Sunday, 30 December 2018

Feast of the Holy Family 2018

Heaven-envy, if there is such a word, it is what we are. There is an unease, an emptiness in us which we can never completely obliterate in this life. As such, we set about creating the completion, the integrity or the wholeness that we crave instinctively. Christmas is a good example. We would want a warm Christmas ambiance and presumably made a serious undertaking to create the perfect mood. Nobody, unless he is sick in the head, wants a lousy Christmas.

The TV-series Six Million Dollar Man used this tag line, “We have the technology”. Our generation believes that it has the capacity to craft a consummate community, to forge a flawless society, in short, to create a complete world. If only people were nicer, this could be heaven. Well, Pelagian though this may be, the point is, this longing for perfection is actually an expression of heaven-envy.

We demand eternity from temporality, a tall order, which sadly, time cannot fulfil. No matter how wonderful life is, this world will pass away because impermanence is weaved into creation’s DNA. Cities will decay, countries will decline and civilisations will disintegrate. Hence today is a perfect occasion, in a manner of speaking, to think about how we should desire. The Feast of the Holy Family teaches us how to live this heaven-envy within a world that is flawed and imperfect.

Firstly, John Legend‘s paradox “all your perfect imperfections” in the song All of me is a decent place to start. The Holy Family is nothing short of dysfunctional—she was pregnant out of wedlock and he did not seem particularly troubled by his betrothed’s unexpected pregnancy. They were on the run right after the birth of the child and today, the same young boy, at the tender age of 12, made an attempt for his independence. How much more dysfunctional can a family be? But, this was also a family not condemned by its dysfunctionality. This gives people hope not to despair if one were to hail from a broken, defective and flawed family.

Secondly, even though it is not possible for us to have the perfection that belongs to the other realm, still we are called to be signs pointing to heaven. In the case of the family, these signs are to be moulded through marriage and the rearing of children. I hear people asking how marriage is a sign-post for heaven. The answer is in “See how they love one another”. We often think that this is a definition of the Christian community. In a distilled way, that is true. However, this general description of the Christian community draws its truth from the basic building block of the Church which is fundamentally the relationship between a man and a woman in marriage. “See how they love one another” is to be seen primarily in the love that exists between husband and wife. This domestic Church brings me to my third point. 

Love in marriage means procreation, the ability to channel the gift of new life into the world. If we admit that life is a gift, then we accept that the family should be conceived in love through the conjugal or marital act between a man and a woman. Sadly, society is struggling to accommodate the “possible”. Is it possible for a man to fall in love with a man? Yes, it is. Is it possible for a woman to fall in love with a woman? Once again, the answer is affirmative. In the last three decades, society has been trying to bring into the mainstream what was once considered morally wrong. The mainstreaming of taboos has only served to blur the line between possibility and permissibility. To a large degree, the present philosophy holds the position that whatever is possible between consensual adults should be permitted and there is a concerted attempt to impose this ideology on all. Should anyone dare to oppose this particular narrative, he or she will be considered a bigot, narrow-minded or as Taylor Swift sings, “and the haters will hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”.

Fourthly, let me situate familial dysfunctionality within the present context of destruction of the family. I read a story about this young woman, the product of a test tube. As she matured, she was naturally curious about her biological father. Through a process of deduction, she managed to locate him, but, he did not want anything to do with her. If one could comment about him, he is the poster-boy for this narcissistic age—sowing his wild oats without thinking of the consequence. Anyway, she posed this pertinent challenge to society. “Is it not ironical that my mother wanted a relationship with me which in the first place brought her to the sperm bank to get herself impregnated. But she never in a minute thought that I too needed to have a relationship with my father”.

Technology has broadened the range of the possible minus the disturbing distraction of asking the moral and ethical permissibility of our scientific capacities or capabilities. To assert that the Church’s position is bigoted because she insists that marriage is only between a man and a woman is to lose sight of the question that “manufactured” children may one day ask. Gay couples can definitely pay someone in Thailand to surrogate a birth or lesbians can be impregnated with donated sperm but do they consider that these children might one day ask of their genesis. This question gives pause to the notion that children can be manufactured to fulfil our needs rather than they be considered as gifts from God and as fruits of conjugal love.

Fifthly, our society has forgotten in its rush to perfect existence that the bedrock of everything we hold dear is very much tied to the human family, dysfunctional though it may be. In some sense, what society has done is to rank happiness and fulfilment as the double criteria for having a meaningful life. When happiness and fulfilment are paramount, everything else can be considered as simply means to these ends. Even families must submit to these criteria. It explains why some would like to change the definition of marriage because there is nothing more to this life than happiness and fulfilment. On the Camino, I heard a woman telling another: “Oh my children are on their own. I am divorced and now I am trying to find myself”. God had intended that the happiness and fulfilment we desire are to be found in a life with Him and for most of us, we arrive there via the family (and in an extended manner, through society).

In the lived reality of a family, it is easy to love in abstraction but terribly inconvenient to love in reality. What is real are the people who make up one’s life. Usually, friends are easier to love because they do not stay with us all the time. With the family, it is a different story altogether. Mother is controlling. Father cannot string a proper sentence without the help of alcohol. Teenage son or daughter have more in common with hermits than with homo sapiens, with noise-cancellation ear phone permanently plugged into the ears. I once lived with a Jesuit who was the incarnation of Mr Bean. Ironically, his name is Jesus. Another Jesuit from across town commented that if one did not live in the same community with him, everything about him would be comical but if one did, then everything would be a tragedy. It is not easy when a family is dysfunctional. But, holiness is not the same as perfection. In fact, dysfunctionality and holiness are not mutually exclusive. Even though there may be brokenness or defects, families are not exempt from the call to holiness and it is good to remember that with grace, the ascent to perfection is possible. Jesus born in Bethlehem is proof of that.

Therefore, in the context of marriage, couples must learn to work out their differences. Let not divorce be the first court of appeal. Children’s needs far outweigh the needs or the preferences of the adult. Everytime I officiate at a wedding, I do it as best as I can for the couple. It is their one day to shine and I want to make sure that they do. However, I am often amused by the decorations and the flower arrangements and the extent that couples go through to make the wedding perfect. This grand show leads me to muse “What happens to the photos when they head for Splitsville”? It is better to have a lousy wedding than a short-lived marriage. Wedding is but a day, whereas marriage is a life time. As proverb says, “Before marriage, open both eyes big big. After marriage close one eye”. So get it in the head that there is no perfect marriage but there are many workable marriages where the husband and wife do everything to ensure that their love for each other remain strong. Like a plant, one needs to water and tend to marriage so that the love between a man and his wife becomes the fertile soil from which happy children can thrive to adulthood.

Finally, we will always want to invest eternity in the temporal. This very desire for perfection in us cannot be wiped away as long as we are breathing and kicking but it can be schooled in the proper direction as suggested by the Prayer after Communion of the 2nd Sunday of Advent: “to judge wisely the things of earth and to hold firm to the things of heaven”. Time cannot yield eternity but it will flow into eternity through the agency of sanctification. Holiness means we return to the plan that God has for mankind, a plan that includes marriage between a man and a woman that blossoms into family life. The endeavour remains to destroy the human family. Let us be mindful that the road to eternity passes through, for most us, marriage and family life. Thus, a life of familial holiness brings us to the eternity which even our wayward hearts recognise as the only perfection that can truly satisfy us. The Holy Family, imperfect and dysfunctional though they may be, has given us the blueprint for the fulfilment of man’s desire for the eternal, for perfection and for heaven.

