Monday, 30 December 2019

Holy Family 2019

We skipped pretty quickly from the Holy Innocents to the Holy Family this year. The Gospel is out of sync with the sequence of events. This Sunday, the flight supposedly took place after the Epiphany whereas, only next Sunday will the Magi come-a-calling on the Child King. There is a temporal discrepancy.

Not only have we a chronological anomaly, we also have to navigate a minefield of political correctness when it comes to specifying what constitutes a family today. We are being subtly instructed that in keeping with the times, the family should modernise as in the comedy series “Modern Family”. Even, the holiness of the Holy Family has been deconstructed because the clichéd platitudes about its holiness have nothing to do with the vicissitudes of a struggling family. So, there is a usual pitch that the Holy Family is neither “holy” nor is it “a family”. Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. Joseph was a celibate and Jesus grew up to be a hippy. Clearly, such characterisation reflects our modern dysfunctionality. We are flawed in such a depressing despair that in a manner of speaking, misery loves company and hence we tend to gravitate to those who share our defects. In our case, the family is a messy affair and so, the Holy Family should mirror us more than we resemble it.

As Frankie Valli, the frontman of the Four Seasons, way before so many of us, sang in Grease, “We take the pressure and we throw away. Conventionality belongs to yesterday”. Conventionality is tied to the operative word “yesterday” which is translated as outdated or outmoded. We live in such an unconventional time that the exception has become the rule. What this signifies is this: the conventional has become rather controverted that the contrary is now elevated to the status of a new rule. In other words, the abnormal has now become the new normal.

Perhaps this is a reflexion of a loss of vision that does not dare look high enough but searches amongst the debris and detritus of our broken dreams to find the best possible “live and let live” scenario so that we can get on with the messiness of life? It appears that good is not good enough. A good example is a new movie starring our ageing and maybe fading movie-icon Will Smith called Bad Boys III. The good is bleh whereas the bad is now the new good.

This crisis of conventionality, in which convention forms, defines, characterises us, is possibly a crisis of faith—symptomatic of the loss of faith. We no longer believe that good is good enough that we search for alternatives to plug the deficiency of the “good”. A sad truth is, we no longer believe in the nobility of the true, good and beautiful.

Even then, any description of a family, if it were to make sense, must come from a protocol which is not dependent entirely on us to specify or prescribe. It is a given. Yes, our social setting contributes to how the family is represented but its structure is not solely to be based on our reality. It must come from somewhere—a place which is tried and tested. If it were to depend on us, should we not allow for a lot more abuses and exploitation? The very fact that we stand against the exploitation of women and children is because the Church found her voice to speak against it from a convention, not of her making but of her receiving it from God through revelation.

Who we are is shaped by Sacred Scripture! Listen to the 1st and 2nd Readings. All the brokenness within the family that we encounter does not disprove the truth of Sacred Scripture but instead proves it. How? The exception to the rule does not always mean that the exception is the rule. Let us take a rule: Killing is wrong. Sometimes killing takes place and can be “justified”. For example: self-defence. But what happens when “killing” becomes rampant, so rampant that it has become normal that it does not shock us anymore. In this moment, does it imply that killing is now condoned? What this represents is that we have so lowered the standard and have become jaded to what has always been wrong that we now accept the wrong as not that wrong anymore. If everyone steals stationery from the office, then it must be alright to steal. That is exactly the situation in our country. Corruption is so widespread that it is built into the cost of doing business here that it does not even register a blink on our moral radar.

The family unit, its structure is under siege because the unconventional is attempting relentlessly to impose the alternatives as valid and amoral options. In the unconventional, the family is not a God-given but instead it is a lifestyle option that is assisted by the availability reproduction technologies.[1] Unfettered choice is the basis for our “individuation”. I am basically my choices. How I prefer my family to be is up to me. 

In the Holy Family, it was not their “personal preferences” that brought the family into being but rather personal freedom that gave birth to it. The true meaning of freedom is that even when confronted with the absence of choices, one can still choose, that is, the act to choose. So, both Joseph and Mary, in the face of this massive responsibility with almost no viable alternative chose freely to cooperate in God’s plan. At 12, even though Christ disobeyed His parents in remaining in Jerusalem, it was not an expression of His personal preference but rather He freely chose to obey a higher calling. After the incident, He eventually returned home to be placed under the care and supervision of both Joseph and Mary.

We need to rehabilitate the family because it is a God-given unit for the good of individuals and society. To do so, we return to our exemplar in Sacred Scripture. The Holy Family is model for us not because they are perfect. However, they give us a framework for how God chooses to work with us, with humanity, even in our brokenness. The first convention has to be a father and a mother. Here, we have them in the life of Jesus—a loving and nurturing Mother and a providing and guiding Father. If the family is called the domestic Church, then, there is a hierarchy to its structure whether we accept it or not.

