Sunday, 30 September 2012

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

The scene in the Gospel is pretty straightforward. John encountered an outsider who exorcised in the name of Jesus. Undoubtedly, there was bewilderment. Can the power of Jesus be possessed by an “outsider”? The reaction could be a jealous attempt to curb the outsider from what he had been doing.
The answer Jesus gave: “Those not against us are for us” is surely music to the ears of those who stand for the spirit of openness, diversity and acceptance1 as suggested by the theme which stresses how God’s Spirit can work outside “boundaries”. Today, the Gospel invites us to reflect on the meaning of belonging to Christ.
For those who do not subscribe to an “inclusive, pluralist and politically-correct” ideology, to speak of “belonging” is to venture where angels fear to tread. An attempt to insist on strict membership would be deemed as parochial or provincial or in some cases, downright uncharitable—certainly out of touch with the spirit of openness and tolerance. It would appear that Christ and exclusion do not belong together.
However, consider the perception that the Orthodox Churches are numbered amongst some of the fastest growing religious organisations in the United States.2 These Churches are unabashedly resistant to the tides of relevance.3 Correspondingly, the mainline Protestant churches, suffer a significantly higher number of losses, wracked as they have been by contentious issues on sexuality and ordination.
Caught in the churning currents of constant change, people seem to seek the secure shores of stability. Similarly with the present credit crunch in the Eurozone raging there is a yearning for the familiarity of the old regime—a case of better the devil you know than the devil you do not know. What we are witnessing is none other than a enervating backlash of the tyranny of relevance which is manifested by a certain listlessness, a debilitating ennui that has compelled people to search for security and they seem to find it in Churches with the most solid past. The Orthodox Churches seem to represent that.4
The phenomenon of the rise in membership articulates a primæval urge to belong. Belonging has always been a sociological given. We say, “No man is an island”. In times gone by, we never seemed to question it. We just belong. Whether we subscribe to the set of values proposed by our belonging, we simply belong more or less.
Today that cannot be assumed. Whether it be religious persuasions or philosophical convictions, our shared worldview has retreated behind the walls of private belief or opinion.5When that happens, our grasp of the bigger picture that is provided by religious belief or philosophical framework is now transferred to the narrow field of ideology. In our experience it is called “social justice”. Do not think that I am knocking “social justice”. No, the truth is, since we cannot be certain that our religious content is real or that our philosophical framework can be universalised and all we are certain of is that the world is a mess, so, we attempt at a world morality.6 As a result of this breakdown in shared beliefs or assumptions which provide belonging together sociologically, what happens is that the urge for belonging must be expressed somehow or rather.7
Our locals have a colloquial saying, “shiok sendiri”. It is derived from the English word “shock” (as in the experience of being jolted by electricity). Literal translation renders this saying as self-satisfaction. Left to our own devices, we search for ways to entertain ourselves. Because belonging is near to impossibility, we resort to entertaining ourselves. It sounds absolutely miserable because we run from reality TV to adrenalin rushes, to mindless car crashes in movies all in the hope that the “shiok” will certainly satisfy the “sendiri”.8
If dancing around the pole of pleasure does not lead to the satisfaction of the urge of belonging, then the question has to be asked of the John’s insistence of membership: “What is the purpose of membership”?
If an innate or inbuilt sociological urge to belong does not really answer our question of membership, then we are force to venture further into the deeper sea of existence to ask the question of Truth. Membership in the Church misses the point if the membership does not revolve around the question of Truth. We are in for the Truth. And that is why Church membership is important because Truth is our salvation.
Here, there is no assumption that the other religions do not search for Truth. In fact, they do and if they do, a further question to be asked is: Where is Truth to be found in its fullest? This is a question which a broken down world dares not ask. In fact, the Gospel of Nice prevents us from asking this question because it is afraid of the implication of Truth; that there is really a line between black and white and that there is the possibility of exclusion.9 Instead of upsetting people by making truth claims, let us remain at the mundane level of attempting to build heaven here on earth.10
The sense of belonging that the Disciple wanted was rightly so corrected by Christ because in practical sense, we do not start out on life with the assumption that everyone who is not with us is against us. We do not need to because there are people who believe but they do not belong. For example, two religions share the same belief that life is sacred and yet one religion is not the other. Hence, the sense of belonging that the Disciple desired must go deeper. It revolves around a belonging in Truth.11
In summary, we can believe without belonging. The world is made up of many who believe without belonging.12 However, to belong without believing is impossible. And this is our challenge as baptised individuals. Our belonging or our membership in the Catholic Church is not just to fulfil a sociological urging. It is more fundamental for in the Church, we are fundamentally united in Truth, that is, Christ, so that we may live Him to the fullest. If we do not want to be condemned to a life of endless twirling around the pole of pleasure, with our minds numbed by the array of self-seeking shiok-sendiri entertainment13, then we must ask this question: “What is the purpose of my belong to the Church.”?
