Sunday, 15 January 2012

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We move into Ordinary Time and very immediately the focus is on vocation or call and response. In the first reading, we get a glimpse of the vocation of the prophet Samuel. The Gospel gives detailed descriptions of both the call and response of the first apostles.
What does it mean to be called and how are we to respond?
Calling is not something which happens out of the blue. In fact, creation may be said to be a response to God’s calling. He called and all reality, visible and invisible, came to be. That could be considered the most basic response to God’s calling. However, creation, especially Man, the pinnacle of God’s creation, is imbued with freedom. With freedom, morality maps Man’s freedom to respond to God or not.
Today, it would be good to reflect on how we can sometimes unknowingly reject God and maybe understand what it means to respond.
Let us begin with a phenomenon known as lapsed Catholics. I am sure you would have come across people who are classified as non-practising. It is by no means a phenomenon restricted to Catholicism. All religions have their fair share of it. I once had a conversation with a lapsed Catholic and the reason given for being lapsed was that she was disgusted with how poorly people lived their faith.
Disgust may be a strong word. Perhaps discouragement would be a better description.
For example, each year we attract about 100 people for RCIA and give or take the falling out, we might baptise about 80. Statistically, this parish may have the most baptisms in the Archdiocese every year and it is a fact that might just swell us with pride.
The call to discipleship frequently has a kind of trajectory that starts off with euphoria. But, when the euphoria dies down, then the mundane reality of Catholic life sets in. This is the time when the neophyte will encounter real Catholics in whom they will observe a huge gap between what is preached and what is practised. The result may be a faith-shattering dejection and soon enough a cause for staying away from the Church. But this phenomenon is not restricted to neophytes because many cradle Catholics do the same when they cannot reconcile the difference between preaching and practising.
Thus far, I have described a reason for arriving at lapsed Catholicism. To be fair, the reason is not illogical. In Confession, we examine our conscience and ask if we have caused a scandal by our actions or omissions. The etymology of the word scandal is an obstacle meaning that by our action or inaction we have caused people to stumble in their faith. An example of stumbling in faith is what you may have heard uttered ad nauseam—the Church is full of hypocrites.
But, many people also do not realise that the reason for lapsing is really a sorry excuse for the abdication of responsibility. What they are saying is that they will be Catholics only if others behave. Perhaps, in the context of God’s call and our response, let me rephrase the phenomenon of lapsing as, “Hey God I don’t like you and I don’t want to be your friend. Why? Because these people are bastards”. Crude as it may sound but it gets the point across. What sort of response is that?
The call that God has for us, is a call that is personal to us. Everyone is personally called into relationship with Christ the Son. Through the Sacrament of Baptism each one is grafted onto the Vine, called Jesus Christ, Our Lord and God. By our baptism, our response to Him is lived out both personally and corporately. Personally because only the individual can respond and corporately, because we realise that nobody can, on his own, graft himself to the Vine. No one baptises himself. It always happens through the agency of another which makes the grafting process corporate in its nature. The nature of God’s call which is corporate is otherwise known as Church. Church is not something extraneous to calling but it is essentially a component of that call and also necessary for salvation. This is where we differ from Protestants because for them, personal faith is often restricted to an “individual’s” response. For Catholics, our personal response has a corporate structure because salvation comes through the Church. It is through her that Christ’s sacraments come to us. We cannot accept the head who is Christ and reject His Body which is the Church.
This corporate nature of God’s call makes possible the baptism of children because the faith of the parents may supply for the child’s lack of faculty in making personal decision. Parents have a grave duty to form the child to become responsible personally for the faith which they first received from their parents. In a wider circle, it means also that we need to have a greater sense of responsibility to nurture each other’s faith because by our behaviour we may encourage or discourage our brothers and sisters.
Having said all that, it still remains that our response to God is personal. The Sacrament of Confirmation is at times described as the moment when the faith of our parents becomes our personal response. Some of our youths seem to graduate from Sunday School and Confirmation to non-practice. It explains but does not excuse an inability to take personal responsibility for one’s response to God. To a certain extent, part of the blame will lie on the parents IF they did not in the first place train the child for that moment of responsibility. But, the failure to be personally responsible cannot be derived from the corporate expression of God’s call, meaning that one cannot blame one’s parents or others forever. You may blame someone sometime but not all the time because after blame comes personal responsibility for a situation, no matter how dire.
In summary, faith is a personal response to God but always lived corporately through the Church. Maybe, at the beginning of the year, when resolutions are baking out of the oven fresh and aplenty, we might resolve to deepen our response to God, that is, to live our faith personally and independently of other people’s practice or lack of, but always within the bosom of Holy Mother, the Church.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Epiphany Year B

