Friday, 31 May 2019

The Ascension Year C 2019

Somewhere in a fashionable enclave of the world, Milan to be precise, today is the memorial of a newly-minted saint: Paul VI canonised as recently as on 14th Oct 2018. A quote of his is pretty useful for our reflexion. He said, “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy“.

In a way, the Ascension is almost like a run-up to the Solemnity of Corpus Christi because we are celebrating the glory of the human body. However, we do not celebrate it the manner that the world does. Judging by an increased use of augmented reality, society appears to be always on the lookout for ways and means to intensify our bodily pleasures. For example, have you heard how gourmets rave about their favourite dish as fireworks in the mouth, descriptions that titillate our taste buds, tease our tongues and tantalise our thirsts.

But, understanding Saint Paul VI’s quote, we realise that pleasure and joy are not synonymous. Our mortal peril is to mistake pleasure for joy. Perhaps it is indicative of our era that we have reduced human existence to sensory perception. Not only that. Even sensory reality is in danger of being ousted in favour of what might be called mind games. VR or Virtual Reality has the capabilities to simulate immersive environments to a point that one cannot tell if what one feels is real or just an extension of one’s imagination. You could be sitting with the VR goggles and be transported into the sensational thrill of a roller coaster ride.

We have become such sensual slaves that we forget that pleasure is our servant rather than our master. Instinctively, we know that pleasure is a servant for we hear people speak of “guilty pleasures” meaning they know that the pleasure they enjoy is not what it is supposed to be. Instead, pleasure is a servant because it is a means to an end. It assists in such a way that it opens us up to the reality that is beyond. The Catholic term for a pleasure that serves is called a carnival, like the Mardi Gras festival. A feast to enjoy as we ease into Lent because the Church recognises that we are both body and spirit. Unfortunately, the form Mardi Gras has taken is nothing but grotesque licentiousness which fails to realise that we are bodies and more. If we are no more than bodies, then we might as well be animals—beings without souls.

Sadly, our culture is so steeped in pleasure that we do not even recognise this blinding and choking reality. To illustrate, try imagining drudgery. Close your eyes and observe the hordes who cross the Causeway twice daily who hardly have “free time” for leisurely indulgences and we shudder to think our lives could be such. We might even pity them for not having a “life” because their lot is bereft of enjoyment. Pleasure is our barometer of a meaningful life.

Our narrow outlook might just prevent us from appreciating the true nature of joy. It might seem impossible but one can be joyful even in the midst of suffering which brings us to this question. So what is the proper way to celebrate the body, if pleasure is not its end?

Firstly, a hard life without pleasure is not a recipe for joy. Even Jesus knows how to enjoy—they accused Him of wining and dining with sinners and sluts. But, note that bodily pleasure must lead us into joy. The body is made to rejoice in the Lord and therefore, pleasure, if anything, is never an end in itself. Instead, it is to heighten our yearning for God. The so-called sinners who had the pleasure of Christ’s company actually discovered their hunger for the Messiah deepened. Hence, we must realise that the proper care of the body is not achieved by intensifying its pleasures but rather by deepening its joy. Bigger presents, more expensive gifts, upsizing your burger, chips or soft drinks will not result in greater joy. The contrary may be true that joy often finds its greatest expression in the absence of pleasure.

Secondly, how do we deepen our joy? We must recognise that the body has been created for eternal bliss. The Resurrection is the gateway to the everlasting joy of the body. The human Body of Jesus is now with God the Father. As the preface describes, “For the Lord Jesus, the King of glory, conqueror of sin and death, ascended today to the highest heavens, as the Angels gazed in wonder. Mediator between God and man, Judge of the world and Lord of hosts, 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”.

We will all rise with Him but this resurrection is premised on one criterion. That is, if we follow Jesus Christ into His death, we shall also rise with Him in our resurrection. The meaning is pretty clear. There is a price to be paid which we often forget because we are distracted by pleasure. The cost is literally pain. Suffering is constitutive of the bodily resurrection we desire. We suffer when we resist temptation. We suffer when we control our passions. Nobody ever says “I am having a great time” when resisting temptations or controlling passions. Furthermore, we sacrifice when we practise charity. When we truly love, we die to ourselves. It is not love if there is no sacrifice on our part. This is the premium we pay for our bodily resurrection and our subsequent assumption into heaven. As Sam Witwicki would say, “No sacrifice, no victory”.

Today, the Ascension gives us a solid perspective for joy: Where He has gone, we hope to follow. Our deepest joy is to anticipate the Heaven that will be ours. This is what we aim for. However, our future resurrection must begin here and now. It is a promise but it is also a sobering call to count the cost of Heaven. As someone said, “Heaven is not a place to find. It is a decision to make”.

6th Sunday of Easter Year C 2019

We are on course to the end of the Easter season. Four days from now, we shall mark the Ascension after which we enter a 10-day wait for the descent of the Holy Spirit. The first reading details a spread of the faith, the fruit of the missionary thrusts of the Apostles. The Apocalypse casts a vision of the Kingdom that transcends the narrow boundaries of Israel and the Jews. Yes, salvation may have come from the Jews (Jn 4:22) but through Jesus’ apostolic instruments, our great Apostles and their successors, this salvation has been extended to the whole of creation.

Whilst the vision is panoramic, meaning that it attempts to reach the ends of the world, however, the Gospel sets this enterprise within the context of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in our lives. For God to live with us, it requires that we love Jesus and keep His word. In short, we are invited to embrace God’s will so that His kingdom may come to fruition first through us and then to the world.