1 This is the same kind of mind-set at work in a question like “Why Holy Communion cannot be given to Protestants since we are all followers of Christ”?2 Here, I am touching only on Christianity. It should be noted too that Islam is a fast growing religion.3 A good example is how we approach the Eucharist. Catholics consider their Eucharist to be valid because they fulfil the requirement of having a valid Order. So, we are allowed to receive Holy Communion in their Churches, if a Catholic Church is not readily available. They, on the other hand, are not always open to us receiving Holy Communion from them because they consider us as heretics. Thus, they would, in general, resolutely resist receiving Holy Communion in a Catholic Church.4 The Catholic Church may draw people to her bosom. But, the fact is that those who go for the Orthodox Churches would put as a reason the seeming wishy washiness of Catholic theologians.5 Except for the so-called dictatorship of relativism—which imposes its particular brand of “tolerance” etc.6 Whilst you are here, you house may be burglarised. When you get stopped by the Police, you are certain that the Police be asking you for “coffee money”. The world is very messy.7 Today more than ever, belonging is not assumed but it is a personal choice. Judging by how we often keep to ourselves, we can say that many have opted out of society. They are happy or content to enjoy the benefits of society minus the convictions, implications and most of all the responsibility of being a part of that society.8 Have you come across game show which attempts to maximise the participant’s excitement even though he is being kicked out. I play Plants vs Zombies, the Survival panel and the rationale for playing is to score as many flags as possible killing zombies and the truth is, it is never satisfying because I keep wanting to get more and more flags. The same is with “Angry Birds”.  I will try to achieve 3 stars and when I cannot seem to get that for a particular panel, I inevitably end up in a mindless attempt to perfect the ballistic angle etc etc. In the end, I sin because it becomes a waste of time.9 It is not politically incorrect to speak of “hell” and that people can go there. Otherwise, heaven does not exist.10 Losing sight of the eternal we will be condemned to roam the desert of practicality.11 I have been a Jesuit for 26 years. In my brief work as campus minister and in the short years I have been a parish priest, I have dedicated my ministry to making people, especially the young understand not just the consequences of their actions (admittedly, we falter all the time) but also to become a real community of believers. The only way to save the word (not true in a sense because only Christ saves) is when we become a community of believers. It means we share the same faith and speak the same language and because we share the same faith and speak the same language, the possibility of common action becomes more a reality. The Jesuits think that they speak the same language but scratch the surface of two Jesuits and you will find two different philosophies which may be inherently incompatible with whatever common actions they participate in. In other words, common actions do not denote a shared understanding at all. What might be true is that the two Jesuits might be striving at cross-purposes even though they are both engaged in the common apostolate. This is not easy to hear. Why? Because we gloss over the question of truth of the competing philosophies believing that common actions are enough to unite us. In a sense, the Pope’s Regensburg speech got caught in the dumbing down fog of the Gospel of Nice. In bringing up the example of a violent character, he was not condemning but rather he was asking, “Is it true” that the religion espoused violence. The aftermath reaction may have proven the Pope’s point.12 Mahatma Gandhi is our most famous believer Christ who resolutely refused to be a Christian, for obvious reasons. We scandalise him by our behaviour. “I believe in Christ, I don’t believe in Christians”.13 Just like Odysseus’ chapter 9 where ill winds blew his ship off-course, landing upon an island of lotus-eaters. The men who have tasted the lotus flowers very soon forgot the purpose of their journey which was to get home.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

From last week’s pinnacle of Peter’s sublime primacy, we now descend onto the prosaic plains of insignificance. The Gospel sets the tone for this lowly nothingness by challenging the premises we may have of what it means to be honoured. Honour as prescribed by Christ is set within the context of what it means to be a child of His time.
By and large, the developed world1 places children at once removed from the experience the biblical world had of them. Developed society has put children on pedestals, some would even venture, to the extent that sparing the rod, it may have also spoilt the child. We treat children, powerless as they are, like demigods because of a strain of reactionary mind-set that revolves around the notion of “future creativity”; an outlook which views childhood traumas as thwarting the future genius or creativity a child might have.2
Contrast this mind-set with the experience of a marginalised group of the Mediterranean triumvirate3: widows, orphans and the poor. Orphans denote children minus the parental or close-knit familial care. It was not because they were not loved but the fact remained that children counted for nothing. They had no standing in society. And a child’s nothingness became the context of Christ teaching His disciples and also us, the true meaning of honour.
Honour and shame are deeply engrained cultural values in some societies. Amongst the peoples of the oriental Far East, losing face expresses the loss of honour. In the Middle East, honour-killing4 requires that a person, usually a girl or a young woman, be killed to restore the social equilibrium of a family or society.
The squabble for honour amongst the Disciples took place in the context of Christ speaking about His impending betrayal, death and resurrection. A key word like betrayal probably sparked off the discussion on honour because death in a situation beyond one’s control would oblige one to die honourably. Here, it was ironical that He should enquire of the content of their discussion given that honour, being such an important cultural core value, would not have been a topic of quiet dialogue. They would have squabbled loudly about who should be most honoured next to Christ.
With that question about the content of their squabble, Christ pulled the carpet from under their feet. He need not have asked because He had already known. He went even further when He associated honour with hospitality given to a rejected member of society: a child. It is conceivable that we associate childhood with purity and innocence but knowing a child’s standing in the society Christ’s time, we appreciate how the Disciples were challenged radically to redefine their understanding of honour. For them, the challenge was not just humbling but also humiliating.
This brings us to the Second Reading which raises the associate issues of ambitions and desires. In the context of the Disciples, the question is, apart from cultural bias, what drives the desire to seek honour, so to speak, to fight for the first place? How are we to understand this predilection for honour?
