, the way I said it made it sound ghettoish. Secondly, I did mention, whilst promoting the drive last week, that I tend to give my business to Catholics. Usually, I am partial to ours as the Teochews would say, “Ka ti nang”… “Our own people”. Consider it a weakness which I easily give into.
Now, this happened two years ago. I was on the way back to Maranatha Retreat House because I had come down for a wedding. It was along Jalan Kuching and the road was jammed. A car behind me on my left tried to switch lanes and as it did, I braked because the cars in front braked. Consequently, the switching-lane car rammed into me. I pulled aside and when I got out of the car, I saw the ubiquitous rosary hanging from the usual rear-view mirror. I was relieved and I was actually willing to forget the whole thing. Catholic-Catholic… but, the two men who got out of their car, were confrontational and they blamed me for their carelessness. In fact, they sounded threatening. That time, I told myself, “To hell with you” and told them that it would be better if we settled it by making our respective police reports. They did not show up at the police station and I subsequently made a claim against their insurance.
What is the moral here? Jesus did say in Matthew 5:46ff: For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even tax collectors do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The vision of the world proposed by Isaiah and John requires that much change. But, we are unwilling to. It is a way of behaviour that goes a mile or even more further. When I think about the incident, I am not proud of it. We forgive even when people cannot forgive us. We love when people cannot love us.[1] Our change cannot be merely reciprocal in the sense that we react to people. Our standards must be Christ’s.
When we think that it is only our efforts that can bring about such a conversion, then we would have failed. The standard has been set by Christ and therefore the grace will be His to supply. As I have said it before, hope is eschatological in the sense that it is always one step ahead of us. That is why we celebrate Advent every year. The cycle reminds us that conversion is not an event. It is like you go for confession and voila you will not sin again? No, the minute you step out of the confessional, you see someone you do not like, you sin… It is a journey and a process. Nevertheless, St Peter exhorts us to continue to live saintly lives. As we change ourselves, we hope, we pray and we wait for God to make true what we on our own cannot achieve.

[1]There is a nuance here which is important. I am not advocating that you sit down and allow, for example, your fundamental rights as citizens are taken away. I am referring to my sense of “revenge”. Have you ever experience “unequal” forgiveness? You want to forgive and move on but the other party refuses. And you become righteously angry that he or she refuses. It is that kind of revenge or anger….