The question is what would constitute the will of God? And how does God’s will play in the salvation of the world and the establishment of God’s Kingdom?

Firstly, salvation is a loaded word in what could be termed as the universe of the self. In this “self-ish” kind of world, salvation literally means the ability to merit one’s own redemption—a tilt to our Pelagian self-effort. If we are in deep trouble, we should just depend on ourselves to save us. It makes more sense because we are autonomous and independent beings. However, Biblical salvation leans rather to our inability to save ourselves which requires that we be saved. Only God can save. An important proviso is this: although we are redeemed by our Saviour, nevertheless, salvation is never without our cooperation. Thus, the God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent.

It is in this context of our cooperation that we consider the will of God. We cooperate with God by accepting His will. The challenge is that God’s will can be rather inscrutable. When your business is going well, your health is in tip-top condition, people love you and any permutation you can find that says that life is good—these are the times when you would and rightly feel the strong breeze of God’s love and in such a situation, God’s will is definitely acceptable.

When your sight fails you, your bones break easily, your son or daughter is struck down with an incurable disease, you crunch your figures correctly and yet your business is not picking up and worst of all, when you pay your dues and things are not turning out the way you have anticipated, then the will of God can be incomprehensible. Where is God when I most need Him? How can God allow evil to befall good people?

Perhaps we can shine a little light to help us acknowledge and trust God’s will by making a distinction between the positive or active and the permissive or passive will of God. They are worlds apart. God actively and positively will our good. For example, He would have positively willed that both Adam and Eve live out their natural existence in peace and harmony. However, when freedom is involved, God’s permissive will is bound to respect our choice even of a lesser good. If you think about it, the history of salvation is really a history littered with our poor choices. In other words, God allows for bad choices because of a greater good that can come. The Easter Exultet named this as the felix culpa, “O necessary sin of Adam that won for us so great a Redeemer”.

Unfortunately, in a framework of entitlement, meaning the idea of a “god” who owes it to us, the mention of God’s permissive will suggests of an evil deity who is happy for us to suffer. The point which we may be unaware of is that God’s will, positively or permissively, is never more than what we can bear. Whatever bad things may befall us, “Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if He did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life” (CCC 324).

Despite what we think, God is labouring hard for our salvation. At the very moment when Adam and Eve fell, God has already set in motion our salvation for He wants all to be saved in, by and through Jesus Christ His Son.

Now, coming back to this panoramic portrait of God’s desiring to save mankind and the world, the picture is pleasantly positive. It is an endeavour of epic proportion. And yet, there is a fact which we frequently do not take into account in this big picture of salvation. This fact is not a proof of God’s powerlessness but rather directs our attention to a certain logic which says that salvation must be worked out in the heart of man—for there is an ongoing war for his soul. We have, for the longest time, lived the delusion that the Devil is nothing more than a figment of our imagination. In a way, he is, if you watch some of the horror movies. The graphic depiction of the devil has not scared us into a fear of him but rather lured some into a fascination with evil and the occult. Maybe you understand why the universal Church has asked of us to recite the prayer to the Archangel St Michael at the end of the Mass—a prayer arising from our belated realisation and recognition that in the salvation of the world, the devil is relentless in his quest to thwart the will of God for the world.

In conclusion, there is a cost or a price to be paid and we ought to count the cost. The more we embrace God’s will, the more the devil will attempt to derail our decision and destroy our desire. A person on the road to perdition will readily encounter a road without obstacles. And this brings me to the second point, that is, the acceptance of God’s will requires a perspective that must venture beyond the material. Presently, we all associate health or wealth as God’s blessing and consider infirmity or poverty as God’s displeasure. But the saints have taught us that God’s will is always benevolent even if it does not seem so. My God, I do not know what must come to me today. But I am certain that nothing can happen to me that you have not foreseen, decreed, and ordained from eternity. That is sufficient for me. I adore your impenetrable and eternal designs, to which I submit with all my heart. I desire, I accept them all, and I unite my sacrifice to that of Jesus Christ, my divine Saviour. I ask in His name and through His infinite merits, patience in my trials, and perfect and entire submission to all that comes to me by your good pleasure. Amen (by St Joseph Pignatelli)

The idea of changing the world and converting it to Christ is certainly captivating and unquestionably urgent in scope. Yet, accepting the will of God reveals that the world can only be converted soul by soul, for the hearts of men, women and children are the arenas where the contest for souls takes place and it begins not out there but in here, in the heart of the individual. Salvation is never of “all of us” but “each one of us”.

5th Sunday of Easter Year C 2019

Today we return to the Last Supper. Under the shadow of death and in the light of the Eucharist, the Lord gives a commandment to His followers. For Jesus, discipleship is defined by love.

Many of us hang rosaries in our cars. For those who do, it is a token of protection, a sacramental expression of their faith. In fact, the Prayer for the Blessing of Rosary provides for it. For me, it is a powerful symbol of discipleship and a reminder of how much I fall short of the command to love. Shamefully, I am terribly impatient driver. I hate to admit it but I can probably tick all the squares in the list of inconsiderate driving. Therefore, with the Cross dangling, it only puts Christianity and the Church to shame. That is why I refrain from attaching any Christian symbols on my car because I fail to be a loving Christian. The only exception I make is to wear a crucifix under my shirt—a reminder of how poor a Christian I am.