According to a world religion, desire is the root of suffering and thus, life’s programme is to stamp out desire. Upon further reflexion, we realise that desire is not the issue because desire, in itself, does not lead to suffering. Without desire, the end may just be annihilation—or nihilism.5 In fact, desire is a function of our search for God. And our life’s purpose is to convert our desire, not to obliterate it, so that it may fulfil its natural or supernatural function: to arrive where God’s is6--“Where I am, there you will be also”.
So, the fact remains that as long as we breathe, we will always desire and if desire is innate and not negative, we are left with how we should channel this desire for honour honourably because the desire for standing amongst men remains a permanent drive. We get this everywhere. At the national level, how do we explain the styling of oneself as the First Lady when we already have a Queen? At level of parish, we encounter people who cling on to positions in councils or commissions. And, amongst the hierarchy, we instinctively cringe when we witness a prelate jostling to be seen in the company of the British royalty.
We want to be recognised. We desire to be honoured. No one is immune to the temptation of honour, not even Christ the Lord. The nature of His temptation, where Satan brings Him to the top of the mountain, reveals that our concept of honour is often associated with prestige and power but seldom with humility and service. Thus, the example of a child opens the Disciples and us to the possibility that we begin to view how honour comes not because we are prestigious nor powerful but that we embrace a life of humble servitude.
In conclusion, let us take a second look at the honour that the Disciples sought, the prestige that came with Peter’s primacy and even our personal desires for honour. Firstly, honour comes naturally with power and prestige; there is honour to be had when one is a Sovereign, or a president, or a Pope or a Prime Minister. By and large, many of us do not belong to this mile-high club. But even then, in the ordinary, honour is even attached to membership in a locally esteemed club. Police sometimes dares not stop a lawyer’s car because they recognise the Bar Council’s badge on the said car. Honour carries with it privileges as it paves the way and opens doors bringing us to the front of the banquet hall or it can land us at the front of the cabin. In other words, live with it. Secondly, it is too facile to blame it on “selfishness” because it prevents us from reflecting more deeply about the direction of our desires. The point of honour is not bringing us places or that we are selfish but rather what we can do so that we remain as always honourable. In other words, how can our desire be honourable? The esteem for honour is a moral7 esteem as we observe in Christ Himself. For Him, honour is found in humble servitude and sacrifice of His life so that others might live. Thus, it is better to live and love honourably than to be honoured for the prestige and power we might possess.
1 The developed world would largely mean the Western world. But, granted that the world is considered a globalised village, almost every country “belongs” to the developed world. The only problem with our “developed” status is that our mentality pretty much lags behind in the third world. We have so many trappings of modern civilisation without a corresponding social capacity to bear with the demands of modernity.2 In the west, it is possible to make a phone call and the Child Protection Services will be at your doorstep to take over your incapability to form your child according to your belief and standard.3 It is an ironical use of the word because in its original sense it refers to the rule of three men (triumvir) referring to the Roman experience of the leadership under Caesar, Crassus and Pompey.4 As the term suggests, honour killing is often thought of in terms of honour associated with a patriarchal structure of power. But imagine the sociological impact of war on an entire religion where almost all available men were co-opted into the arena for religious expansion. It could explain the phenomenon of men being allowed to marry four wives. It was a matter of civilizational survival because the continuance of a socio-religio-politico entity was dependent on procreation. Thus, honour killing may be an expression of a society’s need to control the power of reproduction. Women functioned as an integral part of the “men-making” machinery—in view of religious expansion.5 John Paul II, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope referred to Buddhism as having a “negative soteriology”. It was controversial to say the least. However, “negative” is a technical term in theology and spirituality which does not denote bad. It means that Buddhism has an understanding of salvation which emphasises negation, a form of detachment, and in this sense, it has much in common with Christianity. In Christian spirituality we speak of “inordinate attachment” and often sin arises from this lack of detachment. The divergence between Buddhism and Christianity comes with regard to the aim of detachment. For Christianity, detachment is not an end in itself but its achievement is in order that we enter into a deeper and personal union with God.6 Have you heard of “Looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in all the wrong faces”? St Augustine’s “O Lord, my heart is restless until it rests in you” expresses the same fundamental orientation of the human person to search for the Creator.7 We often think of “moral” as an expression of “personal” rectitude, a sense that one should be beyond reproach. But, moral has a sense far wider than just personal accountability.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

This week, we arrive at the tipping point in Mark’s Gospel, for it ushers in the final phase in the life of the Messiah. The Lord begins now His journey onto Jerusalem—the place of his death, resurrection and ascension. The Gospel event is pivotal because Peter’s confession, even if he did not fully understand it, affirmed that the hope of the past was now about to take shape as the Pascal mystery began to unfold. What the ages of the past had longed for will now be fulfilled through the Passover of the Christ. Significantly the confession took place in Caesaria Philippi1, a city which overlooked the pagan country from whence the source of the great river associated with baptism flowed. With such a riverine association, you can already sense that Peter’s profession at once brings us into the territory of evangelisation.