Of course, the 2nd Reading, wife to obey husband in these days and age may not fit our convention but take a look at it again. Obedience is balanced with self-sacrifice. A man who dares to command a wife’s obedience must be a man who dares to sacrifice himself for her and his family, following the model of Christ who gave His life for the Church whom He so deeply loved.

This flows into a relationship whereby authority is respected not as a right to rule but as a service in whom leadership is entrusted. One of the issues we all face today is the absenteeism of fathers and its ramification can be seen in the deterioration of our societal system. When we use a term “by law”, we imply that there is a convention associated with how we do things. A father’s role, because he is not a mother, a nurturer or a carer, is to provide for the condition whereby social conventions can be exercised. Manners are to be taught by fathers especially when we interact in society. One of the roles for a father is to teach his sons how to be men in the world. But today all and everything falls under the purview of the mother. Where are the fathers? This in no way questions the efficacy of what a mother can do in exceptional circumstances. Rather, we are trying to understand the meaning of the hierarchy of service within the unit of a family with both a father and a mother.

Providing is not restricted to material providence but also a kind of leadership in prayer and service. If fathers send their children to Sunday school but are not at all involved in the faith, be prepared for the children to defect in their faith. They follow your bad example. Furthermore, some parents look at child-rearing as a responsibility to prepare them for the adult world. Whilst that may be true, their more profound duty is to prepare the children for heaven.

Finally, for the family to grow in holiness, parents must take back their role as father and mother and not relegate it to technology. How many of our parenting skills have been taken over by our mobile gadgets? The price to pay is still in the future. For now, the family needs Christian parents who are examples for their children to imitate. It is not easy to be virtuous parents. For example, if parents have a rule about the use of mobile device, then the rule must also apply to them as well. Good habits will save a lot of heartaches in the future. The Holy Family stands as a beacon for us because they understand the trials and tribulations of what it means to be a family especially in a world of unconventionality. With them, we are never alone. Their holiness came from them being a family that loves, sacrifices, supports, challenges and prays for each other. We can imitate them.

[1] All a man or a woman needs is to pay a surrogate woman in Thailand (?) to be implanted with a fertilised ovum possibly purchased online or be impregnated with the man’s seed.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Christmas Masses 2019

There are four Masses linked to the Solemnity of Christmas and its Vigil. Each Mass has its own set of reading and the flow from one Mass to the other in such a manner as to help contemplate the immensity of the Birth of the Christ.
In the Vigil Mass of Christmas Eve, we hear the proclamation of the genealogy of Jesus which is taken from Matthew’s Gospel. Apart from establishing the pedigree of Jesus, we are also introduced to the circumstances surrounding His birth as it was made known to Joseph. 

The second Mass should be at Midnight if we were to adhere to the tradition of honouring the symbolic hour that our Saviour was born. He was born at “midnight” in Bethlehem and as the Gospel is taken from Luke, it is called the Mass of the Angels because a host of heaven announced His birth to the Shepherds. Midnight is appropriately the time to begin this Mass because it emblematically parallels the spiritual condition of man that at the darkest moment of his need, the radiance of the awaited Messiah burst in. The Responsorial Psalm echoes this by announcing that “Today a Saviour has been born to us: He is Christ the Lord”.

The third Mass is celebrated at Dawn. As the sun rises, the Son of God, the Light of the World dispels the darkness of sin and death. “This day new light will shine upon the earth; the Lord is born for us”. It is called the Shepherds’ Mass as they, after hearing the Good News, hastened to Mary and Joseph to pay homage and worship the Child in the manger. After their visitation, the shepherds joyfully proclaim the Gospel to others.

Finally, the fourth Mass is celebrated in the fullness of daylight to illustrate that the promised Son of God has been revealed to the whole world. Indeed “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God”. John dispenses with both the narratives of Matthew and Luke, choosing rather to mirror the first book of the Old Testament. The first sentence “In the beginning” echoes the Book of Genesis as it highlights the new creation ushered in by the coming of Jesus. John emphasises the divine origin of the Messiah as he moves quickly into human history drawing our attention to this new-born King of kings. As the Gospel suggests, all nations are invited to worship Him. Even angels are commanded to do so as we hear in the 2nd Reading. Thus, it is also known as the King’s Mass.

