Thursday, 7 December 2017

1st Sunday of Advent Year B 2017

How different is Advent from Lent when it shares a similar shade as Lent? Purple. They both omit the Gloria and some weeks into the season, the vestments also swap a hue lighter. Rose. Then, the first Reading today has a strong penitential tint to it. Thus, a question that intrudes comes from the almost seamless flow from Christ the King to the first Sunday of Advent because they share a concern for a watchfulness in the matter of the impending judgement to befall us.

A passage from Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians might aid us in discerning the subtle difference in focus between Lent and Advent, and also between Christ the King and the 1st Sunday of Advent. In the Gospel, the Lord gave an indication that the persecuted would not make the rounds of the cities of Israel before the Parousia, or Adventus, as in the Vulgate translation, that is, before the final return. Two developments resulted from this. Firstly, there was a sense of hopelessness because believers had died before the final judgement. Secondly, the result of knowing that the would-be-end-of-the-world coming soon witnessed sloth creeping in, as is common with human nature. After all, He will come, why not just wait Him out. Or simply, why bother since He is already coming?

But, Paul disabused his people of their misconception that those alive at the Second Coming would have an advantage over those who had died. Thus, it is not hopelessness for those who have passed on before the Parousia. In fact, the key phrase is to be ever watchful or attentive because the Lord’s coming is like a thief in the night. Whereas, Lent’s watchfulness is centred on taking stock of our life because we never know when He might come but more probably it is we who will go and meet Him first; Advent’s watchfulness is different. It is not really inward but rather forward looking. In other words, it is anticipatory. We are waiting to spring into action, like those 5 bridesmaid who have enough oil in their lamps waiting for the Bridegroom to arrive.

Whilst the Preface for Advent I speaks of the two comings of Christ, St Bernard, one of the doctors of the Church, speaks of the three comings of Christ. Firstly, He came. It is a historical fact. He dwelt amongst us about 2000 years ago. The Apostles and those associated with the early Church testified to His presence. He came in our weakness and in our flesh. Secondly, that is not the end of the story because He will return. This coming is eschatological and will take place in the historical future where He will return in glory and majesty. Finally, until such time when He comes in the future, the third coming takes place as we wait for Him, during Lent by focusing inwardly and in Advent by looking forward, just like faithful servants longing for the Master to return.

This is a waiting that is hopeful and it is based on the testimony of a past in which God has never failed us. Since, we live suspended between the two comings of Christ, historical and eschatological, the past and the future, hence, hope in the future means living in the present believing that what He had done for us, He will do again.

This form of waiting is hard work. It is challenging. Why?

The horizon is rather bleak and hopeless. There is a dampening despair about us which we often fail to recognise it as such. From the perspective of a family, our children appear to be in greater danger than ever before. For most parents, the fear is for the personal safety of their children. But, what about the more vulnerable exposed to trafficking and sold into slavery or the sex industry? Economics, notwithstanding, this hopelessness has given birth to a future with few children: “Why bring new life into this horrible world”?

If you look at society in general, we appear to idolise victimhood—an idea of woundedness that does not seem to heal. Last Sunday, I spoke of the innate hunger for accountability, which is a good, a bonum, a necessity in an age of eternal youthfulness or perpetual adolescence. The current viewing is titled “Inappropriate Behaviour” of our cinematic beaux mondes or political personages (and God forbid, that the Church should be out of this limelight!).

But, for every victim who alleges sexual harassment, (not that they should keep quiet), what about the nameless boat refugee raped by a gang of pirates at high sea, who has no recourse to media justice? Does it mean that she has become less of a person? What of the stories untold, unpublicised, “unexposed”? If one takes a moment to reflect, there is an unspoken despair which requires healing to be absolute before one can start living again. We fail to recognise that justice is not always to be found in this world. And because we do not get it, there is a gnawing sense of “incompleteness” that prevents life from going on.

Elevate this hopelessness to a global scale. Putting aside natural calamities, we have waves of European wannabes braving the Mediterranean but who are no longer in focus because the Rohingyas have come into the spotlight. A century of social engineering has not only left us with a trail of broken spirits but proofs that no earthly programmes can completely eradicate inequalities. Does this not suggest that hoping is hopeless? Even our prayers express this despair. We have, more or less, accepted that a situation is bad so much so that our “optimism” is a veneer for a deep “pessimism”. If there is a God, we are hoping that this God will take note of it and prevent things from getting any worse.

People lament that the spirit of Christmas has been drowned by the din of commercialism. If you set aside the prejudice against the buying and selling and think a little bit more, perhaps you might realise that all the buying is basically an attempt to drown our sorrow of despair. We naïvely believe that consuming can assuage this emptiness of hopelessness that we have inside.

In the context of watching and waiting, sin can be a kind of distraction, like an Odyssean gorging of narcotising lotus that deflects or blurs our hopeful vision. Notice so many of us are fixated on our mobile screens that our senses are numbed from staring at it. Therefore, Advent’s anticipation is definitely purifying. But unlike Lent, it is not an inward looking purification, even though there is a measure of it. Instead, it is forward looking, a training of the eyes to peer beyond what we have to a horizon where all that fails us can be rectified. As we await the Parousia, this longing is a hope that enables one to withstand the disappointments that life may dish or dump on us. Thus, it is a purification of our trust in the God who was there is a God who will be there. Come Lord Jesus, come.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Solemnity of Christ the King Year A 2017

It began with the catholic Church. Even though, it felt like the world was judging her, in reality, some may perceive that as the rise of accountability. Movies have been made on the theme of boundary violation highlighting the shortcomings of the Church and the need to be vigilant against predation, sexual or otherwise. 

