Sunday, 20 January 2013

Baptism of the Lord Year C

 There seems to be an anti-climax to the feast we are celebrating today because Ordinary Time gives the impression that we are heading for the mundane—a return to humdrum and yet, the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan leans towards the majestic as it is a continuation of the theophany, a manifestation of God in Christ to the world.
Once again, heaven splits open with a voice that comes from within announcing that the Christ was not just the anointed one but also the beloved Son of God. The Baptism also signals the beginning of Christ’s public life.
What implications does the Baptism have for baptised Christian? Let me begin with a phenomenon which many of us are only too familiar with: there is no such thing as a free lunch. In a free lunch, we seem to be getting more than we asked for but in actual fact, we often need to pay for more than we bargained for. The very fact that I began by asking the question of implication suggests that I am working out of this model of “no such thing as a free gift” and we are expected to pay somehow. Thus, in a sense, the approach to the baptism of Christ appears to come from the perspective of guilt—a kind of guilt that we need to pay somehow. Since He began His public ministry at the baptism, I supposed we may be guilt-tripped to believing that through our baptism, we too are called to embrace His public mission; not that embracing His public mission is anything wrong.
This is well and good but I believe also it misses an important point. Let me take it slowly from here. I remember that the Ethiopian famine burst into the international scene in 1984 or thereabout. Then, it galvanised the entertainment personalities into spear-heading the international relief work for East Africa. Band Aid, led by both Bob Geldof and Midge Ure started with “Do they know it’s Christmas”. Later, this movement engendered a similar drive on the side of the Americans, USA for Africa. Anyway, the point is this: images broadcasted to the world included hungry faces and emaciated bodies. What was more? “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time”. All with intent of evoking a sense of pity but more likely they effected a sense of guilt; a guilt that drove the world in search for a quick solution to the problem of hunger in Ethiopia, in particular and in Africa, in general.
Guilt is a good force but its strength is also ephemeral simply because its efficacy is dependent on how conscientious one remains. As long as one’s conscience is solid, it will produce the result it intends but when one’s conscience is overcome by apathy, then guilt does nothing more than it evokes a feeling of discomfort. To be fair, many of us have been shamed to action at one time or another. How many of us have been shamed to donate out of guilt, especially when at Church, one of those fund-raisers comes to hawk their premier show tickets? But shaming to action can only do so much especially when it is not accompanied by conversion and conviction.
So, how do we embrace Christ’s mission if not through guilt?
The Gospel presents us with the answer. It is called sonship by adoption. Christ the sinless one underwent baptism as His great act of solidarity with humanity. The Son of God set aside all His prerogatives in order that we might find a footing before the Father. For that, we become sons and daughters of God the Father.
“This is my beloved Son”, the voice from heaven is confirmation of our adoption. Any impetus we have must come from an appreciation that we are beloved children of God. We are good and become better because of that. Anything good that can flow from us flows from a profound appreciation that we are beloved of the Father. Hence, our actions must bear with it the reality of God’s love. It was the love of the Father that impelled Christ to embark on the journey to save the humanity and the ultimate test of His love was His death on the Cross.
And this is where we must cross the Rubicon of “self-love”. We have been quite spoilt by the Gospel of self-love. It is love, God’s love and our response in love, and not guilt that guides out action in life. However, a reason why our response in love might be putative or half-hearted lies in the way we have corrupted God’s love for us. In a sense, we can never love others if we do not first love ourselves. But, this self-love is emboldened to a certain extent by an image of God who loves us to the point of helplessness. The Father who loves us can only look indulgently at us whilst tut-tutting us for our sins. After all, He is a loving Father.1 The corrective to our self-indulgent image of God is corrected by Christ who, right after His baptism, was driven into the desert. We often think that Christ loved the Father through His sacrifice on the Cross but the contrary is also true. God the Father loved the Son enough to sacrifice Him so that we might be saved.
The test of our baptism and our following of Christ will come in this form: We will be persecuted and there will be suffering in our lives. Our baptism sets us on this road of conversion and conviction. Anyone who is baptised believes that after baptism, life will be easier, has been baptised into some kind of delusion. Ultimately, it was not the mission that determined how Christ behaved but instead, it was the Son who determined how the mission was to be. This is where baptism becomes ours to cherish. Through baptism we become God's children and because we deeply appreciate who we are, hence, our mission is to venture into the world to shape it according to whom we are as God's children, no matter how hard the journey may be.

