Monday, 28 February 2011

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The lament of the First Reading sets the tone for our reflexion. It is taken from the period known as the Second or Deutro-Isaiah. The people are in exile and it appears that God has abandoned them. In their cry of desperation, God gives them an answer that has echoed through the centuries: Even if a mother should forget you, I will never forget you.

God’s promise never to forget can be a key to unlock the Gospel. Christ urges His disciples to place their trust in God by way of reminding them that they cannot serve two masters. They can trust God for if God can take care of insignificant creatures, how much more will God take care of them. Finally, St Paul, in the second reading, canonised this trust in God when he surrendered his destiny into God’s hand.

All three readings are united by a common theme that God can be trusted.

And, this is where we wade into complicated waters. Many of us know that God can be trusted. Unfortunately, it is a knowledge that resides at the head level. We know that God can be trusted as we know that fresh water at sea level will boil at 100°C. It is a knowledge which we easily rattle off but when a situation is dire, it comes across as platitudes. Try telling it to someone who has been retrenched and whose 70 job applications have not been responded to or to parents who have lost their only child. To say “Trust in God” would sound hollow. It might even be countered with a “How can a good God allow such a thing to happen?”.

To know that God can be trusted requires an affective familiarity. In a nutshell, it means we “know” that God can be trusted but we “feel” that He cannot be trusted. It is a head-heart divide. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to gain the affective experience of God’s trustworthiness because the language to describe trust in God is written with the vocabulary of self-help.

To trust someone is to give oneself over to the other person. It means one relinquishes control over one’s destiny. This is not always easy to because the vocabulary of self-self is decidedly self-reliant.

Firstly, we are who we are only in as much as what we can make of ourselves. It has been drummed into us that self-definition is the only way to define oneself. If you do not help yourself, no one would. [1]

Secondly, when those entrusted or empowered to take care of us are derelict in their duties, where else do we turn to, if not to ourselves. The police [part of the executive], politicians [part of the legislative), judges/lawyers [part of the judiciary], the bishops/priests [part of hierarchy], anyone and everyone who has the duty to lead, to serve, to protect and to worship, all have been tried and found wanting. And this is not helped because we keep reminding ourselves that nobody can be trusted. How? It is necessary to acknowledge the good intention but to realise the result is an increasing fear, despondency and despair. The never ending circulation of emails detailing rapes and robberies might be good warning but the mushrooming enclaves of gated communities are symptoms of this enforced self-reliance—a retreat from the “civitas”—from where we get words like city, civic or civilisation. [2]

Thirdly, trusting the other is usually reduced to trusting with what can be lost, what can be dispensed with. Our trust is risk calculated and taken.

When we are self-reliant, that is, when we depend on ourselves, we will only turn to God when everything has failed. And we wonder why God keeps silent. Our idea of God is basically “I pray and you obey”. Trust in God means that even before we begin any enterprise, God must already be present. It requires a letting go which we are not used to but it is necessary in order to arrive at the affective experience. It means a letting go of kiasu, kiasi, kiakwi or kiabo—for those not conversant in colloquial Hokkien, it is letting go the fear of losing (kiasu), fear of death (kiasi), fear of the devil (kiakwi) and fear of the wife (kiabo). OK, the last one does not count!!

St Paul in the 2nd Reading showed us how. He faced many difficulties in his ministry to the Lord [3] and to the early Church and even though the natural instinct was to be defensive, still, he abandoned himself to God. That abandonment was not despair nor was it hopeless. It was handing over his life to God. But, be warned that to trust in God is not a panacea for all ills. It does not mean that we will not suffer. Just because we pray, it does not mean that God will shield us from pains. On the contrary, be prepared.

We sometimes hear that this country is going down the road of a failed state—nothing is really secure and we are sliding down the slope to stagnation. When the economy falters, with the exception of a few, everyone will suffer. So, when everything fails, when we have done all within our power and still fail, what do we do?

