Sunday, 26 June 2011

Corpus Christi Year A

Today is 1st Holy Communion for our children. To understand what they are doing and what they are receiving we need to need to know what had happened before the Gospel passage we have heard and what happened after. The Gospel is taken from John 6. Here, we hear Christ making the connexion between eating His flesh, drinking His blood and eternal life. “My flesh is real food. My blood is real drink. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life”.

What happened before the Gospel passage we just heard was that Christ had fed 5000 men, not to mention women and children. After they had eaten, they wanted more food. But Jesus had already left for Capernaum crossing the Lake Tiberias. The people followed after Jesus but they were not looking for Him. They were searching for the easy source of food and Jesus got into a conversation with them. When Jesus told them that the food for eternal was His flesh and His blood, they were disgusted by the suggestion of “cannibalism”. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat”?

But Jesus was insistent, “If you want to have eternal life, the only way you are going to get it is to eat my flesh and drink my blood”. This was where everything started to unravel. Many disciples left Him and stopped going with Him. The reaction of Jesus to their departure is important for us because Jesus did not run after them to correct them. He did not say, “I am sorry, I did not mean that”. Instead to confirm what He really meant, He turned to Peter: “What about you? You want to leave as well?” We know the answer: The Apostles stayed with Jesus.

What is significant is that Jesus in today’s Gospel did not say, “Eat my body”. That would be easy because we can metaphorically or figuratively explain that “Eat my body” has a less “yucky” feel to it. For example, “I could eat a horse” does not mean I want to eat a horse. It just means that I want to eat a lot. It is a figure of speech. Thus, in the context of the Gospel, for John to use the word “flesh” is to show the seriousness of Jesus’ claim. [1]

In fact, the word “eat” sounds sterile. The word closer to the original Greek is to chew or to masticate. To have eternal life we must chew, gnaw or masticate His flesh and drink His blood. If that be the case, Jesus would be lying to all of us if He did not keep His promise. To keep His promise, He must give us His Flesh and Blood to eat and drink. And the only way that He can keep His promise is that something must change in the Eucharist.

Let me explain this change through this power-point presentation.

It is either Jesus or it is not. If it is not, then I have wasted my entire life. Yours too. But if it is, then your behaviour and mine must change because it is Jesus and no less. 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.

If it is truly, really and substantially Jesus, then, He is to be adored under the appearance of bread. When we receive Holy Communion the hand, we make sure that no crumbs are left on the palm of our hand or on our fingers. Now you know why I have stopped blessing children. It does not make sense to rub particles of the sacred species onto the children’s foreheads. So, those of you who are weak and elderly and also unsure in your steps, you may want to consider receiving Holy Communion on the tongue to avoid accident with the sacred species. The other day I gave communion in two species and there was spillage. When that happens, theoretically, the place where the consecrated host lands or the consecrated wine is spilt has to be purified. But, we organise our lives according to convenience and also for many of us, the Blessed Sacrament is at best an exalted symbol, to “waste time” purifying does not really make sense. Why? Because we do not appreciate the Blessed Sacrament as it really is.

If we do appreciate it, then, outside of the celebration of Mass, we genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle when we cross the nave of the Church. When the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession and it passes you, you kneel because your God is passing before you. The Solemnity of Corpus Christi is not complete without the procession. We carry Jesus our Lord around in a procession stopping at four different places that represent the four corners of the world. We, who believe that what we are receiving is truly, really and substantially Jesus, we, bring Him to the world. In this procession, we pray that the Body of Christ will make us more and more into the Body of Christ—the more we eat of Him, the more we shall become like Him.

This is our Jubilee Year. We desire it to be a holy year. We also desire to be holy personally. But, sometimes we approach this desire in a wrong way because holiness is truly a fruit of a deepened appreciation of the Eucharist and the True Presence therein. There more we grow in Eucharistic love, the more we yearn for holiness. Otherwise, we will be running around trying to do more thinking that the more we do the holy we are.