1 We hear it all the time. God is with us. Yes, it may be a corollary of the Emmanuel. However, the question we never ask is, not that we can ever be on par with God, are we with God?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Epiphany of the Lord Year C

The hubbub surrounding Christmas has died only to be resurrected by the Lunar New Year’s decoration probably up already in the shopping complexes. Epiphany marks the last Sunday in Christmas season before we ease into Ordinary Time which is initiated by the Baptism of the Lord. The word is defined as to show or to manifest. Hence, Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of the Christ to the Gentile world as symbolised by the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the baby Jesus. But, this manifestation is also a “Theophany” because the 2nd Person of the Trinity, who through the decisive act of the Incarnation, is now manifested in person to His creation. Epiphany is significant because of the far-reaching consequences of this appearance.
As we consider the consequences of how far-reaching it is, 3 groups of characters stand out in the aftermath of Christ’s birth. Firstly, the Shepherds are indeed honoured and privileged for they received what is considered to be a direct and supernatural revelation via the agency of the angels. I believe none of us shares that kind of honour.1 Secondly, the High Priests and the Jewish scribes in today’s Gospel are privileged as well because they have the certainty of sacred scripture. Salvation does come through the Jews. Finally, the Gentile Magi discover the birth of the Saviour through the observation of a natural phenomenon—the shining star that guides them. This group symbolises a world seeking to her know her Creator and Lord; a longing that is mirrored in the first reading. We and 99.99% of mankind belong to this group.
In this sense, Christianity as a religion of the Epiphany challenges our understanding of how Christians should conduct themselves in a world hungering to know her Christ. If the world searches for Jesus Christ, then surprisingly He is still a “nobody” especially after 2000 years of Christianity. Perhaps Christianity and certainly Christians are to be blamed. But, today is not the day to assign blame much less to look for causes of Christianity’s failure. However, between the Jewish Scribes and the Gentile Magi, note the irony of how Christ is discovered. The certainty of scripture is no guarantee that Christ will be recognised—a timely reminder to Christians that the possession of Gospel Truth is no added advantage. If we dissociate ourselves from the Jews, not because we are superior to them but because we accept the revelation, like the Shepherds, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the world, thus what lies before us is to rethink how Christ is to be discovered by a world still waiting to know Him. Christians must engage the world in order that Christ does not remain a local, parochial or provincial message but should instead become the universal answer to the question of humanity. How?
In communicating Him to the world, we marvel at how social media has greatly expanded our range and ease of communication. However, we may fail to observe that it has also artificially inflated our personal space which at the same constricts the efficacy of our communication. Much of what we accept to be “communication” is basically personal and not really genuinely social or truly interpersonal. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter enable us to reach a wider audience and yet their darker sides enable people with no qualms to expose the very private details of their lives for all and sundry to see or read. And in terms of public life, exposure of the scandalous sex lives of political personages is an integral part of political prowess.2 So, what we consider to be “social” is pretty much an exposure of what may be the private life of individuals. When the content of our communication falls short of the intent then communication will be reduced to “shouting out”.
This is the meaning of shouting out. Our social space seems to be hemmed in by the almost impermeable boundaries of personal spaces. And when we move, it becomes a matter of how large we want to project that personal space. Many of our blogs or Facebook postings are good examples of trying to enlarge our personal spaces—they are the cyber-equivalence of our 15-minute claim to fame.
I was in Hongkong recently and witnessed this incident. There was a wedding the previous night and the morning after was the goodbye rigmarole. The farewell party’s vehicle was parked inconsiderately so much so that the taxis just backed up into a snaking queue. Immediately behind this offending vehicle was man in a taxi trying to get to the airport. But, the wedding entourage saw no problem inconveniencing everyone around. A shouting match ensued between the man in a hurry and the morning after bride. She shouted expletives to the effect: “I really don’t care if you were inconvenienced by my inconsideration”. What do we think? We think it is bad manners or some call it apathy but really, that was symptomatic of how our social sphere has crumbled into a coliseum choked by competing personal spaces. It is about how loud you can shout or how powerful you are to impose your will. I am sure everyone here has this type of experience to recount.3
The primary aim of communication is not just an exchange of information but is directed towards the discovery of truth and also the embrace by truth. We do not possess truth as much as we are possessed by truth.4 But, within a life-world of bloated personal spaces, truth is no longer relevant whereas “like” is. “Like” has become the measure of what “true” is. In such a space, how can we proclaim Him who is Truth and who might also be unlikable?