Even people with no inkling of the teachings of Jesus somehow or rather have come to expect a higher standard from Christians. This standard is measured by going the extra mile or turning the other cheek when slapped. This profound teaching is coming from a Man who did not abandon a wife and a son in order to achieve enlightenment, like Buddha did. Or kill an Egyptian like Moses did. Or kill those who disagree with him like the great prophet of another religion. Hence, the raving lunatic who entered a mosque to kill those “Friday worshippers” is no Christian by any stretch of the imagination. Whenever Christians are involved in some altercations, rightly we may hear a comment such as this, “Aren’t Christians supposed to be loving”?

Sadly for us, love in our time has degenerated into feelings—good feelings, to be exact. It is sentimental. How to describe this sentimentality? It is as if one were in love with the feeling of falling in love which is more of a state of mind than it is an act of love. This kind of love is inimical to both goodness and truth. We have imported this sentimentality into the Church. She has to be nice and non-judgemental. If someone’s soul is in mortal peril, is it love stand by and do nothing. In the context of salvation, it is not love to be “kinder” or “less judgemental”, when the motive of our action or inaction is we are afraid to hurt others with the truth.

The fact is, truth hurts.

In order that love be salvific, it requires more than niceties.
By its very definition love is a word that sacrifices. When Pope Benedict XVI wrote his first encyclical, it bore the title Deus caritas est, translated as “God is love”. In defining what love is, he did not begin with agape, the most distinctive form of love in Christianity. He even left out the genuine human love for one another, that is philia. Instead he began by highlighting a love which in an age of pornographic-saturated internet is erotic. Eros may be a passion that is imposed on us and seemingly a drive over which we have no control. When you observe a bitch on heat, you know what that means. On the other hand, the same passion within the Hellenistic temple setting, is markedly enthusiastic. The etymology of the word itself tells us that eros is a passion that is to be taken up by God—en theo. In the context of being drawn into God, there is always a purgation involved. There will be renunciation for that is the true meaning of passion or love. In the context of today’s Gospel, the renunciation embraced by Jesus was to give up His life. In short, there is always an element of dying when love is true.

Love and renunciation or sacrifice are two sides of a coin. Some might call it duty but the presence of so many in JB who are from other states is testament not to duty but rather to love expressed through sacrifice.

When there is love, there will be sacrificing or renunciation. The interesting fact is that even though death is natural, embracing it is almost unnatural. We are selfish in that way for we are programmed for self-preservation. (Kiasi) Hence, sacrifice or renunciation which involves a dying to oneself is not really that natural in terms of who we are. And yet, we instinctively recognise that for great love to flourish, renunciation is a necessity.

For that we need to develop our sense of renunciation and sacrifice. When we speak of “martyrdom”, that is dying for the sake of witnessing to Jesus Christ our Lord, it means that we have already died many deaths before arriving at that one moment where we give up our life for Him. Martyrdom does not happen at the spur of a moment. Hence, to acquire the habit of sacrificing, we need to exercise the faculty of choosing.

In the context of good and evil, there is no choice per se, meaning that the faculty of choosing is not in any way involved. When it comes to good or evil, hands down, one “chooses” the good and rejects what is evil.

However, there is choosing involved when the choices set before us are good or better. Both are goods of differing degrees and if our standard were low, we could just settle on what is good. Since it does not involve evil, one can choose the good but in terms of who we are called to be, good is never good enough. Hence to choose what is better, there is a premium to be paid. That is the sacrifice of a higher calling or a higher love. To forgo what is good can be painful. And it does not help that we are addicted to creaturely comforts. That is why we need the virtues of temperance which is the habit of delaying gratification because of a greater good and fortitude, the habit of doing the right thing even though it is difficult or even when we are afraid.

We are all called to a higher standard. “To love one another” is a commandment to step up to. According to St Teresa of Calcutta, “True love causes pain. Jesus, in order to give us the proof of his love, died on the cross. A mother, in order to give birth to her baby, has to suffer. If you really love one another, you will not be able to avoid making sacrifices.” It does feel like a commandment which only the strong are able to embrace. But do not despair as we are reminded by St Therese de Lisieux that for love to be true, it needs not be extraordinary, uncommon, heroic or spectacular. “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love”. 

The second reading paints a picture of the new heaven and the new earth. The completed city is not to be found in this world but its beginning must begin in this world. Its foundation is laid when we all start loving each other as Jesus has asked us to—a smiling look, a kindly word, doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Good Shepherd Sunday Year C 2019

At a recent wedding, I prefaced the homily with the experience of a rubbish collector that he, of all people, will not smell the stench, since he breathes in the stink every day. When we live and breathe a certain air, we will no longer recognise that we are enveloped by it.

So, what sort of atmosphere is this?

The answer will slowly unfold later. For now, it is the 4th Sunday of Easter and the Gospel lends itself to the theme we have, which is, Good Shepherd Sunday, or otherwise known as Vocation Sunday. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus describing Himself as the “Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep”. Today we hear Him telling us that “The sheep that belong to Him listen to His voice; He knows them and they follow Him”. Nothing novel because the Old Testament is replete with this pastoral metaphor of who God is. The best know is our oft-repeated Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd”.

Good Shepherd Sunday, appropriately designated as Vocation Sunday may be the occasion to speak of the priestly vocation and by extension the call to religious life. But, fundamentally, it gives us pause to recognise who we are as Church.

Firstly, we may be sociologically constituted meaning here we are composed mostly of English or Mandarin-speaking parishioners. We belong to that narrow stratum of society which is probably middle and upper middle class; after all, this is the richest parish of the whole diocese. Coming from such a homogeneous background, we possibly buy into a set of familiar narrative. When everyone shares into a common assumption, it might be hard to appreciate another point of view. Much like the man who collects rubbish who does not really know what clean air smells like.