Thus, it was spectacular to witness the fall of Kevin Spacey within a space of days. As Maroon 5 crooned in Sugar: “Hotter than a southern California day”, your man Kevin is definitely hotter than Kryptonite is to Superman. Pariah aptly describes him and by no means is he alone. It would appear an industry that prides itself as a champion of truth since it is based on a close mimicry of life (so many movies based on true stories) has finally gathered enough courage to scrutinise its own hypocrisy. Of course, with a “boor” (as depicted by The Washington Post or The New York Times) for a President, this fallout has also extended into the political realm. 

As a Catholic, on the one hand, one has to be careful that there is no schadenfreude when describing this. On the other hand, it is a welcome development as it shows how far we have come in the area of protection of minors and the vulnerable. However, as we rejoice, it might be good for us to explore the connexion between the Solemnity we are celebrating and the current state of affairs.

Firstly, in this turn of events for Spacey et al, it shows a hunger for accountability. In an era of small people, it is wonderful that no one is exempted from being answerable for his deeds. This accountability happens to coincide with the Gospel theme as the distinction between sheep and goat is a challenge to take responsibility for one’s actions or lack thereof for the weak and marginalised.

Secondly, we celebrate the Solemnity which in itself is not that old. Pius XI instituted it in 1925 through an encyclical Quas primas. Nevertheless, the symbol utilised is getting more remote and antiquated. The air we breathe is democratic and any concept that does not stand on merits is anachronistic to our equal rights sensibilities. In fact, many would think that a title such as “King” should be rejected as it is a sad reminder of past oppressions under autocratic kings.

Democracy is the great equaliser. In fact, some translations would like to replace Kingship with kinship and Kingdom with Kindom. Thus, baptism initiates us into a “Kindom with God”—where no one is greater or lesser than anyone else. Where advocacy is concerned, this is democracy at work. No more patriarchal domination for everyone is equal in the “Kindom” of God.

Yet, we are made for someone other than ourselves. An entire musical genre is dedicated to this notion of belonging—love songs. Interestingly, the etymology of the word authority, which is associated with the idea of kingship, suggests as much. Authority designates authorship—that is, originating from somewhere. We came from somewhere and as such we belong to someone. Again, such a notion violates our sense of being because we feel our freedom curtailed simply by the suggestion that we belong to someone. Ironically, when we replace the word “King”, with its attendant notion of authority and the idea of belonging to, we would have substituted it with something else, which in this case is ourselves. Our understanding of freedom means “I belong to myself” and thus I am the initiator of all my actions. In other words, we distrust “external” authority that much that the only authority we listened to is ourselves.

The death of the symbol of kingship has a dire consequence. It is the rise of individualism and with it, the demise of accountability. In the mentioned encyclical, the Pope says, that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies (Quas Primas, 33). What is this reign but accountability, the very virtue that is exalted by Hollywood now?

What happened you might ask that we have arrived at this?

When Descartes posited the cogito little did he know that he had contributed to the present state that we are in. Protestants like to think that they have introduced the idea of entering into a personal relationship. Thus, “Do you have a personal Saviour”? Whilst this question is important, what has happened is in fact not a personalisation of religion but rather a privatisation. What does this mean? Personalised religion is definitely a good because we form a personal relationship with the Lord. He becomes our Lord and Saviour and that our practice of the faith is not, as what the Proddies like to characterise, dead ritualism in which the person (read: inner self—emotions and psyche) is not there. He (read: the unthinking body) is just going through the motion. 

Unfortunately, what Descartes did not contend with, was this: when the “personal” met “science”, what cannot be proven, should not only remain personal but, it is condemned to stay private. Hence, the Cartesian cogito, more than forging a path to a personal encounter with Christ, has sentenced that relationship to a prison deeper than personal and it is privatistic. In effect, personalised religion has become basically privatised beliefs. “Who am I to judge?” is symptomatic of religious practice privatised. In this realm, there is no “Other”. The domain of the private means that one is no longer accountable to the “Other”.

The current liberal thinking finds that youths today are misguided in the sense that they seek the old, forgetting that there is a present. What do I mean? They are fixated with the Traditional Latin Mass, Religious Garb etc etc.... And what is more debilitating is that they do not recognise the structure of society and the latent pathologies hidden therein that give rise to inequalities. What is worse is how the young show no concern for issues of social justice. And the reaction to this “devolution” is to condemn the youths as being out of touch. The truth is, they are not wilful in their nostalgic focus but rather they exhibit the reality that all of us, old and young, are trapped in a prison called “private” religion.

Christ the King used to be celebrated on the last Sunday of October but ever since the 1969 revision of the Roman Calendar, it has been shifted to the final Sunday of the Liturgical Year. It is pædagogical in a sense. The Last Sunday is associated with the Last Things—death, judgement, heaven and hell. The end of life comes into focus and with it, accountability. When religion is privatised, it loses its strength to be accountable. The “abuse” especially of the sexual kind—is testament to the enervation of authority or more precisely the severing of the innate sense of “belonging”. When we no longer belong to each other, then boundaries are reduced to no more than limits to be breached. Where there is no accountability, that is, no morals, then being on the right side of the law just means that one has not been caught breaking a law.

