Monday, 25 February 2019

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The Gospel this weekend continues with last week’s instruction. What Jesus teaches is not unfamiliar to us. Both Matthew and Luke focus on the Beatitudes but with different target audiences and emphases. Matthew’s teaching is directed at the disciples and the crowds whereas Luke’s target is specifically the disciples alone. Matthew ends His teaching on the love of one’s enemies with an invitation to imitate God’s perfection whereas Luke concludes with an affirmation of God’s mercy.

All in, whether we imitate God’s perfection or His mercy, we are told that to be His disciples, we must love our enemies, turn the other cheek, give to those who ask, do unto others, lend without expecting repayment, judge not lest we be judged.

Just listening to the Gospel, we get a sense that Christian discipleship is truly a tall order. It is really a “big” word.

By big, I do not mean hard. Sure, the discipleship of Jesus is a tough calling; a tall order to fulfil. We are easily slighted in this age of entitlement and victimhood. Whenever I am stopped for a random security check at London Heathrow, the first thought that goes through my mind would be, “Why? Is it because I am Asian”? Closer to home, when stopped by the police, what goes through the mind is, “Because I am Chinese”? We readily flash the minority card, be it race, religion, sexual orientation and now gender identity. Therefore, it is not surprising that we will find ways to mitigate or soften Jesus’ teaching about love or walking the extra mile. And, even if we were to embrace the notion of love for one’s enemies, I am certain we will find some forms of “justice” to say that love does not extend to the categories of people like terrorists or a rapists. In would appear that Jesus’ definition of love is quite unlivable. What is worse is that loving those who love us is not love at all.

So, how are we to live up to the love that He has taught us? How do we embrace the difficulty of His teaching and where do you think the call to love most felt?

Judging from our electronic experiences, our universe appears to be divided into different echo chambers. The Church is not untouched by the world as she too is fractured by camps. We all inhabit eco-systems which we routinely encounter beliefs or opinions that coincide with ours, so that whatever we hold to be “true” is reinforced while alternative ideas are disregarded. Furthermore, there is a virtualisation of religion, in the sense that what we want to believe is easily accessible through the electronic medium and it does not help that we suffer from herd mentality. Check out your online new provider like the BBC app. There you can personalise your news in such a way that only the content which confirms your bias is delivered to you. In everyday life, do you have friends who forwards you pictures, messages, videos and emails? Do you realise what you see is filtered through the preferences of your friends? If you have a friend who is slightly paranoid, you are bound to be fed a daily dose of paranoia. And if you are paranoid, it amplifies it.

In this polarised and fragmented world, religion can be reduced to a form of social therapy. Jesus functions better as counsellor rather than a Saviour. Religion works more as a therapy rather than a belief system that aligns us to God. In this fearful and lonely world we encounter a strong antagonism towards what is different or the other. Nevermind walking the extra mile or lending to others without expecting any returns. If Najib calls himself the King of Trolls, he is definitely not the only one because cyberspace is veiled by an anonymity that engenders a meanness that is nothing short of vicious. What matters for many are the “likes” as if number were a measure of right. And guess what? People just need to be “right/like” for they fear the loneliness of being “wrong”. Yet, the need to be right does not always lead us to the path of good or truth. One could be “right” or factual and yet be espousing some form evil or falsehood.

The discipleship proposed by Jesus hinges on a person rather than on an idea. One the one hand, the whole shebang about “loving one’s neighbour, turning one’s cheek and etc” which is good in itself can also be a form of ideology. Would it not be nice if everyone got on together and there was more kindness in the world? We have tried to engineer this world before—bridging the gap between what the world is and how the world should be. A good example is how liberation theology proposed a socio-political vision of humanity whereby the “kingdom” of God had a better chance of success if it were conceived more as a “kindom” of God—not a hierarchical top down “kingdom” structure but a democratic system of kinship equality. The fact is, Communism had tried to impose an order of social fairness for everyone but without the person of Jesus Christ, any system that imposes itself on humanity will fail because it is merely an ideology, an idea without heart and without mercy. On the other hand, St Paul describes this link between what the world is and how the world should be as being modelled upon the heavenly man. Thus, discipleship is a “big” word in the sense that its horizon extends beyond the natural domain as it reaches into the supernatural realm.