Hence, if we did not know better, we may think that our status quo is normative. For example, the presence of many extraordinary ministers for each Mass. Let me just say that their service is deeply appreciated. However, we seem to accept that they are constitutive of what the Church should be when in actual fact, they are a development that came out of Vatican II—a period marked by the sharp decline in vocation numbers. So, let us take a closer look at the priesthood and its relationship to us being Church.

If this were the only life we have, the death of a priest is just a matter of fact—as most deaths are. But, if there is life after life, then, give this a thought. We are three priests here. When added up, we have more history than future. Say, if we were struck by a tragedy in which none survived, then there would be no Masses here until they can be covered by other priests. But what if every single priest in this diocese were to be drowned—going to Tioman in a ferry which capsized in rough seas and none of our bodies recovered. There would definitely be no Masses in the diocese unless you accept that Apostolic Succession is no longer required to make present Jesus truly, really and substantially. Then, the absence of the priesthood is not a problem because the Eucharist is just a memorial meal that anyone can preside. Asia, in particular Japan, has had a distinct history whereby the Mass had been absent because there were no priests left to celebrate it. The returning missionaries, at the time when Japan reopened her doors to world trade, described the immense of hunger for and appreciation of the Eucharist by the priestless community. In short, without the priesthood, there is no Mass. Without the Mass, there is no Church. Without the Church, there is no salvation.

Whatever vision we want to promote of the Church, nothing comes close to the uncomfortable fact about the priesthood. What many priests can do, any lay person can too. An able administrator, an attentive accountant, a competent counsellor, a sensitive spiritual director, a single-minded social activist. All these functions you might associate them with a priest but the reality is these capabilities readily found amongst lay people and in fact, the laity is often more competent than their priests. What is uncomfortable is how the Cure of Ars described of the priest: “O, how great is the priest! ... If he realised what he is, he would die. ... God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host”.

These days when we are warned of the danger of clericalism, this sounds definitely clericalistic!! But, believe you me, in no way am I pedestalising the priesthood. To put into perspective, Pope Francis said this, “Lay people are part of the faithful Holy People of God and thus are the protagonists of the Church and of the world; we [priests] are called to serve them, not to be served by them.”

It is this understanding of what it means that priests are ordained to serve the people that Vocation Sunday makes sense. But, we are unfortunately a people bedazzled by functionality. When we buy a car we want it to come with all the bells and whistles—never mind that we do not need everything there. This desire is but a symptom of our fixation with technological functionality.

In a way, we invest our priests with the same expectation. It is a form alpha-male achievement obsession which is the air I was referring to. We are such a functional people that when we look at our priest and we want them to be multi-talented. But actually he does not have to be because a priest is at his best when he makes available to the people of God the Sacraments entrusted to him by Jesus Christ the High Priest. Only a priest can feed the People of God, the way Jesus Christ had intended or forgive or anoint etc. He may be an idiot like St John Vianney was but when he celebrates Mass, the bread and wine are really and truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. According to Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, only the Flesh and Blood of Christ is our guarantee of eternal life. For that, we need the priesthood. Therefore, Apostolic Succession for the validity of our priesthood is not our infatuation with the past but rather an assurance that Jesus’ pledge of eternal life is not an empty promise.

Apostolic succession is akin to the monarchical system where when a king dies, the proclamation goes like this: The King (or Queen) is dead! Long live the King (or Queen) Of course, this does not apply to the Catholic priesthood because ours is not a Levitical priesthood where succession is hereditary. Instead, succession in the Church is dependent on bravery, determination and generosity. A priest may be dead but long live the priesthood.

We may still be a Church that is not desperate but we should still ask for young men to step forward to offer themselves to be what Jesus intended for His Church. We want men who dare to step into the empty boots of our elderly priests. If they have the calibre to be multi-talented, all the better. However, the one criterion that is a must is, we need priests who are holy and who know that their lives are to be poured out as a sacrifice for the Church and the people of God. On this Sunday we storm heaven asking that there be young men courageous enough follow in the example of the priests who have served faithfully the Church and are now no longer with us.

The lack of vocations is not an indication that Jesus has stopped inviting young men to join Him in the sanctification of the world but rather a glaring symptom of our deafness to His call. There is never a better time to response than today—like the courier company TNT whose tagline advertises “Today, Not Tomorrow”. Be brave and accept His invitation without hesitation, today and not tomorrow, for He needs you to be His voice, His hands and His heart. To be His sanctifying presence in the world.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

3rd Sunday of Easter 2019

It was Easter Sunday and I was waiting for my flight to Chiangmai for my annual retreat when the messages started trickling in. Was I aware of the attack on “Easter worshippers” in Colombo? Apparently these were not Christians, if you followed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tweets, as opposed to those somewhere in the Antipodes who were not called “Friday worshippers”. Anyway, I digress. The shock rippled throughout the Catholic world and for the first time we will soon be adopting some security measures so that you may worship minus the anxiety.

The reaction was to be expected. How could this happen? The thing is, even though the targeted hit was unexpected, a pertinent question remains: should we have expected anything less? Recall what Jesus told His disciples. Whilst the denunciation of such a surgical strike was in order, the horror of our reaction may just expose the soft belly of our entitled age which glorifies perpetual physical youthfulness and the preservation of bodily life.