And breaking the law is not limited to sexual behaviour. Our kinship, so highly prized, is not just a belonging to each other but also a belonging to God. In that way, we recognise the accountability we owe to God. Thus, scientific exploration that does not take into account human dignity (inalienable rights conferred by God and therefore is accountable to Him) violates the chain of command in the sense that it defaces God Himself, the author of human dignity. Furthermore, when religion is privatised, then gender becomes fluid which means that we are no longer accountable to creation. Instead, we take creation to be what we want it to be. In other words, we are gods in our self-creation.

When the personal is hemmed in by the private, then democracy, the so-called champion of individual rights will not lead greater accountability. Instead, what it has done is to deepen our debauchery. In the realm of private practice, there is a forgetfulness that the personal is relative to the social; that one cannot be an “individual” if there are no “many” against whom one can claim it. Even Tom Hanks stranded on an island claimed his individuality in relation to an imaginary social.

We are both individuals and social. The care we owe to ourselves is what we owe to society. This accountability or belonging is not restricted to the present but as mentioned earlier, the last Sunday of the Year directs our minds to the end time. Thus, the Solemnity at the end of the liturgical year invites us to live today with the end in mind—helping our accountability to climb out of the pit of private loneliness because our care of each other expresses our belonging to Christ and His Body, both now and forever.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

We are nearing the end of the year and the readings take on an apocalyptic tone. And yet, we are no strangers to this ominous theme because the idiot box is replete with variations of the same motif—watch the myriad series and you know what I mean. Walking Dead, Falling Skies or The Last Ship are but a few examples. The dystopian mise en scène is in exact opposition to both the first reading and the Gospel. Ironically, this apocalyptic world does not completely deny the religious nature of man though the numinous nod is but a Nietzschean indictment of the divine[1]. What may be a backhanded compliment to this numinosity is what Catholics termed as sacramentals. They are easily recognisable—a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung on the wall, stained glasses in a Church, Crucifixes in rooms and Rosaries. The fact is, even though God appears to be present, He is powerless in this dark and dismal dystopia confirming the Marxist accusation that the divine is nothing but an opiate for the unthinking masses.

This Sunday’s “End of the World” reading and the Gospel, far from prophesying a portentous prospect, instead nudges us in the direction of God by challenging us to assess the quality of our relationship with Him.

Firstly, the relationship we have with God is articulated within the framework of Providence. We have a God who will provide. However, this cornucopian imagery proposed by the first reading is nowhere recognisable in what one gets from the movies.

Secondly, God is benevolent to His creation. He is not a “deistic” God who created world and left it, at best, to run on its own or at worst, to rot. However, we have difficulty appreciating God’s benevolence. Or rather, we have a tough time believing this. Why? The answer may be found in an interesting feature about the Gospel, a detail which is not unique to this Sunday. It is the availability of a shorter and a longer version which the celebrant is free to choose. The shorter version seems to cut out an uncomfortable reality but which is important to understanding what sort of relationship we are called to have with God.

When we speak of “relationship” we ought to consider an aspect of it associated with the Millennials. It deals with “disloyalty”. For the millennial workforce, employment must be multi-faceted in the sense that a person who is working only in one job would be considered as committing career or professional hara-kiri. As it were, one is forced to chart a course so that one’s work experience can be widened. Thus, relationship for the Millennials is markedly selfish, not in a wilful sense of the word but rather it necessarily follows a logic of self-preservation. In order to advance in one’s career, one has to be “disloyal”. Coupled with self-preservation is also a strong sense of entitlement.

This sense of privilege has far reaching consequences. For example, have you ever heard of “cheat days”? It happens when someone is on diet. He is entitled to a cheat day where the healthy regimen he adheres to does not apply. Imagine this privilege being translated into morality? In the commitment to be good, consciously one is entitled to be bad. How does that impact our relationship with God? With this type of morality, disloyalty is built into commitment. Catholicism Soft and Lite has never been so popular!

In fact, a shorter version of the Gospel might give us an inkling of the sort of relationship we want from God. In other words, for us who are entitled, what we want is to hear is that God loves us. God cannot be anything but kind and merciful to sinners. This is the only Gospel we want to hear, the only Good News that makes sense. Not that it is not true.

One of the challenges of the Jubilee Year of Mercy was the clamouring to announce God’s graciousness but for an entitled ear, we fail to recognise that the invitation to partake of God’s mercy must also be accompanied by a courageous ascent of conversion. The long version of the Gospel brings forth the message that a balance has to be struck between gratuity and commitment, between grace and freedom and between reconciliation offered by God and the conversion that we submit ourselves to. If at all, God were “indulgent” by constantly giving in to us, then we do not really know the meaning of indulgence. In Luke 7, the woman with the alabaster jar of oil is described as, “she who has shown great love has had her many sins forgiven”.

In summary, the wedding garment calls us to a relationship that is not one-sided in that we are entitled to God’s love without the corresponding duty of ever conforming our lives to God’s will in response to His generosity. The God who provides is not a God of the Entitled. Instead, He is also entitled to our faithfulness because we have entered into a covenant with Him at baptism. Sad but true, the odd man who believes that he can respond to God on his own terms will soon find himself bound and cast out into the abyss where the grinding of teeth never stops.

