Monday, 31 January 2011

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

We think of a Cathedral as a place, the spiritual motherhouse of a particular Church, that is, of a diocese. For us, we speak of St John’s. But, the word Cathedral is born of today’s Gospel. “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the hill. There He sat down and was joined by His disciples”. This line can easily escape us because our attention is drawn to the immediacy and the immensity of the crowd. However, the word “cathedral” is derived from “cathedra” meaning seat or chair. Thus, Matthew sets the magisterial stage when he tells us that Jesus by sitting takes on the proper teaching posture of Jewish Rabbis and that He will now teach both officially and instructively. This notion that “to sit is to teach” is current in our understanding and experience. For example, we refer to a professor’s chair. And for us, more importantly, the Pope when teaching officially is said to be speaking or teaching “ex cathedra”.

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel draws a parallelism with the Old Testament. As Moses descended from Mount Horeb bearing with him, laws written with the finger of God, now Christ sits, much like a king, on His throne, ready to teach and to instruct. In a sense, the Sermon sets us up like subjects before the King who is now legislating what values are required for His Kingdom.

To understand the values necessary, it is important to look at the Gospel’s description of the subjects. It speaks of the multitudes and some of them are described as disciples. In the context of its usage, the word disciple does not always describe someone who follows in order to be instructed and taught. It may describe someone who listens but may not be ready to commit. Just like the “multitude”.

In order to appreciate the dynamics between Christ and the multitude/disciples, let us look at the relation between master and slave. When we speak of master and slave, we are taken up by the suggestion that mastery has—one who is mighty, in charge and in command. However, a philosopher reminds us that master and slave are both relational terms in the sense that there can be no master without a slave.

Likewise, today’s Gospel may speak of the values necessary for the Kingdom. Christ may desire that we all embrace His teaching but a teacher is only as good as the students he teaches. Teaching to be effective requires the meeting of hearts and minds of both the Teacher and those to be taught.

Thus, the word “cathedral” might as well just refer to a building because the idea behind the word is quite empty or literally meaningless. It is empty or meaningless not only because there are no teachers but because there are teachers who dare not teach.1 But, more than not daring to teach, we are also un-teachable because modern society is made up of teachers and teachers. Everyone has something to say but nobody has anything to learn. Or, like the Gospel, we may be disciples who listen but are not ready to commit.

We seem to know everything. Everyone is an expert. Wikipaedia is that phenomenon which “democratises” expertise. This is partly due to the fact that society is not just “self-made”. We are also self-taught. All we need to do is to search and our internet search engines are design to help us on this quest for self-knowledge2. Moreover, our idea of truth is total “uncovering” in which knowledge simply means finding out everything there is to know; a sort of baring it all—just like Wikileak is. Unfortunately, our idea of truth borders closer the obscene, the salacious and the smutty. Now you know why tabloid scandals sell so well. But, uncovering everything does not always bring us closer to the truth. Therefore, in the context of the Kingdom, to embrace the values of the Beatitudes requires very much a spirit not only of openness but of humility—quite the contrary of the self-made, self-taught and self-assured philosophy—a humility that embraces admonition, correction, discipline, reappraisal, re-examination, and even castigation. I am not right all the time. It requires a teachable spirit.

The Beatitudes are a description of the conditions for our learning. Learning requires an admission that no matter how much we know and possess, it is insufficient. Hence, they enumerate our inadequacies and helps us to understand why Christ’s values are conditions for learning. If we are rich and self-sufficient, there is nothing else to gain. The aggressive will never know peace. The need to win does not always guarantee satisfaction. In fact, those who gun for achievement after achievement will have the phantom of success scourging them all the time.

Both the first and second reading exhort us to acknowledge our poverty—an acknowledgement that prepares us to receive Christ’s teaching. For the sake of the Kingdom, more than ever, it is time to cultivate a teachable spirit, one which recognises our limitation that whatever we see, know, feel or understand, there is much more that we cannot see, know, feel or understand. Only in poverty, gentleness and humility will we become rich, strong and firm in spirit.