Truth of the matter is that there have been more martyrs of the faith—in odium fidei—today than all the previous centuries put together. Just one case, before 2013, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Today they number less than 120,000, according to a report from the UK. No, not all were killed but substantially many were persecuted. As mentioned earlier about recalling what Jesus told His disciples, Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka was a stark reminder that the hallmark of Christian discipleship is persecution and if the occasion arises, it often leads to martyrdom. The first reading presented this stark reality in the life of the disciples and the Gospel at the end also acknowledges this..

I am not in any way suggesting that we take no preventive means to ensure that people are kept safe. Not everyone wants to die. If you do, perhaps there is a place for you in the psychiatric ward of Sultan Aminah Hospital. I too would like to live longer. In fact, Jesuits, at the end of their retreat, pray the Suscipe—Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will... Guess what? I may pray it but deep down, I am hoping that God will not take up my offer.

Even though we naturally we resist dying, yet, an openness to the possibility of dying for one’s faith is not a form of sick and macabre masochism. It is not as if one were begging for another attack. “#Kill me”.

Why? Because life is good and it is to be preserved.

However, sacred though life is, it is not the supreme good. The Catechism (CCC. 2278) is quite clear on this: We are not bound to do everything to save our life or that of another. In the case serious illness, one is not bound to accept expensive and burdensome treatments. For example, it costs RM4.5M to treat  a person’s disease. The question here is not if the person is worth the RM4.5M but rather if the cost is so prohibitive as to end up with the family borrowing from loansharks and suffering the consequences of not keeping up with repayment. Such a teaching presumes that there is a higher good than simply the preservation of life. Thus, martyrs are honoured by the Church because they would rather sacrifice their lives than give up a greater and higher good, that is, their Faith and their union with God.

If we did not know it, perhaps this is a good time to learn about it. The ultimate destiny of life is union with God. Hence, the good we call life is our destiny in heaven. There is no weighing one’s decision when choosing between a good and a bad option. In every scenario, we choose the good and reject the bad. But, when deciding between two good options, the less good of the two must be readily sacrificed. And it means that no matter how good we have it here on earth, it is not good enough for heaven. Hence, all life is a preparation for that life in heaven. To preserve one’s life at the cost of heaven is an absurdity akin to choosing the bad instead of the good. In the kingdom of grace, the good is the enemy of the better.

In order that we may enter into that life in heaven, we need to be free, to rid ourselves of the encumbrances or inordinate attachments that prevent us from reaching that goal.

A good example of this freedom comes to us not on Good Friday but rather the Passion on Holy Thursday’s Gospel. Jesus was calm before Pilate, the High Priests, the Sanhedrin and the murderous crowd. We marvel at His composure even in the face of death. Some would say that that was because He is God. If you reflect on it, He actually achieved total freedom in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had prayed to the Father for the cup to be taken away from Him. In a sense He was human like all of us are. He was not keen on suffering. No one in the right frame of mine lives FOR martyrdom. Each one may live to witness but never in order to die. Thus, martyrdom, in the sense to be killed inodium fidei, is not the goal of this life but rather the result of one’s life. In other words, one gets killed for witnessing. In the case of Jesus, He had faced the consequence of His life in the Father at Gethsemane. The acceptance that the result of living in accordance with the Father’s will would be death gave Him the total freedom to face the angry crowds—Pilate, High Priests, Soldiers and people. “You would have no authority over me if it were not given you in the first place”.

However, we do not need to stare death in its face to realise that the Lord in His Resurrection has won eternity for us. All we need is to embrace what we believe in. At home, at work, in business—the principles you hold as central to our faith will automatically draw you into the firing squad of criticism, ridicule or ostracisation at best. Or, persecution, imprisonment or martyrdom at worst but mercifully that is not the usual lot that many of us have to contend with.

Many of us will not be tested extraordinarily. Our destiny belongs with what is called white martyrdom. The dying that is required as we face the vicissitudes of daily living. Just to grow old is already a challenge. So, if one cannot endure this form of martyrdom, can you imagine how one will react when faced with red martyrdom? And if you need to test your resolve for white martyrdom, try living without your mobile phone for a week. Your fingers could be atrophied and it would feel as if you have died many deaths in that one week. For we are a spoilt generation, softened by our indulgences and deluded into thinking that discipleship is supposed to be an easy walk in the park. The devil and death may have been crushed by Christ the Lord but you can be sure that Satan and his minions will not rest in an all out effort to bring about the destruction of the Church and downfall of her children. Our prayer to St Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass is a recognition of this constant combat taking place.

However, Easter resurrection with its promised of eternal life is our guarantee that Satan will not prevail over the Lord Jesus. We too will overcome like the Lord but not before we undergo the trials of life. Red martyrdom must be preceded by white martyrdom and just in case you feel “special” like “Why me?”, remember that no servant is greater than the Master. Holding to the promise of the resurrection makes death bearable by lessening our fear of death. The resurrection dares us to believe as well as gives us strength to die for our belief. Martyrdom, red but mostly white, is real and if we do suffer through no fault of ours, it is an indication that we are on right and narrow path to our Resurrection and heaven.

Easter Vigil 2019

A theme central of Easter is creation. For Christianity, creation is “creatio ex nihilo”—that is, God created out of nothing. Many of the pre-Christian religions hold the idea that God and creation are identical. That is pantheism. If not, God must have created the world out of existing matter which He Himself did not create. Like a sculptor carving out a statue, God must have found a slab of marble and carve out of it, the universe.

The first reading presents the panorama of creation spread over a span of six days. On the seventh day, God’s rest became the basis for the Jewish Sabbath.