Clearly, what Jesus asks of us is beyond our natural grasp as it requires a strength that comes from above. This strength is not derived from an ideology no matter how alluring it is. Instead strength comes from an encounter. In Deus caritas est, Benedict XVI furthers St Paul’s understanding: Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

This new horizon and decisive direction projects  a “big” picture which we often fail to see if we focus on mere ideology. It is big because it invites us to believe in a God who definitely sees more than we dare to acknowledge. It is a trust which places one’s life into the hands others and finally to God. This is exemplified in the lives of countless men and women who do not fight back not because they are cowards but because they trust in God. We would think it stupid but for them, justice is not confined to this earthly existence life and punishment does not end with incarceration. Now you see why Catholics offer Masses for souls in purgatory. However, St John Paul II, in our recent past, showed us the power of forgiveness and love for one’s enemy when he went to the gaol to forgive and be reconciled with the man who had tried to assassinate him.

Hence, to do what Jesus asked of us, we need to fall in love with Him. We can take our cue from our Protestant brethrens when they term it as a “personal” relationship. When I love Him, then I will love even the person whom I do not like or even know. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give others much more than what I can normally give. How can we fall in love with Him? Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity spend an hour with Him present in the Blessed Sacrament especially before they step out to do works of charity. This Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the one who gave up His life as He embraced His Father’s will. That which gave meaning to His life gives us ours too especially when life turns messy. It is only in Him that we gain the courage to see selfishness as folly and accept self-sacrifice as triumph. For Him, because we love Him dearly, we dare to love our enemies and when everything we have is taken away—pride, wealth and health—and we still say we are victorious, it is then that our discipleship will shine brightly and pulsate with the light and love of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The 4th Sunday of Easter dedicated to vocations but sometimes it feels like there are more than one Vocation Sunday as the readings today fit perfectly into this theme of calling. The truth is, there should be more “calling” stories because salvation history is nothing but a prolonged call by God beginning with creation. 

Ex nihilo, that is, from nothing, God called creation to be and He continues to call it forth whilst sustaining it. A watch-maker God would presumably have created something and then leave it to run on its own. Not this God of ours. He is actively involved in His creation. (If we have a complaint that creation is not behaving well—like global warming—do not blame God. Blame us).

Earlier we heard the calling of a man with unclean lips—Isaiah. Presumably, in a culture which values ritual purity, his defilement may mean a questionable religious observance—like eating pork? Yet, God overlooked his iniquities as He called him. In the Second Reading, we encounter another man who was anxious about his religion’s integrity. Saul saw the early Christians as an aberration of the belief system he knew and loved and set himself up to purge the religion of such deviant behaviours. Christians were heretical Jews. In God’s vocation, Saul became Paul and through his deep knowledge of Judaism, he became the preacher and teacher to the Gentiles that God has invited into the fold. Finally, we have a sinner to whom God revealed the divinity of His Son as well as upon whom He chose to establish the early Church from the remnant of Israel.

What glorious calls that God made through Isaiah, Paul and Peter’s lives. Since God is not a watch-maker, the vocation continues. When we read St Augustine’s famous Confession, that is, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord and our heart is restless until it rests in you”—this human longing for God is no more than our response to God who continues to call us to Himself.

God calls in a manner that no one is excluded. Vatican II reads this as the universal call to holiness. Whatever station we find ourselves, God is calling us to praise, to revere and to serve Him.

Today I would like to speak of a special calling and it might involve laying down one’s life for others. Firstly, we all speak of meaning a lot. It is important. For example, whenever we do not understand something, we tend to relegate it to the margin of uselessness and we mutter, “It is meaningless”. But, if one were to reflect on meaningfulness, one begins to realise how “self-referential” it is. Meaningful is basically about “I, me and myself”. We all enter into relationship and unwittingly we might be calculating on what we can get out of it. The usual measure of our gain is meaning. Thus, relationship falls apart whenever we can no longer derive “meaning” from it. Think in terms of pre-nuptial agreements. People might term it as “prudence, safeguard” etc but the bottomline is purely “What will I get out of it, should the relationship fail?

There are two callings in life which are not self-referential but they are not less meaningful. In essence these callings are directed to service of the Church and the community. The Church has seven Sacrament and two of them are called the Sacraments of service—marriage and priesthood. Both these callings are not alien to us. I could be wrong because one them is an option people rarely give much consideration to. And it is this option that I would like to talk about.

