Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Divine Mercy Sunday Year A 2017

Familiar as we may be with Victor Hugo, Quasimodo applies less to the Hunchback of Notre Dame than to the Sunday in the Octave of Easter. It is Quasimodo Sunday--taken from the first word of the Introit[1]. Alternatively, it is Dominica in albis which refers to the de-robing rite of the Neophytes who for 8 days had worn the white garment of their baptism. These white covers or albs, a powerful witness to the baptismal vows, are to be kept in the Cathedral treasury.

We know today as Divine Mercy Sunday, though what it feels like is, the “Sacred Heart of Jesus update 2.0”. We already have a devotion to the Heart of Jesus, popularised with the help of the Jesuits, by St Margaret Mary Alacoque. But now, the last day of the Easter Octave, the spotlight has shifted to the Mercy of God, a devotion promoted by St Faustina Kowalska. When the Feast of the Divine Mercy was instituted, it felt as if JPII arbitrarily imposed his predilection for an approved private revelation of a Polish sister unto the universal Church. However, the Collect[2] does validate St JPII's decision proving that he was not at all capricious. The opening prayer links the annual recurrence of Easter with God's eternal mercy, beseeching that He keeps our hearts so inflamed that we may never forget the work of Redemption brought by Christ for all of us.

The setting up of Divine Mercy Sunday does strike one as having stumbled upon God's mercy, when in reality, the devotion is not a novelty. The emphasis on God's mercy has always been there.

Hosea encouraged Israel not to allow fear to separate us from God. Isaiah reminded us that God has carved us into the palm of His hand and that even if a mother should forget her child, He will not forget us. Covenantal history in sacred scripture is truly a chart of God's mercy extended to humanity and each time we failed to remember that God loves us, He comes to reassure us.

Just like the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus arriving at a time when the Church was afflicted by the Jansenist movement. In hoping to combat moral laxity, Jansenism stressed moral rigorism, which inevitably ended up denying human free-will and God's grace. The result can only be either despair or depravity since what one does has no effect whatsoever on one's salvation. When Man is incapable of disposing himself to God's mercy, religion becomes frightening and its embrace will be suffocated by scrupulosity. 

A more balanced approach to God's mercy is captured poetically by the Psalmist: "Justice and mercy have embraced". But, since nature is tainted, a wedge has been driven between mercy and justice. It would appear that man after Adam lives in fear that God's justice may be too exacting and therefore unmerciful, that he needs to lobotomise them.

But in every narrative of God's mercy towards humanity, justice is never far away. For example, together with trusting in the tender heart of Jesus, the call is issued at the same time toward reparation. In other words, reforming one's life follows in tandem with approaching the merciful altar of God. The recently passed Year of Mercy, echoing the Collect for today's Mass, was a call to remember the font (of baptism) we have been washed in, and so, was an entreaty to open our hearts to the fount of God's mercy.

Drinking at the fount of God's mercy is at the same time, an invitation to reform one's life because God’s mercy always moves us forward and upward--or heavenward.

Sadly, either we are unable to hear this or maybe we do not want to hear this. The secular world appears incapable of grasping the notion that enjoying God’s mercy is also a call for repentance. Instead, what it hopes to hear is how mercy may be applied especially to couples who are excluded from Holy Communion. If God were really that forgiving, then proof of that should be found in His accommodation to human frailty. As a corollary, if God is that merciful, should not the Church be more compassionate?

In a way, mercy has become a "get-out-of-gaol" card minus the consequences of sin and freedom. It is true, according to St Thomas, that justice without mercy is cruelty. But, in our case, mercy without justice becomes the mother of dissolution. So, in practice, a pastoral approach that minimises the reality of sin and its consequences, under the guise of being merciful, will result in confirming those living in sin to stay where they are. This is not surprising because for a good number of decades now,  we have inhaled the aroma of therapy which stresses affirmation more than redemption. Since, no one is supposed to judge, this indulgent idea of accommodative mercy synchronises closely with the present age of narcissistic entitlement. In short, God owes it to us and He better delivers.