Mass of the Day Christmas 2018

This is the last of the stational Masses as Christmas is the only day in the liturgical year to have four different liturgies associated with it. We ran the gamut of Matthew, Luke and are now finally settling on the Prologue of John. It is read twice in a year—now and also on the feast of St Sylvester on the 31st of Dec (only if it falls on a weekday). The third time on the 2nd Sunday of Christmas is no longer applicable for the Conference of Bishops in our region since the Solemnity of the Epiphany has been moved to a Sunday.

To recap the previous Masses homilies, Matthew’s genealogy seeks to prove the legitimacy of the True King of the Jews—Jesus the Christ. With so many quotations taken from the Old Testament, Matthew wants the reader to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is the fulfilment of everything Scriptures have been foretelling. Luke’s narrative is much longer and he provides us with many of the prayers and hymns of praise of the Church’s liturgical prayer: The Magnificat of Mary, the Benedictus of Zechariah, the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon, the Gloria of the Angels and the first half of the Hail Mary which combines the greetings of the Angel Gabriel and Elizabeth. Since the Holy Spirit is mentioned seven times, He is the drive that directs the narration that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world.

Finally, we have here the Prologue. Whilst both Matthew and Luke focused on the historical circumstances surrounding the Incarnation and the Birth of the Christ, John brings us back into the heart of the mystery of who God is. This is the account of God becoming Man: Verbum caro factum est. And yet, that is not the main message of John’s Gospel.

Yes, the context for the use of the Prologue is Christmas and it might seem to describe the Incarnation of God as man. But, the primary message of the Prologue is to be found in these verses.

He came to His own and His own people did not accept Him. But to those who did accept Him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believed in His name who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God Himself. Jn 1: 11-13

The story of Christ’s birth is now the proverbial ball that has landed in our court. Yesterday I spoke of two themes—Christ is the Saviour of the world and His Church has this mission to bring the light of His salvation to the world. By virtue of our baptism, we become His light for those who are still waiting to dispel the cloud of ignorance from their minds and we are to be the Good News for those longing for the grace of the Gospel.

In short, the buck stops with us. Christmas, the feast of the birth of the Saviour calls for our decision. What shall it be? Whilst it is true that Christmas details the birth of the Saviour, the reality of His birth is not a neutral fact. His coming challenges us to accept or reject His message or the claim that He is truly the Son of God.

The thing about Christmas is that we have been celebrating it already and tomorrow most of the decorations will be taken down in the commercial world, in preparation for the next wave of sales for the coming major festival, that is Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day. We too might be led to thinking that Christmas is over but really, today is the start of the season and the 12 days of Christmas is counted from today. Tomorrow, the memorial of St Stephen the protomartyr gives us a glimpse of the fate awaiting those who have accepted to become children of God and three days later, the Holy Innocents lay down their lives for the only One who is truly Innocent.

The moment we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour, as the Saviour of the world, the reckoning would have begun. For many of us, we will not be as privileged as St Stephen though I think many of us would prefer to decline the red crown of martyrdom, that is, we naturally shy away from the shedding of our blood. But mind you, the white crown of martyrdom is no less daunting or even less weightier than the red crown of martyrdom. Discipleship is either red or white or even both. Most of us are called to embrace white martyrdom.

You, your very self, your work, your family, your successes, your failures, your wealth, your poverty, your health, your illnesses are loci where the discipleship of Jesus becomes real. Hence, whatever and wherever, can He be the centre of your life? The ball is definitely in our court. The decision has to be made by us. If we say aye, are we willing to pay the price of Christmas? The answer “Yes” places us in the right place. Why? It is no coincidence that Bethlehem means the House of Bread. We often think that the first Eucharist took place in the Cenacle. Its origin goes back way before the Apostles found the Upper Room. The manger was the first ciborium and the cave was the aboriginal tabernacle. The body of the little baby lying in the manger is the same body that lies in our tabernacles all over the world. The only difference is that the same Body is now veiled under the appearance of Bread and Wine. Through His Body and Blood, He is able to give us His grace so that our YES of either white or red martyrdom can be strengthened. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Midnight Mass of Christmas 2018

At this evening, I gave a short history for the 1 + 3 Masses that we have for Christmas eve and day. If earlier, it was the Christmas Vigil, then now, we are celebrating the first of the 3 Christmas Masses, that is, the Midnight Mass. The reason for this goes back to a time when Rome celebrated stational Masses when Pope and people used to process from one Church to another to celebrate the different liturgies.

The Gospel for the Vigil Mass earlier taken from Matthew highlighted the genealogy of Jesus. For this Mass, the Prophet of Advent, Isaiah in the first reading reminds us that the people who walked in darkness now have seen a great light. Darkness is banished by the appearance of the true Light and the poor shepherds in the Gospel who kept watch end up witnessing the angelic chorus breaking into the Gloria in excelsis Deo.

In the earlier homily, I spoke on Jesus as the Saviour, not just of Christians but also of the entire world and made the connexion between the work of Salvation and the necessity of the Church for this mission. Where the Head is, the Body, which is the Church, must be also. I also pointed out that in order to save there is a presumption of a longing for salvation. Without this link, what is there to save? In other words, if I am not a sinner then there is no reason for Jesus to come. Furthermore, and this is the kicker, if I have no need for salvation, then there is no urgency to be good and coming to Church will only serve to make me feel good or as local parlance would have it: “shiok sendiri”. Let us be clear: Salvation is closely associated with the admission of sin in the sense that the profound appreciation of God’s salvation is inextricably linked to the acknowledgement of our sinfulness. Now, if Christ came to save, then the Church is right at the heart of this reconciliation between God and man.

Perhaps this connexion between Jesus and the Church in the mission to save is made clearer by the Gospel. The focus is Light because the darkness provides the contrast for the light to shine brighter. Isaiah paints the picture so vividly for us in the first reading: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light“.

Now, what is ironical is that the Light was not recognised as we heard from the Gospel. No room at the inn may on the surface appear to be a logistical problem. There was a empire-wide census taking place. The great displacement of people resulted in the reduction of rooms available for all the travellers. However, the more profound truth is that the lack of accommodation symbolises a darkness that has enveloped the world so overwhelmingly that it failed to recognise the Light when it came. This darkness is blinding as both Isaiah and John affirmed. “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; Israel does not know, my people do not understand... They have abandoned Yahweh, despised the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away from him”. (Is 1:3-4). And, “He was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognise him. He came to his own and his people did not accept him”. (Jn 1:10-11).

Humanity’s blindness is even more damning because animals could recognise the Light whilst the world could not. For Catholic today, the question is how the world could ever know of Him when we ourselves do not really know Him, who He is and why He came for us.