[1] That God is dead…

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Matthew has a line of three judgement Gospels and today is the second one. It is clear that the Vineyard parable is directed at the Chosen People. If Original Sin had not afflicted the human race, there would have been one Body and one Spirit worshipping the the One God and therefore no need of a “chosen” group of people.

Precisely because of humanity’s failure, God chose from amongst the many people, a race to call His own. He chose Israel and made them His own, that is, the People of God.

The parable is therefore an illustration of expectation and its failure. It is a simple narrative setting out God’s expectation of His people. The tenants are understood to be the Chief Priests and the Elders but what they did was to arrogate themselves the place of God. The prophets are God’s servants whom these tenants abused and killed. When warned by Jesus about the possibility that they might lose their special position, the tenants paid no heed. In fact, when God sent His Son, they did the expected. They killed Him thus confirming the Psalmist’s prediction that the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.

Jesus is now the cornerstone of the new Vineyard that God has chosen to hedge and replant. A German word that might describe the change in tenancy is schadenfreude. It means to derive pleasure at the misfortune of others. An example of this kind of guilty pleasure can be found in our context of heightened racial tension. Do we not take quiet pleasure when something bad happens to the people whom we believe do not deserve their special position? And since Christians consider themselves to the heirs of the Chosen People, we might also have a sense of superiority hearing this parable as referring to the Jews.

Before we break out in rejoicing, the parable applies to us as well because it is a parable of expectation. Even though God’s gift is gratuitous, it implies a giving born out of a mutual relationship. The mutuality suggested by the first reading is characterised by justice. God provides and the people obey the terms of the covenant concluded between Him and them. Their faithfulness to Him is no more than the demands of justice. Frequently, they failed and their ultimate failure came in the shape of the rejection of the Son of God. It was not wilful but perhaps it was fearful. A way of looking at this failure is that they loved monotheism to the point where they were fearful of the promptings by the Holy Spirit that God had send His only Son to lead them ultimately to fullness of revelation, that God is truly one but three in person.

God desires that His creation shares the fullness of life. Due to the failure of His Chosen people, the new and final covenant is now signed through the Blood of His Son. It is now the Church, the channel of salvation through whom God in Jesus Christ wishes to save the world and reunite it to Himself.

The mutuality of the relationship between God and His people is now expressed via the Sacramental life that Christ gave to the Church. How is that so? The vineyard, that is the Church, is now tasked with bearing fruits that Israel did not and not just any fruits but good fruits. The fruitfulness God that desire of His vineyard is watered by the Sacraments which He gives to us.

In a certain respect, we are quite happy to think of ourselves as “actors”. I do not mean this in the sense that we are movie actors but rather that we believe that we are self-made. Thus, we can make ourselves fruitful. This cannot be further from the truth. Fruitfulness is dependent on God’s grace and in the Church, His grace preeminently comes to us through the sacramental economy because every sacrament is the action of Christ Himself done through the Church. For example, when a baptism takes place, it is Christ Himself, through the rite of Baptism, who incorporates the baptised into His Body. In confession, it is Christ Himself, through the agency of the priest, who forgives the sins of the penitent. And so forth.

To be a fruitful vineyard then, our effort must be more than just fulfilling the minimum. For example, the Church stipulates Confession as an Easter duty meaning that we should go for Confession at least once a year during Easter so as to fulfil our Easter obligation of receiving Holy Communion at least once a year.  This kind of minimalist behaviour might just mirror the conduct of the Chief Priests and Elders. They proclaimed loudly that they love God and His commandments but their practice spoke volumes otherwise.

Have you ever seen the billboard of another religion which says, “Sembahyang lah sebelum kamu disembahyangkan” which translates into “Pray before you are prayed”? This is certainly an invitation and a challenge to move beyond our comfort zone. The Church, the new vineyard, through the gifts of the Sacraments, is both our salvation and sanctification so that we might bear the fruits which God expects of us. Our fruitfulness is a return of God’s graciousness. And lest we grow lax, it is good to remember that what befell Israel—the original tenant can also befall us.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Often I feel out of place here. As one approaches the facility, the forbidding “Zeto” [Zero Tolerance] sign-boards are compelling reminders of the purpose for the construction—to be a petrochemical plant. As it is, each time I come here, I see progress because new structures are sprouting up. What colours this place is not just the rusty brown dust of construction but rather functionality. Everyone here has a role to play—get this complex up and running.

Here I am, like feeling useless. Who needs God here?

If we buy into this functionality, that is, getting the job done, then it is straightforward, nothing more than that. When a worker dies, it would appear that he had died in the course of duty. There is nothing after the formality of repatriation, is there? The fact is, no matter how much we comply with this “Zeto” policies, there will be casualties and in the bigger picture, an accidental death is no more than a unfortunate statistic marring a perfect zero-accident count.

The question is, is there more to life than just being functional?

Today, coincidentally, is the feast of St Therese of Lisieux. If evaluated by  functionality, she would rank as nothing for her entire short life was spent intramural—behind the walls of a convent. And yet, she was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI as the Patroness of the Missions, alongside St Francis Xavier, whom we know to be the tireless Jesuit missionary of the East.

Where is the fairness? Whereas St Francis Xavier braved heat, hostility and exhaustion, here is someone who did not step beyond the convent walls and yet given the title, Patroness of the Missions. Life seems unfair.