Friday, 2 December 2011

Triduum Day 2

Today, we continue with our Triduum. Tomorrow, Fr Colin Tan, our Regional Superior will preach the final homily. Despite the best of intentions, Murphy’s Law applies to the situation in the Parish Office. I live the tension of organised chaos. My constant companion in the last ten years has been this phantom standing next to me: “Homily. Homily. Homily. Have you done it?” and as I struggle these days, the emails, letters and things administrative are stacking up around my table and as a result another part of me is screaming out, “Clear the mess. Clear the mess”. It has been like this each time we arrive at Thursday or Friday of the week.
Today is also the calm before the storm—the big day being tomorrow. This is the “What shall I do?” in between Day I and Day III—neither here nor there. I spent the whole day trying to mould the homily and it has not been easy. Let me take my cue from yesterday. For many of us, truth is what works. That being the case, our concern with what works is expressed through the arena of economics, technology, business and for some the corridors of power. But, I am concerned about the truth of being because John Paul II did in his encyclical Fides et ratio say this: the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity (FE, 90). Nothing is as important to us today as the very talk of human dignity. One of the reasons we give in to the dictates of political correctness is because calling a person retarded would somehow injure his “human dignity”. Indeed, let us ask the grace to return to the truth of being so that we may live the being of truth.
How can we live the being of truth?
We need to take care of our ideas.
A loaded automatic machine-gun can kill tens of people. But millions die from an idea. For example, Hitler’s idea of the purity of a race sent millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and retards/disabled to their death. What we consider to be nothing today can be the Godzillas of tomorrow! Suffice to say that the basis of our living the being of truth is founded on the ideas that we have. The trouble with ideas is the more fundamental they are, the more we seem to assume or take for granted. Therefore, part of the process of breaching the walls of the entrapped “I” is a painful need to re-look at some of the fundamental ideas we hold to be important in life.
One of the most important ideas of all is the idea of progress. This is my point. In seeing something we do not see the eye. It is only when we cannot see well that we begin to ask if something is not right with the eye. To see the eye, we need to look into a mirror. Thus, the idea of progress is like the eye. We can see progress in leaps and bounds but we do not really examine its foundation. What is progress? Not only does it connote an inevitable march but it also carries with it a threat. We invoke the march of progress to justify almost everything that we want to do. And dare you stand against its march?
The most optimistic expression of the idea of progress is technology. You would have heard me speak about technology here and there and it seems that I am attacking technology, coming as it were, from an obscurantist position. But, have you heard of Odysseus? He was the protagonist of the Homeric poem Odyssey which in part was a sequel to the Illiad. Troy, Trojan Horse and Helen the face that sank a thousand ships, etc. Odysseus, post the Trojan war, was making his way home. In his sojourn, he and his men came to a place where the inhabitants ate lotus-flowers. Subsequently, two men ate of the lotus-flowers causing them to forget their home-coming.
What is the moral of the story? Apart from the use of narcotics to induce a mystical state of mind, the moral here is that we are often enamoured by whatever takes our fancy thus forgetting our original intention. Progress is like the lotus-flower for it entrances us. We assume that progress is advancement, amelioration, breakthrough, development and certainly evolutionary. In the field of reproductive technologies, the Church is viewed as really behind time or worse as an enemy of human progress. Yes, we know that under the sway of technology, mankind has been subject to the tyranny of progress. Progress does not follow laws, least of all, the law of morality except that it is itself the law meaning that progress is inevitable.
Is it?
Thus, we need to look into the mirror. And for many of us, technology will never allow us that freedom to look into that mirror. Imagine that you can shrink a picture with the pinch of two fingers or enlarge it by spreading two fingers and how that would look like to people a hundred years ago. Transport yourself back and you would be an instant magician. We crave connectivity and I suspect that our aching to be reached instantaneously is a symptomatic cry of loneliness of the entrapped “I”. We live in a world, should I say, environmentally hostile world, where we are not really in control and technological progress steps in with gadgetry that promises control, feeding our fantasy that all these gadgets will promise us everything and asks nothing of us. That is why technology has to be sexy.
Some of you know that there is a blog of homilies which are posted hopefully after each Sunday. I resisted it for a long time but even I succumbed to the allure of reaching a ready audience. Fr Michael and I joke in this manner: “Hey, have you worshipped at my temple yet ah”? Well, I usually do not go to his temple even though sometimes I am amazed at how good a few of my homilies are. Have to be honest here. The point is not the homilies. The point is captured by the phenomenon of Facebook. “To like”, as a verb, is now transformed into a click. Imagine how much we now want to be liked and in the world of Facebook, we are instant stars or celebrities of our own movies. An idea, unexamined, may lead us to places we never would think of going and the temptation of the entrapped “I” in a technologically progressive world, is narcissism—self-worship.
I love gadgets to tell the truth. I am fascinated by the progress of technology but I am always conscious that progress is not a journey of inevitability. We are on a journey somewhere and for Christianity, somewhere is not even a place. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then somewhere is where the Head is. If we are to be “rescued” from the lotus-eating stupor of progress, then it requires that we step back to examine and to reflect through critical thinking. Critical thinking is needed but not of the kind that we are used to—critical. Or the kind of conspiratorial thinking we feed on. Critical thinking is concerned with precision when we define things, even if it should border on pedantry. Why? Ideas have grave ramifications. Otherwise, the entrapped “I” of yesterday’s homily will become the individual of relativism.