If you ever go to Bethlehem, to the birthplace of Christ, you will find the building itself teaching us how to encounter this Light of the world; how to know Him better. The entrance to the Church of the Nativity is accessed through a door under which one has to bend and stoop low in order to enter. Imagine that Kings or Emperors, the high and mighty, when they visit this holy place of Christ’s birth, they too must go on their knees. Is that not a humbling invitation to us. In fact, during the Creed later, the part where we usually make a profound bow is replaced by kneeling. We bend our knees when we confess these words “By the power of the Holy Spirit, He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became Man”.

To walk into the great Light we bend our knees. Christmas is a call to humility. The Light that Jesus brings break through a humble Church and a people who learn what it means that the Church must follow in the step of her Servant Saviour and is not a Church that demands to be served. So in stooping low, do we go searching for Him in other low places where He can be found? It is not an invitation to sin but rather an invitation to search for Him in the lowliness of the poor, the lost or the dispossessed but most of all to those who are waiting for the grace of the Gospel to be brought to them.

The Light has come into the world and the Church has a duty to bring that Light to the parts of the vineyard still clouded by the darkness of not knowing Jesus the Saviour of the world. Whilst this beautiful Light shines brightly, sadly its brilliance is often dimmed by us sons and daughters of the Church. The salvific mission of the Church is impeded by the tepidity of our faith and the half-heartedness of our conversion, by the strong shadow of sin in our lives. Tonight, Jesus the Light of the world invites us stand under His brilliant illumination. Humility by acknowledging that we are sinners in need of salvation is the first step into the merciful light of His salvation. The question we ask now is if there is room in the inn of our hearts for this Light to enter? If you already have room for Him, make that room even larger so that the greater will your conversion be. The greater your conversion, the more effective the Church will be in bringing His light to the world. When we do stand in His light, His brilliance will definitely shine through our love and actions as we become the gospel for others to read and encounter the Saviour of the world. It is wonderful to give gifts but the greatest present you can give to the world is to be the gift of Jesus Himself to those whom you encounter. Shine! Jesus! Shine through me.

Vigil Mass of Christmas 2018

There are actually 1 plus 3 Masses between now and tomorrow afternoon and they are the Vigil of Christmas Eve followed by the Midnight, Dawn and Day Masses. Why so many liturgies? They harken back to the days of stational Masses where Pope and people used to process from one Church to another to celebrate the different liturgies. The Vigil Mass used to retain a little bit of the Advent penitential flavour but it no longer does. Today, the current practice continues with the Vigil Mass celebrated at St Mary Major, the Midnight Mass at the Altar of the Crib at St Mary Major, the Dawn Mass at the Church of St Anastasia and finally back to St Mary Major for the Mass of the Day. (It used to be in St Peter’s Basilica but due to the changing demographics and for safety reason it was moved to St Mary Major as it is located nearer to St John Lateran).

The liturgies also follow a pattern where at the Vigil Mass we savour the provenance of the Saviour by weaving through the thread of His genealogy. At midnight, Isaiah reminds us that the people who walked in darkness now has seen a great light. Darkness is banished by the appearance of the true Light. The shepherds in the Gospel who kept watch end up witnessing the angelic chorus breaking into the Gloria in excelsis Deo. The Mass at Dawn continues with the theme of light breaking into the world. The readings proclaim Him as the Saviour whilst the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem to visit the Holy Family. Finally, at the Mass of the Day the profundity of God’s mystery is captured by John’s Prologue: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh”

Here we are at the cusp of salvation and what does it mean that we enter into drama of the Saviour’s birth?

Firstly, the Gospel genealogy is a non-Hebrew speaker’s nightmare because some of the names are probably mispronounced by the deacon or the priest. It may be boring but no less interesting because the warp and woof of Jesus’ ancestry is nothing short of a display of sin. We have a cheater, Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau of his inheritance. We even have a child trafficker, Judah who sold his brother Joseph to some travelling tradesmen. An outcast, Tamar whose desperation for a child, resorted deception and making herself a prostitute tricked her father in law into an incestuous intercourse with her. The list goes on.

The history of sin is also the history of salvation for these names paved the path towards the long awaited climax who is none other than the Saviour of the world.

Sometimes we hear people speaking of Jesus as one’s personal Saviour. It is good to assert this but what is Jesus saving us from, a question which I will come back to later. For now, let us just say that this notion of a “personal” Saviour sounds rather selfish and may even border on a utilitarian relationship. Yes, I need Him to save me but there is a salvation which is just more than me. This bigger picture is the universality of salvation which the first reading alludes to. The justification of Zion extends beyond the people of Israel into the world. There is a salvation that is universal because the name Jesus which means the God who saves might further our rather myopic vision of a personal Saviour. He saves all, not just Christians.

God saves not just figuratively or metaphorically. He saves concretely in the sense that He saves in such a way that makes the Church a necessity for salvation. What does that mean? It means that the Church has to be there when Christ saves because it cannot be that the where the head is, the body is absent. Perhaps it makes sense why I said that the concept of a personal Saviour is rather utilitarian and that it borders on selfishness.

Pope Francis has a favourite metaphor to describe the Church. He says that the Church must be a field hospital tending to injured souls. There is a war not just out there but also in here for souls. However, if there is no sin, why the need  for hospitals? Without the realisation that we are sinners and we have sinned, a personal Saviour makes no sense. The notion of a personal Saviour is linked to the recognition of concrete personal sins and not just a hazy notion of sinfulness. Without sins and the awareness that it destroys the soul, what is the Church for? The Church as field hospital tending to souls is no more than a spiritual spa whereby we who are sinless comes here to be affirmed. Just like the Publican who stands before God, we come to tell Him how great we are. Do you know that some people do come in to confess that they are sinless—there seems to be more than one Immaculate Conception.

This Mass is not a guilt trip even if it sounds like one. If the genealogy of Jesus has anything to say to us, it is that sin is the reason for His coming. Peppered throughout the Vigil’s liturgy is the word Saviour. If we have no sin, then His coming makes little if no sense at all. But, if we are here to celebrate the impending birth of Jesus our Saviour, the best welcome we can give Him is to be more conscious that He is coming to save us because we are sinners in need of salvation. The beautiful history of salvation is at the same time a tribute to grace of redemption. Come Lord Jesus for our souls. We need you, come Lord come.

Monday, 24 December 2018

4th Sunday of Advent Year C 2018

If the 25th of Dec were to fall on this coming Thursday, it would make this Sunday less of a useless wedge in between last Sunday and Christmas. Whilst the 4th Sunday of Advent does appear pointless, since Christmas eve is tomorrow, I suspect this is because we are no longer accustomed to waiting for the right moment to arrive before we begin to celebrate. Considering we have been enjoying already, it feels like we need to find work for this Sunday so close to Christmas.

However, the Gospel begs to differ. Whether Christmas is tomorrow Monday or this coming Friday, the Gospel has the right focus because it shifts the spotlight from John the Baptist to Mary, the key player pivotal to the panoramic picture of Christmas. Indeed, the 2nd Joyful Mystery—the Visitation—is played out for us in the Gospel.

What light can Mary shed for us?

Mary stands as a beacon of faith especially when our faculty to believe is challenged. What to believe in is not as problematic as the ability to believe. There is a lot out there to believe in. The propaganda called “Fake News” is evidence of this “a lot out there” and the question for us is what we should believe in and whom do we trust.