Let me begin by defining what the Epiphany is. It is the Solemnity of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles or put it in another way, it is the unveiling of the Christ to a world longing for its Saviour. Thus, the readings speak of God’s revelation to the Jews through Sacred Scriptures whereas the Gentiles will discover God through nature. The Jews in exile are encouraged by the Prophet Isaiah with a vision of a Jerusalem restored; a prophecy which is fulfilled by Christ and in the New Israel, the Church. The Three Wise Men were Gentiles and Matthew showed them as receiving God’s revelation through astrology. In revealing to both Jews and Gentiles, Epiphany is also an invitation to communion with Him and one another. In a nutshell, apart from salvation and worship, the Epiphany is a call to communion.
Epiphany, in fostering communion, shares its intent with a phenomenon we all know as social-networking. Today, I would like to speak of what implications social-networking may have on Epiphany’s invitation to communion.
The ontological reason for the Epiphany is because the human person is made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God. What does that mean? Since we are made in His image and likeness, it means that we must be “worth God’s while” to manifest Himself to us. The corollary would mean that the organisation of our lives must reflect this God whose image we are moulded in. Otherwise why would God reveal Himself to us?
One of God’s attribute is holiness which again means that we are supposed to reflect holiness for without it, we are no better than an intelligent primate. Our quest to be is a quest for holiness for without it, we would become either individualists without a sense of “direction” or we are reduced to collective whole without a personal centre. Individualists of a senseless kind are those who live lonely self-destructive lives or a collective of an impersonal kind are those who live without any self-reflexion. We call this herd-mentality.
What has Face-book, a form of social networking to do with this? Firstly, let me make it clear that Face-book is amoral in the sense that in itself, it is a neutral[1]. Its morality is derived through our use of it. In itself, it is an excellent communication platform. But hidden within its use is a dark shadow because we are innocently drawn into hyper-sharing because we assume that we belong in communion. Well, that may be the case that we are already in communion but, the need for everyone to know what we do, where we are or where we go, could mask an invitation to the new temple of the Narcissist. It is a kind of individualism in full bloom.
The temptation to individualism grows stronger the more we experience fragmentation in our lives. In a fragmented world, the youths have only a vague sense of the whole without a sense that the whole is interconnected or to put in a familiar term, the whole is in communion.[2] For example, the drinking of water from bottles. We are not unaware of how much water is wasted when half-drunk bottles are discarded. It is ironical that the present generation is trying to save the sharks for a generation which does not appreciate how much plastic flows into the ocean. This is what I mean by living fragmented lives.[3]
Whilst the world outside continues to deteriorate, that is, gets more fragmented, fear drives us to seek refuge behind our gated communities or into the safe cocoon of what we can control. From the loneliness of our bubble, we try to reach the world through social-networking but instead of reaching the world, the world comes to watch us star in our movies.
Let me reiterate that face-booking is not bad in itself but social-networking even though it contains the word “social” is often narcissistic because it makes us forget who we are. We are made in the image and likeness of a God who is social in the truest sense of the word. Why? Because God is Trinity and therefore, God’s holiness is a holiness of communion. In the Epiphany, we are introduced to the fullness of the individuality and collectivity we yearn for because the true individual is always in communion—a communion which prevents us from selfish individualism; a communion which Sacred Scripture would describe as a cloud of witnesses or communion of saints or holiness.
Finally, we are challenged to ask if the Epiphany is really God’s universal revelation of Himself through Jesus His Son or have we succumbed to a narcissistic world where the phenomenon of social-networking makes Epiphany a manifestation of ourselves to God? In this narcissistic world, God comes to worship us. Thus, the relevance of the Epiphany may be lost to us especially when social-networking is really an avenue to an enclosed world where we have become the centre of attention. The revelation of God to the Gentile world reminds us otherwise. The world comes to worship the God who saves.  

[1] Just like gambling or alcohol in themselves.
[2] Facebook tempts us with pseudo-communion.
[3] Fragmented young people want a world outside which is peaceful so that they can grapple with the internal conflicts which to themselves seem intractable. They are unable to grasp a bigger picture.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Solemnity of Mary Holy Mother of God Year B