The troubles we have as Church may be traced to this problem: priest and people have treated the Blessed Sacrament as a symbol. Yes, we treat it as a very special symbol but still, it is a symbol and no more. I do not want to be a priest who celebrates a symbol. I want to be a priest who celebrates a change that is real, true and substantial. If the Church is serious about her mission in the world, then she needs to return to the knowledge and deepened appreciation of what the Blessed Sacrament is: truly, really and substantially Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] As far as we are concerned “Eat my Body” and “Eat my Flesh” are the same. The former is neither a figure of speech nor metaphorical. Just that “Eat my Body” sounds less threatening. The intent, however, is the same as “Eat my Flesh”.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Trinity Sunday Year A

From someone rarely spoken of, or, someone left out in ordinary Christian conversation, we move onto a subject not easy to understand. Last week, the so-called “person rarely spoken of” was the Holy Spirit. This Sunday, the subject not easy to understand is the Trinity. The Trinity is really difficult God-talk. [1] Against the backdrop of Judaism and Islam, a backdrop of strict monotheism, how is it that we claim to believe in one God? How is it that three persons in one God do not equate to three Gods?

In the first place, the dogma of the Holy Trinity is not a product of pure human reasoning but a result of reason’s collaboration with divine revelation. We can never come to know the God who is one in three, without God first revealing Himself to us. The source of God’s revelation is sacred scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments. This revelation means that Sacred Tradition with the help of reason has this task of elucidating this mystery whilst at the same time recognising its own limits. Today, I am not going to answer the “how” of “How three persons can be one God?” but to explore “how” the approaches we take of our discussions of God have implications.

There are basically two ways of approaching a discussion on the Trinity—Trinitatis ad intra and Trinitatis ad extra. Trinitatis ad intra refers to the immanent or the ontological Trinity. It is to speak of God’s nature or God as He really is and it pertains to the inner or interior life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Trinitatis ad extra, on the other hand, refers to the economic Trinity. It speaks of God’s activity in the world and how He functions with reference to creation, redemption and sanctification. It describes how God functions in the Church and the world.

In summary, ontological Trinity explains who God is whereas economic Trinity explains what God does. Which approach is more important? According to Karl Rahner, a German theologian, he says that the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity. So, both approaches are important. However, our problem is that we are no longer at home with the language of the immanent or ontological Trinity. Why? Well, for one, it sounds rather indulgent and it seems to border on “narcissism”. Who cares? Instead, we are more at home with the language of the economic Trinity. It is certainly more relevant. Let me illustrate why we seem to opt for the economic rather than the immanent Trinity. The concept of "person@ in the Trinity is not the same as we understand a person to be. A person in the Trinity describes a relationship. Thus, the Father is Father because He has a Son and vice-versa. Your response might be, “Err… so what?” What has that knowledge to do with us?

As we are more at home with the language of the economy, it is easier to speak of the Trinity in terms of functions. For example, God the Father creates, God the Son redeems and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies. [2] As you can see, it is far easier to understand God in relation to us because ours is a culture basically characterised by “work”, “doing” or “achievement”. We live this self-actualising or self-driven philosophy which cuts across everything that we do.

The result of losing this sense of “being” or ontology is we begin to think of being in terms of doing. In fact, we have become more “doing”, more “functional” and much more “utilitarian”. By definition then, a thing is because of what it does.

The loss of this sense of “being” has grave implications. A good analogy to give you an idea about this loss is the difference between “vocation” and “career”. Vocation has taken on a more restrictive connotation. When we speak of vocation, we think of priestly or religious vocation. But vocation is a calling “to be”, more than it is a calling “to do”. The vocation “to be” is no longer fashionable because we seemed to have defined ourselves by what we do rather than we take our cue from who we are. When a priest is measured by his “function”, you can be sure that not far from this mentality is the call to “ordain” women because anyone can carve out a career as a “priest”. Anyone can do a priest’s job.