For many of us, our trust, like Thomas the Apostle, rest on the testimony of our eyes and hand. Basically, we need concrete evidence to believe. Not a bad criterion. In a way, we are a product of the scientific revolution whereby our beliefs must be authenticated by the experience of others—the more people experience a phenomenon, the better is its objectivity. It is as if one person’s personal experience cannot be true. It needs to be validated by others before it can be considered worthy of belief by all. Since we cannot reproduce the experience of the Devil in the laboratory, is it a wonder why he does not exist for many people?

Here I am not suggesting that everything is to be believed in. The early Church Fathers were right. They pointed to the paradox that seeing is not always believing. Instead, St Anselm of Canterbury coined the precept of “Credo ut intelligam”. We believe in order that our understanding may be deepened. In the matter of the Devil’s existence, the Creed or the Credo provides for it by affirming that God is the creator of things visible and invisible. In believing, we begin to understand his malevolent significance in our world, whether in the physical, psychological or spiritual realm. But, if the devil does not exist, our faith in God is no more than a security blanket. For that, Blaise Pascal wagered that many believe only because He is useful—If He exists well and good. If He does not, we have not lost much.

Moving along this “Credo ut intelligam”, we do hear people complaining that Mass is boring. Why is that so? Why is Mass boring? It is too easy to dismiss the “Mass is boring” congregation as entertainment seekers. When faith is hinged on seeing or built on sensory perception, it definitely reduces the Mass to such a chore because the entertainment value of the Mass is next to nothing. Call it what you want, “a meal” or “a fellowship”, the Mass is also “a sacrifice” and there is nothing entertaining about sacrificing oneself to and for God. Sadly, we have been socialised into expecting more to be better—movies with more spills, more chills and more thrills are supposedly more entertaining. Do you ever wonder why we speak of trying to “attract young people to Mass” as if God Himself is not attractive enough.

The need to make God more attractive is indicative that we have lost the plot, a symptom not of a lack in belief but rather the inability to believe. In that way, Mary believed a lot more than we can appreciate and we believe a lot less than we dare to admit. Believing is not a cop out of reason. Faith is not an excuse for reason to stop functioning. Instead, faith is a deeply reasonable response. The first reading is a good example. God has provided for a Saviour to redeem His people. It stands to reason that if God had been faithful in the past, He will be faithful in the present. He can be trusted. Sadly, our scale for God’s “usefulness” is narrowly material as in in the elevation of material misery. In general, we mostly God for health, wealth and happiness. In short, our relationship with God is restricted to His fulfilment of our material comfort.

If we follow credo ut intelligam, believing opens up our mind and makes us see things differently. Mary’s faith gave her the ability to see beyond the present. And that kind faith is not the special preserve of Mary. We recognise that in some people who seem calm when all around are panicking, who appear assured whist we feel insecure and even in the face of persecution or death, the person is undaunted. In the case of Mary, her faith was not lived in a vacuum. Everything surrounding the conception and the birth of Jesus was fraught with the perils of living in a culture that has no place for a woman conceiving out of wedlock. If Joseph had not taken her in and if the fact of her pregnancy was known publicly, she would have been stoned to death. Despite such danger, without fear, she found time to go out to visit her cousin, an elderly woman who, like her, was also pregnant.

Faith did not shield Mary her from the rough and tumble of life. It does not make pain less painful. It does not remove us from danger. In other words when we believe, what we do not like or are fearful of may even be amplified or magnified. The more we believe, the more painful life can be. For this reason, Mary is titled as the Mother of Sorrow. She did not resort to drugs to protect her from the realities of believing nor did she have to turn to entertainment to dull her suffering and sorrow like we do. We frequently drink away our pains, eat away our sorrows and party away our sadness. In fact, you can say that to believe can even endanger one’s life as many martyrs will attest to that. Faith will always take us out our comfort zones. Perhaps it explains why we are unable to believe.

This Sunday is not pointless. It is pregnant with meaning because the Visitation is faith in action or if you like, actionable intelligence. Thus, it is truly Mary’s Sunday because faith is central to her entire being. Her faith in God makes Christmas shine bright for us. It is not the making of Christmas bright and brilliant that we come to believe. It is rather as she conceived Him in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb, so it must be for us to believe in order that Christ is not just born but that He may be born too in our hearts and in our actions. He came 2000 years ago, that is objectively or historically speaking. But He needs to come alive in our hearts and actions, subjectively or personally speaking. Faith is therefore the key that opens the door for the Child Saviour who knocks and awaits our response. How will Christmas be for you?

Monday, 17 December 2018

3rd Sunday of Advent Year C 2018

Two Latin words Gaudete and Laetare are both translated as Rejoice. What is the difference between them after all they both use rose as their liturgical colour?  

According to a famous liturgist, Pius Parsch, "Nature's annual cycle is characterised by two phenomena, light and life. Out of the darkness of night comes light; out of death comes life. The transition from night to light characterises the winter season; the transition from death to life is proper to summertime. The holy year of the Church is likewise divided into two phases which have similar characteristics”. (The Church’s Year of Grace). 

We are, in the northern hemisphere, approaching the winter solstice from whence the day will get longer. It is this turn from darkness to light that the Church capitalises on and asks of us to raise our heads because the Light of the World is approaching. In the midst of waiting and expecting, we are asked to celebrate because God is near. 

What does it mean that we celebrate and if so, how should we do it?

We celebrate because the need for social connexion is a deeply human trait. We are more social beings than we are radical individuals. When we want to mark an important event, a rite of passage, a change in status, we require these interpersonal connexions to make what we commemorate more meaningful. Let me give you a rather sad example. A few years ago, it was my birthday but nobody in the community realised it and so no one wished me. It was one of those things about community living. In the evening I drove to a Japanese restaurant and walked in, announced that it was my birthday and I was going to celebrate it alone. It was a solo thing but the waiters were great, they crafted an impromptu ice cream cake and brought it out for me. It sounds like a pathetic sob story but it highlights our need to connect. Human beings die not from neglect but from the lack of social interactions.

In desiring to make connexions more meaningful or to celebrate, the question is how we should do it.

Yesterday, the Office of Human Development organised a party for children, some of them from poor families—to give them a taste of Christmas. What I am going to describe is NOT a criticism of what the OHD did but the recounting is to invite us to reflect on the manner or form that our celebrations should take. For the children, it was simply a sliding slip down a sugary slope and with that quantity of sugar in their system, the kids could not be anything but hyper. I was asked to give a speech and so I proposed next year to dope the children with three or four spoonful of codeine-laced, cherry flavoured cough syrup before they begin the party.

The point is this: Have you ever noticed that we frequently associate celebrations with excesses. Somehow we seem to latched on to super-sizing as the only way to celebrate or to enjoy life. Big, more, and a lot are seemingly better when it comes to our definition for joyful celebration. Come to think about it, it is not confined to our celebrations. 50 years ago, houses were smaller and people got on famously with one toilet and one bathroom. Today, apparently, every room in our house has to be an ensuite—bathroom and toilet attached. When it comes to vehicles, the entry level car for many of us is no longer a sedan but it has to be an SUV. In China, apparently, to host a dinner you need to have a 15-course meal where the guests would no longer be bothered after the 7th dish. In short, our ability to celebrate or enjoy life is warped by excesses or wastages on a massive scale.