Today is also known as "Low Sunday", a name probably derived from the Sarum Rite to contrast it with the high festivity of Easter Resurrection. It renders this Sunday almost unimportant and perhaps confirmed by low Church attendances in places where obligation is limited to Christmas and Easter. Thus, Mercy Sunday highlights the seriousness of Easter because it draws us to dwell on God's merciful love not as an indulgence to stagnate where we are but to appreciate mercy as a grace whereby, like the Neophyte divesting themselves of the white garment of baptism, it prompts our eagerness to forgo sin so as to enlist in the campaign of continued conversion to Christ whose death gained for us a life that is eternal.


[1] Quasimodo—Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk that in Him you may grow to salvation. Alleluia. (1 Pet 2: 2).
[2] Collect: God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ….

Friday, 21 April 2017

Easter Sunday Year A 2017

Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia. Yay...

But wait, why am I feeling blasé about it?

Could it be that the same jadedness was cause for Pope Francis, over the Triduum weekend, to berate the Church for her inaction in the face of a humongous humanitarian crisis. Conflict and refugees abound; how do we envision the Resurrection?

Perhaps there is a loss in translation?

According to the Gospel today, Peter and the Disciple Jesus loved, arrived at an empty tomb. They realised that the vacant sepulchre is a potent symbol of the Resurrection--a phenomenon that is both supernatural and natural. Supernatural not because we do not encounter this everyday but because it cannot be explained by categories of this world. And yet, it is natural because it involves the body. We caught sight of that at the raising of Lazarus. He died and was brought back to life. Now, stupendous though that may have been, resuscitation soon revealed its weakness in time because Lazarus would naturally fall again into the embrace of death.

The Resurrection, however, is different. It means that the body is now freed from the laws of nature not because nature is evil but because nature must give way to what had been intended for the human body--a supernatural existence. In other words, the Resurrection opened the gate for nature to enter another realm.

But, somehow or rather, this qualitative difference in existence is lost in translation for a generation breathing the air of global devastation and destruction.

How is that so?

Just recently, Egypt on Palm Sunday saw two attacks by the Islamic State on Christian worshippers as they prepared to enter Holy Week. Now that Easter has come and gone, what about those who are related to the 47 killed in the bomb blasts? What form of Easter would they have? Let us imagine this scenario in a more familiar setting, something closer to home. How about a man who lost his beloved wife on Good Friday? Would it be considered insensitive to joyfully greet him "Blessed Easter"?

Setting sensitivity asides, could this hesitation imply a loss in translation whereby our idea of the Resurrection is revealed to be closer to a material conception than not. It is as if the Resurrection has to be suspended as long as someone is suffering. It is true that the Resurrection is material because it involves the body but have we been so steeped in materialism to have missed its other-worldly quality?

We are not alone in our incapacity to grasp its metaphysical aspect. On Wednesday of the Easter octave, the Gospel will be taken from the Road to Emmaus. The two disciples could not fathom the Resurrection and Jesus along the road responded to their incredulity: "You foolish men, so slow to believe the full message of the Prophets. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into His glory?" Jesus may well direct to us a similar response along these lines: "The Resurrection is supernatural, therefore, even if the world were to be embroiled in the worst calamity, the Resurrection is a promise given to you and nothing can ever change that".

Poverty is a global plight and along with it, universal indifference which possibly dulls our response to realities crying out for redemption. In the midst of that, the Resurrection stands as real and it is not contingent on a world at peace and without conflict. But because of our materialistic bias, it would appear that the more there are people who lack the bare necessities of life, the less possible it is to believe in the Resurrection. In a sense, there is not going to be a Resurrection unless we have fulfilled the material needs of people who are still suffering.