When we forget “being”, the result is that we will esteem or honour the self-made man. Put it in another way, “What are you if you are not your work?” Even though this sounds a little calculative but that is basically how we measure worth. Can you hear the distant echo of euthanasia?

In a way we are not so different from ages before us. In ancient times, the Tower of Babel was a good example of this “self-actualising” philosophy. Today, our “self-actualisation” tends to equate our technological prowess or capability with “progress”. In science and technology, we have progressed in leaps and bounds. As a consequence, we unconsciously and mechanically translate this progress into the “spiritual” realm. As we believe that we can economically shape ourselves, we can also “spiritually” forge ourselves. In fact, the Tower of Babel stands as a testament to humanity’s belief that it can stand head and shoulder with God and say, “Here is a world better than what you have given us”. I believe that many of us have this idea that Confession is useless because we continue sinning. Behind this despair is this idea: “Why can’t I be more perfect so that God can be worthy of me”? When we forget being, we begin to define ourselves by “doing”. And when we “do”, we will come to believe we can make ourselves worthy of God.

The forgetfulness of “being” means that the Blessed Trinity has to work very hard to convince us. In fact, He has to work many miracles in order to be a step ahead of humanity. [3] The implication of forgetting the garden of ontology is that we will be cursed to wander the wasteland of utility trying to measure ourselves by our achievements. Trinity Sunday is an invitation to reflect on God’s being in Himself, a seemingly useless exercise but existentially important to us. Knowing who God is means that we will allow God to work in our lives.

Finally, what we do does not define who we are but rather who we are defines what we do. Who are we? We are not self-made man or self-made woman. But, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Not knowing ourselves, we will be driven to innovate, renovate and recreate. Thus, to discover Man, we have to discover God. To discover Man, we need to return to the garden of “being” or ontology to reflect on who God is and not only what God does.

[1] It is perhaps a tad easier to understand the “make-up” of Christ. Who is He? He is the 2nd Person of the Trinity. What is He? He is both divine and human. Thus, Christ is one person, a divine person, with two natures, both divine and human. Furthermore, the consubstantiality between the Father and Son was officially confirmed at the Council of Nicea in AD325, while the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son was officially established at the Council of Constantinople in AD381.
[2] The truth is opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt. It means that the works of the Trinity outside are indivisible. It means that one cannot really say that the persons of the Trinity are distinguished by how they act in the world. The only way to distinguish the three persons is through their relationships. The Father is the source of the Son and the Spirit. The Son is begotten of the Father. And the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
[3] How many of you do “take-aways”? Have you ever thought of the styrofoam containers we use to pack our take-aways? They come directly from the factory straight to our hawkers and what if with food, we also ingest styrofoam “dust”? Some of the chemicals we ingest are cumulative in our bodies and when cancer strikes, we cry “Why God?” without thinking that we contribute to our self-poisoning. Instead, poor God has to work so many more “miracles” because we are just too dumb or selfish.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Pentecost Year A

What do we understand of Pentecost and what is its significance?

Its significance might not be that obvious considering that we are easily seduced by the spectacular. And what is more spectacular than the tongues of flames coming to rest on the Apostles. Our understanding of Pentecost is that the Spirit goes wherever He wants to. That is the impression we get because Vatican II has often been described as a breath of fresh air set against what was perceived as the rigidity of the pre-Vatican era. This sense of the Spirit being able to work without and beyond “confines” and “limitations”, appeals to our idea of freedom, which is commonly accepted as being able to do anything, anywhere and at anytime.

But, what if I propose to you that Pentecost is also as sober as the Sacrament we are celebrating today? It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to confect the bread into the Body of Christ. On the mountain Christ promised to be with His Church until the end of time. Thus, the Spirit is that promise kept which means the Spirit is “tied” to the Church. This being “tied” to the Church reveals a kind of “responsibility” quite antithetical/contrary to our concept of unlimited freedom. Through our ritual celebrations, the Holy Spirit guarantees that the liturgical actions of the Church are truly the actions of Christ Himself.