The Gospel might clue us in on why we have become like that. In the desert, three groups of people came to consult John. Instead of excesses, John told these people simply to tone down.

To the Jews, he advised against selfishness. Those who have more should share. It is a call to less selfishness. The loathsome tax collectors belong to the second group. For them, he counselled against greed. Sadly, insecure that we are, it is almost impossible to work for enough. Why? We operate along the line that there is not enough and so we hoard. We want more, just in case, the good things in life run out. Finally, the third group consists of soldiers who were concerned about what they should do. To them, he instructed that they should refrain from blackmail or extortion. In short, those in authority should not abuse their power. 

If you think further, what are selfishness, greed and the abuse of power but relational sins. These are sins that involved taking too much of a good thing for ourselves and in the process others are deprived of or prevented from access to the necessities of life. Many of life’s unjust situations reveal to us the shallowness of our relationships or more likely the absence of true and meaningful relationship. Selfishness is just an absence of selfless behaviour. Greed is just the void left by the lack of generosity. Abuse of power happens when authority forgets its true calling to serve. Let us be clear here. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning to tell himself, “Hmmm, I am going to be selfish, greedy or I am going to abuse my power”. On the contrary, selfishness, greed and the abuse of power may appear as reasonable behavioural patterns. People act in a particular manner simply because they think that that is good conduct. However, the consequence such actions or attitudes is cosmic or existential loneliness.

So, when relationships are marked by selfishness, greed or the abuse of power, then there is a void or an emptiness which seeks to be filled up. In the absence of meaningful connexion, our celebration will often take the form of excesses. We tend to compensate for the lack of intensity or the shallowness in our relationship by overdoing it. We eat heartily. We drink heavily. We party persistently. This kind of enjoyment leaves us empty rather than satisfied, desolate rather than fulfilled.

Drinking, eating and socialising can heighten our relationship with each other. A good example of this depth of relationship is found in the Eucharist. It is a sacred meal whereby we intensify our relationship with each other. But because we are unable to connect to each other due to the brokenness of our relationship, drugs, alcohol, drinks, games instead become poor substitutes. People who yearn or long for deeper contacts mistake drugs, overeating or excessive drinking to be the road to connexion, relationship and community.

Community is built on relationships which are just. In that way, such a community anticipates the joys of heaven. And today John reminds us that if we all want a deeper sense of community so that our celebration can bring us closer to heaven, then we need to be “sober” in our relationship in the sense that we need to tone down our sins of selfishness, greed and the abuse of power. When people are on good terms with each other, when relationship is marked by grace, it does not take a lot to touch us at our deepest core. When that happens, even a cup of coffee is a cause of celebration. We do not need to  overcompensate. So these days, as we celebrate the nearness of the Lord, let us be mindful of the areas of our lives that prevent us from connecting to others—do not be selfish, do not be greedy and if we are powerful, use our authority wisely because God is near.

2nd Sunday of Advent Year C 2018

We continue along the path of waiting in expectation. Within this expectation there is a call to repentance. The first reading highlights the consequence of sin for which Israel is exiled but it does not end there. Instead, it ends with a promise of redemption. It is this waiting for salvation that the Gospel brings to fore the last Prophet of the Old Testament.

Thus, the 2nd Sunday of Advent is dedicated to the role that John the Baptist played in the drama of salvation. He is the voice in the wilderness calling us to prepare the way for the coming of the Saviour, the one who will Redeem us. Both these words are loaded. Even though they describe the mission of Jesus Christ, they are words that highlight who we are.

We are at the centre of God’s salvific mission. We are the reason for the redemptive endeavour of the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus comes to save us and by His death and resurrection, we have been ransomed from a death that is eternal.

What does that mean to us?

Firstly, that we want to be saved. Like everything about Advent, sure we want to be saved but, we want it on our terms. It is natural that we want to move according to our pace. St Augustine himself said this when he felt the tugging of conversion in his heart, “Lord make chaste and celibate, but not yet”! More than the experience of St Augustine, perhaps the death-bed conversion is what many would like since it promises the best of both worlds. Have it all now and at the end, gain heaven by the skin of one’s teeth. This resonates with us as having it good is so much more exciting than being good. But if you ask the people who have damaged their physical health, they will tell you that once the damage is done, the road to full recovery can never be achieved. Advent, if you take away the urgency of carolling, shopping, feasting, you might just have enough time and space to lean back and reflect on this invitation to repentance.

The beauty of the liturgical calendar is its cyclical nature. Conversion is an ongoing process whereby we need to be converted time and again. It is who we are. Thus we are given many chances by God through the seasons to re-turn or re-orientate our hearts to God. The lure of the world is too much for our frail spirits as we get easily distracted. Given the experience that once you have seen something you cannot “unsee” it, or that a mistake made cannot be “unmade”, it is better to heed the call of John the Baptist sooner rather than later. He spoke in terms of the valleys that needed to be filled and the hills to be levelled—perhaps a figurative reference to the sins that mark our lives—sins that caused rupture in our relationships or sins that arose out of our selfish ego. The seriousness we give to repentance is a measure of the depth of our need for salvation. In other words, the more keenly one feels the need for redemption, the more one might go the extra mile in changing.

Secondly, if we accept and eagerly desire redemption, the reading from St Paul allows us to see how each one, each converted individual can become clay for God, the craftsman par excellence, to shape into a community. St Paul describes it as the completed work of God which for us should become our prayer and our hope. If we desire it, we must pray for it. The Collect expresses this hope: “May no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son”. Carolling or shopping are two good examples of earthly undertakings. They are good but if they are the main preoccupations this Advent, then, they are activities that hinder our hastening to meet the Christ. In the same reading, St Paul highlights the necessity for an improved knowledge and deepened perception to recognise what is best for us. This means asking questions about what will lead us to or away from God. It is an examination of conscience that is characteristic of our penitential season. What in our lives leaves us consoled or desolated? Whenever there is consolation, when we are close to God, the fruit is an increased in hope, faith and charity.

An increase of love for each other, which for St Paul, is the hallmark of Christianity allows us to appreciate the function that John the Baptist played. Central though he may have been, his main task was never not self-referential. His sole purpose was to point to the coming Saviour and Redeemer. How is that role to be seen in our lives? Our Advent preparation apart from the call of repentance is also framed by this question: “How well do we love each other?”. Imagine this remark made of the first Christians: “See how they love each other” applying to us?

Conversion to God will always flow into a conversion towards others. Advent’s repentance is not narrowly defined as personal. It is deeply communitarian. It is easy to love others without loving God. Humanitarians do that—they have a genuine love for humanity and that is good. But, what is impossible is to love God without loving others. If a person claims that he loves God but hates his neighbour, that cannot be counted as love for God. In the Last Judgement of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave this warning that those who call “Lord, Lord” are not automatically assured of heaven. If you love God, it means you necessarily love others.

The conversion of Advent that we are invited to is a conversion that makes room for God and others. In a world which is god-absent, god-hungry and god-forgetting, there is such a great need for it to be reminded of who God is. If John the Baptist pointed to the coming Saviour and Redeemer, then our love for  each other will perform the same function, that is, to point to the God who has never abandoned us. Repentance lead us in that direction by first converting our hearts to God and then by channeling that conversion into a genuine love for our neighbours. That way, our lives will be like John the Baptist, pointing towards the Saviour and Redeemer whose Second Coming the world is longing for.