In terms of the Gospel passage on the profession of Peter, there are a few points to be considered or clarified if we want enter into a discussion of evangelisation. Firstly, any reference to the Messiah was always pregnant with political overtones and here, the Lord tried to disabuse the Apostles of this notion by speaking of Himself as the “Son of Man”. This was a term which pointed to the Eschaton or the end time and therefore was devoid of the jingoistic connotation associated with the word Messiah. Furthermore, the need to correct any misguided understanding that Peter had, was supplied by Mark’s unflattering report of Peter’s rebuke by Christ Himself. Mark, as Peter’s close associate, would have preferred a kinder report of Peter but the inclusion of a less than positive image of Peter proved the veracity of this incident and it brings us to the point that is important when we want to consider discipleship.
Built into the definition of discipleship is the certainty of suffering. Those who follow Jesus must contend with this unavoidable reality. Thus, the first reading supplies us with the image which, if we are not familiar with, we ought to get used to. It is the song of the suffering servant whose life witnesses not only to faith but also to a faith that is purified in the furnace of suffering. At one level, this is the meaning of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. All saints know this and accept this as part and parcel of their confession.
At another level, the confession leads us to another plane where is often interpreted as one which proves Peter’s primacy. But, that primacy is quite secondary. It is more likely that Peter’s faith is analogous to the Church’s faith or the Church’s faith has to be synonymous with Peter’s confession. In a climate which considers the Church as irrelevant2, we recognise here that the Church is a necessity because the question that Christ posed to Peter must reverberate throughout time and to the ends of the earth. Our Lord and Saviour seeks an answer from humanity. “Who do you say that I am?” Thus, the Church founded on the rock of Peter must ring out unequivocally the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.
She exists, not just as an instrument of salvation. She exists so as to proclaim loudly and clearly that there is a Saviour in a world incapable of hearing the Good News of Salvation. And this is where we have gone south with our mission to evangelise and to proclaim. Either we fear, under the intolerant glare of relativism, that our kerygma is basically one amongst many OR, more likely, that we ourselves no longer believe in the kerygma.3 As a result, we shy away from the evangelisation and proclaiming. Instead, we are reduced to consorting with other religions on areas of mutual cooperation especially in the arena of ethics and morality.4
What might explain this distancing from conviction is the disconnection or the gap between what would be the ideal and what would be the reality. In short, the truth of our message has been compromised by the lack of credibility.5 The Second Reading confirms this by stating that a faith that does no justice is no faith at all. Credibility is in short supply.
Today, we are cowed by the reaction we will get rather than strengthened by the courage of our conviction. Evangelisation and proclamation must take place in the theatre of cultural wars where intolerance is directed against anyone who or anything which dares to proclaim that it stands on the side of truth. In such an intolerant world, anything is “true” except truth itself. Yet, to paraphrase JPII, we must proclaim the truth. We do not engage in attacking those who do not accept it because they are too many. We teach the truth because there is a grace attached to truth which unfolds itself at the time when it is appropriate.
And the truth we proclaim is spelt with a capital “T” and this Truth is a person, Jesus Christ. He is not a clever speaker, a good manager or even an excellent community organiser. He is God. In this endeavour to proclaim and evangelise, Cardinal Avery Dulles describes three foundational principles we must hold to: "Firstly, that there is a God. Secondly, that he has made a full and final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and thirdly, that the Catholic Church is the authorised custodian and teacher of this body of revealed truth." The Catholic faith is not a set of doctrines. It is a lived encounter with Christ, who lives in, and teaches through, the Church.
The mission to evangelise and proclaim the central kerygma of the Christian message is set within the context of Church. There was a popular saying repeated almost mantra-like in the 70s onwards, and echoes of which we still hear, which went like this: “We are Church”. This is true. We make up the Church and in an epoch where the stress on personhood6 is important, this relativises the hitherto general idea we had that “Church = building”. Certainly, in an era where institutional authorities “lie” routinely, such an anti-establishment/anti-institutional bias does find acceptable resonance with the faithful. However, consider that the contrary of “We are Church” is not true. The Church is not us. The Church cannot be us because the sum total of every living Catholic on earth is not the reality of the Church. Instead, she is Ecclesia militansEcclesia penitens and Ecclesia triumphans.
When we look at some of our bishops, we probably might despair. When we see some of our priests, we simply lament. When we observe our religious, we can cry. When we examine our married couples we throw in the towel. But the Church is not all these. She is more. Our despair, lamentation, cry and resignation merely expose the shortcomings of our faith. Our faith is really in our “ability” (the self-made man/self-made Church) and certainly not on Christ and His Church and certainly not on Christ to lead, guide and to protect His own body.

Yes, we are Church but the Church is more than us and even when our voices are blunted by sin and our proclamation is muted by our cowardice, the Church remains resolutely faithful as she stand at the side of Peter to shout out loudly and clearly the very answer to the question that Jesus asked of Peter and the 11: You are the Christ, the son of the Living, Saviour of all mankind. She cannot fail because She has the promise of His Holy Spirit.
