Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Assumption of Mary 2018

What is so important about the Assumption of Mary? What significance is there to this celebration?

Mary is both our strength and in an ignorant world, she is perceived to be our weakness. Before you conclude that I have committed a grave sin, let me clarify. Firstly, she definitely is our strength because of she is the Mother of God. Secondly, she is perceived to be our weakness because some ignorant Protestants believe that we worship her. The fact that this so-called dogma was proclaimed in 1950 might just lend itself to this perception. One cannot be further from truth when one holds this position.

Catholics hold her to be their strength, as mentioned earlier, not only because she is the Mother of God but because of who we are. Why? In a perfect paradise, in our prelapsarian innocence, humanity would be endowed with the preternatural gifts of integrity meaning that both our body and soul were united. But in our postlapsarian perdition, in our fallen state, there arose the discrepancy which St Paul so aptly described to the Romans, “For I do not do the good that I want to do. But the evil that I hate is what I do”.

This is our present state: We all struggle. But, somehow, in a self-help, positive-thinking, self-made environment, we seemed have banished the word “struggle” from our spiritual vocabulary. After all, like the Bionic Man, we can, if we think positively, help or reinvent ourselves. A line from the Salve Regina draws us back to our mundane morass—ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle—To thee do we send forth our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

Now, the two major Marian celebrations are in a sense holistic or integral in the treatment of the human person. In the Immaculate Conception, the feast touches on the human soul whereas today, the Assumption addresses the body that we have.

There is a war within us, a battle between good and evil which is waged daily in this lacrimarum valle. We like to think of ourselves as disciples but when we speak of discipleship, what is implied is discipline. In order to excel in a specialty or branch of knowledge, discipline is what we most need but it is also the least that we want. Ask any PhD candidate about what it means to write a thesis. Distraction, laziness and procrastination—all these are indications of a lack of discipline. But, it runs on logic that nobody likes “punishment” unless he is a masochist, that is, someone who enjoys punishment. True? And yet, when we want a beautiful body, it takes a lot of discipline and the funny thing is some are willing to pay that price for a perfect body to die in, but to follow the Lord closely it is another ball game altogether.

You see that the aim of the Assumption is not to promote a healthy body per se but to remind us that the body is part and parcel of the work of salvation brought about by Christ. When we die, even though the body may suffer corruption, at the Resurrection, our bodies will be reunited with our soul. Therein, the Catholic prohibition of scattering one’s ashes/“cremains” as if one were a free-spirited soul.

Two prefaces can be placed side by side. The Assumption and the Ascension. Part of the Assumption’s Preface reads like this:

For today the Virgin Mother of God
was assumed into heaven
as the beginning and image
of your Church’s coming to perfection
and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.
This imagery draws its inspiration from the Preface of the Ascension which sounds goes like this: 

For the Lord Jesus, the King of glory,
conqueror of sin and death,
ascended to the highest heavens, ...
... he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

The discipline we endure in this life is in order that we may follow our Head and Founder and Mary being the foremost of Christ’s disciples is assumed into heaven because she alone is the one perfect dedication—body and soul—to her Lord and Saviour. There, she, who is everything like us except by the grace of God preserved from sin, becomes the beacon for those of us who are struggling in this valley of tears, hoping one day to follow. As a fellow pilgrim, this Mother of ours is certainly the most powerful advocate and also the greatest help we can ever have in our journey. As Lumen gentium gently reminds: Mary is now in a position to exercise fully her "motherhood in the order of grace," without interruption until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect (LG 62).

Finally, these days, people have been lamenting about the unusually warm weather that has resulted in many illnesses. If you feel that the heat is intolerable and your sickness uncomfortable, Assumption is truly a great reminder. Why? Hell or eternal damnation is not even an iota close to a trillion times worse. In fact, whatever we suffer now will be infinitely and infernally multiplied in hell. Hence, Assumption serves as a reminder to desire that which is boundlessly pleasing and joyful. Therefore, to Mary who is in heaven, we entrust the care of our souls and ask that despite our weaknesses, she never gives up on succouring us so that one day, bruised or battered, we may knock on heaven’s door and there, our Lord will open it for us and welcome us into the Kingdom which He has won by His life, death and resurrection.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

Last week, I spoke of a vague rejection of the Resurrection. Here is another example of how unwittingly we do it. Since we live so close to our neighbour down south, some of us might tune in to their radio stations. [For me, it’s Class 95]. One of the things which they are trying to raise awareness of is pre-diabetes and we are told that it a condition which is reversible. The attempt to prevent the onslaught of this condition—Alzheimers/Parkinsons or that disease—cancer/AIDS is similar to what takes place at funerals—that is, we like to assign a cause for one’s death. "His son died from a car accident" or "her mother died from cancer". "Their father died from second-hand smoke of their chain-smoking mother". The fact is, with or without a condition or disease, everyone will die sooner or later. No matter how much we try to prevent it, death ultimately will claim us.