Monday, 3 December 2018

1st Sunday of Advent Year C 2018

“Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart” is definitely a lovely hymn and heart-warming enough to be included into any carollers’ Advent repertoire. But the hymn does not really tell the full story and it may even be heretical because it reduces Jesus to a tugging of one’s heartstrings as if Jesus is not real if you do not feel Him or “happens in your heart”. However, there is a grain of truth to the hymn if you believe in the 3 Comings of Christ.

Christ came first in history. About two millennia ago, He came. Incarnated and born of a Virgin in the Land of Judah. His coming has initiated the end times and we are waiting for His Second Coming. When He will come we know not of. It is a time of waiting and it is within this lacuna of knowledge, that the hymn makes sense. In fact, it was the great theologian St Bernard of Clairvaux who posited these 3 Comings as the past, the future and the present. Both the past and the future are visible—for He walked, talked, ate and rested amongst His people and when the time comes, He will return in His glory and majesty. The present is invisible and it lies between the first and the final Coming. He promised to come to those who do the will of the Father. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him”.

It is in this sense that Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart. The prospect of Christmas taking shape in our hearts gives meaning to the joyful hope of the first reading and the apocalyptic prediction of the Gospel. Jeremiah spoke of the days where the promise of God for a true King whose mantle is justice and integrity will be fulfilled. We know that to be the first coming when the virtuous shoot of David was born in a manger in Bethlehem. In the meantime, as we await the final coming, Jesus accompanies that hope with the exhortation of vigilance. Yes, the world may continue to party like nobody’s business but our waiting should be marked by a readiness to face the Lord either when we die or when He comes with the righteous to judge the world.

The vigilance is not a kind of passive waiting in which we are obsessed with signs and portents. It is too easy to be lost in the tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, pestilence, epidemics, earthquakes, war and violence trying to equate these phenomena as the approaching final days. Instead it is a vigilance of action in which we strive to do God’s will and as the 2nd Reading suggests, the will of God consists in the increased love even for our enemies and not restricted to just family or friends.

This attentiveness is patient. It shuns the quick fix solutions the world is consumed with. Maybe, the season of Advent should be the renamed as a celebration of the Adverts. Blurbs, commercials and endorsements abound where the waiting has been banished by the wanting—truly a season of wanting minus the waiting. We are forced into Christmas cheer that we do not realise that in waiting, there is suffering to be endured. For example, if you were to wait for your loved ones to be wheeled out of a major surgery, that waiting is excruciating. Or take another example of a 40 something years old falling in love with a 12-year old girl. Forcing himself onto her would not only violate her but also shows a total lack of reverence for the gift of love which must take time to develop. And in the time taken for love to develop, one’s selfish desires are incinerated in the furnace of purification. In the end, when longing is purged of lust, what remains is a love which desires the good of the other. That is how sacrificial true love is. We know this to be true, that in all things good, there is always a price to be paid for them.

Unfortunately, this sort of waiting and vigilance is unacceptable to many. Ironically, Advent has become a season of feasting so much so that by Christmas, many are dying to fast due to excessiveness. The fasting followed by the feasting is now inverted as the feasting followed by the fasting (and New Year resolution to join a fitness centre).  If the hymn is to come true for us, that Christmas should happen in our hearts, then, take Advent for what it is meant to be—a time of waiting—a time to purify one’s love. A time of slowing down so that God can break through our defences. Waiting is hard because we have been socialised by instant gratification where everything—information, mental stimulation, recreation and even relationships must submit to the criterion of immediacy. But, patient waiting delays our gratification and puts life into perspective. Sometimes that is the only way things can develop—like a foetus in a womb whose birth cannot be rushed.

Therefore, instead of thinking of what to buy for Christmas, this Advent, give your time and presence to your family and friends. It is so much harder to be present than to give a present. For your enemies, take time to pray for them, asking that God bless them, even if they have been mean. You may not know it, blessing our enemies is the greatest gift we can present ourselves because the act of blessing smothers the hate that will eventually choke us. Then, slowly but surely, Jesus is born in our hearts so that either at our death or at His Final Coming, we dare stand with our heads held high unafraid of His judgement because He is already living in us and we in Him.

Solemnity of Christ the King Year B 2018

As far as Solemnities go, we are not celebrating an ancient liturgy. In a few years’ time, say seven(?), the Church might just initiate a centenary celebration for Christ the King. As history would have it, it was instituted as recent as in 1925. It was not too long after WWI, when quite a few European monarchies had been abolished to be replaced by republics at best and dictatorships are worst. The political structures were crumbling and in its wake, nationalism and fascism waded in to fill the void. Socially, the rise of the machinery ushered in the age of consumerism from which we are still reeling from its ravages. [Check out the plastic mass the size of China floating in the Pacific Ocean. Or that Malaysia is an importer of plastic waste from the UK]. Secularism had become the rule of the day and in the face of all these new powers that demand our allegiance, Pope Pius XI chose to remind the Church that there is a King whose sovereignty stretches beyond the temporal.

Whilst the Solemnity of the Kingship of Christ may have a recent provenance, the idea itself is not. In the NT, the Lord has been called the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, to whom honour and glory be given forever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim 1). According to Rev 19:16, “On His thigh a name was written, King of kings and Lord of lords”.

If the idea of the Kingship is still relevant, what sort of practical implications can we draw from it? Our current experience of the monarchy is rather shallow in the sense that we are captivated by the glitz, the glamour and the glitter surrounding royalty. Since there are so few of them around, we tend to treat our celebrities like royalty.

For us, the royalty of Jesus could be interpreted according to the Munus Triplex, that is, the threefold office of being Priest, Prophet and King. The equivalence of this threefold ministry is expressed as the Priest who alone is able to offer a sacrifice worthy of God, the Prophet who teaches with the authority of God and the King who came to serve and not to be served.

Therefore, He is Priest, Prophet and King in a pastoral mould—for He is the Good Shepherd whose ultimate service was to lay down His life for His sheep. This has profound implications for us. When we are baptised, we are incorporated into His Body, the Church which means we also share in His threefold ministry of santifying, enlightening and also ministering or pastoring or serving the world.

We minister in two ways and they are both inter-related. Firstly, we serve in such a way as to initiate a kingdom that goes beyond time. This end or this goal, that is, eternity, to which we aspire provides the foundation for our ethics and morals—they determine our behaviour and actions. Otherwise why be good at all if there were nothing to be had at the end. If you think about it, we are suffering a crisis of confidence. We are not entirely sure if there is a God at the end of this earthly journey and this lack of confidence may just account for our practical atheism meaning, if there is a God, well and good. If God is not there, we have not lost much anyway.

This practical atheism wreaks havoc on our moral compass. Today, it is not so much right or wrong/good or bad that guides our actions. Rather, it is the fear of being caught that inhibits our criminal behaviour. As someone used to say, “Don’t be caught dead with dirty underwear”. (What about being caught dead stacked full with evil and bad deeds?) In other words, we are good not because we are afraid that there is judgement at the end. Instead, we are “good” only because we fear the shame of being caught. 1MDB is a brilliant example of this kind of morality—the arrogance that dared to leave a paper trail arose because the perpetrators did not think they could be caught. Unfortunately, the absence of moral compass which resulted has in this practical atheism has trapped many of us in a vortex of narcissism that is incapable of transcending the “self” into the plane of the common good. (Look at our driving in a traffic jam).