1 There is another city Caesaria Maritima and the name suggests that it is a coastal city. But, this Caesaria Philippi was a city built on top of an enormous rock, by King Philip, to honour the Caesars. The symbolism cannot be missed in the context of Christ building His Church on the rock of Peter.2 However irrelevant we think the Church may be, she grows out of the event of the Incarnation. It might sound a little overboard to consider that she is a logical conclusion of the Incarnation but, here, we are not divinising the Church but merely acknowledging how the Incarnation must play itself out, if we were to accept it fully.3 The “instrument” of salvation must also be the “good news” of salvation. Unfortunately, this is not always possible because the conventional Gospel today is markedly the Gospel of Nice and in so many instances, the Church is fearful of reactions rather than She reacts in a world that longs to hear the voice of the Shepherd.4 It is a logical consequence of a heresy that “all religions are equally valid”. If all religions were equally valid, then the choice amongst them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or life-style. Furthermore, when transcendence is eschewed, then the struggle for a better humanity is all we need. With that in mind, how else can we bridge the chasm of solitary existence except through mutual cooperation so that the world can still “function”. Check out John Lennon’s seductively persuasive lyrics found in the song: “Imagine”. “Imagine there’s not heaven, only a brotherhood of man”.5 We have to deal with a phenomenon which the Spaniards termed as “Leyendra Negra”, translated as Black Legend. They coined the term to describe the outlandish and exaggerated accounts concerning events such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish colonialisation of South America to provoke an “anti-Spanish” reaction. Likewise, it is said that anti-Catholicism is the last accepted prejudice in the Western world. Today, the Black Legend concerning the Catholic Church is that a proportionately miniscule number of paedophile and child-abusive priests has become the norm. Whatever good that is done by the greater majority of priests or religious has simply been air-brushed out of history.6 We cannot postulate a society or build a communion based on the tenets of secular individualism—it is like a net which cannot hold water. Instead, like stretched gossamer, we are suspended between the two extremes of “totalitarian socialism” and “crass individualism”.  Many of the crises we encounter today are the results of a 300-year humanistic—politicians, economists, philosophers—effort to construct a society without God—a society where God does not exist. Our society is founded on lies, the three lies of secularism, relativism and individualism. Their inner logic reveals a tyranny which can only be classified the tyranny of relevance. Nothing is absolute and only “I” and its whims are the ultimate measure. Thus, an ecclesiology that is “person-centred” cannot fully overcome the question of legitimation. Personal relationship with Christ is good but it does not stand on solid ground if the Church were not involved. For example, a person claims he wants to celebrate the Eucharist. Who legitimises that celebration? Himself? I doubt so.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Last week I touched a little on this phenomenon which is called conventional wisdom. It is a kind of collective and received wisdom which we subscribe to unconsciously. When unquestioned, it can become a form of coercive force that imposes itself upon us. What we would call peer pressure is an expression of conventional wisdom unquestioned. It is all around, if you think about it. For example, there is a concerted national propaganda that is imposed upon us. It proposes a heart-warming vision which, given the polarisation and division afflicting this country, we would all want to embrace. I leave it to you to guess what that vision is called.
The point is, the three readings also put forward a kind of vision, not unlike our so-called national rhetoric. In the vision of Isaiah, a magnificent future is promised to God’s kingdom where everyone, including the disabled,1 will rejoice. The second reading endorses this vision by advancing a world free from the division of distinction—be it colour, creed or wealth. In the Gospel, the vision of Isaiah is concretely fulfilled as Christ ushers in the new kingdom through the miracle of healing for the deaf and dumb man.
What is of interest to us, considering what we are commemorating this evening, is how the miracle was reported. In fact, for the Eucharist later on, the necessity that the words of consecration be said according to the rubrics’ set formula is confirmed by the manner Mark reported the miracle. Firstly, Christ took the man aside and He touched his ears and applied spittle on his tongue—both are deeply sacramental acts. Secondly, the point which is central to our reflexion is the retention of a word native to Christ’s language: “Ephphatha”. It is translated as “be opened”. However, Mark’s deliberate use of its Aramaic form is due to the Semitic belief that power resides in the word used and therefore, any translation of it would have affected its efficacy.2
Beyond the primary means of perception and therefore communication—touch, taste and smell--words are important because the sense of hearing (and therefore speech) is the next to be developed after these three. Parents who are interested in giving their child a head-start in life would make the baby listen to music even when the child is still in the womb, proving that there must be some truth to the fact that we develop the sense of hearing first before the sense of vision.
Words are not only important; they are also powerful. Unfortunately, we are not at home with words. Given our bias towards what is called the audio-visual medium and the accent here of the audio is not sound but noise, we have become estranged from the house of words—the house of proper communication. Consider that we do not even construct proper sentences—OMG, LOL, TTYL, BRB and IMHO etc. And furthermore, the modern technologies especially of the electronic media have allowed us the kind of immediacy and the intimacy which hitherto were only allowed face to face—either through speech or even the absence of it. Our so-called world wide web provides the condition for the possibility of communion. It has become easier for us to connect with one another—iMessage, Whatsapp, Facetime, Facebook etc. However, when we communicate without physical presence, we also run the risk of superficiality. For example, those engage in predatory behaviour would usually have an avatar which is captivatingly pleasing and innocent like a 35 yo offender who poses as a 12 yo girl.3
The Malays have a proverb: “kata dikota”. Speech is to be “fortified” meaning that we stand or fall on our words. Words must be seen in deeds, according to St Ignatius. And this evening, we also come to celebrate the wedding anniversary of a couple: Patricia and Joseph. Their wedding photos would have faded a bit but of course, with digital technology you can retouch the photos etc. The fact remains that even time may have passed, what have endured are your words… “I, so and so, take you to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health till death do us part”. These are the words that you can take to the bank.