The Eucharist, therefore, plays a pivotal role in anchoring our faith in the Resurrection. It is true that the empty tomb is proof that something did happened. On the one hand, it could mean that indeed Jesus rose bodily but, on the other hand, it could also be that the Disciples really "stole" the body as alleged by the Jewish authorities. A more solid foundation for the Resurrection has to be established elsewhere—notably the practice of the believing community left by Jesus.

For the last 2000 years, the Church has celebrated her Resurrection faith through the Eucharist or the Mass. Even though the Synoptic Gospels record the Last Supper as a pre-Resurrection event, it is in fact a post-Resurrection reality. The proof is in John's Gospel, the one which does not log the event of the Last Supper. We find proof of the Resurrection in chapter 6, verse 51: "I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world". Each Mass we celebrate, when Jesus says "Eat my Flesh and drink my Blood", He is in effect saying to us: "Eat my Resurrected Body and drink my Risen Blood".

The world is definitely in need of restoration. The cry for a world healed of all ills rings out through the voices of the battered, the bruised and the broken. From one angle, the restoration or the equilibrium which we all seek is akin to the "resuscitation" of Lazarus. Whilst it begins here, ultimately, it has to end in heaven. In between here and the Resurrection, maybe nothing will be resolved and yet, it is not a defeat. The Pope at his impromptu Easter homily said to this effect: "Do not stop there with whatever tragedies that behold you. Look beyond to the horizon where Christ is Risen".

Our Resurrection faith is secured by looking for Him in the Eucharist for when they arrived at Emmaus, He made as if to go on but they pressed Him to stay and "while He was with them at table, He took bread, said the blessing, broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised Him". Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses because its function is to make people forget. The Breaking of Bread, au contraire is help us recognise and remember that nothing, not even death has power over us because Jesus is victorious. He is there in the Eucharist for He is Risen. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord to Good Friday Year A 2017

Memory is a powerful ally in the economy of salvation--a soothing salve for life in the lacrimarum valle. If you think about it, the Shema, "Hear O Israel" is a mnemonic aid. More than an invitation to listen, it is also a duty that Israel remembers what the Lord God has done.

Christianity, in particular those that maintain a valid priesthood, has not strayed far from this recalling. The Eucharist's "Do this in memory of me" serves to remind us that despite our frequent failures, God has always been faithful no matter what we feel about His promise. Unfortunately, much like the Israelites, we are a forgetful lot. Providentially though, the Church through her seasons gives us time to recall God's abiding presence, otherwise known as the history of salvation. A good illustration of this providence is, as Lent draws to its conclusion, the sub-season known as the Passiontide.

Passiontide jolts our capacity to remember. Sadly, memory is a faculty frequently associated with the negative. When considered negatively, it is something we want to forget. For example, with PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—soldiers returning from the battlefield often fight to forget the trauma they had undergone.

How is Passiontide helpful as a memetic tool?

It is bound to a symbolic action carried out last weekend (5th Sunday of Lent). Some churches began covering their crucifixes, statues and images. Why? The alternative Collect for Mass on Friday of the 5th Week of Lent provides an insight for this rather random ritual as it makes mention of Mary. According to the older liturgical calendar, the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary[1] is commemorated on this day as it falls well within "Passion" Week. So, what we celebrate today as Passion Sunday took place formerly on the 5th Sunday of Lent.

Under the revised calendar of 1969, Passion and Palm Sunday were coalesced into one—Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. This development when taken apart, sheds light on why we begin veiling the crucifix, statues and images on the 5th Sunday of Lent. If we follow the pre-1969 liturgical calendar, the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday, that is 5th Sunday of Lent, is taken from John 8:46-59 where at the end of the passage, it is noted that Jesus removed and hid Himself from the rage of the Jewish authorities--an absence which is less of an escape but more of a shrouding of His divinity in preparation for the trial of His passion. According to the noted liturgist, Dom Gueranger, the statues and images of saints are also veiled since the "glory of the Master be eclipsed, the servants should not appear".