How are we to achieve critical thinking? The use of reason, informed reason and not just practical reason, is one. Reason here is not the reason of the Enlightenment but rather the reason guided by faith because faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. There is also the need to widen our knowledge of how ideas came about and this is done through a careful historical research. What is important to note about critical thinking though is that it is as much a methodology as it is an attitude.
In this regard, I must say that the Society of Jesus is to be thanked and loved for whatever that I have shared with you. Six years acquiring the degrees in philosophy have not gone to waste. An attitude that I think is important is to recognise and accept that truth can be approximated. In speaking, I am not known for subtlety because I suffer not from “foot and mouth” disease but from “foot-in-mouth” disease. But, listen again to the language used or better still, read the language employed. Of course, some slip-ups may take place but the language used in almost all the homilies is propositional. In what sense are they propositional? I often begin my sentence with “maybe” or “perhaps”. Underneath this seeming uncertainty is “an” assumption, not “the” assumption, that “I do not possess the truth”. Instead, I am a poor servant of the truth. Therefore, the philosopher Habermas comes to life. He speaks of the “unforced force of the better argument”. Here, you detect an assumption which is important: There is truth to be known. And every encounter we have should lead us into the light of truth.
Why is such an attitude especially in dialogue important in the light of truth? This attitude is important because the person is located in community.  You see our idea of person is “individualistic”. We conjure up in our head a discrete individual with his/her range of powers and everything else. However, the word “individual” even though it suggests distinctiveness, in truth, it is not separated from the community. The very idea of an individual really leads us back to the community. For example, one cannot say, “I am alone” without saying it to someone else. Even the very thought of “I am alone” presupposes that you are having a conversation with someone in the head. Thus, for an individual to be totally discrete or distinct he must remain silent.
But, silence is not a calling. It may be an option because we definitely need it in order to hear God and a large dosage of it might just be the remedy the soul needs. Still, our calling, in the midst of progress, is to re-ground or re-establish the individual in the community. Even the most remote or archaic hermitage of monks or nuns are in a way linked to the community. As long as they pray the Divine Office, they are part of the Church.
There is a subtle shift here. The community is Church. Here, the community is not an amorphous idea that is romantically defined according to the principles of egalitarianism or if you like, a “kumbayah” non-threatening community that makes no demands on the individual. This form of community as we conceive of is basically sociological or political organised along principles of functionality. Whereas, the Church, as community par excellence, makes demands on us because she is by her very nature hierarchical because she is markedly sacramental. How? Christ and the Church are variously described as bridegroom and bride, head and body. Apart from the spousal or the anatomical analogy we use to describe the relationship between Christ and the Church, there is also the sacramental definition. She, the Church, is the sacrament of Christ and therefore as a sacrament, she is also hierarchical and as such, she makes demands on us. And as a corollary, there is no such thing as Christ without the Church. In being hierarchical, now you know why in the Catholic Church, there is only one Pope.
Perhaps you can see, there is more than meets the eye in the renovation of the Church. All the beauty of the Church points us in the direction of Christ the Head who is no less than the definition of beauty Himself. Not the shallow cosmetic beauty offered through physiological augmentation technology but beauty which is cosmological (heavenly) and therefore aesthetically pleasing. This is the journey which I have committed myself to in the last ten years and wish to share with you. It is a journey that requires that we make moral judgement as well as decisions instead of being carried along the inevitable tsunami of technological progress. In a way, we must make the crucial decision that we want to become a part of something larger than ourselves.
Now you understand why I am unabashedly Catholic. There is a universality about the Catholic Church which transcends the individual but not a kind of transcendence which patronises the individual as if it were something to be rid of. No, amidst the struggles that people have of Church, I behold the beauty of the Church reflected in her teaching, in her governance and certainly, in her worship. Therefore, I desire with every fibre of my being to be a servant of the Church—Holy Mother Church.
I am coming to the end now. And I have to sort of wrap up my part of the Triduum for tomorrow, it will be Father Colin Tan. Let me tell you that it is no fun doing this because my natural instinct has been basically why to work when you can skive. However, let me just recap some of the points that I have made thus far so that I may land.
There is objective truth, a concern with being, so that our ethics may be expressions and reflexions of the truth of being. To get to the truth of being, we need to be critical of the assumptions that we have. I made a long excursus on the idea we have of progress and how progress is not really the be all and end all of existence, no matter how captivating it may be. I ground the whole search for truth in the community and the community in our context is Church. The Church is our Holy Mother whom we all sometimes take for granted and I see how everything I have done thus far has been to serve she who is none other than the Bride of Christ. It now makes sense that I am a Jesuit for the Society of Jesus was founded for the sole purpose of serving the Lord alone and His bride, the Church under the Roman Pontiff, his Vicar on earth.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Triduum Day 1 (St. Edmund Campion)