We must be in the business of the right and good because we are not solipsistic narcissists. Like it or not, we are thrown together in this world. Our so-called climate crisis is living proof that it does not only affect one part of the planet but the entire ecosystem. [Principle of conservation of energy]. It is in this context that we are not alone that Jesus in the Gospel spoke of those who are on the side of truth will listen to His voice. Witnessing to the right and the good is our way of listening to Him and in the service of the common good we are carried beyond this earthly realm. 

It fits into the answer that Jesus gave to Pilate in today’s Gospel. “My Kingdom is not of this world” does not contradict the service of the common good. If anything, St Augustine says that the city of man is actually a preparation for the city of God. We should be involved very much in this world only because it is a prelude to the world that is to come. How do we achieve this?

This leads me to the second way of service to the world. It touches very much on our understanding of freedom. We think freedom in terms of self-expression and self-fulfilment. You ask any young person here and he or she will tell you that freedom is doing what I want, when I want and how I want. The Catechism states almost the opposite that true freedom is exercised in the service of good and just. This form of service bring us back into the territory of the common good which is but an expression of human solidarity. Service is not determined by “Me” but rather by the “We”. That kind of service requires self-abnegation—the kind that was exemplified by Jesus Himself: “Take up your Cross and follow me”.

Unfortunately, not many people speak of self-discipline these days and sadly, the relativistic culture easily equates the lack of discipline as freedom. We can do whatever we want and call it freedom but in reality, we know that this kind of “freedom” leads to enslavement and unhappiness. Ask a man with a modicum of conscience who frequents prostitutes if that is freedom for him? You will find him anguishing after the fact. See, for freedom to be true, it is aptly achieved through the conquest or the mastery of the self. By ruling our body and its desires through self-discipline and God's grace, we slowly acquire the freedom to choose what is best based on the true needs of our human nature. This freedom offers us far greater happiness than self-indulgence could ever grant us. Freedom is so not the choices that are available but rather the ability to choose even an option which is disadvantageous to oneself—like to lay down one’s life for another. The freer we are with regard to choosing right and good, the more we grow in likeness to our Lord and King. The more we are like Him, the faster will His Kingdom come.

In conclusion, the Solemnity may be newish but the idea is definitely as old as Christianity itself. His Kingdom is definitely beyond of this world but the entrance to this privilege place is purchased through the conquest of the self. But, we are never going to initiate the Kingdom for heaven unless His Kingdom is first established in our souls. Long may His reign be in our hearts and souls. Long live Christ the King. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

The focus on eschatology—the signs and studies of the end of the world— continues today, the penultimate Sunday of the year. And the readings spread before us the reality of the four last things—death, judgement, heaven and hell. The First Reading paints the scenario which can be described as the day of reckoning or of judgement. When the world ends, we will be surrounded by crises, calamities and catastrophes. St Michael will come and rising from the dead, those who are virtuous will be vaulted like shining stars whereas those who are sinful will be shamed into eternal disgrace. The Gospel encourages believers to make preparations for such a time when judgement is called forth.

How do we conceive of the last things such as judgement with the consequences of heaven or hell? To be honest, nobody really talks about it. If at all, death seems like a sinister stranger standing in the shadow—much like the stalker biding his time before striking. We try not to think about it. Or if we do, then our idea of eternity is also shrouded in a cloudy haze. We cannot imagine heaven given that the pleasure we derive from our comfort is out of this world. Like our food—we frequently hear people saying, “It’s out of this world”.

Perhaps Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey’s One Sweet Day lends itself to this mistaken notion that upon death, all will deserve heaven. “And I know you shining down on me from heaven, like so many friends we’ve lost along the way. And I know eventually we’ll be in heaven. One sweet day...” It explains the lack of urgency evidenced by the feeling that we have nothing to lose. After all, one sweet day, we will be in heaven. Whatever that may be.

Now, no one is predestined to hell meaning that God does not create someone to say “You go to hell”.  But, the contrary is not true, that is, that no one is, willy nilly, assured of heaven. What is true is that we are promised the possibility of heaven and that possibility is not premised on the heresy that all of us will end up in heaven.

This automatic passage to heaven rhymes with the current conception of a God who is merciful—a loving God whose mercy knows no bound. He wants to save all. However, the Institution Narrative of our Eucharistic Prayers begs to differ. The salvific will of God, even though universal, must respect human freedom. Hence the “the blood of the new covenant which will be poured out for you and for many” is not poured out for ALL. “Many” sounds stingy and rather unmerciful.

Nevertheless, the truth remains that blood of Christ will save many because some might not want to be saved. God’s mercy is always tempered by justice which means that whilst He is merciful, He is also just in a manner which respects our freedom to choose. As St Augustine pointed out: The God who created us without our permission cannot save us without our permission. Only when we presume that God’s mercy is indulgent, then, there is no need for purgatory since everyone goes to heaven, anyway.

Purgatory is not a place but rather it is a process which accords with God’s mercy and justice. Since we necessarily move in time and space, we often characterise purgatory in terms which are both spatial and chronological. It is spatial when we conceive of it as half-way place between heaven and hell. Those of us who are older, do you remember the admonition not to steal? I remember as a child, my aunty used to tell me that to steal one cent is to deserve a year in purgatory. That is chronological. For all we know a person who dies is immediately purged of sins and is already in the presence of God. However, we cannot presume and, sadly, in the presumed absence of particular judgement and the possibility of hell, we fill the void with eulogies that frequently border on canonisation. And this is the kicker—the richer you are, the more you can be eulogised. Poor people, they do not really need it. An injustice is committed when a priest dies. We tell our people that there should not be eulogy given but when there is a funeral for a priest, the exception is made. Are we not all equal before God, priest or laity, rich or poor?

The appropriate response to the true mercy of God is trust not presumption. God’s justice allows for the possibility of Hell because there cannot be mercy without repentance and renunciation of sin. Just a note aside, we are hung up on mercy, for example, for the couples who are in irregular unions that they should be allowed to receive Holy Communion. What about justice for the couples who through thick and thin stayed together because of the vows they had taken. They never gave up on each other. The message we send out is this: “Well, you were stupid. You could have gotten what they are getting now. Perhaps we should not even be bothered to be good. After all, we will still go to heaven, one sweet day! We cannot presume that God is always merciful.

This explains why we pray for souls in purgatory. Those who died in the friendship of God and yet are tainted by the effects sin, not the kind that refuses God’s forgiveness, we need to keep them in prayer because they are in no position to do any good for themselves. And for ourselves, purgatory and hell become the kind of contrition, imperfect though it may be, that helps us to get to heaven faster. “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell”. Even though, this fear of punishment as a deterrence for sin is imperfect, still it does the job of keeping us in the straight and narrow so that we can go to heaven. However, it is perfect contrition which gives coherence of these last four things. “But most of all because they offend You, my God, Who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life”.