The Church turns to the saints for inspiration and this you will never be in short supply. Time and time again, they give themselves over to God. Pressed around and yet they never give up because they believe that in the end God can be trusted. Robert Bolt who wrote “A Man For All Seasons” gives us a glimpse of this trust in God. At the end, when beheading was the inevitable consequence of unflinching loyalty to the Apostolic Faith, Margaret, the daughter of St Thomas More pleaded with her father: "Father, haven't you done as much as God can reasonably want?" In other words, “Use your head. You have done all you reasonably can and expected of you. Why not now give in to the demands of the King so that your life would be spared?”. St Thomas More looked at her and said, “Margaret, all of life, mine and yours is not just a matter of reason, it is a matter of trust in God". It is not just a matter of the head. It is also a matter of the heart.

To trust in God is to allow our lives to become prayer. When that happens, nothing can ever be that big that we lose the confidence that we have been carved securely into the hand of the God would never forget us. It is a freedom from fear or unnecessary anxiety that no currency can ever procure and no money can ever buy.
[1] To be fair, it is not as individualistic as it sounds. To be self-reliant could be a part of the process of trying to individuate, to be “me”. This need for individuation partially explains why people sometimes need to dress inappropriately. It is not so much as looking for recognition as it is a cry to stand out, “I am me”. But, consider why the only way to be “me” has to be shocking, disgusting or outrageous.
[2] Earlier I mentioned something about outrageous dressing etc. Driven from the “civitas”—the individual can only shout in order to be heard. A self-reliant world is a lonely place to be.
[3] In his ministry to the Lord, St Paul always felt the burden of his unworthiness. He was afflicted by this so-called “thorn” in his side until the Lord Himself assured him of His strength.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today’s Gospel continues from last week and it forms a part of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. He spoke to his disciples by referring to a law which they were familiar with, the lex talionis—the law of retaliation. Within the context of this law of retaliation, Christ encouraged His disciples to strive for perfection.

In a way, Christ actually built on the vision of the first reading. There, the community of the Sons of Israel was invited to imitate God’s holiness. How? Holiness was expressed in one’s actions towards one’s neighbour but it was basically “restrictive” in the sense that the love of neighbour was restricted to the love of a fellow Israelite. There were provisions for the care of the stranger. Still, the stranger was someone excluded. In Christ, living in holiness, which is an imitation of God’s perfection, has been broadened to include loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you.

If holiness means loving one’s enemies and praying for them, perhaps we can better contextualise lex talionis. For many of us, this law seems to expose man’s capacity for violence because retaliation and revenge are two sides of a coin. It sounds positively uncivilised as it resembles the rule of “tit for tat”.

But, lex talionis is not a “tit for tat” justice. It is a form of retributive justice which tries to ensure that any corresponding and subsequent damage (a form of compensation) demanded to assuage an aggrieved party is proportionate. It was a moral attempt to prevent society from sinking any lower than it was. The intent of lex talionis was more to limit our violence rather than it being an expression of our need for revenge. Thus, it has next to nothing to do with what we commonly think of as a “tit for tat” rule.

The intent of lex talionis was to limit violence but that was not enough because it could only deal with the aftermath of a wrong committed. And because it could only deal with the consequence, there was a tendency to veer towards reprisal or retaliation. So, Christ in broadening the boundary of holiness to include forgiveness, compassion and generosity may help us to go beyond the aftermath of an evil suffered or a wrong committed against us. It allows us not to be overcome by the consequence of what is evil or an injustice.

Today, His teaching is even more crucial because our definition of justice is markedly or decidedly vengeful. My lecturer in the University used to say, “I don’t get angry, I get even”. Our sense of justice is you get what you deserve. Contrast it with God’s sense of justice. God’s sense of justice is what you need. Now you understand why those who came to work at the 11th hour got paid the same as those who came at the 1st hour.

For many people, the idea of justice is also linked to what is commonly called closure. It is often said that closure is needed before one can move on. Those who break up with a boy or a girl know that feeling of incompleteness that there seem to be some unfinished matters which prevent them from going forward. The need for closure drives a person into a wasteland of unfinished business being neither here nor there.

This description of “closure” as the need to come to terms in order to move on is best illustrated in the case of capital punishment. A criminal put to death for some heinous crimes is often the closure that the victim's family might need in order to move on. This sense of justice may be expressed this way: “We cannot live if the criminal has not suffered like we had”. In many cases, long after the criminal is put to death, the victim's family remains trapped within their prison of hatred.