I am a hypocrite. I do not know about you.
I do not practise what I preach. I do not know about you.
I do not like “I”. But, I do not like “I” is not the same as I do not like “me” of the poor self-esteem kind even if that may be true that I do not like “me”. But, I do not like “I” because it is not a good starting point for homilies for the reasons of hypocrisy or the reason of not practising what one preaches.[1]
However, this much is what each one here should know. “I” should not be the starting point of our morality because the “I” may not be the best barometer of what or how we ought to behave. For example, many of us may say, “I am a hypocrite and therefore who am I to judge?” What this statement means is that our morality will be based on the lowest common denominator. Just because I am not “up to the mark” does not mean I cannot say something.
So, there is a reason for not liking this “I” which might become clear to you later. For now, with this little preamble, I will proceed to speak to you in the person of “I”. 
Today, we celebrate St Edmond Campion. Let me say a few things about him and then get to the point where he is important to why I choose to speak as an “I”.
Firstly, who was he? He was a Jesuit priest, born in the England of social upheaval and religious persecution. What was he famous for? He was the most famous of the English martyrs who gave up a promising career at Oxford and also an invitation to enter the service of Queen Elizabeth I of England in order to become a Catholic priest. Why did he do that? He was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and the more he studied, the more he became convinced that the Catholic Church had the true faith. Thus, in conscience, he had to leave England and in his sojourn in Continental Europe, he joined the Society of Jesus. When the new mission to England opened up, he and two others were the first few to be sent. In London where he arrived, he wrote a manifesto of the mission which became known as the "Campion's Brag."
The mission was religious and not political. Let me read a snippet towards the end of the Brag which was directed to the Privy Council of the Queen. “And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.”
Never mind the pride detected therein or even the naïveté of a brash Jesuit.  The “expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood”.
Tonight, I would like to speak of the expense and the enterprise that has begun. But, humbly, I cannot promise that it is of God therefore there is no guarantee that it will last.
The Jubilee draws to close a journey that we have begun not just two and half years ago but ten years ago to be precise. I must say with gratitude to God our Lord that He has deign to retain me that long in this parish because it was only in the last few years that the shape of the enterprise has become clearer and more focused.
How can I describe this focus?
Firstly, the “I” I mentioned earlier. It is an entrapped “I”. We are unable to speak because we do not possess enough credibility and the result is a kind of Pelagianism. When we speak only because we are perfect or have credibility, it is another way of saying that I, on my own, possess the strength and grace to make God worthy of me.[2] But, that is not even our “sin”. It is the walls that we have built up in such a way that we are not able to speak to one another anymore. Perhaps you understand why “Self-Help” is so popular because it is symptomatic of a world of entrapped “I”s. Furthermore, this “I” is actually more “me” than anything else and this “me” cannot be the foundation of what we intend to build: “these remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers”. The “I” of Acts 2:42, is a communitarian “I”. And when we are unable to breach the walls of the entrapped “I”, we are reduced to looking for things to do, in order to unite us. Just observe the stalemate in the field of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. We dare not dream that truth can be arrived at and therefore we are content to try to “work” together. No wonder we have to speak of tolerance or acceptance.
Secondly, to allow a “communitarian I” to emerge is to describe an ontological journey. What do I mean by that? Ontology is the study of being. What is so great about that? Nothing! If you consider that it is probably a dead science. For example, some priests no longer believe in “ontological change” when it comes to the description of ordination to the priesthood.[3] According to them, such a phrase has no meaning. So, who cares what a thing may be except that it works. If you think about it, a part of the difficulty that we encounter in building community is because we have focused on the functionality of community. We are concerned with the structures that make community work. So, we set out to build the BECs thinking that by giving the BECs structures they will work. How far have we gone? Is it not true that we constantly have to reinvent ourselves? Is it not true that we often find it hard to convince people of the need to be part of the BEC. Does a husband need to re-invent himself? Or a wife? OK, maybe wives need to lah because of the availability of plastic surgery. But, we instinctively know that there are couples, for all intents and purposes, are not “in fashion” but their love last seems to last longer than fads come and go. You see, structures help but they do not define us.