Furthermore, we witness such unfairness regularly in the distribution of natural disasters. They appear to strike some countries more than others. Never mind that climate change could be a result of our sinful behaviour. Or some families look like they bear a bigger share of disability in their offsprings.

Easily we transpose this as God’s unfairness. 

But the 1st Reading reminds us that God is always just. He may come across as unfair. Thus, to lament that God is unfair is actually unfair to God. For example, how have we treated the environment that nature does not strike back at us The environmental degradation—a form of sinful behaviour—will have an impact on our health. Moreover, our sedentary lifestyle coupled with overconsumption will have a deleterious effect on us. God is not unfair. Instead we are largely to be blamed for some of the bad things that happen to us. 

We need to correct the misconception that God is not fair. Now, coming back to the case of St Therese, the reason for granting her the title of the Patroness of the Missions is because of what she said: “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth”. This desire at the end of her life was a culmination of an experience she had at 14, whilst praying at the Cathedral of Lisieux: “...looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a great pang of sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone's hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls… I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls."

Behind the convent walls, her life here on earth was and after her death, her life in heaven has been dedicated to assisting souls. This “here and hereafter”, allows us to figure why God seems to be unfair because in being functional, we frequently forget that there is a life beyond this life.

Many people work hard. Some hardly work and yet they appear to reap tremendous rewards. What is worse are how governmental thieves, especially those sworn to serve the common good, are literally getting away with murder. With impunity, they rob the poor of what in justice is theirs. Here, if we were to equate justice with fairness, we will certainly feel cheated in life.

But, remember the parable of Dives and Lazarus. When Dives died and went away to hell, Lazarus was feted in the life beyond. Without this hope that God will right what is wrong in our earthly life, life can be hopeless. Yes, it sounds politically incorrect because acquiescence might suggest that the oppressed should accept the status quo when it comes to “injustice”.

On the contrary, it is an invitation to think of justice beyond earthly terms. Life is never a loss even if it an injustice were unresolved for otherwise, what meaning can we give to the countless little people who amounted to nothing in this material and temporal world? In fact, to demand an absolute resolution to injustice is tantamount to a denial of the reality of Original Sin and its effect on creation. “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle”. In relative terms, we all die but in absolute terms we are made for eternity. Death is merely a separation of the immortal from the body. Hence, in an attempt to right what is wrong, we must never forget to school our eyes to look beyond to the eternity which God has created us for. There, all will be fair and just.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

The Second Reading, where Paul agonised over his people’s inability to accept Christ, reminds me of the role catechesis plays in the life of the Church. It is safe to say that catechetics is mostly a matter of the head. As Saint Anselm used to say, "Fidei quaerens intellectum". Faith, for it to make sense, must investigate the contents of belief by means of reason in order to acquire a deeper understanding of revelation. If for no other reason, we have to educate the head so that the heart is not misled by superstitions. The natural unity between head and heart, which in a world turned topsy-turvy by sin, has been disrupted. Hence, knowing and loving must be regulated. The head requires systematic training and academics will tell you that it is not easy to sit and struggle with material at hand because our vitiated inclination is readily distracted. The heart also needs coaching because of the damage inflicted by sin, it is inclined to indolence or inertia. The naiveté we suffer is to mistake that head and heart are in harmony meaning that what the head knows, the heart will follow. 

That is not the case as experience will dictate. A good example is what you see in children. They say they understand you but they do not always follow up with what they understand.

We are however, not dealing with children. For myriad reasons, people do leave the Church or if not, they simply become marginalised. Superstition could be one reason. They know little and frequently are incapable of articulating the reason for their belief. In this situation, catechesis does have its job cut out. We need to catechise. It is our first line of defence as Fulton Sheen illustrates with this quote. "There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church--which is of course, quite a different thing".

But, there are people who leave even if they know. As mentioned earlier, the heart does not always follow the head. St Paul himself confirms it in Romans 7:19--The good things I want to do, I never do; the evil things which I do not want--that is what I do. Whilst this may be a perennial human struggle, the point is, when the heart has been bought over, the head will always lose out. It is to this heart that catechesis must turn its attention. 

The truth is, we really do not know how to nourish the hearts. The better question is what the heart would be mesmerised by.

The short answer is beauty. We are adept at teaching truth and goodness but we do not really know how to teach beauty. It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and therefore it is pretty much subjective. Whereas, truth and goodness are different in the sense that they are more objective. But is it really a case that truth and goodness are objective and beauty is not?

Consider this. All of us want goodness. This is because we are made for the good as nobody knowingly will choose the bad. The same too for truth because each one of us wants to believe in the truth and nobody likes to be lied to. Finally, we all desire to grasp beauty for no one here wants to embrace ugliness. A man never goes out to marry an "ugly" woman.[1] Now, just because I want something, it does not make it good and just because I believe in something, it does not make it true and finally what I grasp as beautiful does not make it a thing of beauty. This shows that beauty does have an objective reality to it.

Now, if it has an objectivity to it, then catechesis can take place. For otherwise, if it were just subjective, then we are all doomed to wander the wilderness of fakes and imitations passing themselves off as beauty.

Now, in the context of catechesis, where do we encounter beauty? Let us begin with our liturgy. In itself it is a wonderful gift of beauty because it is the memorial of the mystery of salvation (CCC1099), that is, if the Church is to be believed. Unfortunately, some of us do not fully accept that. Rather, we have come to believe that the liturgy in itself, even when carried out according to the prescribed rite of the Church, is not enough to secure our salvation. In a sense, we are driven by a Pelagian attempt to secure our own salvation—a forgetfulness that beauty is salvific.