Christmas Vigil Mass

What is the significance of the Vigil Mass? For many people, Christmas has been romanticised. Yet, continuing from last Sunday’s focus on Joseph, the vigil continues to highlight how critical the decision of this Just Man was to the historical outcome of the birth of the Messiah. Joseph gave legitimacy to the Son of God. It was into this tumult of an unexpected pregnancy and the movements of people that He entered. His introduction to human reality mirrors many whose lives are torn apart by political upheavals. In the case of Jesus’ birth, a foreign power dictating the mass migration of people. Since people were poor, they would have to walk mostly to their places of origin. All for what? Statistics? Definitely not. The counting was to be for the purpose of taxation and exploitation.

For us, the Vigil Mass is set at a practical time. There is still light out there. Will you have fulfilled your Christmas obligation? Yes, you will. But perhaps this prized practicality can lead us all into a deeper contemplation of the inconveniences that people who have no choice have to bear. And there are many amongst us—the workers who cannot go home for some reasons or other.

If “warmth” is what we desire, maybe the accent or the focus of this Mass on the plight of the Holy Family preparing for the birth of the Saviour might help us to be more accepting of those who have to suffer—especially the migrant poor and the displaced refugees. Heart-warming is a nice cosy feeling to have. The danger is that it may become insulating and as we say, “shiok sendiri” (smug kind of self-gratification). If anything, the physical struggle surrounding the stunning drama of Christ’s birth should also heighten our awareness that our welcome of our Saviour is also a welcome of those who are His brothers and sisters. “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison”?

Go and enjoy your Christmas as you welcome the Lord. Start by being kinder on the roads especially when you need to travel. And if you did not know it, you really do not need to look far. Jesus is always near you.

Christmas Midnight Mass

What is the significance of celebrating Mass at midnight? Firstly, I am going to say something that some of you may not appreciate especially on this most hallowed of nights. To be honest, that would be the last thing I would like to do—piss you off. However, just hear me out.

We organise life according to a principle, which is quite logical, called convenience. Mod-cons is a word you sometimes hear about. Like switching on the lights and not having to start a fire rubbing two pieces of sticks. I am not bashing mod-cons. For example, when Asians (Malaysian/Singaporeans/ Filipinos as far as I have experienced) eat their rice on a plate (not in a bowl), they use a spoon. Others use a fork which is not really convenient, is it? Especially if the rice is soaked in gravy.

Convenience is a good. However, it remains an organising principle that must be weighed against other considerations. How many of you elderly folks here who feel “silenced” not because your children are bad or uncaring towards you? Rather, you are “silenced” by an overwhelming fear that your needs (legitimate ones) might inconvenience or trouble your children? To be fair, even the whining or wheezing complaints of yours might be indication that you just need a little bit more tender loving care. Who does not? Anyway, you do not want to disrupt their lives because you love them.

I have a question: Is it easier to go out and hunt for an appropriate gift or present from Singapore battling the horrendous traffic congestion across the Causeway than to pop into the local M&S to buy a ready-wrapped gift because they have an excellent return/exchange policy? How many stressed and time-strapped parents find it more convenient to lavish their children with the latest electronic gadgets? This expensive giving is definitely more convenient.

Discerning children, the operative word is discerning, might have trouble accepting convenience as the sole principle of care and concern. Over time they too might just use the same principle to place you in a home for the aged—convenient with periodic visitations.

Midnight Mass for some places is merely a name of a Mass celebrated at a convenient time—like ours at 10pm. Imagine if the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity looking down at the condition of humanity and remarking to the Father and the Spirit—not convenient. A drop of blood might just do the trick.

But, no. He came down—forgoing His Divinity, assuming everything that we are, except sin. Just as an aside, we actually labour under a misguided notion that sin is “natural” to who we are. (Usual coinage: I am only human). The truth is, man fell through sin yes, but man was not created in sin. So, whilst we sin naturally (as if it were characteristic of us), sin is not natural to us (because we were not created in sin and to sin).

Being one like us, in all things except sin, He could feel the burden of our sinfulness. Hence, He gave Himself to us as the food from and for heaven so that we will not forget where we fell from. His Body is the heavenly food that is needed for the journey to our supernatural homeland—heaven.

Imagine if Christ we to say—not convenient. Give it a thought. The inconvenience we suffer has a paedagogical value—how often have we prayed to God only when we need Him? But, when things are going well and it is inconvenient, we easily forget Him.

Thus, this Divine Condescension, that is, His “assumption” or the taking on of human inconvenience is to help us go to heaven. Next year, we might move the timing of this Mass to match its name: Midnight Mass—to announce that at the darkness hour of human need—God took flesh, at His inconvenience—to become God with us—Emmanuel. If God can suffer inconvenience for our sakes, the least we can do for Him to render Him the homage for so great a prize He paid for our salvation.

