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.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Last Sunday, I spoke of the internal disposition of a heart preparing for eternal life. This week, the Gospel illustrates, concretely through the parable of the talents, how this preparation may be lived out.

With this in mind, I would like to approach the Gospel not so much from the perspective of how we can use the talents but to understand what our response should be when we draw the short straw—like the man who got only one talent. How do we deal with 1 talent?

Our consumer world markets a vision of life whereby the pot is always depicted as brimming and overflowing. In short, we deserve more than 1 talent. So if you do not have it all, you can attain it. It is a false vision of life where utopia is not really utopian at all. St Thomas More, in his book, Utopia described this island in the Atlantic that possesses the perfect socio-politico-legal system. The operative phrase is “an island somewhere in the Atlantic” denoting that it is not real or better put, it remains a goal always one step ahead. It would, therefore, be an illusion to believe that utopia is achievable here on earth. This is confirmed by the etymology of the word itself, which in Greek means “not the place”.

Nevertheless, our consumer world continues to push an idea that life must be nothing but pleasant and suffering must disappear. And by no means is this utopian vision restricted to the consumer world. In fact, every aspect of modern life is gripped by a philosophy that man has the right and duty to construct a new world based on a rational foundation. Take note that rationality here is understood narrowly to be governed by functionality, efficiency and also the quality of life. [1] Sometimes, you hear the phrase “new world order” bandied about; a kind of mantra for a reality no less than heaven itself. This new world believes that the rational application of technology makes possible a world in which suffering and inequality can be wiped out. It is quite mechanical and deterministic and this kind of thinking is reflected in arguments like “You should know it what” as if knowing necessarily equates to doing. We know that is not really the case. Some of the most brilliant minds in history have also been the most evil. But, we constantly run into difficulty on account of this mechanistic, deterministic and linear thinking.

Anyway, in this utopian new world order, possibility becomes the determining criterion for the measure of how life is supposed to be shaped. As long as our technology can achieve it, then it is permissible. In this so-called heaven on earth, what is possible has been coalesced into what is permissible meaning that morality now is defined as it is permissible for man to do anything he is capable of.2 Now you can appreciate why the Church finds it increasingly difficult to argue, for example, against the use of in vitro fertilisation. In vitro fertilisation is not a new technology. But, in any discussions on the morality of life issues, the Church will always be depicted as the voice out of touch with progress.

Now listen to what Pope Benedict said in his first encyclical, “When we consider the immensity of others' needs, we can be driven towards an ideology that would aim at doing what God's governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolving every problem”. Here the Pope may be cautioning us against a utopian attempt to fill the gap where apparently God has failed. Our technological prowess is really an indictment against a God who has failed miserably. For example, childlessness is an indication that God has failed and the cure can be any method that best secures conception. Recently, there was the media hype that the world was marking the birth of its 7th billion inhabitant? It was presented against a backdrop of unprecedented hunger in the world and that mankind was taking a toll on the resources of the world. The unspoken assumption was that God could not have provided enough for the world never mind the fact that hunger could have been the result of uneven distribution rather than of inadequate resources. Have you noticed how people often drink water from bottles and leave them half-full? Not even water or wasteful?

So, has God failed? No. Perhaps a more realistic vision of the world is that we can never realise utopia on earth and that is not because life is unfair. Even the most perfect life you can ever conceive of will be imperfect or flawed. If we banish all hatred or fill every stomach yet we know that that is not enough. Instinctively you know this. Why? Because we all have a part of heaven in us. Here, I am not advocating that we canonise the status quo by resignation. For example, I am not saying that women should accept that their husbands abuse them or vice versa. Nor am I suggesting passivism in accepting the injustice of racial or religious discrimination.

Many young people entering adulthood are also ensnared by a utopian vision that everything good has to be achieved in their lifetime. No wonder life is so stressful. And they may be unwittingly forced to subscribe to what is possible must be permitted because that is the only way to achieve utopia (perfect life) here. The parable of the talents highlights firstly that short straws are an existential given. It is a fact of life that God’s providence does not work according to our sense fairness. Secondly, we will never be able to achieve all that we want here in this world.

Thus, utopia is restored to its rightful place. For Christians, it belongs in the realm of the Eschaton. It means that what we hope to achieve may sometimes come only in the next life. So, if our idea of utopia is confined to this world, then our response in time would probably be cynicism or despair. If we accept that the world will always consist more of short straws than full pots, then it does not matter what we have been given. It matters how we use what we have for what needs to be done. We no longer gripe as if we have been dealt an injustice. Instead we set about doing what we can with what we have instead of thinking of what we can do with what we do not have. For us to achieve that Christian utopia, we need keep our eyes focused on Christ our Lord and we work with every bit of our being to make things right but keeping in mind also that what we do may never be enough. Yet we are at peace because we know and trust that Christ, in the end, will make right what we cannot in this world and He will reward us with what we cannot have in this world.