This week, our topic continues along the line of food and eating. It is ironical that we want to stave off death, that is, in yearning for earthly immortality, we are eating ourselves to death. The curse of a developed and developing nation is an insatiable appetite to eat and not just that, to eat more than we should. It is conceivable that our taste-buds have become jaded from over eating, hence our foods have to be super-flavourful—added sugar, added fat, added herb and spices, added salt and on top of that everything is supersized.
Today, in the interest of living longer and healthier but not in an effort to avoid death or an expression of a disbelief in the Resurrection, the first reading might just teach us how to avoid diabetes.

Elijah is on the run. He had managed to dis the prophets of Baal and Queen Jezebel was hounding him. To have done good and be punished for it, even the stoutest amongst us may just give in to discouragement and depression. He sits under a furze or gorse bush desiring to die. But the angel, woke up and told him to eat. Perhaps you realise why many of us are predisposed to pre-diabetes. We do not need angels to remind us that food can lift us out of our depression. Carbohydrates work wonders as a comfort food. But, instead of eating for strength, food has become the drug of the depressed.

In that case, how to avoid diabetes?

The French have two words which might help us make a transition—from comfort food to food for the journey. They are gourmand and gourmet. Both words are related to food. The former describes a person who is excessively fond of eating and drinking whereas the latter describes one who is a connoisseur of good food and drink. In other words, a gourmet is one who cultivates a discriminating palate whilst enjoying the finer things in life. Like Remy the rat in Ratatouille. All this relatives and friends are gourmands because they go for quantity unlike Remy who says that his mouth is made for better things. 

Now, just because one likes the finer things in life, they do not automatically elevate a person to the status of a gourmet. Najib and his wife (if Shafie were here, he would assert that Najib is being publicly tried in a homily) could be fine illustrations of how one can appreciate the finer things in life and yet be gourmands. Many may not see it this way but like over-eating, one can also accumulate to death.

Today Jesus continues to invite his Jewish listeners to a discerning recognition for what is truly the food for heaven. Sadly, their response was biblically predictable. How? Like their ancestors, they started murmuring—a reaction which betrays not an absence of refinement but rather of a lack of trust.

Why would Jesus want to introduce the people to this fine form of food? St Thomas in the commentary on Book IV of the Sentences gives us the perfect clue. He says, “Material food first changes into the one who eats it, and then, as a consequence, restores to him lost strength and increases his vitality. Spiritual food, on the other hand, changes the person who eats it into itself. Thus the effect proper to this Sacrament is the conversion of a man into Christ, so that he may no longer live, but Christ lives in him; consequently, it has the double effect of restoring the spiritual strength he had lost by his sins and defects, and of increasing the strength of his virtues”. St. Thomas, Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, d. 12, q. 2, a. 11.

In short, we become what we eat. Stand next to a man who consumes all the floating bulbs of garlic in your pot of Bak Kut Teh and the following morning you will be standing next to a garlic garden. They say that food is cheap in the USA—usually the bad ones are—and thus you have lots of obese people because they resemble the greasy burgers and fries they consume.

The Jews certainly did not understand that the food that Jesus gives was for an eternal purpose. We eat so that we can become whom we have eaten. We eat the Body of Christ so that we can truly transform into the Body of Christ. I like Corpus Christi but it can be a harrowing experience for us living in a country unaccustomed to the deep symbolism of the procession. It definitely is an inconvenience to those who do not believe as we jam up the road and block traffic. Only that, we look ridiculous at best and idolatrous at worst. But, therein a most sublime symbolism—the Body of Christ, the Church, carrying the real Body of Christ. We want to become Him who became one of us.

St Paul in the 2nd Reading in detailing how members of a community should behave with each other is actually describing what sort of relationships that should exist within the Body of Christ. Within that community, members find their relationships enriched because of their conversion in Jesus Christ. To be more like Jesus, we need to consume Him more. But never in the gourmand sense that one receives communion in as many Masses they are in town.