In such a climate, the public display of religiosity—which is a form of communication; an expression of truth—could be considered offensive and therefore rejected or if not, irrelevantly quaint and therefore merely tolerated.5 Given this conundrum, do you think it is possible to propose a vision which is all encompassing? We have allowed religion to be a private matter for too long. And the other major religion which has a vision as grand or as overarching as Christianity is one which preaches peace but frequently espouses violence as a means of achieving its end—that is, it has no qualms using violence to impose its monolithic view of man vis-à-vis God. In reaction to the fear of violence, it is any wonder why secularity, especially Western secularity, is hard-pressed to contain Christianity, a religion which proposes a vision not founded on violence but embraced by truth.6
Religion is not a private matter. This statement does not mean that the opposite is true, meaning that religion has to be imposed publicly.7 Instead religion is to be expressed, not just privately through prayers or petitions but expressed publicly through worship and liturgy. A personal relationship with the Lord, as demanded by fundamentalist Christians, is important but so too is public worship. Hence, the liturgy, the Mass,—by its definition, is par excellence a public expression not just of our relationship with Christ but also of the Truth that God is with us. The more we gather for the Eucharist, the fuller our expression as the Body of Christ becomes and the more we dare to worship publicly, the more we prevent religion from retreating behind the limiting walls of private belief. The very Eucharist you are at, boring as some people might characterise it or impersonal as some would deem it, is actually the bulwark against belief becoming merely an expression of personal preference—something that you might like or just enjoy.
In conclusion, the Epiphany as a manifestation is not just a random act of God’s capricious revelation but it also reveals us to us; it reveals who we are as human beings. Firstly, that God can “speak” to us and He has, and most resolutely through His Son, Jesus Christ. And in speaking, Epiphany proposes Christ the Way, the Truth and the Life to all humanity; and not just to a section. Therefore, He is not just any way, one truth amongst many truths or merely a life. Epiphany reveals the true meaning of the Incarnation that by becoming one of us, He has enabled us to break through the limitation of our private individualistic bubbles—in short, by His coming as Man, we have become truly brothers and sisters—and at the Eucharist, that brotherhood is best expressed. Secondly, not only does God speak but also we are looking for Him. So, when our pathetic little world has reduced the transcendental aim of man’s existence to almost nothing, the Magi stand as a reminder, that as long as humanity exists, it seeks wisdom—it seeks the answers to the questions of existence. Thus, Christ is not a “nobody” and neither is He just somebody to like. Instead, He is the reason for the proclamation of the Holy Gospel to all nations waiting for the honour of His grace. And guess who the messengers are? You are.
1 If a person walks up to say, “Mother Mary appeared to me”, chances are he or she is singing the loony tunes. It explains why the Church takes such a long time to ascertain or approve all apparitions.
2 If you want to enter into the political ring, it is good to know the bedroom antics or secrets of your opponent.
3 Children running and screaming in a restaurant with parents oblivious of the children treating what is a public place as their personal playground. The same can be said of going out to eat supper in one’s pyjamas.
4 The Magi can be said to have been possessed by truth enough to risk everything even to the extent of leaving all forms of security in search of the child Jesus.
5 Our Corpus Christi procession is a form of public declaration of our belief. The whole process of having to apply for permit is explained by the need to maintain public order. However, what is perhaps more true is that the so-called “maintenance of public order” serves to illustrate how small the social space has become for the public expression of faith. We are tolerated for our quaint practices. The worship of God is extraneous to our everyday existence.
6 A distinction has to be made between religion in itself and the perpetrators of violence. Religions are not always violent but the people who are fanatical about their religion frequently are.
7 Like checking if you abstain from meat on Friday or arresting you for eating publicly in broad day-light during the fasting month.