By the way, we never really give the word “bank” a second thought but those of you who belong to the ancient tradition (trust me, you would want to be that), the word “bank” is actually built on the foundation of words “I give you my word” because that was it in the days when banking was done over a table and one’s word was as good as gold. You remember the first generation of immigrants who came to this country and that when they said something, they meant something. Imagine a building was built not on contracts signed but on words. A man is only as good as his words.
Words are powerful. They can maim. They can heal. They can bring despair or hope. We appear to have forgotten the binding power of the word. And, in an era which can be described as post-literate, we hear that a picture paints a thousand words and yet it was the Word through Whom the world was created. We may be made in His image and likeness but still, it is through His word that we are created. Therefore, we need to return to the promise inherent in the words we use.
Why? In the context of the anniversary we are celebrating, the Church stands or falls through marriages. Listen to how the preface to the wedding is phrased: For you have forged the covenant of marriage as a sweet yoke of harmony and an unbreakable bond of peace, so that the chaste and fruitful love of holy Matrimony may serve to increase the children you adopt as your own. By your providence and grace, O Lord, you accomplish the wonder of this twofold design: that, while the birth of children brings beauty to the world, their rebirth at Baptism gives increase to the Church, through Christ our Lord.4 The question is: “How else will the Church grow if not through the baptism of infants?”
Marriage is essential to the Church’s growth but regrettably, conventional wisdom runs counter to marriage as a sacrament of fidelity; a sacrament of permanence. It is much easier to give up than to hold on and to say that marriage is needed because of the Church’s growth is a selfish way to putting it, no? It sounds selfish because there could be couples who may have tried and tried and tried. And yet, failure does not invalidate the truth that marriage’s stability is necessary for the family’s health. Our children, your children already have to put up with the vagaries of a relativistic world, where nothing is constant and everything is in a flux, so you can imagine what the impact would be like when the world at home is no different from the world outside. It is immensely frightening for children. Hence, a stable marriage—here stable is not the same with perfect5—is necessary for the future of the family, the future of the Church and if you like the future of civilisation.
At the beginning, we started off by talking about visions. Isaiah’s vision of the future world necessarily embraces the wheat-fields of good and solid marriages. We believe that God’s vision for creation began through the Word and is sustained by the Word. In a fragmented post-literate world, the world wide web is the new Gutenberg highway through which our words must traverse. A philosopher once said, “Language is the house of Being”. For our Christian vision to take shape, we must ensure that every word that passes through it counts. You can begin by being true to your words before and after marriage or in and out of marriage.

1 Or nowadays, “conventional wisdom” dictates that we use the term differently abled. Yes, PC is an imposed conventional wisdom.
2 Perhaps we can understand why the Koran cannot but be set in the Arabic language. It is God’s word as dictated to the Prophet Mohammad. The difference between the Christianity and Islam is that the Word became flesh whereas the Koran remains God’s word pure and simple because it records God’s dictation to Mohammad. According to Dominus Iesus, “The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity, and that the Holy Spirit, who is Christ’s Spirit, will teach this “entire truth” to the Apostles and, through them, to the whole Church”.(§6)
3 The exchange of information has the potential of building the community. However, the posing of a 35-year-old man as a 12-year-old girl shows how easy it is through the media to go exceed or diminish reality. Anonymity allows us to be uninhibited. But what has happened is that misery has sought company in that “likes” seemed to have bred “likes”, meaning that if a person can be perverse and is not ashamed to flaunt it publicly, it gives others also the courage to do the same. And therefore, what was once private has now become public. We exchange private information publicly and unabashedly. This is symptomatic of our craving for the Garden of Eden where the promise of the E-Garden is nakedness with no shame.
4 For comparison, check out the older text. The newer text brings out much better the context of the increase for God’s family—through baptism. “By this sacrament your grace unites man and woman in an unbreakable bond of love and peace. You have designed the chaste love of husband and wife for the increase both of the human family and your own family born in baptism. You are the loving Father of the world of nature; you are the loving Father of the new creation of grace. In Christian marriage you bring together the two orders of creation: nature's gift of children enriches the world and your grace enriches also your Church”.
5It is ironical that we all crave for news and usually the more salacious news of celebrity foibles. But, in our personal lives, there appears to be an unwritten code that marriages are supposed to “happy ever after”. Could this be some sort of Hollywood-raised expectations that couples have? Think of the many couples shattered by the discovery of infidelity and the aftermath is that the faithful party cannot see beyond the stain of infidelity. For couples who celebrate their anniversaries, can we assume that there never was any infidelity along the way? Infidelities and their consequence speak to us of “conversion”. What many couples have in front of them is not a “perfect take-off, perfect-landing, and no hiccoughs along the way” marriage. In fact, many enduring couples can tell you that they have had to work through some of the most difficult kinks in their lives post-marriage. This is one reason why marriage is a sacrament. The couple needs grace to make sure that they can survive through. All they need is to cling to the resolve that come what may, through good times and bad, through sickness and health, they will survive it together with the assistance of God. No marriage is a perfect match made in heaven. The couple if it is serious will be tested to the max and sometimes to breaking point. But, the nature of grace is that it is always sufficient for us. All we have is to believe in it. Too often we do not believe enough.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

It would feel like I am speaking Greek this Sunday. I would like to speak on a topic which to some may be topic of odium: the hierarchy of the Church.