Secondly, look at the state of our church building. The heart is not just mesmerised by beauty. It is also inspired by beauty. But our idea of building beauty is basically a hodge-podge of functionality. It is almost like dedicating a space to the Lord and not having any other functions for it, would rank as a sin against the “Return of Investment”—in other words, beauty is wasteful, irrelevant or mostly extravagant. All space must be useful. And in the absence of architectural beauty, we generally fill the void by dragging the pub into the church—jazzing up the liturgy to make it more “engaging” and less boring. Notice at the same time the same entertainment criterion employed when we cut down on readings fearing that people will be turned away by having one reading too many.

We are so accustomed to the democratisation of beauty[2], meaning that anybody and everybody has a right to his idea of beauty that to suggest pub music as inappropriate would render one an elitist. The reality is, the world has become so accustomed to devouring from the trash of mediocrity that it can no longer stomach the sublimity of beauty and so denigrate the sublime as elitist. Just watch the “Emoji movie”. The idea of beauty is so corrupted that nobody raises an eyebrow that a piece of faeces is actually a character of the movie. We have normalised ugliness.

Beauty has a role in catechesis and is indispensable to the instruction of the faith. In the context of catechesis, the Catechism speaks of beauty, in the context of sacred art, as evoking and glorifying, both in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God. Beauty in sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Saviour, the Holy One and Sanctifier” (cf. CCC 2502).

The desire for beauty can be inculcated and whilst there exists a tension between “objective” beauty and also “subjectivity”, we should not be quick to dissolve it.[3] More importantly, the desire for beauty is not fed by facts or information but rather it is strengthened through living experiences. 

Having stripped the altar, is it a wonder why young people know so few saints? We are busy with presenting facts and information of the faith forgetting that both goodness and truth are clothed in the flesh and blood of saints. Many statues inside a church are not an indication that we are idolatrous. Instead, they are our friends in catechesis—as they reveal the beauty of the holiness acting in their lives.

Indeed, beauty is a big-picture undertaking. If we accept the premise that the human spirit has a supernatural aspiration, then it makes sense that the human spirit is more ready to sacrifice itself for an enterprise bigger than merely the “self”. The big picture is provided by the tradition and the saints because nobody would die for factoids or information. The saints, on the other hand, provide concrete proofs of why a person would lay down his or her life the person of Jesus Christ and His Church. Saints are our unbroken link to the reticulum we call Tradition.

In summary, catechesis is also a battle for the hearts and as such it is fought on as much intellectual grounds as it is on emotional grounds. Emotion is nourished by beauty. Unless we begin the rehabilitation of beauty from just personal preferences to that which is of God, we cannot inspire and the faith will remain cold concepts to be endured and not captivating convictions to be embraced.

[1] Even if the woman is “ugly”, it is because the man sees beauty in it. We search for beauty because it is “objective”.
[2] Beauty is a difficult notion to grasp because our taste is based on preference, that is "what I like". St Thomas Aquinas describes three qualities that objectively constitute beauty. He speaks of proportion, integrity and clarity
[3] It is not as if the Church does not take into consideration diversity. She does. In fact, Paul VI said, “Evangelisation loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life”. At the same time, he also cautioned, “Evangelisation risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it” (Evangelii nuntiandi n63§3).

The Transfiguration Year A 2017

Maryland, founded in the early 17th century and named after the French consort of Charles I--Henrietta Maria, is considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America as it was intended as a refuge for persecuted Catholics of England. 1829 is generally taken to be the chief moment marking the emancipation of Catholics in both the UK and Ireland. In 1955, Rosa Park, in defying the order to give up her seat to a "white" person, inaugurated the modern civil rights movement.

The founding of a state, the Act of Parliament granting freedom of worship and the civil rights movement are just a few examples representing the exciting breakthrough in the evolution of freedom. And, they might just help us appreciate better the feast of the Transfiguration.

Firstly, what is the Transfiguration? As a theological event, it is regarded as a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Just before ascending Mount Tabor, Peter had confessed the Messiahship of Jesus and that He is the son of the living God. On the mountain, it culminates in an experience which according to Matthew parallels the revelation on Mount Sinai. Moses representing the Law and Elijah standing for the prophets both had ascended Mount Sinai/Horeb to consort with God. Now here they are again on a mountain speaking to the God-made-man, thereby confirming the confession of Peter that the Messiah is indeed Jesus and foretelling His impending Passion. From Matthew's perspective, the Transfiguration fulfils the Old Testament longing for the Messiah.

Within this theological narrative, Matthew proceeds to describe the Transfiguration in vivid details--His face shone and His clothes became as white as the light. The question is, what exactly did the Apostles experience? The truth is that we inhabit a demythologised world where magic and fantasy have more credibility than any miracles connected with Jesus. The demythologisation of scripture means that Jesus did not rise from the dead. An explanation for the resurrection is that He rose in the hearts of people. The multiplication of loaves nothing more than a persuasion of the crowd to share their food with each other. Or, the Transubstantiation is not a change in objective reality but rather it symbolises a change in subjective appreciation, hence Transignification. Seen in this context of a demythologised world, the Transfiguration was not really an experience of the supernatural. It might just be one of those interior experiences of the Apostles much akin to what we call mass hysteria, group hallucination or auto-suggestion.