This historical detour affords a little glimpse into what appears seemingly as an anachronistic practice in the rite of veiling. The point is that the melding of two Sundays into one has rendered Passiontide almost obsolete. The Supreme authority of the Church may have had good reasons for revising the calendar to meet the requirements of the Novus Ordo. However, what implication does this "shortening" have for us?

Memory is not merely a matter of the past but rather it is of a past permeated by a persistent presence of God. We veil so that our senses are jolted into remembering. But, in an attempt to exorcise PTSD of its inevitable pain, God's presence is also ousted from memory. Nevertheless, instinctively we know how important memory is and it is observed in a phenomenon which resonates deeply with many of us. The advent of the camera phones has corresponded to the proliferation of "professional poor-quality" photography[2]. The other day, I saw a woman taking pictures of her toddler's every move. What was she doing? She was manufacturing memories. We seem to be engrossed with making memories--trying to store "good" history for the future.

But, memory is always about the past and never about the future. The previous week, I alluded to the desire to "live" fully, as a temporal[3] form of rage against a miserly God. This "rage" continues in another disposition as we can be so caught up with creating a future for remembrance that we forget to live the moment, not the adrenalin kind of moment, but the present wherein our salvation is being worked out.

If the Shema has anything to teach us, it is how forgetful we are. For the Jews, the Shema is incorporated into the morning and evening prayers. For Catholics, remembering takes place through the daily rhythm of the Divine Office, the flow of the liturgical seasons and most of all, at every Eucharist. In the past, we anticipated Easter through a long period of recalling beginning with the Septuagesima followed by Quinqagesima and then Quadragesima. What are they but 70, 60 and 50 days before Easter.[4] Since memory is of the past and because we are forgetful, the liturgical calendar dedicates that much time to lead us into Easter.

If history is always the history of salvation, then the past, no matter how painful, is also a past pregnant with God's saving presence. Anamnesis and amnesia are two sides of a coin. One side remembers and the other side forgets. It is our amnesia that shocks and drives us to secure an adrenalin-fuelled present, and since we are fearful of a non-existent future, we are at the same time driven to store up memory lest we be forgotten. Whilst memory's main function is to remember "Yeshua"--the God who saves, PTSD thrives on a memory which implies God's absence. Nothing is wrong with that because even the Son of God Himself cried out "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani", a cry bereft of God's presence. It proves how our memory is always tempted to amnesia and in a world seduced by PTSD’s forgetfulness, it would be good to dwell on a quote scrawled on the wall of a cell in Auschwitz:

I believe in the sun even when not shining.

I believe in love even when not feeling it.
I believe in God even when He is silent.

The Son hanging on the Cross who felt nothing but the abject rejection of God's silence eventually found enough human strength to believe and trust in His God when He cried out: "Father into your hands I commend my spirit". 


[1] Now celebrated on 15th Sept, a day after the Triumph/Exaltation of the Cross.
[2] Apple’s advertising campaign “Shot on iPhone” in 2015 celebrated the phenomenon that everyone can be a professional photographer. If in 1999, 80 billion photographs were shot that year, today about 2 billion photographs are posted and shared on Facebook EACH DAY. The irony is that everyone is a professional photographer just means that there are just so many phonegraphers!
[3] Why temporal? Because God is not generous enough to indulge us with good health and long life for EVERYONE.
[4] Quadragesima, the Latin term for Lent, when excluding Sundays, will measure up to the 40 days of Jesus' fasting in the desert.

Friday, 7 April 2017

5th Sunday of Lent Year A 2017

From this Sunday onwards, the Crucifix and all images or statues are covered from until Good Friday where the Cross will be unveiled and just before Easter Vigil, the veils will be removed from images and statues. As we knock on heaven's door and the Gospel gives us the "sign before the Sign". Apart from the obvious catechumenal moment, what significance can we attach to the raising of Lazarus?