Justice and therefore reparation, through retribution, through restoration or through resistance, does not always produce the “closure” we so desperately and psychologically need. Two things can be said here. Firstly, closure has more to do with forgiveness than retribution. What makes forgiveness difficult is because we mistake it to be “forgetfulness”. It is not. Instead, forgiveness is letting go of the need to exact a revenge meaning that tit for tat is not a win-win equation. And it leads me to the second point. The closure that we desperately need belongs not exclusively in this world. In the Old Testament world, even though provisions were made for the treatment of the “widows, the orphans, the poor and the strangers”, this group of people would always somehow be “discriminated” against. Thus, the Lord hears the cry of the poor, says the Psalmist. What the world does not see, God sees. We might need to reconsider where to place this “need” for closure. On the one hand, we should do all in our power to rectify injustice but on the other hand, in the context of the Resurrection, if closure does not take place in this world, Hope gives us the assurance that the closure we need will be found in the next world. It will be found in God. That is why “the sick, the ugly and the retarded” are not aberrations to be rid off. If closure must take place in this world, then “the sick, the ugly and the retarded” are damned forever.

Christ who came from a “world” more just than ours could ever be, told His disciples that the perfection demanded by forgiveness, compassion and generosity was possible. In our justice-oriented world, we often feel that every wrong must be made right before there can be a closure and life can move on. Here it would seem as if Christ were counselling fatalism or determinism: give up, do not struggle and it is definitely alright that people walk all over us. Was He? No, He was definitely not. Beyond the requirement that we make right what is wrong, Christ’s commands make sense: be ready to forgive, be ready to let go and be ready to go the extra mile. If it does not help the other, it might just do more for us than the “closure” we yearn for.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Last week, the homily centred on discipleship as salt of the earth and light of the nations. Today, the disciple not only understands the consequences of discipleship but is further reminded of how he is to be salt and light. The Good News is often described as the Gospel of Love, and so today Christ spells out for His disciples how they ought to love. Apart from “do not kill, do not commit adultery and do not swear”, He actually added some pretty stringent rules for His disciples.

The laying down of rules is necessary for any society to function. For example, you either drive on the British left or on the Continental right. You cannot drive left and right at the same time. But just for the matter of speaking, not about driving left or right but just driving in your lane—have you ever driven behind someone who straddles two lanes? I mention this example because it is a cause of my sinning and confessions.

If laws govern civil society, so too laws govern the Church because she resembles society. Church Laws are there to help us live our discipleship to the fullest. Some would reject this assertion. They can accept that civil society needs laws for its healthy functioning but with regard to the Church, they consider “laws or regulations” as inhibiting/hindering the full functioning of the Church. This view may stem from an understanding of what the Gospel of Love really means. For some of us, it is equated, more or less, with a kind spontaneity. No doubt, this view is aided by a distorted image of an “anti-establishment” Jesus. Thus, if we truly love like Jesus loved and want to follow Him, then there should be a lot more flexibility and a lot less rigidity in the Church because love by nature is inclusive, tolerant and most of all forgiving.

The injunction of Christ against divorce can be given a fresh interpretation in the light of a more inclusive, tolerant and accepting love. A person who is divorced and now in a 2nd marriage should not be judged and he or she should be forgiven since everyone is entitled to make mistakes sometime or another in their lives. And since we are personally prone to mistakes, therefore, who are we to judge.

But, this reveals a dichotomy or a double vision in the way we view reality. On the one hand we accept that civility requires laws. But, on the other hand, we believe that anything that describes itself in terms of love must almost exclude discipline. Thus, the Church should be more forgiving and less judgemental. There should be less restrictions and more freedom. [1] This dichotomy is often encountered when people come to the Church and a perennial question raised is: “Why is the Church so rigid and so not understanding?”.

I think the first reading gives us a clue as to why such a double vision exists. It describes making choices in order to live to the fullest. What does it mean? For many of us, both making choices and a full life, are closer in meaning to “spontaneity and freedom” than they are to discipline and commitment. We are socialised into thinking that a full life is markedly spontaneous—to be able to do anything, anytime, anyway and anywhere. Thus, many choices available are necessary to express this spontaneity or the ability to choose from a myriad of choices is indicative of freedom.