In summary, our appreciation of the finer things in life begins with an acknowledgement that the Eucharist is tied up with the Resurrection for the Resurrection would be meaningless without and vice versa. The less we believe in the Resurrection, the less will we honour the Blessed Sacrament. But, the Resurrection is not a far off event somewhere beyond the pale. Instead, the belief in it begins now in the concrete—in the who we are and how we behave—as the Body of Christ, but it does not end here and for that, we need the Bread of Life to accompany us as the Viaticum, giving us strength, slowly, surely, changing us so that what we have begun here, will culminate in the eternity we wish to spend in His presence. St Ignatius of Antioch may have called the Eucharist the medicine of immortality and antidote of death—and so for us, to paraphrase Buzz Lightyear, the Eucharist is the real and only food we need for this long journey to infinity and beyond.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018

If you noticed, we are still lingering on after last week’s miracle of 5 loaves and 2 fish, in what is also known as the Bread of Life Discourse. And, today is also not the end of the story as the entire Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is liturgically stretched to cover 6 Sundays and we are just in the second one of them.

It is appropriately named as the Bread of Life Discourse because food is closely associated with living, as water and air are. Perhaps this Sunday we can focus on life and the art of living and the relevance the Eucharist has to the endeavour.

There is a song, if you have a chance, Google it and have a listen. There are different ways of interpreting this song by OneRepublic—I Lived. The context of the lyrics is about living with cystic fibrosis, whereby the victim may eventually end up with lungs so damaged that they cannot breathe unaided without a ventilator. Like food, without air, one cannot live.

What has this song to do with today’s Gospel? If you listen to the lyrics it sounds positive because it advocates a form of living which maximises what we have. For example, you may have heard that it is not the number of years in your life which is important but rather the life you give to the years that you have. “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”.

From a certain angle, this definitely encourages people to appreciate life and to live it to the fullest. But there may be an unintended consequence of this philosophy considering that we share a common cosmology. What cosmology am I referring to? Wittingly or unwittingly, we appear to have embraced an outlook in life which vaguely excludes the Resurrection. If you still yourself enough, you might just catch a glimpse of how prevalent this cosmology is.

In the name of health or well-being or comfort, can you count the number of devices invented or supplements created for these purposes? The number of people sporting Fitbits for their 10000 steps is a good example. Or, do you know of anyone who wears those magnetic bracelets or pendant that have been “discovered” scientifically to promote good health? Let me clarify that I am not against good health. We hear it said that health is indeed wealth because a person reasonably needs to be in good health to enjoy life. What is the point of accumulating wealth and riches only to “donate” to the hospitals? But there is a subtlety in this narcissistic age which overly focuses on therapy as the solution to all life’s problems. It is as if we are all in need of healing to be made whole.

But, take a moment to step back and ask this question: What does it really mean to be made whole, to enjoy life or to have a good life?

The people who got into the boat definitely thought that they had stumbled upon the elixir of life in the sense that they have found a permanent source of life, for food is life. Why not? This miracle worker would have taken the concern for sustenance off the menu. No need to worry and one can live rather comfortably. But, Jesus introduced them to the idea of food not only for this life, but rather indicated to them that there is a more fundamental search for the food that promises eternal life.

Life is addictive. Even if one’s life is boring, the truth is, nobody wants to die. Even those who commit suicide, you might think that they do not want to live. But, actually they do because they are protesting that there could be a better alternative to the life that they presently have. So, setting death aside, our main fear is that of a mundane and seemingly meaningless life. A fact which advertisers harp on to increase sales of whatever products they are peddling. 

Buy this and your life will be complete. Eat this and you will live longer. Our Guardian—half of the things there are for your face and the other half is to make sure you live forever. Go to the auto-shop and you will be drilled that if you were to drive this particular make, your adrenaline will surge. Live here in this locality and all the amenities available there fulfil you. Or like a fat lady once tried to show us, “Own this many Hermès Birkin bags and you would have arrived at the pinnacle of power”.

In summary, our search for life or the fullness of life is misdirected even if we embrace the positive message of OneRepublic’s I Lived, that is, attempting to squeeze as much life as possible out of every second.[1] The failure of our self-absorbed generation is to recognise that our hunger for physical food mirrors the human search for supernatural sustenance. Jesus in today’s Gospel is preparing the crowd for the answer to this sublime quest that He alone and nothing else is the nourishment needed for our spiritual salvation. Life and the art of living well are not tied up to the length or duration of life but rather to Him. It may begin with an appreciation of the physical world we inhabit, that is, we start with food, enough of it and healthy eating/living but it does not just end there. Life and the art of living well find its fulfilment in the everlasting, that is, to live forever, one draws immortality from Him who is none other than the Bread of eternal life.

[1] Therein also hides an unquestioned rejection of the Resurrection. What about those who do not have the wherewithal to squeeze life out of every second? Are their lives considered failures? The promise of the Resurrection is also an assurance that death is not a permanent closure to the chapter of one’s life, that whatever failure we encounter in this life can find its redemption in the next life to come.