Christ on earth, through His Prophetic, Priestly and Kingly actions, exercised the authority of God the Father. He revealed Himself as the Truth, offered Himself as the Lamb who took away our sins and He conquered Death by taking away its eternal hold over us. He then sent His disciples out with the same authority He has received from His Father: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”. This sending is through the Holy Spirit. This sending is empowering and therefore exciting. It gives us a sense of purpose. Granted that the world is so wrong, we yearn for the Spirit’s strength to change the world and to, cliché as it may sound, make the world a better place.

But, at the heart of this sending we encounter a contemplative spirit, Mary, who reveals to us the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church. She was there at Pentecost and it would not be heretical to say that she was not totally surprised by all that was taking place. Why? She herself had been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit at the moment of the Annunciation. Pentecost was to be another overshadowing. Thus, she who had given birth to the Body of Christ incarnate would now give birth to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. Thus, the Mother of Christ is also the Mother of the Church.

By the action of the Holy Spirit, Christ was incarnated through her and once again by the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church is incarnated through her. The birth of the Church took place in the Upper Room. Up there we note a distinct connexion between the Holy Spirit and Apostolic Authority. We hear this in the Gospel today: Those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven. Those whose sins you retain, they are retained. At Pentecost, what was visible in Christ has now passed into the Sacraments.

Your browser may not support display of this image. We can safely say that the heart of Pentecost beats with a Marian rhythm. Take a look at this icon of Christ’s Ascension. In the Orthodox tradition, Ascension and Pentecost are coalesced into one, and in its iconography, the Holy Spirit is not depicted because by His very nature the Holy Spirit is invisible. What you see is Christ is portrayed as enthroned in glory surrounded by the angels who are sending the Apostles out on missions. At the heart of the different missions stands the figure of Mary with her hands in the “orans” position. She prays for the Church.

If Pentecost is the beginning of the Church, then right at the beginning stands the model of one who is forever faithful: Mary. Even as we break into joyful noise, there is a stillness which commands us to pray. In an age which prizes “happening” and which celebrates a “can-do” spirit, we are led by Mary to a deeper appreciation of the relationship between prayer and the Church.

In summary, the significance of Pentecost is that we do not of ourselves make the Church and neither can we grant ourselves salvation. The contemplative spirit of Pentecost has Mary praying for the Church that through the Spirit, we become Church. Make us one body and one Spirit in Christ; a prayer echoed in all the Eucharistic Prayers and this one taken from EPIII. It is true that we cannot help but be overawed by the 3000 added to their number. And, just when we think that Pentecost primes us into action, Mary leads us back to prayer. Pentecost celebrates what the Spirit, through prayer, can do for us.

But, if this sounds lame, let me tell you it does because we breathe the air of self-help. Go to any bookshop and you will find a big section entitled: “Self-help”. We have come to believe more in our own strength than the strength of the Holy Spirit. However, if you desire to change the world, this desire must be founded on prayers rather than our capability because the Holy Spirit can do infinitely more than all our machinations can ever achieve. Let us pray: “Come Holy Spirit”.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

7th Sunday of Easter Year A

This Sunday, some parts of the Catholic world are celebrating both Ascension and World Communications Sunday. For us, the 7th Sunday does feel like a straggling Sunday searching for a purpose. Perhaps, Communications Sunday is significant enough as it straddles two great events, Ascension and Pentecost, nourished as it were by the fertile soil of the first novena. Take note that 9 days after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the Apostles. Those 9 days marked the ancient Church’s first novena. What has communications to do with Pentecost? In recent weeks, Christ has been speaking of the coming Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. So, the Spirit who testifies to the Truth testifies to Christ. That is the link that makes Communications Sunday relevant: Communication is of the Truth.

That, in a nutshell, defines the essence of communication.

But, as usual, we are a forgetful people. [1] We seem to have forgotten the primary aim of communication.

