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.