1st Jan marks the Octave of Christmas. Today is 8 days after Christmas. Every liturgical year, the Church celebrates two Octaves: Christmas and Easter. In some countries, 1st Jan is also a Holy Day of Obligation. The Solemnity is important for the Church and until recently very important for the Society of Jesus. The official title is Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. I said “recently” just now and so for the Society of Jesus, 1st Jan was important because it was, apart from it being the Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God, also the Feast of the Giving of the Name of Jesus. Recently is as recent as 2002. With the latest edition of the Latin Missale Romanum  of 2002, a decoupling took place. Mary, Holy Mother of God remained the Solemnity we mark on 1st Jan whilst the Feast of Giving of the Name of Jesus has been shifted to 3rd Jan. But, even for so progressive a Society like the Jesuits, for the time being, we will still celebrate today as our Titular Feast but in time to come, when our liturgy catches up with the Calendar of the Universal Church[1], the Jesuit’s Titular Feast will be shifted to 3rd Jan. One of the reasons for shifting the Feast of the Giving of the Name of Jesus is because a Solemnity ranks above a Feast.
These are just some technical trivia so that you might ask why we should not celebrate the Giving of the Name of Jesus on 1st Jan, after all He is the Lord. Instead, the Church has given the honour to Our Lady. The next logical question would be: “Are we giving too much honour to Our Lady”?
The question as to why we should celebrate Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on 1st Jan lays bare a fear we may have that as Catholics we are idolaters. Putting aside the fear, let us attempt to uncover the foundation for why we give such great honour to Mary.
Not long after the event of the death and resurrection of Christ, even at the stage where the Gospels were being composed, there were already distortions about who Christ really was. There were already Gnostic tendencies within the community of St John. They did not believe that Christ had come in the flesh. How could He condescend to become human when flesh is “evil”? John’s Gospel was a response against these tendencies. By the use of the word “flesh”, John indicated that Jesus did not just take on a body as if He were putting on clothes. The Word was made “flesh” meant that Jesus was not some kind of appearance and nor was He some kind of a ghost. In fact, John’s Gospel was a detailed record of the facticity or concreteness of the event of the Incarnation. John 1—the Word became flesh; John 6—my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink; and finally, John 20ff—the post-Resurrection encounters of the Disciples with Jesus took place bodily, albeit a glorified body. “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side”.
Furthermore, the Giving of the Name of Jesus coincides with the 8th Day—as detailed in the Gospel—the day on which Christ was circumcised. Here again, the circumcision is a reminder that Christ came in the flesh and that He did not merely appear in the flesh.
St Paul in the Letter to the Colossians made mention of this flesh: In His body lives the fullness of divinity (Col 2: 9). Here we are brought into the fullness of the mystery which we have been celebrating these last 8 days: Christ is True God and True Man and not 50% God and 50% Man. He is not like your Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that uses both fossil fuel and battery power. This mystery of the God-made-man is called the Incarnation. And to call Mary the Holy Mother of God is to make this mystery as real as it can be.
It is upon this mystery that the foundation for the whole theology of the Sacraments rests. The Sacraments are often considered a Catholic preoccupation but they are not. In fact, Pope St. Leo the Great used to say "Since the Lord is no longer visible among us, everything of Him that was visible has passed into the Sacraments". In effect, the Sacraments would not be possible without the event of the Incarnation. This follows from what John wrote of the Jesus whom he saw with his own eyes and touched with his own hands: The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory (John 1:14).
Mary is called the Holy Mother of God only because Jesus is God. And this dogma declared in AD431 at the Council of Ephesus has salvific implications. Again we quote Pope St Leo the Great: “Henceforth, He is reckoned to be of the stock, not of His earthly father but of Christ, who became the Son of Man precisely that men could also be sons of God. For unless in humility He had come down to us, none of us by our own merits could ever go up to Him”.
 So, are we idolatrous in our relationship with Mary? Or do we give too much honour to Mary? Not at all. Mary, the Holy Mother of God is a statement of our salvation as it cuts through any attempt to fudge the question of the universal salvation of mankind. Let me read you the Preface III for Sunday, both from the old and new translation that you may appreciate how important the fullness Christ’s divinity and humanity is for salvation.
We see your infinite power in your loving plan of salvation. You came to our rescue by your power as God but you wanted us to be saved by one like us. Man refused your friendship but man himself was to restore it through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Old translation).
For we know it belongs to your boundless glory, that you came to the aid of mortality itself, with your divinity and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself, that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation, through Christ our Lord. (New translation).
No Marian dogma is ever about Mary alone. So, right at the beginning of the year, in declaring Mary to be the Holy Mother of God, the Church unequivocally declares that Jesus the Lord is the Saviour of the world and through Jesus’ humanity, mankind is saved.

[1]Every religious congregation has a titular feast. It could be the Founder’s Feast Day. Since the official name for the Jesuits is the Society of Jesus, it makes sense that the titular feast should be the Feast of the Giving of the Holy Name of Jesus.