Maybe this has not escaped you. The current batch of altar servers is not allowed to receive Holy Communion on the hand. All of them just follow the “ruling” because Father has decreed it so. But, do you know why? The reason is ontological. Either it is or it is not the Body of Christ. Perhaps, for many of us, it is symbolic more than it is really the Body of Christ. What we receive is the True Presence, not false. What we receive is really Jesus, not a symbol. What we receive is substantially the same Jesus who walked 2000 years ago. I mean, I sometimes see how an elderly person comes up tottering and unstable and receives Holy Communion on the hand. He is afraid that the HC might fall out of his hand and so he grabs it. There is desecration that takes place because in grabbing the Consecrated Host, they will be particles of sacred species that drop of the hand. Now, unless the teaching of the Church has changed, our behaviour must comport with what Holy Communion really is. I go through the motion of cleaning the sacred vessels because I behave according to what Holy Communion really is. Ontology, that is, being determines the manner of our acting.
I want to be clear about this. My telling you this is not asking you to change your mode of receiving Holy Communion. Instead, it gives you an example of how the journey you have been making in the last ten years is like, fortunately or unfortunately, with me at the helm. It is a journey, which I would describe, in the reclamation of ontology. Is it important? It is.
My “conversation” with the altar servers over 10 years has been based on this. They are the best if you consider that they have somehow perfected the ritual to a “T”. How did they do this? Fear and punishment were the tools to achieve perfection. When fear and punishment were removed, their true character came out. Little interiorisation was taking place and conversion was negligible. The conversation has not been easy because their mode of engagement and by and large ours too, is markedly functional. Do what is required in order to meet the “definition” of what a server is supposed to be.
This conversation I have been having with the serves is mirrored at large with the parish. We are best when we are functional. It is efficient. But, when we are functional, whatever we do is merely a job and we return to what we have always been when there is nothing to do. Imagine relationships built on functionality. Can you imagine this of a wife or of a mother? Furthermore, when we operate according to the principle of function, what happens when we do not feel like functioning? What happens when we do not feel up to serving or working or being a husband? We know how painful that is when utility is the currency we use to purchase friendship. Utility alone demeans our dignity as human beings.
The reclamation of ontology is an expression of this desire to learn the truth and to live by the truth, no matter how difficult and unpleasant it may be. It is a process, a journey and a conversion. We must make the transition to living who we are rather than be defined by what we do. And without fail, I have impressed, Sunday after Sunday, homily after homily that it is from knowing what a thing is, for example, Holy Communion or knowing who we are, for example, Catholics, that all our actions follow. Yes, we will fail but that is the matter for confession.
Once, I had a conversation with a young man. He was not a practising Catholic and he wanted to have a Catholic wedding. He had been living in with his fiancé and they both got civilly married on a particular date which sort of rhymed. You know the obsession people can have with numbers. The problem was that between the date of the civil marriage and the date of the Church wedding would be a year exactly. I told him that his status remained that of unmarried in the eyes of the Church and that if he lived with his so-called “wife”, he would have to contracept. His response was simply, “Catholics are doing it nowadays, anyway”. That conversation had every mark of civility but nowhere near enlightment, not my enlightment, but rather of the enlightment of the Church and of Christ our Lord.
As you can detect, our conversations are markedly “functional” instead of ontological. Therefore, the jubilee is not ending. Instead, our jubilee merely denotes a long haul if ever we want to be the parish that is supposedly shaped according to Acts 2:42. The quotation is not a prescription of what the early Church community did but rather it is a description of what the early Church was. It was the Church Christ founded upon the Apostles and that was why it behaved in that manner. Today, we pray for the grace to return to the being of truth so that we may live the truth of being.