Last Sunday I spoke on the rubrics and its relationship to a mystery that we have been celebrating since apostolic times. Before I go on, let me just state that in making a case for faithfulness to the rubrics, a case can be made also that I am suffering from excessive ecclesio-centricism—a form of idolatrous worship of the “Church” and not of God. By insisting that the Church, that is, the Apostolic See1, has the right to insist on a strict adherence to the rubrics for the celebration of the Eucharist, I seemed to have pulled the carpet from under the feet of “ingenuity”2 or of even heart-warming spontaneity. Would not a strict adherence to the rubrics encourage some form of “legalism” and further “deaden” the Mass which is already so “dead” and unappealing? This tension leads us to this Sunday’s readings which are centred on the Laws.
The three readings all touch on different aspects of the observation of the Laws. Moses prohibited the distortion of the observance of God’s statutes and decrees because they summed up the depth of God’s relationship with Israel. James spelt out that the true meaning of the observance of God’s commandments is to be found in our interest towards the well-being of the poor. Finally, the subject matter for our reflexion—how to interpret the laws--comes from the encounter between Christ and the Pharisees.
The discussion of rubrics has brought us face to face with a popular notion, which is to set up an opposition between Christ who came to liberate and the Laws which are at best cumbersome or at worst burdensome. In our preference for spontaneity, it is not difficult to give in to contempt for the Pharisees, who as a group, appeared to have this seeming penchant of “emptying” divine laws of its “spirit” by reducing them to mere positive laws; laws which may be changed, passed over or made more perfect. Furthermore, their nit-picking only served to render the laws oppressive as well as opened them to ridicule.
How do we make sense of this conventional wisdom? Was Christ against the laws?
The truth remains that the entire corpus of the New Testament does not record anything which shows Christ’s3 antagonistic attitude towards the law. In fact, the key to understanding His relationship to the laws is to recognise that in Him the Torah has become universalised. For example, St Augustine’s appreciation of this “catholicity” is seen in this quotation: “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old; the Old is made explicit in the New”. It shows that the Patristic Father understands the relationship between the two Testaments to be a seamless whole, meaning that, there is no divide between them and therefore between Christ and the Laws. On the contrary, the relationship is not of a division but rather of a fulfilment. Christ stood against a particularly narrow interpretation of the laws that the Pharisees had. As such, He came to fulfil the Laws. In that way, we may say that the divide, if there were one, may be coming from our predilection for “spontaneity” and our distorted sense of freedom.
In that sense, our progressive culture is not unlike the Pharisees. Instead of nit-picking, we tend to explain everything away with God’s love. Instead of reducing the Laws to merely positive laws, we reduce the majesty, the “otherness” (transcendence) of God, notwithstanding that Christ came to give us access to the Father, to the level of commonplace friendship to the point that God cannot be but a doting Old Grandfather who loves us to bits. If that be the case, then Christ cannot be anything but be against the laws. Certainly Christ against the Pharisaic concerns over the laws’ minutiae is helpful in our making a case for more “freedom” from the restrictions of laws.4
This is where we make a jump and it is not a far leap from the Pharisees to the Hierarchy, in our case, the Apostolic See, especially considering that Benedict XVI, according to some, have decidedly turned the clock back with an insistence on faithfulness to the Church’s liturgical norms. In the promulgation of the GIRM, what we observe is mostly a grudging compliance5 because there is either a lack of belief in the vision of the Holy Father or more so a caving in to the current “wisdom”.
A point can be made here on what is called “conventional”  wisdom. A way to understand how it functions is to look at “peer pressure”. It is an unspoken wisdom that everyone is supposed to kowtow to, if he or she does not want to be ostracised. Take for example, political correctness. It is a wisdom which proclaims tolerance6 but it is an intolerance which borders on intellectual fascism. The point is, anyone who dares to stand against the “received wisdom” will know its might. Hence, the task of returning to liturgical norms is made difficult by the received wisdom which can be broadly characterised as a liturgical amnesia. We have, in the interest of horizontality, forgotten the verticality of the liturgy.7 We may understand why the endeavour of the current Pope is a lonely one.
A way to understand further why there is a need to insist on the rubrics is to make the connexion between the hierarchy and holiness. Firstly, holiness and “legalism” are somehow related. How? Holiness is an attribute of God. In an analogical way, the Church8 is described as holy; it is an ontological description because it speaks of the “being” of the Church. This holiness is a gift and hence, a grace. Instead of living it, we often try to “possess” it through legalism. The Pharisees themselves tried to “protect” the call to holiness by imposing it, forgetting that the call cannot be legislated9 through external forms alone. However, the value10 of something is often deduced by the laws surrounding it. For example, if the punishment for the rape of a girl were just a rap on the knuckle, the message sent out is that girls are not worth our protecting. Here we appreciate that the “rubrics” surrounding our liturgy points not only to a mystery but that they are also ontological indicators.
When we profess to believe in the “holy catholic Church”, it means we accept that holiness is the being of the Church. In that way it is sacramental because she is the sign, symbol, and the reality of Christ’s presence. Consequently, she has to be hierarchical. The primary meaning of the word hierarchy is the rule of the holy and only secondarily does it refer to the “Bishops” (by extension, the priests and deacons). The accent is not on the rule but the holy. That a Bishop is politically perceptive is a premium. That a Bishop is administratively adept is an advantage. But, none of these is as crucial as a Bishop who is holy.11
This is one of the meanings of sacramental and here is the crux: when a Bishop ignores the rubrics, then he has forgotten who he really is. Faithfulness to the rubrics is not an indication but rather an expression of a Bishop’s holiness because his holiness is the face of Christ. It is not about him at all. However, as stated, we cannot legislate holiness. That was conceivably the point the Pharisees were missing. Holiness is not ours to grant ourselves. Instead, it is given to us through Christ and through our baptism, our entire life is focused on appropriating Christ’s holiness and we do it through imitation, aptly referred to by author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “And therefore, we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us” (Heb 12:1).