But, the act of choosing has a way of limiting us because freedom does not reside in choices available but rather in choosing to be “limited”. Has anyone of you married a spouse who is still behaving as if he or she is not married? I am not speaking of adultery here but really expressing the heartache of some of you who think that by marrying your spouse, he or she would settle down but instead you are faced with a “bachelor/bachelorette” who does not understand its meaning. [2] The act of choosing simply means that in choosing this option, you have closed off the other options. This is the meaning that freedom resides in the act of choosing rather than the choices available. [3] Can I choose rather than what choices available!

We cannot arrogate to ourselves what belongs to the realm of the spirit because we are not gods and not angels unconstrained by time and space. On the contrary, Christ who is God, in being born, subjected Himself to the limitation termed as the scandal of the particular. He came 2000 years ago, not 200 years ago, born of Jewish parents, Mary and Joseph, not Martian parents, Mork and Mindy, born poor, not rich and lived in Palestine and not in Persia. It was within this limited and constrained circumstances that Christ chose to live to the fullest by obeying His Father to the last breath of His earthly existence.

Thus, freedom is not anything, anytime and anyplace “can”. Instead freedom means, “Can I give myself fully to this person, this endeavour, this venture at this place and in this time? So, coming back to this Gospel of Love, we begin to realise how much more defined and demanding love is than a wide-eyed saccharine soft love we imagine the Gospel to be. It requires so much more discipline and regularity and only then it becomes spontaneous in the sense that we spontaneously choose Christ anytime, anyplace over anything and everything else. The meaning of spontaneity is not wild abandonment. Instead, it is a freedom to spontaneously choose God above all else.

In conclusion, with Christ, there is no new standard. In that way, Christ can say that He has come not to abolish the Laws or the Prophets. With Christ, there is a higher standard that places Christianity heights above the world’s measures. It is definitely harder and not just higher because many of us have not fully understood what true freedom entails. Freedom is to embrace a higher calling because we are made in the image and likeness of God. Anything less would be an insult to the Creator and a disfigurement of who we are really made to be.
[1] Sometime an opposition is made between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. The spirit of the law is often perverted to become something more relaxed and less demanding.

[2] Women are afflicted by this because they often think that they can change a man after marrying him. Ladies, men are like computers: WYSIWYG. If you like him, take him. But if you do not, do not touch him. Seldom men change after marriage. So, enter marriage with both eyes wide open, but close one eye after marriage.

[3] Do you know people marry much older these days? Especially men because no matter what, women are bound by their biological clock. Apart from life being stressful and demanding, the phenomenon of marrying older may be explained by an unquestioned assumption that “many choices” available indicates “greater freedom”. People generally value “more freedom” in choosing. But, the fact is when there are too many options to choose from, they often have difficulty choosing. Furthermore, this fear of commitment is also hampered by a fear that having made a choice, a better option might be around the corner. Guys marry women like they buy cars. Often men are concerned with looks but not really the substance. No wonder guys stagnate at the level of “blonde” jokes.

Monday, 7 February 2011

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today, Christian discipleship is given two powerful images to help shape it. The context for this moulding or modelling comes just after Christ preached the paradoxical blessedness of the Beatitudes. To His disciples whom He had told to rejoice even if they were persecuted, He added these two defining characteristics: A Christian disciple must be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

What does it mean to be salt and light? The first reading speaks in terms of justice and the poor. Isaiah skilfully links the practice of justice and a caring concern for the poor to a genuine worship of God. And in that way, the disciple’s light will shine like the dawn.

But that is a bit lofty, is that not?

Perhaps what resonates with us is how religious belief must not lose its vital connexion with life. We use phrases like “practise what you preach” to encapsulate this connexion. If not, we would be like salt that has lost its taste and a lamp its light. Simply put, a faith that does justice is the most effective witness of discipleship in Christ.