The point here is not to desacralise the experience but rather to read the Transfiguration as more than an event that confirms the confession of Peter or portends Christ's coming Passion. The transformed body of Jesus is a foretaste of and also an anticipation of our appearance in glory. Eucharistic Prayer III reminds us that "from the earth, He will raise up in the flesh those who have died and transform our lowly bodies after the pattern of His glorious body".

This supernatural event allows us to appreciate better the notion of liberation. Earlier on, I enumerated the founding of a state, the emancipation from restrictions placed on religious belief and the genesis of the modern civil rights movement. It would appear that progress is an inexorable march to greater freedom. But, what is liberation for? If the Transfiguration is the model for this liberating progress, then liberation is freedom from the tyranny of sin. However, when framed in the glossary of the pursuit of happiness[1], life and liberty etc, the focus shifts to an almost economic expression and it is concretised through the language of choice—the choice to pursue the best possible way to happiness. However, note that the liberation envisaged by the framers of the Constitution for the 13 Colonies takes its reference from who we are--that we have been created in the image and likeness of God and therefore we possess inalienable rights. Thus, it makes sense that caste, creed or colour should not determine how one is treated.

Whereas for now, the notion of liberation has taken its inspiration not from the movement from sin to grace, that is, from who we are to who we are supposed to be. Instead, its inspiration is firmly grounded in who we want to be. We "should be free" to create ourselves according to our image and likeness and even God is to be shaped according to our fads and fancies. Sadly, this self-referential genius is aided by an increasing technicalisation of life. Now, at the push of a button we are able to "solve" all problems. This process has contributed to the distancing of the notion of freedom from sin meaning that freedom is no longer anchor on the notions of good and right. Instead, all that matters is that “solution” and not salvation has become the goal of human existence. This is confirmed by the proliferation of pharmacies. The ubiquity of this institution of cures is also indicative of the therapeutic culture we have become. In therapy, we are concerned with cures (read: solution) and thus liberation is a form of cure in which we are freed from sickness rather than from sin. God is no longer necessary for our salvation. We are our own saviour with a result that we seldom think of freedom as freedom from sin.

The idea of liberation, that is, the process of moving towards greater freedom, is important. But, this freedom which we prize so much must find its goal in the salvation that is brought about by the Lord. A desire for this salvation would require a disengagement from sin so as to fulfil what the Preface suggests: He, in revealing His glory, might show how in the Body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled what so wonderfully shone forth first in its Head.

[1] The idea that freedom is for the pursuit of happiness is never absolute. Happiness is but a foretaste of heaven. But, in a demythologised world, where heaven is situated on earth, then freedom is unhinged from its celestial mooring. Everyone should be free to do anything and everything. Take a look at the expanding phenomenon of the gated community. The strength of our security is not augmented by the ghettoisation of our security meaning that we are not better protected by the increased in armed security. Gatedness is a false indication of security. The British Bobbies no carry guns and why is that so? The British recognise that violence against an officer of the law is taboo. Taboo whose function is to protect society (and sadly sometimes to preserve the status quo as well), in a demythologised culture, is now considered to be a crimp on style, meaning that, taboo upsets the exercise of choice and the freedom to be. But, taboos play a role in directing freedom to its original intention which is to enable Man to be who he is supposed to be.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A 2017

Of course, we have since come a long way but in 1982, an advert for the cutting-edge Scottish-produced Sinclair ZX81 computer touted: "Finally, you can satisfy your lust for power". As someone suggested, while you are at it, you might as well throw in money. In fact, all our advertisements run along the triple strands of sex, power and wealth.

If lust is a hunger, then the pivotal premise for desire to make sense is its satisfaction. Otherwise it would remain an itch, if not an irritation. What is essential to this enterprise of satisfying the craving for pleasure, wealth and power is the emancipation of choice as exemplified by a music video of the cast of the series Empire. Check out the catchy tunes "No doubt about it" where it features Jussie Smollet and Pitbull singing "You can do what you wanna do. And do who you wanna do. Be who you wanna be. Freak who you wanna freak".

In short, this liberalisation consists of freeing the faculty of choosing from the anchor on which it is built. In the first reading the anchor is prudence and it is expressed in practical wisdom. The Collect voices this insight as "[G]rant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure". This practical wisdom does not work out of a vacuum. In fact, it is relational as declared by the Psalmist: "Lord, how I love your law". This means that God's will must take precedence over my desire. Regrettably, our faculty of choosing has been tainted by sin and concupiscence. We have turned in on ourselves and to embrace God's will has become a struggle. We are that self-focused that it does not take much for us to pass off our proclivities as God's will.

God's will is found in both nature and through the Church. Nature because man has a nature and there he is subject to natural laws. The rage that we have today is that nature is not of creation but rather a construct. An example suffices here. The rampant development projects that we see taking place around us is less progress than the articulation of the unspoken assumption that powers these drives and it is that "nature should obey us" because we have the wherewithal to make it what we want it to be.

God's will is found through the Church because he who hears my voice listens to me meaning that Christ through the Holy Spirit speaks through His Church. Here again, we tend to idolise the maverick believing that the Holy Spirit cannot be tied down by an institution which is characterised by a censorious legalism and smacks of pharisaism. 