Tonight we are also celebrating creation but this is not creation ex nihilo. Instead this is recreation or creation anew. Not long after God shaped the universe, sin entered the human condition. This was not premeditated as if sin was intended to be but it was not unexpected either. Why not unexpected? Short answer: Freedom. To be truly free, it must include the possibility of rebellion against the God who created us.

Thus, the readings that followed after, summarises the long history of man’s betrayal which culminated with God’s ultimate act of faithfulness. He did not spare His Son but gave Him up to ransom Adam’s debt. Through Adam, man has become death. Through Jesus Christ, death lost its eternal grip over us. Death has been overpowered by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As the Exultet reminds us, “O felix culpa, O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam that gained for us so great a Redeemer”. This happy fault brings us to what we are doing now at the Vigil as we enter into Sunday.

In the old schema of things, God rested on the seventh day—the Sabbath. Christians, however worship God on Sunday. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ”The Church celebrates the day of Christ's Resurrection on the "eighth day," Sunday, which is rightly called the Lord's Day” (CCC2191) Sunday is our Dies Domini (the Lord’s Day) which happens to be Dies Christi(Day of Christ) for our Creed professes that Christ rose on the Third Day. It is the day of creation’s rebirth inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ. In turn, it becomes the Day of the Church, the Dies Ecclesiae for the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost.

Sunday is truly a day of the new creation of grace. And understandably, we have our elect baptised for soon they will be recreated new by water and the Spirit. The message of the Epistle before the Gospel is important because it describes what it means for us to be this new creation in Christ: We must realise that our former selves have been crucified to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin.

Since, we have been purchased by Christ to live a new life, Sunday is therefore an important day for us. 49 Christians died in the year AD304. The record of their trial is still extant. They disobeyed Emperor Diocletian’s edict and when asked by the Proconsul why they had defied Imperial prohibition, the answer given was: “Sine dominico non possumus”,that is, without Sunday we cannot live. If we do not join together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, we would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb. Sunday is life for them and they would rather die than be deprived of it.

Sunday is not merely a day of obligation. It is truly a Dies Homini, the day of man given so that we may remember the Creator through our rest and recreation. The problem we arises when we reduce Sunday to a day of obligation. Any obligation, when it is forced upon us, “weakens” our autonomy. Nobody likes his or her faculty of choosing to be curtailed. But, this obligation is not an imposition as it is a protection of a value. It is not just any day but the Day of the Lord. Worship rises up from the depth of who we are—created anew in Christ Jesus, we give Him our time—to be fair, His time actually—to be sanctified by His presence—through the Eucharist. (BTW, every second we have is borrowed time).

If I were to say something rude, like a four letter word, many will be disturbed and feel that it should not be uttered in Church. Instuitively, we know that there are boundaries. This is inbuilt into us, for inherent in our nature is a sacrality with regard to time and space. We acknowledge this sacredness when we wish someone on his or her birthday itself or celebrate it on the day rather than any other day.  It does not make sense for me to wish you “Happy Birthday” when it is in December. This sacrality of time is exhibited in the Church’s preference for Mass on Sunday.

What is so important that we attend Mass on Sunday? For example, in the matter of rest, if Sunday’s holiness is kept by resting, what if my rest-day is on a Tuesday? It is a rest day after all. However, the assumption is that everyday is the same as long as it is a rest day. True? Thinking along the same logic, every surface is the same as long as it is a surface. So, if you use a bowl to drink soup, why not a toilet bowl, after all both are bowls? The very suggestion to lick and lap your soup from the toilet bowl is abhorrent and it proves the point of sacrality in both time and space.

This evening, the Church is packed and those who find no place inside here are seated in St James’ Hall or St Paul’s Room. I mentioned last Sunday that the Church should be packed like this every Sunday. The truth is, we will return to “normalcy”—a Church barely full. Why? Perhaps we have failed to appreciate the newness of who we are brought about by our baptism.

Some of us come because Catholics have this homing device to come twice a year—Easter and Christmas. Perhaps, the newness of creation is not enough to keep them coming every Sunday. Or, simply no time for God. Life is stressful and God is a hassle—so let the weekend be a holiday elsewhere. Or maybe, just maybe, a deep sense of unworthiness before God? Keeping away on Sunday because of this sense of failure before God is just one way of telling God, “Hey, you are not worthy of me”.

If we give God the time that belongs to Him, we will definitely be transformed because He is the Lord of time. To paraphrase Benedict XVI, “Return Sunday its soul by giving the soul its Sunday”. We need Sunday for our sanity, sanctity and salvation. As St John Paul II reminded us, “Time given to Christ is never time lost, but is rather time gained, so that our relationships and indeed our whole life may become more profoundly human”.

Good Friday 2019

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Is that not hunky dory?

In a global village tormented and torn by incompatible truth claims, the suggestion of John Lennon is tantalisingly seductive. Would it not be nice if we could just get along with each other. As it is, religion is offensive enough, what more a religion that glorifies an implement of torture? It begs the question why so many are here today—the one day in a year when Mass is never celebrated.

Why do we want to venerate the Cross?

Even if we could achieve John Lennon’s vision of a perfect world—no more hunger, no more war and no more killing—it still does not address the elephant in this cavernous cathedral—the certainty of death and its constant companion—suffering. For even our dear Lazarus, raised from the dead, was not spared the inevitability of death. He died, again, thus reminding us that mortality accompanied by suffering, is our earthly destiny.

Suffering and death do make the Cross we venerate a scandal, an obstacle, a given, which we try to ignore at best and to rebel against at worst. We ignore it by numbing ourselves through overconsumption—food, drinks, entertainment or recreational sex. If not, the irony is that we become schizophrenic rebels without realising it. We all cherish our freedom. We loathe interference because we are sticklers for self-determination. But, this autonomy presumes that the world is congenially perfect. In fact, we are fiercely autonomous that we need a god whose existence is to ensure that nothing untowards should happen. Is that not so?