[1] On a deeper reflexion, in some ways, we have forgotten what “teaching” means. This is because we have reduced morality to “private” morality. We have emasculated “morality” by rendering it into a private matter. Teaching is sacramental in the sense that a person teaches the truth and in a way that “act” of teaching is independent of his or her moral standing. Truth is credible and it has to be because of itself. But, what “private” morality has done is to reduce the credibility of truth [what is to be believed] to the credibility of the individual [who is to be believed]. Thus, we often hear this in arguments, “Don’t tell me what to do when you yourself are not living it”. On the one hand that is true, one has to be credible to speak credibly. We say that the medium is the message and credibility is the basis for the word scandal—obstacle to credibility, to believing. But, on the other hand, it is a form of “dumbing” down. What it means is that “I shall be moral only if you are moral”. Our crisis of faith [credibility] can be explained by the failure of the messenger and not the message. Thus, what Christ says in quite instructive. “Do as the Pharisees tell you but do not follow what they do”. That preserves an objectivity to truth making it independent of the “sanctity” or the “holiness” of the person speaking about it. I guess this is one facet of the Catholic principle: ex opera operato. A crisis of teaching is also a crisis of learning [believing]. But, more than that, it is also a crisis of faith, an indication we no longer believe that God can teach and the only way God teaches is through mediation—through His human instruments. Ultimately, our crisis of credibility reveals a denial of the Incarnation.
[2] It is an expression of our “self-help” culture.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today, both Naphtali and Zebulun are mentioned in the first reading and the Gospel. At the time of Jesus, these lands were collectively known as Galilee. Geography places them at the northerly region of Israel. They border the pagan territories and for the people, especially of the south, concerned with purity of blood, of dietary practices and of worship, these lands are viewed in less than complimentary light. They are looked upon as lands of darkness which is the reason Christ chooses to appear there. This we hear in the first reading as it echoes the Christmas Midnight Mass’ declaration that the people that walked in darkness has seen a great light. Thus, Jesus of Matthew is the fulfilment of Prophet Isaiah’s beautiful words: The light that has dawned on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death.

The liturgy brings out this point clearly especially at Easter Vigil. The rubrics recommends that it should be celebrated only when there is sufficient darkness. All artificial lights in the Church are dimmed and only then will the service of light make sense when the Paschal Candle is lit and the “Lumen Christi” is intoned. The Paschal Candle processing into the Church signifies Christ’s light piercing and breaking through the darkness of our sins. Progressively the other lights are switched on until the time when the Exultet is chanted, the brightness of the artificial lights lend themselves to the light of the Paschal Candle bathing the baptised faithful in Christ’s light and more symbolically, for the catechumen, waiting for the wash of regeneration, they are awash by bright light of Christ first before they enter the waters of baptism.

Now, you begin to appreciate the contrast between light and its absence. In the above, I am simply describing a case that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The absence of light or what we normally call darkness helps us value light when it shines. Therefore, it is in the context of a world darkened by sin that we call Christ the Light of the world.

However, for now, I would like to speak not so much of the darkness associated with sin, the darkness of sin or the darkness caused by sin. Instead my concern is a glaring lack of contrast because we have this hopeless addiction with artificial light so much so that to speak of Christ as Light of the world may not make much sense. Take a look at one of the night satellite maps of the world especially of Europe, North America and North-east Asia. The night map of Japan shows the entire archipelago completely lit—no shadow of darkness. Artificial light is now turning our night into day so much so that we seem to live in perpetual light.

But, darkness is necessary for a balance in life. In short there is a rhythm, a regularity between light and its absence that makes life possible and not just meaningful. There are some of us who dare not sleep or who do not want to sleep. Here I am not referring to insomniacs—those who for medical reasons cannot sleep. Instead, there are those who party all night. They sleep very little because there is life to be lived; there’s happening to be at.