Thus, it is the love of God that impels us to return love for love—in a manner of speaking, to go even beyond the last things. Heaven is good and we ought to desire it. But, it is most of all, the desire is to be united with God that should be the goal of our earthly existence. The four last things actually fit in with the month of November’s two foci—the souls of the faithful departed as well as the celebration of saints. Firstly, the souls need our prayers to assist them along the way to heaven. Secondly, the saints are our examples shining in heaven and urging us on and never to give up. Finally, do you know why our Churches should be tall edifices? If you follow Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story, tall space gives us a sense of “the infinity and beyond”. Even though heaven is not a place, looking upwards gives us a glimpse of our destiny. Let us peer into eternity and let God’s love impel us upwards so that we are not weighed down by our sin. As Leon Bloy, a French poet, says, “There is only one sadness in life—not being a saint”.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

A couple of years ago, I was in an Air Asia flight. We were still on the ground and as the aircraft pushed back to take off, there was a loud bang resulting in the plane plunging into darkness. With smoke bellowing from one of the engines, all pandemonium needed was someone to shout, “Fire”. None of the emergency exits was deployed but that did not stop the mad scrambling to nowhere. I sat stunned not because I did not want to live but rather I was astounded by an unalloyed display of the human instinct for self-preservation. It was surreal but I guess I can imagine the cabin chaos prior to the ill-fated Lion Air JT610 plummeting into the sea.

Today we get two radical portraits of the opposite—a total disregard for self-preservation. Both the widows at Zeraphath and in the Gospel of Mark were knocking at death’s door and yet, one thought not of herself nor of her son but the Prophet Elijah’s need, which to me, came across as entitled and the other, who without second thoughts, put all she had into the collection. They invite us to reflect on the grace of generosity, its relation to material possession and how to sublimate our need for self-preservation.

Firstly, there is a category called the poor. A common conception that the poor are so because of laziness or that they lack of initiative. This is especially for those who pride themselves as having a work ethics. If you come across a young and healthy man begging, your first thought could be: “got hands and feet, why not work”? There could be myriad reasons for not working but for Jesus, the presence of the poor was a condemnation of a system that gave rise to them. His society was so structured that some are fated to remain destitute—especially the widows, the orphans and the poor. If that system is alien to us perhaps a modern example might help. When a priest falls sick, do you think he will be admitted to the 3rd class ward of Sultan Aminah Hospital? By the very fact that he is a priest, he is already accorded better access to health care. The usual rationale “Oh we need our priest to be healthy to serve us” may be true but still it betrays an arrangement that that values a class over another. Some are more valued over others. It is fact that those who have more have better access than those who are poor. This leads me to the second point.

When we moralise about wealth, the line is pretty thin. We are often not far from envy. What we do not like about the rich may masks a resentment because we have no access (avenue) to their excesses (extravagances). How we wish we could live like them—signing contracts worth millions or sailing on a RM1B yacht surrounding by the rich, famous and the voluptuous—chuffing champagne and cramming down caviar canapés. Maybe not in that way but you get the gist. We have been simply seduced by suggestions that an opulent lifestyle is preferable to the penury of abject poverty. It is better to be full than to be hungry. The question is how to be full in a way in preserves our human dignity and this brings me to the third point.

There has to be a better to think about wealth than not having it. Meaning that the issue is not “to have or not to have” or that for salvation, poverty is preferable to riches. We take our cue from the Apostles’ Creed. I believe in the Communion of Saints. This communion helps us to appreciate that wealth in itself is not a bad thing, that its roots is communal rather than individual. It is less an indicator of personal possession because its connexion is communal as suggested by the word: commonwealth. We witness this in the early Church where the community pooled everything they had and they shared it amongst themselves in such a way that no one was ever in want of what they needed. 

The concept of pooling everything together may be an ideal that can work if the community were small enough but it becomes unwieldy when the community becomes larger. However, the principle behind it remains—that the ability to share what we have is founded on the idea that God is Provident. God does not only provide; He provides abundantly as evidenced by Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath. Furthermore, it also directs our attention to the proper meaning of wealth, that all we possess is never ours. We are merely stewards of God’s providence. As finance chief in my previous parish rightly put it, “Father, money is not yours unless you spend it”. And spent I did.

The notion of common good is based on God’s overarching providence for humanity. Common good suggests that what each of us has is not truly ours. Instead, what we have is part of God’s Providence and we are merely custodians of God’s patrimony. If we blessed with more, some might take it as a measure of wealth, but the truth is, when we are given more, we are actually entrusted with a heavier responsibility. Riches are given not for us to spend in any which way we like even though many of us do but for us to take care of those who for some reasons or other cannot take care of themselves.

I once had a conversation with super intelligent young man, an MIT candidate. Told him that once he has achieved the pinnacle of success to come back and help our country develop. It is true that his skin colour might not be the “kulification” the country cared for. Anyway, point blank he answered me, “No way”. I countered, “Your intelligence is God’s gift to you to be used for a greater purpose, that is, of helping others who are not as gifted as you are”. He response: “That is their problem”.

Riches (or gifts) do not grant the wealthy a divine right to their usage because they are only means to an end. As St Teresa of Avila, quite wisely pointed that out, “Money may be the devil’s excreta, but it is certainly a good fertiliser”. Picture what the Book of Wisdom says: “The mighty shall be mightily put to the test. For the Ruler of all shows no partiality, nor does He fear greatness. Because He Himself made the great as well as the small and provides for all alike but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends” (Wis 6: 6-8). The rich will be judged not by their riches but by how they use it in the service of the Lord.

This changes the landscape of wealth. We generate more not because we want to accumulate but so that more can be shared. Catholicism or Christianity is compatible with wealth and it ties in with the Communion of Saints. According to the Catechism, “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others... We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church. As this Church is governed by one and the same Spirit, all the good she has received necessarily become a common fund”. St Augustine spoke of the challenge posed by wealth that people who are rich are sometimes more disgusted by a bad house than by a bad life. What was he saying? It is as if a man’s priority is to have all his possessions good except himself. Wealth is to make us better people—generous, kinder and more loving—but if our possessions turn us selfish, cruel and hateful, then we are better off without them.

To conclude, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth” is a quote attributed to a spiritual daughter of Teresa of Avila, who is none other than St Therese de Lisieux. Perhaps we could take a leaf from her and tell ourselves that instead of waiting for heaven, we should spend ourselves here on earth doing good for heaven. We do not need to wait for heaven to do good. We do good with what we have in order that we might gain heaven. This means that one ought to, in the generation of wealth, do it in an ethical manner. And in the process, not forget that there are those who might need our help. To do good is beneficial to the soul. Try it and you know what I mean. If only we can build into our ecosystem, a way of allowing the beneficiary of charity to engage in acts of charity themselves—that becomes a way of paying forward. This brings me to the final point: self-preservation.
All of us, without exception, want to live as I pointed out last week. We are not interested in merely existing, we want to live fully and forever. In general, we will do all within our capacity to preserve life and that is a good thing. But along the way, some of us may have forgotten that to live forever, like the grain, we must die to ourselves. The greatest proof of the fullness of life is not holding on to it. It is in the giving that one will receive the fullness of life; it is in the dying that one will live forever. Unless a grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain. Remember, a candle is only useful when it is fully burnt. It is useless otherwise.