Yesterday, after Mass there was supposed to be an anointing for the sick and elderly. The organisers had asked that those who wanted to be anointed should register themselves. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, only a baptised can be anointed. Just like Holy Communion can only be given to a baptised and practising Catholic, the Sacrament of Anointing is not an open invitation to all and sundry. Registration allowed us to respect the integrity of the Sacrament because we would have ascertained from the registration that the person is a Catholic. Secondly, only a priest or a Bishop can administer this sacrament. Thankfully there were two of us and the registration helped tremendously in crowd control. There have been instances when the whole congregation would walk up to be anointed and there was only one priest available. Visualise that.

The shortage of the ordinary ministers of the Sacrament might not seem urgent. At Mass we have no shortage of volunteers for extra-ordinary ministers and also the other ministries. In normal English usage, the word extra-ordinary connotes something which is remarkable, amazing, astounding and definitely out of this world. However, in Church terminology, the ordinary is preferred over the extraordinary as it pertains to the ordered or standard arrangement of things. Ordinary means this is how things are supposed to be. Whilst the presence of so many extra-ordinary ministers might be taken or read as a wonderful sign of ecclesial participation, it is more likely an indication that there is a failure somewhere, a failure to provide.

What do I mean by the failure to provide? When there are no priests, what is the point of the extra-ordinary Ministers? Here I am not denigrating them because they do provide a valuable service. When there are no priests, who will provide us with the Sacraments? The Church stands on the Eucharist. Without the Eucharist there is no Church. But, without the priesthood there is no Eucharist. We may have a crisis of confidence in the people in the priesthood considering that we seem to hog the limelight for the wrong reasons—priests are paedophiles or nun-rapists. But, whatever the outcome of our crisis of confidence, the Eucharist will always be needed if we heed Christ’s teaching on the necessity of eating His Body and drinking His Blood for us to go to heaven. Thus, the Church exists to provide the Eucharist, the food for the journey heavenward. If that be the case, there will always be a need for the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

One of the reasons for scarcity of vocation to priestly life and by extension to religious life is because our “factories” run on the basis of two—meaning, if the first one is boy, pray the second one is a girl or vice versa and voila the factory shuts down.

Moreover, parents these days try to protect their children from danger to the point that they may just over-compensate. What their generation never had, they make sure that the young have plenty and more. What their generation suffered, they make sure that the young do not have to endure it. This over-compensation has not generated greater meaning in the lives of our young. Instead, without struggles, without challenges, life does not become more meaningful. Thus, there is a compelling demand to challenge the youth to rise above themselves and even to the point of laying down their lives for others. The essence of nobility is the giving of oneself to an endeavour much bigger than oneself and it this which gives meaning to life. Meaning is never found in selfishness. It is gained through selflessness. As someone rightly remarked that the next evolutionary step for mankind is to move from man to kind. From selfishness to selflessness. As Martin Luther King Jr rightly pointed out, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity”. When we lament about the selfishness of society, that is because we have not taught the young to look at the horizon beyond the self.

God has not stopped calling Christians to a life of service, in particular, a life of service to both Church and community as a priest (and by extension a religious)—a life which places others ahead of one’s own advantage. If the Church is necessary for salvation, then the Eucharist will always be needed. For that the priesthood must go on. The vocation crisis is no indication that the priesthood is irrelevant but more because we have stopped listening. To all the young men (and not so young) present here, is God is calling you? If you even have a faint inkling that He is, be brave. Respond to Him.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

We like to believe that we are truthful. After all, investigative journalism is born of an era fighting for truth that has been obscured by the establishments or agencies. Think Watergate and all the subsequent “-gates”. However, if we readily give credence to conspiracy theories, then we are in a way, accustomed to being lied to by governments. It means that we are already operating under a hermeneutics of suspicion because our mind has been framed to see conspiracy in everything. Whilst it could be true that people are conspiring but constantly being suspicious may reveal a psychosis of a kind. In short, delusional paranoia.

It just makes truth so much more complicated in an atomised and individualised world. Watch a family of five in a food court, all apparently eating together but each one is engaged with his or her device. That is how an atomised society looks like. Today’s Gospel gives an idea of how fraught the journey to truth is.

Jesus was feted by the crowd because He was eloquent and was able to hold the crowd’s attention but when He got near to the truth, it sat uncomfortably with His hearers. In general, we shy away from unvarnished truth preferring a sugar-coated version of it. In this, I am reminded of the movie which propelled Tom Cruise to celebrity status and also starred a veteran Jack Nicholson: A Few Good Men where Jack exploded in a contemptuous sneer at Tom:“You can’t handle the truth”. 