[1]Sometimes, the reticence in using “I” could be a fear that one has to live up to what one preaches and that may be too troublesome. Why strive when you can cruise?
[2]Relook the 1st Sunday of Advent’s Collect. “All powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at His coming and call us to His side in the kingdom of heaven”. The phrasing of the old translation seemed to assume that we already have the strength of will and God merely adds a little more to what we already possess. The truth is we have none.
[3]Consider this: A priest has left the ministry and has been laicised. He can no longer function as a priest. But, if this ex-priest were to encounter a Catholic, lying on the road and dying due to an accident, or a Catholic, whose death is imminent from a terminal disease, he can still absolve the penitent of his sins. Read Can 976: Any priest, even though he lacks the faculty to hear confessions, can validly absolve any penitents who are in danger of death, from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

1st Sunday of Advent Year B

For some people this is the moment they have been waiting for, for the last forty years. We are entering a new liturgical year and it corresponds to the liturgical changes that we have been preparing ourselves for. In feel, the quality of Advent is perhaps no different from the last couple of weeks. The focus towards the end of the liturgical year is appropriately the reckoning or the judgement at the end of time. This Sunday, the Gospel seems to continue along the same vein but now it is of wakefulness as we wait for the Lord’s coming. It is signalled by the change in colour making this the other season where violet, purple or lavender is featured. However, the shift is subtle because the mood is not as penitential as it is of expectation. Advent’s “penance” is associated with the air of joyful preparation for Christ’s coming at His birth but with the proviso that we keep in mind at all time His second coming.

As we embrace Advent, this spirit of joyful preparation is captured in the prayer of the new Collect which at the same time also gives us the shape of how we ought to prepare ourselves for the Christmas to come. To help us appreciate it, we need to contrast the new translation with the old.

But, before we do that, let me make a small digression with regard to the reception of the new translation. Part of our difficulty in appreciating the new translation may be found in its repetitiveness. The original translators, when they set out to translate Latin into English, took a stance that repetition was somewhat redundant. It was as if we should never say, “I love you”, twice. To praise God, to bless Him, to adore Him and to glorify Him, were all considered to be a tad over the top, to the point of mouthfulness. The criteria they adopted were greater accessibility and less formality and yet, our experience bears testimony otherwise as when we are in love, whispering sweet nothing into the ear of our beloved is considered the norm and we never tire of saying, “I love you”.

Does the profusion of words, in short the language used, make a difference in our approach to God? Listen to the “Opening Prayer”, which we now call, the Collect, of the previous translation of 1973/1975.

“All powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at His coming and call us to His side in the kingdom of heaven”.

The manner by which we address God is important. A philosopher, Martin Heidegger, said, “Language is the house of being”. Moreover, we ought to remember that the Word became flesh. Therefore, the language used is important and here, you will note that the prayer is straightforward. It speaks directly to God. However, prayers in the original Latin are often premised on a word of request, “quaesumus”, which can be translated into “beg, implore, beseech and pray”. When formal request is removed in our address to God, then the inevitable “right” [it’s my right kind of "right"] is presumed as the phrasing of the old translation seemed to assume that we already have the strength of will and God merely adds a little more to what we already possess. Imagine the hubris. The truth is we have none and this is reflected in the new translation.

“Grant Your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet Your Christ with righteous deeds at His coming, so that gathered at His right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom”.

What is the difference?

There is a strong resonance of scripture and this is important to note. Firstly, the Collect reminds us of the Gospel of the Ten Virgins. We are praying that our lamps will be filled with righteous deeds.

Secondly, to be gathered at His right hand is reminiscent of Christ who will come as the judge of the world. Here, we pray that, with God’s grace, we will be the sheep invited to sit at the right hand of Christ so as to inherit the kingdom prepared for those found to be rich in righteous deeds.

Thirdly, the poetry of the words leads us to imagine our running with resolve to meet the Lord. It is not that we just wait passively, in a manner of speaking, for the Lord’s coming but to remember that as He comes, we may, like the Virgins run, not aggressively, but eagerly forth to meet Him. Not passively, not aggressively but eagerly. The possessive pronoun “Your Christ” in the prayer also suggests the tenderness of our encounter with the Christ of the Father.