The Muslims have got one thing right, a feature in their practice which we used to have. This struggle of sin and concupiscence is definitely made more complicated because we have forgotten the education of our disordered nature. Prudence is strengthened by the taming of our senses. Fasting is a discipline of moulding the will because often enough what we want is in conflict with what the Lord desires. Thus, shaping of our conscience according to the love of Christ and His Church is helped by a will docile to the prompting of the Spirit.

The three traditional vows of religion--chastity, poverty and obedience even though they are often conceived of as renunciation, they are in actual fact, a mode of living whereby one enters into mystery of Christ through the total gift of the self. There is a vacuum created by God for which the human faculty of desire is an instrument to its fulfilment. As St Augustine says, "Lord our hearts are restless until they rest in you". Due to humanity's vitiated nature, this desire often takes us far from God. Therefore, mere renunciation is not enough to take us back to God. Instead, denial is only the first step in the re-education of our faculty of choosing.

Choosing Christ always has a cost and it is discipleship. We do not just make a choice once and for all and not think about it anymore. We affirm our decision for Him each time we choose. Recall the simple annual ritual of renewing our baptismal vows at Easter and each time we participate in a baptism, there is also the act of reaffirming our vows to choose God and reject satan. Furthermore, marriage promises are not made only at the altar. It is revitalised every day in the living out of one's marital fidelity. The same too goes for when we recite the Creed every Sunday. It might sound like a little dead ritual but it is simply one of many acts of renewing our faith and making a commitment to God.

Last week I made a reference to Hell in the sense that Heaven and Hell are not dualities created by God. Hell is the absence of Heaven and not the other way around because Heaven cannot be defined by something that does not exist objectively. Even though it is not mentioned in today's Gospel, the final stamp to all our choosing is whether we have wisely chosen heaven or whether by our own fault we have foolishly lost Heaven which therefore means that we have by our choice consigned ourselves to Hell. The discipleship of choosing God is not splashed out in the spectacular. Wisdom is not a flash of inspiration. Instead, if life is markedly ordinary 99% of the time, we can be sure that God's will is to be found in the humdrum of everyday living. It is in daily discipleship that one gains the wisdom of knowing how to use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2017

The central parable in the Gospel this Sunday yields at least three points for us to ponder. Firstly, God's infinite compassion. Secondly, the call to repentance and continual conversion. Thirdly, the reality of judgement and hell.

Firstly, an experience similar to the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is that of planting rice. In a farming community, at least from where I came, to plant rice, one would need a nursery. It is a bed of soft and watery mud where seeds are sown. Now, if you are unhappy with your neighbour, all you need to do is walk past his nursery patch and sprinkle a handful of black glutinous rice (pulut hitam). There is no difference in how the shoots look like once they germinate. The unsuspecting farmer will gather the seedlings once they are of a certain height and then transplant them into the regular fields. Only when the rice starts to crop will one realise the sabotage because of the appearance of the distinctive black grains of glutinous rice. The entire crop is somewhat spoilt and good only for home consumption as spotted milled rice is not saleable in the market. That is where the similarity with the Parable ends because the aim is not to highlight the tainted harvest but rather to give prominence to the infinite patience of God in His dealings with us.

Most, if not all of us are both wheat and weed. God is definitely more patient with us than we are sometimes with ourselves. In the context of God's forbearance, the comfortable or uncomfortable co-existence of both good and bad in us leads us to the second point which is the challenge to repentance and conversion. If God is infinitely merciful, then His patience is really our salvation.

Not too long ago we wrapped up the year of Mercy and what have we to show? It is not so much the programmes that we have covered or the activities we have gone through. Has it been a year of success or have we, perhaps, just cosy up to this grand scheme at taming God into submission. There is a spirit of the world that desires of a God who, basically, is hopelessly indulgent in His mercy and the Church is supposed to reflect that. This is a God best depicted by Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. God is that "helpless" old man who is pining for us to return.

Which brings us to the third point. God may be compassionate and merciful. However, the parable ends with a separation between the wheat and the weeds. The weeds are gathered to be burnt. Likewise, there is judgement and there is hell. Heaven and hell are not dualities in the sense that there is a heaven and there is a hell. Instead, the loss of heaven will result in hell. But, what is disturbing is that our therapeutic world conceives heaven as a fuzzy feel good state where God's duty is to make people feel happy whenever they need Him. We are incapable of fathoming the loss of heaven and this is amply illustrated by Boys II Men's collaborative hit with Mariah Carey: One Sweet Day. There is a presumption that everyone we know will be in heaven, smiling down on us. Firstly, who are we to say that they are not? It is true that we should not be judgemental. But secondly and more importantly, is it not overly presumptuous on our part to believe that they are? This is exemplified in the many canonisations that take place at our feel-good funerals!

Heaven is not defined by the absence of hell. Instead, the reverse is true in the sense that the loss of heaven will result in hell. Without conversion, there is a possibility that we might lose heaven. Therefore, let not a misguided notion of thinking that God cannot help Himself but forgive lull us into damning complacency. Rather, think of God's mercy as our invitation to repentance—a form of reciprocity which is brought up in the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. There, the God who showed mercy to the debtor was inviting the debtor to imitate same generosity by being merciful to those who are in a similar predicament of indebtedness. Not that God needs anything from us but, if generosity is the mark of our God, then the God who is merciful and full of compassion is inviting all of us sinners, through the conversion of our hearts to return, with gratitude for His loving kindness, grace for grace and love for love.