Finally, I end where I started: on the hierarchy. A protracted discussion on the rubrics led us to the hierarchy and the conclusion is that our task is to inculcate holiness. And this we do not so much through “laws” but through the real practice of the virtues. Here again, we return to life-giving habits; the habits of holiness. And in the context of the Church, a return to holiness is called for from the Bishops and by extension the priests and religious and married couples. Often we forget that we are “holy” first before we are anything.12

1 The diocesan Bishop, within his competence, may issue liturgical norms by which all are bound. [Cf CIC838 and SC22§1].
2 Inculturation, for example, is a form of “ingenuity” that tries to accommodate cultures beyond the spheres of Eurocentricism. Moreover, the Church should be more reflective of what is truly its character: catholic.
3 It is ironical that the attempt at distancing Christ from his “cultic” (priestly) background corresponds at the same time to a rapprochement with the Jews. A pluralist worldview tends to see Christianity not as an offshoot of Judaism—certainly, in the spirit of pluralistic tolerance—not as a fulfilment of Judaism. Is that not taking Christ out of His context and fitting Him into ours? For example, the current trend in revision history is to make Him out to be a revolutionary liberator. His being a cultic figure does not fit well into this “liberating” matrix we have set up for Him. Unfortunately, scriptural evidence does not support that. He came to fulfil the Law. He came to be the Priest of the Father. “Through Him, with Him and in Him, O God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours forever and ever”. In that way, Christ, the real High Priest, universalises the message that God had for Israel, and thereby not restricting our access to God. Is that not the very redundant project of the pluralists? The aim of pluralism is to level the religious playing field—all religions have to be equalised in order that no one is denied access to God.
4 Almost certainly the hermeneutics of discontinuity has a greater grasp on our imagination more than the staid, stuffy and stifling hermeneutics of continuity.
5 Check this out on some of the abuses that take place at Mass.
6 A liberal often commits what may be described as an axiological scepticism. Why? In theory he believes that all theories are on par but in practice, he will necessarily reject some theories. For example, he would certainly reject that it is acceptable to kill willy-nilly. So a liberal would demand tolerance for everyone except those who disagree with them. In other words, the act of rejection already shows forth that there are laws which we hold to, not because we are liberals but because we are humans. We do not function in a moral vacuum. On the other hand, a “conservative” does not pretend to be tolerant. Yet, that itself is no indication that he is intolerant. Tolerance is not to be prized for itself because it is a lazy intellectual’s security blanket. Thus, the question “But, what if it is true” may orientate us to what real tolerance truly means—bearing with one another in the quest for truth. In a relativistic age, tolerance often drowns out the voice of truth.
7 Church architecture is closely tied to the liturgy. Church architecture necessarily has a sense of verticality and length and not horizontality and proximity. Look at churches built in the shape of a “fan” with “theatre” seating. They may be modern, practical and certainly “open” to worship but in architecture, they have no ecclesiological ancestry. Verticality and height are indications that liturgy is directed to the worship of God.
8 Church here does not denote the Church as we often understand her. The Church was foreshadowed at the beginning of creation where the call was issued out to humanity to live a life with God. It was prepared for in the Old Testament through the calling of Abraham. With the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God, the Church as we understand her to be, the new covenant between God and Man, is instituted.
9 It may explain why imposition of the fast through policing will only increase its “pharisaical” observance. Fasting, whilst it has a “physical” component to it, must be an expression of conversion.
10 I dislike the term “value” for its economic connotation but it is a workable term. Otherwise, we can use the word “worth”.
11 The custom of kissing the bishop’s ring tells us that there is something more to the person of the bishop. Usually the custom is practised by simpler folks. They appear to have a more profound sense of sacramentality. They want to feel God’s closeness. However, this is custom is dying out probably out of reaction to the “Pharisees being greet obsequiously and wearing longer tassels”. At first glance, this reluctance may come across as humility but upon close inspection, the reticence exposes the reality that bishops (and priests too) are often full of themselves forgetting the respect the laity gives to them is accorded firstly to Christ the Lord and only secondarily to the “man” himself. Consider especially how many priests have no problem cooking, singing or dancing to entertain their parishioners. It is a testimony of the age we live in that priests are more at home with our “celebrity” status than we are with being “sacramental” icons. It is a heavy calling. The Pope makes a valid point in the discussion between ad orientem and versus populum. Mass versus populum tends to place an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage—there are Masses which resemble talk-shows rather than what they are supposed to be—Christ sacrifice on Calvary. It is not surprising that this “liturgical stage” has spawned a generation of “celebritergy” (as someone calls is) and also fostered a generation of clerical narcissists.
12 Maybe a case can be made for democracy in the Church…more power given to laity because bishops, priests and religious have collectively failed in their main “ontological function” as custodians of holiness. It would seem that the laity is more “holy” than the clergy and religious.