The prayer expresses the crux of Advent—how it is supposed to be shaped is encapsulated in this Collect. The preparation for Christ’s coming is intense because it makes the connexion between our faithful love for Him and neighbour: for as much as you do to the least of these, you do it to Me (Matt 25). You might begin to appreciate that the term “Collect” does justice to the prayer before we enter the Liturgy of the Word because it collects all our intentions so as to channel them in the direction of our resolve.

Finally you will always hear this repeated ad nauseam, and perhaps unwittingly, by Protestant-pleasing Catholics, that we do not know the Bible. It is true that we may not know the Bible the way our separated brothers and sisters quote it but we breathe, eat and drink sacred scripture. The Eucharist is the privileged place when and where we have always lived the Bible and now the new translation restores this living principle into our worship. The language of the new translation seeks to uncover the beauty of our faith by removing the grime of poor translation that has shrouded the splendour of truth that Catholicism has always been scriptural in her teaching, in her practice and in her worship.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Christ The King Year A

There is a movie playing in the cinemas now called “Immortals”. It belongs to the genre that elevates violence into an entertaining art-form. [1] But that is not my interest. What piqued my interest, whilst reading the reviews, was the premise of the movie because it addresses how we acclaim Christ as King. [2]

The premise is located within a familiar phenomenon we call generation gap within which the conflict between the Titans and the Olympians arose. It was a conflict headed by Chronus, a Titan who was the father of Zeus, an Olympian. Caught in the middle of this conflict was Theseus, a stonemason bent on revenge against Hyperion, the cruel Heraklion King because Hyperion had savagely murdered the mother of Theseus. In this epic struggle between good and evil or between different generations of gods, the unspoken subtitle may simply be this: “man coming to the aid of gods”. The subtitle—man coming to the aid of god—is actually a story emasculation; a story where God is cut down to our size.

But cutting God down to size is not something new; it has been a process long in making. You can trace the beginning of this process to the onset of Modernity—an age characterised by the rise of Rationalism. Later I will give a working definition of Rationalism. For now, we may consider the Solemnity of Christ the King as an attempt to stop the march of an unintended development. The year was 1925. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast to remind Catholics that their true allegiance was to Christ and not to any ideology of that era, namely Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany that dared to claim allegiance absolutely.

But, there was more to countering the spread of the ideologies of Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler, for these ideologies were merely the unintended effect of the march of Rationalism. It was a march about 400 years old. At the onset of the Enlightenment, one of the noble projects of the philosophers was to try to prove God’s existence using reason. However, the unintended effect of the Rationalism of the Enlightenment has been the downsizing or the emasculation of God. In trying rationally to prove the existence of God, the unintended result was finally the death of God according to Nietzsche.

God is dead and the downsizing today continues along the path of technology and pop psychology—both offshoots of Rationalism. How? On the one hand, God has been reduced to a concept and some of us are not really searching for Him as we are for a method, a form of yoga, a 10-step programme for arriving at this “concept” whom we believe to be God. On the other hand, if He is not the logical conclusion of a technique, perhaps, we should rap like Eminem: “Will the real Jesus Christ, Son of God, please stand up, please stand up?” But somehow He still cannot, not because He is dead but because we have shackled Him with the chains of cloying compassion, pleasant platitudes and pampered pardon. This Jesus Christ is a really sensitive New Age guru who is not God and certainly not capable of judging.

If both our fascination with techniques and our dabbling with psychobabble have not downsized God, then perhaps, they have rendered Him totally irrelevant. A persistent effort at making Christ more a mirror of ourselves has rendered Christ the King into Christ the Kitten.

What happens when God is cut down to our size or when He does not inspire us with a sense of overpowering awe? He cannot touch us and we will languish. When God is small or irrelevant, according to John Paul II, the reign of the Civilisation of Death has begun. Thus, the Son of God, whom we acclaim Him as King, is relevant. He cannot be a technique nor should He be reshaped according to the mould of the Gospel of Nice. Beyond the success of any method or psychobabble disguised as religion, we encounter the true King to whom we owe our allegiance and to whom we must give our life entirely.