Christmas Dawn Mass

This Mass continues the Shepherds’ story. They were told by Angels that the Christ was to be born and so they had to find it out for themselves. Their visit confirmed the Angels’ message and they left, this group of marginalised shepherds, to announce the Good News of the Birth of the Lord. Their action, according to Luke’s Gospel, is God’s very own doing that the sending of the Saviour be publicly announced.

You will notice that our crib set is rather simple. There are no Magi at all, no personages of power and might. The Magi are over there still following the star and is no blending of Christmas with Epiphany there. 

There is something about this Epiphany to the Shepherds first than the Epiphany of the Magi representing the Gentiles. The Old Testament is replete with imageries of the shepherd. The greatest king of Israel was taken from amongst the sheepfold—King David. And when the shepherds failed the people, God Himself took on the role of the Good Shepherd—He leadeth me to restful waters to lie.

Should not the appearance of the King first be to those whose ministry resembles His?

Our Pope signs himself off as Pastor Pastorum—the Shepherd of Shepherds. We try to imitate Our Good Shepherd so that where the Church is, He is always to be experienced as being with us. Yes, I know, his poor shepherds and there are many of us, fail Him often but do not let that prevent you from going to Him.

This morning, let our thoughts stay with the extraordinary moment of bending before the Baby who is our very Good Shepherd. The first part of the Mass from the Gloria to the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus is basically a liturgical rendition of the Gospel we heard just now. At the Holy, Holy, Holy, the Angel adores His Majesty. So, like the shepherds we do no better than to adore Him and also to remember that at Holy Communion, the King comes to be with us. 

The Shepherds did not just stay before the crib. They were filled with an overpowering joy that they had to proclaim what they had heard from the angels and have seen with their eyes. They are our first Evangelists. They have come to know and beheld His glory. We can imitate them, if not through our words, at least through our actions. Go the Mass is ended is not the end but the beginning of our Evangelii gaudium—the joy of bringing Christ to the ends of the world. Joy is powerfully attractive when it comes to showing the face of the Good Shepherd.

Christmas Mass of the Day

If you are here for this Mass, good for you. All the “festivities” are over which means you have come to ponder on the theological reason for His coming. The Gospel is possibly the most profound of all passages in Sacred Scriptures. It is rather dry—no angels, no shepherds, no brightly star shining, no swaddling clothes, no sheep or donkeys, no shepherds and not even Mary and Joseph, the necessary figures for this event but, it is no less dramatic as it brings us all into the back of the beyond.

In Loreto, the Holy House of Narazeth which was transported there, miraculously or not, depending on your credulity, at the altar, a Latin phrase is imprinted: “Hic verbum caro factum est”. Translated: Here the Word was made Flesh. This mirrors exactly the Gospel of John—that God who was in the beginning with God and was God, this God entered human history by taking on our flesh.

This is where John challenges us: Are we the innkeeper who turned away a heavily pregnant mother and her humble husband? He came to His own and yet they reject Him. But, to those who accept Him, He gave them power to be children of God.

The Collect at the beginning of Mass reflects our desire to meet up to John’s challenge: O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of the human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.

In the beginning God created the world, now in Christ, He recreates the world and our cooperation with Him will make us sharer of His divinity. At every Eucharist, this admirabile commercium, the true Christmas exchange is repeated especially when the priest mixes a drop of water into the wine to be consecrated. He becomes one of us so that we may have His strength to walk and to work out our salvation. In an alternative preface, this commerce is pointed out: For through Him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendour: when our frailty is assumed by your Word, not only does human mortality receive unending honour but by this wondrous union, we too, are made eternal.

God wants to save each one of us. This wondrous exchange that Christ came to effect changes our being but not only that. It requires also a change in our doing. The requires our cooperation. As St Augustine reminds us, “God cannot save us without our consent”. 

As we come to venerate the Crib after Mass, let us bow down and bend low, asking for the grace not to turn away from His grace but to have the courage to cooperate with it for the salvation of our souls.

Finally, I have been labouring about “convenience” as a principle of organising our liturgy. When it is solely the principle we use, then the Masses will mean no more than a mere fulfilment of our obligation—duties we get them over and done with. But names are important. Would a loving father give her daughter such a name as Satania? Our Masses are named as Midnight, Dawn and Day Mass precisely because of what they symbolise. It behoves us to change the timing of our Masses so that they may help us appreciate more what they stand for—at the darkest moment of our need, God came to us; the rising of the sun exemplifies the Son of God dispelling the darkness of sin and death and finally, in broad daylight, we come to worship the King of kings.