In conclusion, I am hesitant to say this. I have this lump on my neck. How I wish it would go away but sometimes I do not want to do anything not because I am despairing. Here, I am not advocating that those with cancer should do nothing about chemotherapy or those needing surgery should not consent to it. Rather, I am informed by the Eschaton that beyond what is considered proper and necessary care, I do not need to have a perfect body to enter heaven. I need a healthy soul and therefore my effort is to run the race for which I have entered. What is important is not what I have been given what is important is how I use what I have been given.
[1] The quality of life argument is often used to justify euthanasia. Apart from that, it may be used also to justify eugenics, the science improving life even from the womb.
[2] The philosophy that says if you do not have it you can attain it thrives in this new morality where what is possible becomes permissible. The collapse of the wall between what is possible and what is permissible now renders any means as permitted as long as it helps the impossible becomes possible. As long as what is possible is permitted, then, technology can be co-opted by people who cheat and scam in a massive way. Since our life is premised on what can be done, then all manners of living should be respected. We call it “alternative lifestyle”. But life should be premised not only on “it can be done” but also on “should it be done”. This means we enter the territory of morality and this is where we will be accused of being judgemental if we do not subscribe to all possibilities available.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

There is a Frank Sinatra feel to the readings these Sundays: “And now the end is near and so we face the final curtain”. You cannot miss the apocalyptic quality to the last few Sundays in Ordinary Time. It is a time of reckoning.

What shall it be when the time comes?

St Paul is of the opinion that those alive at the time of final reckoning will have no advantage over those who have died before. If that be the case, then the Gospel warns us not to be caught unawares at the final reckoning. Therefore, be prepared.

You hear, “be prepared!” and the next question is “for what?”.

This preparation may take place in the temporal sphere but it is cosmic in its implication because one is preparing for the future coming of the bridegroom. Even though the Gospel mentions about being “awake” when the bridegroom arrives, that is not really the focus. Instead it is to have enough oil. However, there seems to be an element of selfishness here because the virgins with enough oil seemed unwilling to share the excess oil they have. Schooled in Christian charity, we might consider this unwillingness as selfish. The truth is that the oil symbolises the interior preparation of the wise virgins. It has nothing to do with the external preparation like the provision that one takes along the journey. One may share one’s food with the poor or the hungry. One may alleviate another person’s physical condition but the inability of the wise virgins to share does not fall within this category. Instead, it is akin to how one may help another person by giving directions. I can tell you how to go to a place but it is you who must make the journey to that place!! It requires discipline and so the oil is symbolic of one’s interior life nurtured by prayers, expressed in good works and nourished by the sacraments and devotions. When the bridegroom arrives, we must have enough of oil.

Secondly, discipline requires commitment. However, our commitment compass might just need some realignment. It cannot be said that we are not committed if you consider all the things we are not only subjected to but also willingly subject ourselves to them. People go to the gym and they try to keep fit. They submit themselves to health regimes etc. All these are forms of commitment. The question to ask here is what our commitments are preparing us for? Bettering ourselves is a form of preparation but are we prepared just for life or are we prepared for eternal life? Many of us are caught up with preparation of a merely temporal kind.

Whatever we do, the goal is ultimately eternal life. And it requires that we judge wisely the things of this world. However, there seems to be an exponential increase in knowledge and know-how. We know a lot more and we also appear to have a solution to every conceivable ill. As a result of this exponential increase of knowledge and know-how we confuse facts with wisdom. Knowing “factoids” does not make us wise and the best way to describe this confusion is through the analogy of a jigsaw-puzzle. More and more, knowledge is becoming so specialised that people are having all the pieces of a puzzle but they have no “master-plan” to help piece them together. [1]

Furthermore the application of know-how is not an indication of wisdom. We are quite knowledgeable but not wise. In fact, our younger generation have at their fingertips so much more technical knowledge than we can ever imagine. But they are not wiser. Thus, to gain eternal life we need the wisdom to know what is necessary for us to reach our heavenly goal and wisdom is aided by our possession of knowledge but it is not constituted solely by it.

Today, the wise virgins symbolised our preparation for eternal life. We should live our lives in such a way that at any time, when Christ the Lord appears in the horizon or is already at the door we are ready. It means we are ready to die or we are ready to give our lives for Christ. How many of us can say that at the moment of death, we are at our best. This “best” is not a reference to “perfection”. Instead, it refers to our conscience. A clear conscience is the best preparation we can make with regard to the Bridegroom’s arrival. Live as if today might just be our last day on earth. That way you will find it easier to desire a clear conscience.

[1] Knowledge is knowing that the tomato is a fruit but wisdom is not putting it in a salad. This is what the Greeks call paraprosdokian, that is, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected. It is frequently used in a humorous situation. A good example of a paraprosdokian is Where there is a will, I want to be in it.