No other Gospel carries this event but John. In terms of veracity, occurence might be considered a criterion because of multiple attestations for the same event can be found in different literary genres. In the case of John's Gospel, the credibility of this event is not based on multiple attestations but rather the description of an inconvenient fact. A normal response to an emergency is that one would drop everything and proceed to address the situation. In this case, instead of rushing to assist a dying friend, Jesus deliberately delayed His departure for Bethany. For John, this delay which allowed for the raising of Lazarus was taken to be an anticpation of Christ's own Resurrection. Thus, a sign before the Sign.

Often enough when I attend a wake where a simple service is conducted, one of the readings used is this same Gospel we heard moments ago. How does one reconciles the sad reality of a lifeless body in the coffin, that will never come back to life, with the ecstatic joy of seeing a bound mummy walking out of a sepulchre? A way to bridge this chasm is to emphasise a fact omitted by the Gospel.

Lazarus died, again.

If not soon enough, perhaps at a ripe old age.

The raising of Lazarus is NOT the Resurrection. One can possibly characterise it as a reanimation of a lifeless corpse. He came back to life but not to everlasting life. We instinctively desire an everlasting life, not the reanimation granted to Lazarus. And this enthusiasm for everlasting life is best illustrated by the possibility afforded to those who can afford cyrogenics. Recently, a 14-year old UK girl suffering and dying from a rare form of cancer won the right to have her body cryogenically frozen after death in anticipation of a potential future cure.

She is perhaps an extreme case of what appears to be our present obsession--eternal youthfulness--an expression of the innate desire for immortality. We all want eternal life but we want it in our own terms, right here and right now. But, the truth is temporality and eternity are mutually exclusive. Built into temporality is the unescapable sell-by-date expiry. Even in a perfect universe untainted by sin, temporality has a corroding effect on existence. With time, things come to pass.

The prospect of bringing a lifeless corpse like Lazarus or reanimating the cancer-stricken girl from a cryogenic stasis is exhilarating surely. However, the best state to describe Lazarus is this: almost paradise which means it is not paradise.

The prayer inserted into a funeral Mass gives us an indication of how paradise is to be conceived.

Remember your servant whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection, when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.

We should never confuse almost paradise to be paradise. Our vision must be cast beyond the temporal to the eternal where we shall see God for who He is. Lazarus may not be paradise but nevertheless he is an invitation to life by no less than our Lord and Saviour. "Untie him and let him go free" is a summons to live not for the moment but for the right moment. There is a catchy tune by One Republic. I LIVED. If you watch the video associated with this tune, it makes sense. It is dedicated to a cystic fibrosis boy living a breath away from death. Out of this video context, the chorus (bold and italics) pulsates with Carpe diem urging one to seize the day and live. 

For those who are interested, the lyric goes like this

Hope when you take that jump

You don't feel the fall
Hope when the water rises
You built a wall
Hope when the crowd screams out
It's screaming your name
Hope if everybody runs
You choose to stay
Hope that you fall in love
And it hurts so bad
The only way you can know
You give it all you have
And I hope that you don't suffer
But take the pain...
Hope when the moment comes
You'll say
I...I did it all
I...I did it all
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw so many places
The things that I did
Yeah, with every broken bone
I swear I lived

"I did it all" screams a kind of present, a carpe diem that seizes the now. It makes sense because we dread a less than perfect existence, an implication that we have lost out. But, if you think about it, carpe diem for all its gallantry in the face of peril is closer to the disquiet of death than it is to the bravery for life. Underlying that philosophy is firstly, the uncertainty that there is nothing beyond this life and if you have not done it all, you are nobody. Secondly, it may be more than a desire to live because to "own every second this world could give" hints at a rebellious rail against what is perceived to be a tight-fisted God who is penurious in the gifting of life, so much so that one needs to grab it because He is mean.

However, if Lazarus exiting the cave is anything to teach us, Jesus' command to untie him and to let him go free is a summons to live not just the moment but to seize every right moment: in preparation for the Resurrection, for life everlasting.