This King, whilst He lays down His life for us, is also a King who judges the world. Before His throne of judgement, we will be asked if we have recognised Him at all and before Him, we will be pruned and when His shearing blades cut, there will be blood. It cannot be that we acclaim Him as King without blood, without sacrifice and without suffering. Christ as King has eternal implications because He is a call to serious discipleship. Thus, are you ready for the discipleship of Christ the King?

What should your answer be? The changes that are taking place in the liturgy may help shape your answer to this question. This week, the Latin-Rite English speaking Catholics will use for the last time a translation they have been accustomed to for the last 40 years. Next week, a new translation will kick in. For this parish, this is academic because we made the switch earlier. The point here is important. The language of the new translation has been criticised as circumlocutory, clumsy and clunky. In truth, the passive voice of the language, the gestures of striking our breast, the head bows at the name of Jesus, the Trinity and Mary and the profound bows and genuflexion when we recite the Creed are attempts by the Church to return to God what really belongs to God. [3] In a sense, our language and gestures indicate a resistance to downsizing or emasculating God, something which we have been doing in the last 40 years especially when we address Him in terms too familiar. Alongside this desire not to downsize or emasculate God, we no longer presume to sing in the name of God, as in the first person: “I am the Bread of Life” or “I, the Lord of sea and sky” because over-familiarity may lead to contempt. [4]

Contempt or irrelevance is to be expected because rationalism is insidious in its intent at downsizing or emasculating God. Here, I make a little digression to give the working definition of Rationalism by contrast rationalism with rationality. In rationality, reason is guided by faith [5] whereas in Rationalism, faith is determined [or circumscribed] by reason [6]. Now, the answer to the question of discipleship becomes clearer. Our willingness to embrace discipleship is in direct proportion to our willingness to restore to God the majesty, the reverence and the transcendence that is rightfully His.
[1] When killing someone has to be slowed down in order that we take in every gory detail then violence has become entertainment.
[2] Today is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time. The quality of the readings in these last couple of weeks has been quite apocalyptic in the sense that they point towards the “end-time”, the Eschaton. However, have you noticed the irony of how we frame life today? In the past, when craftsmen built, they seemed to build things to last. Here, I am always reminded of the Cathedrals of Chartres or Notre Dame. But, the buildings or edifices that lasted were not for themselves. Instead, they stood as testimony to eternity—some form of sacramentality. Their aim was not to be lasting. Their aim pointed to the last things. Now, consider the irony. All our gadgets have built-in obsolescence. They often break down as soon as the warranty period wears out. Yesterday, I was sitting in the Santa Maria della Strada Chapel, waiting for a wedding Mass to begin and I was looking at the sanctuary floor and thinking of today’s homily, etc. The edge of the sanctuary floor had broken because a pew had fallen upon it. I was reminded that everything we have was not made to last. We all know that and perhaps that explains our obsession with agelessness, timelessness, deathlessness, perfect life, perfect health and perfect body. Our obsession to be lasting is actually pointing us to that which is more important: the Last Things.
[3] Not that God needs it. But, we do because we are creatures. Sometimes, we are called “co-creators” etc etc… the fact remains that we are creatures before the Creator.
[4] The Jews have got this right. And we are following them. Check out the 29th June 2008 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments’ letter to the Bishops’ Conferences on ‘the name of God’. It gives three brief “directives.” They address specifically “liturgical” situations (official public worship), rather than private reading of the Bible or the printed Bibles themselves. 1st directive: In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used nor pronounced. 2nd directive: In modern translations of the Bible “destined for the liturgical usage of the Church,” the tetragrammaton should be translated with an equivalent of Adonai/Kyrios, such as “Lord” in English which has long been the practice of most biblical translations. 3rd directive: When Adonai and YHWH are used together in the Bible, then the translation (again for liturgical use) should be “Lord God,” following the practice of the ancient Greek and Latin translations of the Bible.
[5] Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. According to St Augustine, fides quaerens intellectum meaning that faith seeks understanding. Thus, faith uses reason to understand God and yet reason is guided by faith. [6] Here, faith is circumscribed by reason meaning that where reason cannot go, faith must stop. That is the shortcomings of a scientific mindset which seeks to divide faith and reason.