For some of us, communication is basically a measure of its medium. Let me explain. We have heard it said that the “medium is the message” and in a sense this is true because we are engrossed or captivated by the technologies of our communication. Remember those heady days when a gangster or a nouveau riche would sit in a hawker’s place publicly parading the precursor of the present mobile phones, an act symbolising that he has arrived. Today, our preoccupation is to reduce the size of our communication devices. Have you watched Star Trek? We look forward to the day when a touch of the badge would be enough to let us communicate. As you can see, we have always been fascinated with how we can communicate better. But, we are by no means unique.

Let me tell a little about the Mediæval Ages. Do not be fooled by what historians term as the Dark Ages. Despite its name, it gave birth to the university system. In those “Dark” times, it seemed that theologians were speculating as to how many angels can dance on top of a pinhead. [2]

We are no different. We somehow equate “more” with “better” as evidenced by our preoccupation with the number of terabytes we can compress onto our solid-state drive. We started with kilobytes, to mega, to giga and now terabytes. [I am sure there must be some bytes I know not of]. We continually chase a faster speed for our computer processors. We are obsessed with effective methods of communication and you would be surprised that this obsession with speed and space is fuelled no less by an industry our taboo-ridden culture is too shy to acknowledge. According to an American social critic, “Great art is always flanked by its dark sisters, blasphemy and pornography”. [3] Pornography, in large proportion, has determined the speed of our communicative technologies.

Between the aim of communication and its means, we will always be side-tracked by media’s ability to promise us instant gratification. You are having steam-boat in Cameron Highlands and immediately your circle of Facebook friends can see you savouring the fish-balls or blanching the fresh pickings of vegetables direct from the ambient farms. The immediacy we want of our experiences expresses what the Holy Father in his message says: entering cyberspace can be a sign of authentic search for personal encounters with others. The impetus for immediacy draws attention to our desires to encounter and to be encountered, to know and to be known, to accept and to be accepted and finally to love and to be loved. Sadly, we also know that the effects of immediacy often do not lead to genuine encounter. The many means often do not facilitate the aim.

Communications Sunday reminds us that nothing is more personal than an encounter with Christ Himself. In fact, the Gospel today, a preface to Pentecost next week, speaks of the hour when the Father will glorify the Son and the Son will glorify the Father by giving eternal life to those entrusted to Him. What is eternal life? To know the one, true God and Jesus Christ Whom the Father has sent. All throughout her history, the Church stands as that beacon emitting and transmitting this message of eternal salvation inviting all men and women to this personal encounter with Christ the Saviour of the world. All media of communication must be harnessed for this purpose.

Let me bring in last week’s second reading which comes from the 2nd Letter of St Peter. He provides us with the motivation as to why Christians ought to embrace the technologies available. He says: “Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have”. The different media of communication, apart from merely communicating and bringing us together, serves this one purpose—that we always be ready to give the reason for our hope in Christ.

In conclusion, in our search to connect with one another through the different media of communication, let us not forget that their sole aim is to convey the truth. Truth is not baring it all; it is not naked truth and certainly not the same as “Wikileaks”. Instead, truth is the person of Jesus Christ Who is our very life and He is our mission in the world. These 9 days we pray because we need the strength of the Holy Spirit to continue to emit and to transmit the message of the eternal salvation of Jesus Christ, the Lord.
[1] Now you know why the Mass is also referred to as a memorial; a memorial that is more than merely remembering.
[2] A trite question which effectively dismisses the contributions of the Schoolmen to the advancement of Western civilisation.
[3] Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Ascension Thursday Year A

I am happy that Ascension is still celebrated on a Thursday and not on a Sunday. After all, it is not called Ascension Thursday for nothing. Later, you will know why I am happy. The first reading took off as the Gospel concluded, giving us a picturesque description of the post-Ascension scene. On a mountain, we are told, that as the Lord was lifted up, they looked on until a cloud took Him from their sight. Even then, they continued staring into the sky.