Instinctively we recognise that the world is grossly imperfect. However this imperfection is swept away by a deity whom the Greeks would call “deus ex machina”—like what you see in movies, where an entity—a thing or a person appears suddenly and unexpectedly providing a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. The sociologists termed this as a “god” of MTD—moralistic therapeutic deism—a deity whose duty is to do our bidding. And for certainty, we put in a little prayer with the expectation that “it” should fulfil our requests. In short, we want a therapist god who makes us feel good about ourselves. And “it” better fulfil what we ask for because we pray.

However, this is not the God we hear in the first reading or the Gospel. The contrary is this God of the Son of Man who for the sins of others was made to suffer. He was innocent yet He was pierced for our fault and crushed for our sins. He suffered and died so that those who are afflicted by the certainty of death might be consoled by the promise of immortality.

For, something is definitely wrong with the world, not because God is an imperfect creator. Rather, we need to acknowledge that for freedom to be soveriegn, that is, to be truly what it is, freedom must include the possibility of turning in on itself—a form of self-destructive behaviour. This accounts for the brokenness of the world. Despite that, Jesus Christ embraced our vitiated nature. The Sinless One has taken our sins upon Himself giving us hope that all is not lost. Hence, in this innocent Man, death is not faced with hopelessness. In Him, the Cross has become the powerful instrument whereby life is ransomed back. In a world which can sometimes feel overwhelmingly hopeless, we find consolation in the lone figure who dared to walk into the arena contending with death knowing that death is not the final word.

Jesus’ final moments with his disciples were marked not by support but by terrifying isolation and even denial by Judas and Peter. Amongst us, some may have cancer. Others may have a loved one incapacitated by sudden illness or snatched away by unexpected death. You may be extremely lonely from failed relationships. Whatever the situation, the fear of abandonment in our time of need definitely makes suffering more acute. But, in the Cross, we will not suffer and die alone. In the Cross, Jesus is with us. He will not be a deity of the deus ex machina. Instead, He will be a God with us for “it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weakness with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.”

Hanging the Cross, He says to us, “Trust in God, trust in me still”. I have conquered and I will conquer again.

Let us adore Him, our hope and our salvation.

Holy Thursday 2019

What do you think is the greatest legacy parents can bequeath their children? At the top of the head, I would say wealth and a lot of it. After all, “cash is king” in this country. Living here in the 2nd largest city, the stress people endure, crossing the Causeway to ensure that whatever they earn can stretch three times, life is tough. JB, by and large, is a city of survival. On a larger scale, the emigration trend to Australia, New Zealand and Canada mirrors the same survival instinct no doubt prompted by rampant racial profiling, divisive polarisation and set within an environment steeped in corruption.

If survival is of paramount importance, parents should surely want to arm their children for the future. Definitely an international education and if they cannot afford it, our neighbouring country boasts an excellent education system. Apparently teachers in Malaysia do not teach. Supposedly, I hear, they hand out calling cards for their after-school tuition service. There is money to be made teaching tuition rather than educating the young.

This need to leave behind a legacy for our young makes the Mass of Holy Thursday a powerful teaching moment. Today marks the birth of both the Priesthood and the Eucharist. It may be a good opportunity to speak of the priestly vocation and its vitality to the Eucharist for without the Priesthood, there is no Eucharist.

However, from the Gospel we hear no specific mention of the Institution of the Eucharist. There is nothing of “Take this all of you and eat of it”. Instead, the leader of the pack, Jesus made Himself the servant of the group. He bent low in order to wash the feet of His disciples. In so doing, He was true to His incarnational character for He had emptied Himself of His divinity when He became man.

Today is called Maundy Thursday because it is derived from the Latin word Mandatum, meaning, the mandate that Jesus gave to His disciples—to serve. From Him, we learn that to be great, mighty and powerful is to be a servant of all. Sadly, the word “serve” is cousin to words like servitude, servile, servant, words which connote debasement and without dignity—like our faceless Bangla plantation worker, our Nepali guard and Indonesian maid. In a face-saving culture that prizes personality and celebrityhood, a word like “serve” holds no currency. In fact, service can even be commoditised for when actors or actresses “serve”, it is usually for a photoshoot to increase media presence.

Before the ascent to Calvary, Jesus gives life a meaning which is profoundly counter cultural. To have a life that is full, it is required that we empty ourselves. However, we are accustomed to associate fullness of life with plenitude, with excess and accumulation. Operating out of a deficit mentality, we are fearful that when we divest of ourselves there may be nothing left for us.

However, the purpose of one’s life has to be more than simply oneself. A man who lives only for himself will only be fulfilled to a certain extent. He will be happy but soon it will not be enough. Our present generation shouts the goal of life as self-fulfilment and given that we have everything possible to live a fulfilled life, the irony is that there are even more unhappy people. No one is sadder than someone who lives for himself or herself.

Jesus provided the answer to the question of what legacy we can bequeath our young. Each one of us has this innate sense that holds life to be more than just the self. A mother knows that when she sacrifices for her child. Our young are given the very best in life because we think that only the very best will result in excellence. But the lack of a purpose beyond self-fulfilment does have a crippling effect for without self-transcendence, without sacrifice, the human spirit will definitely languish. When excellence is not fuelled by altruism, it will waste away as selfishness.