How can we practically live a faith that does justice and so be effective disciples? Here, we need to disabuse ourselves of a glorified or a heady notion of “discipleship”. In practical terms, it is enough to be salt and light where we are. Thus, a faith that does justice does not require that we leave our home or our job and go searching for wrongs to make right. Nor are we expected to be salt and light only in Church. A glorified notion of discipleship often blinds us to the reality that where we are is where we flavour the earth and light up the darkness. One sad fact is when people are asked who they think best represents the salt of the earth and light of the world, many do not go further than Mother, now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She is the prime example of a faith that does justice.

Placing Blessed Teresa up there on a pedestal has a way distancing us from looking at ourselves. Perhaps it is timidity. We are fearful. And a common lamentation is, “I not good enough”. Or it may simply be that there and not here, tomorrow and not today would be the best place and time to embrace discipleship. But, more than location or waiting for the perfect moment, what is unsaid is that we have not fully counted the cost of discipleship. Poor discipleship is often a reflexion that we may have a vague notion of or simply have not embraced what discipleship entails. It is said that we would be hard pressed to find an atheist—someone who does not believe in God. Instead we will encounter many practical atheist—they just do not believe because it is more practical not to. Likewise, many of us are disciples not because we are truly convinced but because it is more practical to believe.

To follow Christ is always radical. Again, do not confuse radical discipleship with glamorous discipleship measured in terms of this world—novelty, excitement, recognition and etc. The unpleasant truth is that discipleship will lead one way or another to Calvary. If we honestly reflect on this, our image of Christ is closer to a feel-good doting indulgent Christ than to the exacting Christ of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes and Calvary. In short, we have blunted our discipleship by our false expectation or worse by our lowering our expectation to the point that we expect Christ not to expect anything from us.

As long as I pay my dues: go to Church, go for confessions occasionally or once a year and do what is necessary like feed the poor, then my religion must not inconvenience nor exact anything from me. For many of us, salt and light are simply reduced to “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”. It is a form of privatised religion and it accords well with a religion of convenience. People who live in condominium know this—you do not know your neighbours and so “morality” becomes a private matter and quite easily relativised. Priests will tell you that they have heard this in confessions: “I have not really done anything wrong”. Well, it is commendable to have done nothing wrong. But, discipleship is not a measure of the wrongs we do not commit. Instead poor discipleship is a measure of the good we neglect to perform. Poor discipleship is not paying the full price of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Salt and light are powerful images of discipleship. In themselves they sort of describe the purpose of discipleship. But, their strength as images are tied to the requirements of the Beatitudes. “Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speaks all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad”.

A clarification is necessary here. Firstly, it does not mean that we go searching to be “abused or persecuted”. That is masochism. What others would call a “martyr complex”. Rather, discipleship in Christ is born out of rejection. Christ was rejected and so will we be if we stand with Him. The master was treated so badly. We should not expect less and often rejection often comes from fellow Christians. Second, discipleship does not mean we need to “do” something extraordinarily. It is about faithfulness and not about glamour. For example, there is nothing glamorous about discipleship in suffering. Would you dare embrace sickness as a vocation? That for no reason than personal identification with Christ that He calls you to personal suffering through debilitating illnesses. Of course, there are two types of suffering. One is we deserve it. When we live a dissolute life there will be consequences and perhaps suffering to be deserved. The other type is uninvited, incomprehensible and that for no other reason we find ourselves having to put up with it. Here, the prayers in the Rite for Anointing is quite helpful catechetically as it helps us to understand what it means to be salt and light. One of them prays that the sick person would be serene in hope and so give us all an example of joyful patience in the midst of suffering. Thus, quiet suffering through no fault of ours when united with Christ’s suffering is valuable salt and light.

Discipleship is here and now. In the pew now. You bag on the seat is meant for another person. And afterwards in the car on the way out, no honking and of course it also goes for those who habitually take their own sweet time to go the car—to make sure that they do not unnecessarily inconvenience others. At home in the kitchen, at the desk in the office etc and the list goes on. And here, St Paul in the second reading consoles us. The success of the Gospel, that is, how we can be more flavourful or more enlightening is not dependent on our cleverness. It may depend on perseverance but certainly how we can salt the earth better and light the world brighter is dependent on the power of Christ. Thus, we should worry less about how we may fail but entrust ourselves more and more all to Christ for He never fails us. If He calls, He will provide the necessary grace.