When we refuse to sleep it could be a sign that we are running away from ourselves. When we flood ourselves with too much light, it is a symptom of our running away. Sleep is a momentary embrace of death. To flee from darkness and to prefer total light do not indicate a life of virtue. Instead, both are symptoms of a fear and a denial. We run away from death because we unwittingly deny the reality of the resurrection. Too much light facilitates this denial. Think about it, turning a 12-hour day into a 24-hour day is tacitly implying that there is not enough time to eat, to enjoy and to live—that all living has to be done in this life or never at all. In short: no resurrection. I used to think that nuns are boring because they sleep so early but religious life’s embrace of the rhythm of day and night is also a faithful embrace of a promise that after this life, there is more life.

One of the prayers puts into perspective what I have tried to say and it goes like this: Father, let the light of Christ guide us to your Kingdom through a world filled with lights contrary to your own. The liturgy continually refers to Christ as the Light and this is where darkness is important because it is a symbol both of sin and death. How can we recognise Christ to be THE Light if we are “living” in perpetual light? And on the contrary, how can we speak of sin if we do not know darkness? In a way, we might be fooling ourselves that we are morally right all the time because of perpetual light. Is it any wonder why people do not sin anymore?

In conclusion, darkness, the absence of light or its pervasive presence is not just an environmental concern. It is not simply a matter of light pollution but instead, it is also a matter of spiritual significance. Before we can really appreciate Christ as the Light of the world, we need to appreciate the physical absence of light, that is, darkness. Under the glare of abiding artificial light, we might just confuse a contrary light to be that of Christ. [1] We live in a noisy world. To hear God’s Word, we need silence. [2] Likewise, we live in a world too bright. To appreciate how Christ is truly the Light of the world, we need darkness.

[1] Perhaps the second reading is helpful. At first glance, it was simply Paul writing to the Corinthians to address the issues of “disunity”. But, a closer scrutiny might lend us another interpretation. The question about siding Apollos, Paul or Cephas could be read as mistaking all these personalities or “lights” to be The Light. Paul, Apollos or Cephas may have been great stalwarts and leaders of the Church but they were not to be mistaken for the Christ—personalities to be attached to, to an idolatrous extent.
[2] Just like light and darkness, noise and silence are correlational. Our insistent need to be immersed in noise could also mask a running away from hearing God’s word.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