According to Stephen Covey, “The first principle of ethical power is Purpose. By purpose, I don't mean your objective or intention—something toward which you are always striving. Purpose is something bigger. It is the picture you have of yourself—the kind of person you want to be or the kind of life you want to lead”.

These days, as the humanity of Christ is thrust into the spotlight, if anything, Jesus reveals that in the depth of our humanity, we are made for a greater purpose than the self. In fact, we live when we serve others. “He who clings to life will lose and he who loses his life for my sake will keep it“. The legacy we want for our young is not measured by their earning capacity or how much they can accumulate or their status. It is not assessed by becoming a Who is Who, a celebrity, a luminary of the glitterati or a political elite. Rather, it is how daring one is to lay down his or her life in the service of others.

To leave a legacy is born of the innate quest for immortality. We all want to be remembered and that is why we leave behind big buildings, endowments or trust funds. The legacy we want to leave for our youths must find its inspiration from the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ. In the midst of preparing our children for the future, our greatest gift is to inspire our children to think not of only themselves but also of others. To serve others is the noblest ideal and only when a person dares to embrace servitude that the priestly vocation makes sense for the priesthood of Jesus Christ is born of the legacy of self-sacrifice.

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord Year C 2019

If the occasion were right, Our Lord would not mind wearing red shoes. This poor Jesus who rode the donkey, rode it not because it was a proud symbol of poverty but rather it was an expression His humility. And if there were a political statement to make, He rode an animal of peace rather than of war. Looking at the stately entrance into Jerusalem, one can surmise that humility and splendour are not mutually exclusive for this poor Jesus did not eschew or renounce pomp and pageantry. In fact, this grand entrance opens the curtain to the great salvation which He will soon wrought with the humility of the Cross. So, even if the people were silenced, as demanded by the Pharisees, the stones would cry out with joy for the real King of Jerusalem has come to reclaim His city—the city of righteousness and peace.

Though His coming was prophesied by Isaiah, the acclaiming crowd had no idea how He would save the city. In reality, they were expecting a King powerful enough to overthrow the occupying Roman forces.

They were wrong. They may have been clamouring but amid the noise there sits a silence which is almost uncomfortable. This poignant silence is not of hopelessness but rather a silence pregnant with possibilities. In the stillness before Calvary, we recognise the depth of God’s will acting in the life of Jesus. Interestingly, the Lord’s prayer according to Luke (Lk 11:2), makes no mention of “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Instead, it is inserted into the Passion—“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless,let your will be done, not mine”. He went to the slaughter, not relying on His divinity. Instead, emptied of His divinity, He embrace our death in order that we may regain life eternal.

Perhaps it is no big deal that He should divest Himself of His divinity. For some, it is a fact, maybe a useless fact? For if it meant something, I suppose it could have been more impactful; perhaps evoking a bit more heart-wrenching regret on our part. Someone willingly laid down His life for our sins and naturally, we should, in gratitude, be moved to conversion. For example, the cathedral should be packed to the rafter every Sunday and not just for Holy Week/Easter or Christmas. Every Sunday the congregation should be like at Easter or Christmas. Sadly, closer to the truth is, it may be yet another fact which bears little consequence in the way some of us live, that is, if you judge the way some of us park our cars outside in the taman or honk at a driver who is slow on the way out of cathedral grounds. We have been getting a spate of irate home-owners who shout abuse at our Rela volunteers or the security guard for our inconsiderate parking. If not, some annoyed parishioners will give the Rela volunteers a hard time when exiting the compound.

Why are we unmoved by the sacrifice of Christ?

The answer is perhaps located in our self-sufficiency. We are a people confident of our achievements like “Malaysia Boleh”. We place our trust in the structures of our making. We are constantly tweaking the system to make it more perfect. Is that not why we have “new” this or “new” that with better formula, enhanced capability or improved engineering. And, the wealthier we are, the more secure we feel, the less we worry about salvation. In fact, an unspoken assumption today is that everything human, including our gender, is a social construct—all within our control to manipulate. We are who we want to be and we should be able to create society the way we want it. This is evident by our laws struggling to address this assumption.

The irony is, we, who have everything we need to be happy, we are still unhappy. In this vacuum of unhappiness, our book shelves are crammed with books that does nothing more than to shout the mantra that we are in effect our own saviours. We are saved by our own strength through the frameworks that we design. If only we can find the balance, that would be perfection. Furthermore, if not through structures or frameworks, then through our own efforts. Through self improvement, we should also arrive at perfection, which is another word for salvation. The very notion that someone has to save us definitely defaces the illusion that we are self-made.

Deep down, there is a brokenness over which we have no control and the wholeness we crave remains a Utopian project, a Sisyphean task that points to the need for a Saviour to come. Since we are enamoured of human capacity, He should come from our ranks. But unlike us, He must have the power to save us. So, we need a Saviour not only from within but also from without—a Saviour who is everything like us and yet, He alone has the power to save us from ourselves and to heal the brokenness we are.

If we want to avoid the mere motion of enduring yet another Holy Week, we seal these days with silence so that the gratuity of God’s divine condescension can manifest itself more clearly to us. Jesus did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave. To appreciate this Man and the Saviour, we soak in the drama of a Man who loves us unconditionally; a Man for whom even stones would sing. We give Him time and space so that His suffering which saves may slowly embrace and envelop us, soothing our ache and satisfying our hunger. We embrace a silence which is not devoid of sound but rather a silence which is the absence of noise—both electronic and social media noises—thus giving Him time and space so that our heart will be moved, our spirit contrite and our soul repentant.