Was their sight blocked by the clouds of mystery or interrupted by the appearance of two men in white as reported by Luke or was there something else they saw? They were transfixed for they saw heaven and no less. Mt 6:21 or Lk 12:34 tell us this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. So, in the case of the Ascension, where Christ the head has gone to, you can be sure that the Church His Body is there also. On the mountain, the Apostles were momentarily transported into heaven. Hence, the Ascension was not simply the act of Christ returning to from whence He had come. In the Ascension we actually catch a glimpse of heaven, much like Peter, James and John lingering on Mount Tabor after they caught sight of Christ brilliance at the Transfiguration.

This glimpse of heaven succinctly sketched in the second reading is echoed in our liturgy for the Ascension: Christ, the mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of all, has passed beyond our sight, not to abandon us but to be our hope. Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church; where He has gone, we hope to follow.

But, unlike the Apostles, we are not completely convinced that we should follow. Our line of vision is blocked not by the clouds of mystery or by angels appearing. Instead, our vision is blurred because we have mistaken earth for heaven. What was originally intended to be a pit-stop has become for us the final destination. We have been so beguiled by the world that we no longer give a second thought to heaven and what is disturbing is for most of us that is not unusual. In the field of socio-politico-economic planning, we speak of strategic long-term planning but our long-term is not long enough.

Have you watched the movie 2012? Notice how a symbol of life hereafter, the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica was dramatically destroyed as it ploughed into a Piazza packed with praying pilgrims, sending a clear message that belief in the afterlife was basically futile. Furthermore, observe how the crack on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel occurred right at the spot where God the Father’s finger touches Adam’s and giving him life. The crack effectively severed the link between the Creator and the creature, rendering the promise of everlasting presence that Christ made on the mountain null and void. Thus, we are reduced to a materialist existence. Our obsession with the prolongation not the preservation of life is symptomatic of a materialist [1] philosophy.

This obsession with prolonging life is manifested through a preoccupation we have with safety. In the aftermath of the recent landslide we are naturally caught up by the mindless and unnecessary loss of lives. Our discussions centre on, amongst many issues, the need for proper building codes or regulations—where and how to build. If you see a construction site, you would probably know what I am speaking about. There would be numerous signs reminding workers about safety together with the necessary barricades, harnesses and helmets. And of course, these are needed to indemnify the builders or contractors should any mishaps occur on-site.

This preoccupation with precaution which is symptomatic of a materialist world cuts across every facet of our live. For example, parents with a single offspring will take every precaution for their child to be safe. And let me clarify that I am not against the taking of precaution. Taking proper steps to be safe is commendable because it is the expression of the instinct to preserve life.

But, do you know that many of us worry about safety but we do not give ample thoughts to salvation? It seems that we want to be safe but we do not really care that we be saved. This is what I meant when I said that we have mistaken a pit-stop for the final destination. Our concern for safety is actually an expression of our desire for salvation but we are beguiled into thinking that safety is the be all and end all of our concerns. Even if we do not say it, we are actually implying that beyond safety, there is only a void—nothingness. Preservation of life is one thing. Obsessive prolongation of life is just an indication of a materialist mentality.

Now you know why I am happy that Ascension is celebrated today. It is a little inconvenient. You would have to set aside time, rush from work, break your daily routine. What the exercise does is that it takes us away from all that we deem to be important materially so that we can catch a glimpse of what is also important immaterially—heaven.

If Ascension is a reminder of our salvation, a reminder that our home is in heaven, then it is also a reminder of what God does for us. Moving it to a Sunday merely proposes that salvation can “wait” and we are “masters” of our destiny and salvation, so much so that we can leave God to a time when we have the time to attend to Him. It is convenience at its worst. So, despite its materialist overtone, the movie 2012 teaches us a valuable lesson: the time for salvation waits for no one. Do not be caught unawares. As Shakespeare quotes of Julius Caesar, set honour in one eye and death in the other, Ascension invites us live life to the fullest but always with one eye set on heaven.
[1] I have deliberately not used the word “materialistic” because I am simply making an observation rather than a “judgement”. We are materialist by nature because we are incarnated spirits. The word does not in any way denigrate worldly concerns. However, rich or poor, everyone’s struggle is to be non materialistic.