This disability applies to many of us as it it did to the throngs surrounding Jesus. For many of us, truth is akin to the icon “Like” on your facebook. As long as people like it, then what is posted must be “good” and therefore “true”. In a sensationalised world, clicks are all that count, not the substance. Thus, in 2016, “post-truth” entered the Oxford English Dictionary and our imagination. It was followed closely by “fake news”. The algorithms of our social media do what they do best. They do not really challenge us; instead, they gather our likes and exclude our dislikes. This kind of separation works rather well with our ghetto mentality. Investigative journalism does pride itself as a purveyor of truth but in reality, it merely uncovers a point of view. Sometimes what we want to search for will lead us to the conclusion that we desire. “Echo chamber” is the proper term to describe a post-truth universe that is hyper polarised and parochially partisan—in other words, we preach to the choir because we often believe more readily that which we prefer to be true, rather than what happens to be true.

But truth remains our deepest calling as we heard in the Prophet Jeremiah. It is our vocation. In the context of the second reading, truth must be preached in love. In fact, truth is best served by a loving attitude. There is a person I know who prided himself as a pillar of righteousness. He could be right in most of cases but he was right in a way that was not helpful others. When someone got hurt by what he said, his usual reply was, “It is true what”.

His version of the truth is a timely reminder that it does not take much for truth to be a form of power. This makes truth more a possession than a persuasion. For the longest time I have been looking for an anecdote of one of the greatest minds we had last century—Albert Einstein. Here, I am going out on a limb to paraphrase what he said because he provided a humility that inspires us to seek the truth not so much to possess it but rather to serve it.

Apparently, he was asked what he thought about his greatest achievements. In regard to his discoveries he replied, “I don’t want to be right. I just want to know if I have been right”. To be right is fantastic but a desire to know if one had been right is a moral and ethical stance. It is a posture which puts a person in the service of the truth. Just to be right alone does sound as if truth has become a prized possession. Whereas the desire to know if one has been right keeps one humble in such a way as to allow for God to break through our defences, our prejudices or righteousness. For example, in giving an assessment on a person, I may state the facts and the facts speak for themselves. However, what prevents me from arrogance would be questions like, “Was I fair to the person in my judgement? Was what I said true?”. In other words, have I been right? Such a humility gives space for truth to persuade rather than it being an expression of power.

We all pillory or excoriate the ex-PM, do we not? In many a conversation, we “taruh” him and everytime his name is mentioned, some of us roll our eyes or we just smirk. The thing is, even the devil can speak the truth. When the devil tested Jesus in the desert, every fact he described of Jesus is true—(1) the Son of God, (2) who can turn stones to bread and (3).would definitely gained material wealth if he just worshipped the devil. For us, in our collective consciousness, our King of Trolls has committed crimes so unspeakable that there is nothing about him that is redeemable. But, just like the devil our enemy, Najib could say something true. Our love for truth should encourage us to ask the question rather than simply dismissed what has been posted in his facebook account: “Is it true”? Sadly, we have lost the civility of listening that we no longer see past a person’s crime, behaviour or sins. Our brand of justice may just be thinly-veiled vengeance.

Whilst there is a need to uncover the truth, truth in a post-truth, fake news and echo-chamber universe is characterised by power in that he who shouts the loudest often holds sway. I once lived with a Jesuit whose line of argument was not reason but rather a loud, raised and close to a shouting voice. And that “was” truth that no one would engage with him. The partisan divide of the USA is another cogent example because neither is hearing the other side but each preaches to its own choir. Just watch CNN and Fox News and you know what I mean.

Within a world which is so broken and in need of fixing, the search for truth cannot be divorced from love. In fact, truth and love reside in one person: Jesus Christ. For in Him, we have logos and agape, wisdom and love. Thus, the path to truth (logos, wisdom, reason) is at the same time, the path of love. Without love, truth becomes hard for it is mere facts which often does not inspire change. But without truth, love becomes sentimental for it pretends that nothing is wrong and thus, it sugar coats without the challenge to change.

It does not appear so but our engagement of social media exposes a longing whereby we all hunger to be right, yearn to be heard, need to have the last word and finally to win an argument. To this truth-deficit world, St Augustine teaches us an attitude which might assist along the way. He says that, in all thing essentials, let there be unity. In all things unessential, let there be diversity. Above all, let there be charity. So, you do not have to be right all the time. It is possible to do things differently but most all, whatever it is, let there be love in our actions.