As we age, we pick up food restrictions. For many of us, they are health related—like controlling cholesterol level, reducing salt intake and regulating blood sugar. People do ask me from time to time why I do not eat mutton or lamb. The short answer I give is: I eat the Lamb of God. Nothing else comes close. There is some truth to that. Today, our principal focus is the Lamb who takes the sin of the world. But, the events that gave rise to this designation “Lamb of God” is worth a second look. The sequence of these events took place over a period of some days. Three days to be exact. The first day, John encountered the priests and Levites of Jerusalem. They were dispatched there by the Jews. The second day is significant. John said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God”. Who was John talking to? The disciples? No, because the third day John was there again, this time with two of his disciples. John was staring hard at Jesus. Our Gospel is taken from the second day of the sequence. So the question to be asked is, if John was not talking to his disciples, then to whom was he talking to? Nobody which means everybody. It means that John was and is speaking to the reader and the listener: to each and every one of us. The Gospel is an encounter between the Lamb of God, John the Baptist and us. This encounter highlights the rôles played by these three and understanding them helps deepen our spirituality. The first rôle belongs to the Lamb of God as described in the first reading. He is the Servant that was referred to last Sunday; this Servant who will bring not only Israel back to God but everyone else. And rightfully so, the Gospel reminds us that the prophecy of Isaiah would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The second rôle is played by John the Baptist. From before Christmas until the Baptism of the Lord, John has featured on our horizon. And he continues to do so even this Sunday. [1] John’s rôle is to reveal the Christ. On this second day, rendered in the Jerusalem Bible as “the next day”, John points to the Lamb of God. The third rôle, where it involves you and me, is spelt out by St Paul in the second reading. The context of Paul’s letter was a divided Church struggling with issues of morality. He urged the Church in Corinthia to return to holiness. What should holiness be like? It is not just a state but also a description of a mission—a mission whereby Christians should strive for a full Christian life, imitating Christ, the Son of God, who gave His life for God and for His neighbour. This mission is actually the “job-description” of our baptism. In that way, John’s lifestyle make sense. Camel’s hair for his habit, locust for his food, and the desert for his home. They are not alternative lifestyle choices, the way we understand “alternative” today. Instead, he embraced self-denial so that he could be free for his mission. In an analogous way, we abstain and fast—not only from food but from pleasures of all kinds in order to free us from inordinate or immoderate attachment so that we can imitate Christ better. Unfortunately, our response to holiness is fear. We perceive it as unreal. Many think that it is impossible to embrace a life of true imitation of Christ. Or, if we accept it, we may restrict it to an exclusive club of saints or for many of us, we are waiting for the right time to embrace holiness. The second reading is a snippet from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians but, did you know that Paul may have written more than the two letters we know of? Furthermore, Clement, listed as Pope after Linus and Cletus in the Roman Canon of the Eucharistic Prayer, also wrote to the Corinthians. [2] The context of Clement’s Letter was Church dissension or disunity. He proposed a renewal of faith and an adherence to the traditions received from the Apostles. Paul with his many letters and Clement teach us that firstly, there is no “perfect” time to live holy lives. You cannot wait for it. Like Elvis once sang: It’s now or never. Second, holiness is a lifelong process that requires our daily assent. Your saying “yes” does not stop at “once”. You need to renew the assent day after day. Third, to say that it is impossible embrace a life in imitation of Christ reveals a poor understanding of holiness. This poor understanding is often observed at Confessions: “Why go for Confessions when I am going to sin again?” “You know Father, the last time I came for Confession, when I walked out I sinned again because I saw the person I hated and I cursed and swore at him under the breath”. When people question the need to go for Confession for “repeated” sins, they are in reality saying “Let me be holy first Lord, let me make myself perfect, so that I can stand worthy before you”. Holiness does not reside in the area of ability, capacity or expertise. It belongs to the world of desire, effort, perseverance or supplication. It is not about a capacity to make ourselves worthy but about us embracing godliness. It is not our gift to God but God’s gift to us. Our response to His gift is to repeatedly embrace it despite our weakness and failure. So, we embrace the life of Christ even when we fall repeatedly because ultimately it is God who will make us be like His Son. Holiness is the only rôle worthy of the Lamb of God.
FOOTNOTES: [1] He is one of the few saints in our Calendar who gets to have a Vigil Mass for himself on 23rd June, 24th being the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist. And like his cousin, we get to celebrate both his birth and death. For all saints, with the exception of Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist, we only commemorate their deaths which are also their “births” into heavenly life. Mary knew not death and so we celebrate her Assumption. Joseph is only commemorated as the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary because we do not know when he died. Also note that the Solemnity of the two great Apostles, Ss Peter and Paul is also dignified with a Vigil Mass. [2] He is listed in this order, “Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian” in EP1. He was amongst the first generation of Church Fathers, who, according to St Irenæus had seen the Apostles, conversed with them and seen their traditions.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Baptism of Our Lord Year A

The first Sunday in ordinary time is dedicated to the Baptism of the Lord. This event marks Christ’s entry into public life. But, this event does not merely signal a transition in the life of Christ. For Matthew, this event is also cosmic in magnitude as Christ’s public manifestation to the world is also at the same time, the revelation that He is the beloved Son of God. Matthew wants to alert his Jewish audience that not far in the background of his narration of Christ’s baptism they should hear the echo of the Book of Genesis.

The opening of the heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit like a dove recall two events in the history of salvation. First, the creation of the world and second, the aftermath of the flood. In the beginning, the Spirit hovered over the formless mass and after the destruction of the deluge, a dove signalled to Noah that a new era has begun. At the River Jordan, the Spirit in the shape of a dove hovered over Christ showed that mankind was now entering a history like never before.

In the meantime, dazzled as we are by the immensity of this cosmic event, we might just miss out on what this new history really meant. John preaches a baptism of repentance. For the Jews, a man’s sins belong to realm of private business between him and God. Something which many of you would like. But, here, at the Jordan there is a public admission of one’s sin. Thus, John’s protest is appropriate. He, who is sinless, does not need repentance. And yet, Christ subjects Himself to the same ritual as those who are sinful.

Now you can discern that the Baptism of Christ coming so closely at the heel of Christmas and Epiphany shows that there is a bond between the birth, the visit of the Magi and His public ministry. He will minister to us, not from a distance but in close proximity to us. He is truly Emmanuel, God with us. He became one of us through the incarnation. At His baptism, he confirms that He is committed to our cause and the parting words from heaven declared that His presence will be no less than the very presence of the divine.

Thus, the baptism event marking Christ’s entry into public life has repercussion or consequence for those who are baptised. In the first reading, there is a description of what a true servant is to be like. It is a hymn of the Deutero-Isaiah—the second book of Isaiah. The Jew had been exiled and so on one level, this true servant and later suffering servant applied to the “corporate” person of Israel. But in the context of the New Testament, the true and suffering servant would no longer be the generic corporate figure of Israel but would tangibly be realised in the person of Christ.

We can understand the implication of Christ as suffering servant through the ways baptism has been variously described. Listen to St Paul’s Letter to the Romans 6. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised in Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life”.

St Paul’s description of baptism invites us to consider what our perception of a life with Christ is supposed to be like. For as soon as we follow Christ, then we will have walked in the shadow of His cross—the spectre of death is always real. If anyone believes that life with Christ is hunky dory, he might want to rethink that. Here, I am tempted to say that those who never have to suffer are perhaps not on the road to heaven. Let me pause here for you to consider the gravity of what I have just said: Those who never have to suffer are perhaps not on the road to heaven. It sounds self-righteous but maybe a saying may help us look beyond what I have just said to the meaning of following Christ the Suffering Servant and it goes like this: Faith does not lessen the pain, it makes it bearable.

This ties in with what we are celebrating today: Christ’s baptism, His public ministry and the implication of Him being the suffering servant. His taking on our sins have made our life with Him possible as well as in many cases bearable. For most of us, fed on a diet of easy life, we have come to believe that suffering and dignity have become mutually exclusive. There seem to be no dignity in suffering. Yet, He came to show us what dignity really means. It is to be found in being loved by God. Our dignity does not come others or from others’ estimation of who we are. Therefore, our dignity is not diminished no matter how much we may suffer. Here, let me be clear that there is no glorification of suffering. There is no need to. Maybe I am lamenting that many of us, me included, have not reckoned nor counted the true cost of discipleship. There is no gratuitous glorification of suffering instead I am merely stating the obvious, that in Christ, persecution should not surprise us. Thus, a beloved does not need to lead a shielded life for with Christ near him, what vicissitudes he is faced with can never crush him and will never shatter the confidence of his dignity as a beloved of the Father. From this, let me ask a question. In the recent event over the so-called removal of crucifixes which left many of us disturbed, was it an affront to justice because a human right has been trampled on or did the anger reflect a lack of confidence in our dignity. The answer is, there was an injustice committed but more importantly, the level of anger also reflected the depth of our humiliation. Humiliation is proportional to anger but disproportionate to our dignity. It means that often a person who is not confident of his dignity will feel the greater humiliation. Those who are sensitive, easily slighted, insulted, etc probably will feel the humiliation more acutely.

In summary, the baptism of Christ marks His entry into public life—a change charged by the knowledge of His Father’s love for Him. So, for us who are baptised, it requires that we also embrace our dignity as the beloved of God. If only 20% (ideally 100%) of all baptised seriously embrace their dignity as sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, we could become a potent force for the good. Then the public ministry of Christ could really begin in earnest. Otherwise, we will often be reduced to fighting for our dignity because we have been humiliated. So, do you want to be in the 20% or do you choose to remain just in the 80%.