Monday, 9 September 2019

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

We often think that the act of choosing is exercised between an option that is good and an option that is bad. The truth is, there is no real “choosing” to be made as if both the options were equal and neutral. Between a good and a bad option, we always choose the good and reject the bad. Choosing only becomes more difficult when both or all the options are good. How does one choose and choose wisely?

The first reading speaks of wisdom. We are also keenly aware that life is difficult as it is and according to the author of the Book of Wisdom, our so-called perishable bodies weigh us down. We bear the inherited adamic burden which St Paul lamented as the good we reject and the evil we embrace. We seem incapable of doing the good we should but instead commit the evil we should not. We definitely need the wisdom that only the Lord can give to recognise the struggle for what it is. The Serenity Prayer is a good example of the gift of wisdom. One asks the Lord to grant the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change the things one can and the wisdom to know the difference. In other words, we ask for the wisdom to choose the better fight. Some battles we cannot win and here I am not referring to fighting the Devil. That remains a life-long battle until the last nail is hammered into our coffin. Rather, you can never win an argument with a person who is emotional or unbalance. In an impossibility, it is pointless to waste your time.

What is wisdom? In this matter, our universe is our fingertips. Google is what I am referring to mostly. You can be speaking to a person who may be googling to check on what you are saying. Information is power and how much more powerful and subversive one can be when all that a person needs to know is available at his finger-tips. 

When it comes to information and knowledge, you must have heard this adage or proverb that a lie told one time too many, soon becomes the “truth”. Research today often propels a seeker into the universe of Wikipedia. Apparently, in “Wikiverse”, there is a democratisation of information in cyberspace because everyone is keeping everyone honest through shared editing. However, it is not impossible for someone to post inaccurate facts and when these inaccuracies are repeatedly quoted by others, a lie can easily be passed off as a truth. Fake news is basically “truth” unverified. 

According to Alvin Toffler, the futurist commentator of the digital revolution, information and knowledge have become the key to power in the 21st century. He who holds information and knowledge holds great power. But, TS Elliot’s question is rather apt for our consideration. He asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”. 

Our digital natives have mistaken information and knowledge for wisdom. We believe that the more we know, the smarter we will be and implicitly, the wiser we are. Is that not how journalists today have become the purveyors of “truth”? They have information, facts, “inside source” and have set themselves up as guardians of truth. It may be so that they protect the grounds for truth but some of them cannot be further from the truth than they already are. In this post-truth world, I suppose, the teaching vocation is next to impossible because both “unvarnished” information and “narrative-free” knowledge are not easily available. Everyone is an expert and a critic. When everyone is as clever as the teacher, where is the future for teaching or of education? All you need is Wikipedia. And, who needs a doctor when one can self-medicate? 

Today the Gospel presents a truth which only wisdom can grasp. Jesus speaks a language that today’s Gospel of Nice would consider offensive, that is, hatred and renunciation. Some seem to think that this is the very vocabulary which Trump may have copied from. However, the context is important for the Semitic mentality has no notion of preference. A preference for one thing is equivalent to the hatred of another thing. Therefore, in a culture that is strongly familial, following Jesus comes with a cost that only the “stupid” would dare to embrace. It is not easy to follow the Lord for it would involve swimming against the currents of “cultural wisdom”.

Anyway, to speak of renunciation as a wise choice does sound quite desperate. In fact, it sounds rather forbidding. For example, to love Jesus and to follow Him, does one have to “hate” the family? Could it be expressed in another manner? In the context of foregoing possessions, the letting go in order to be a disciple of Jesus, the giving up should perhaps be viewed from the perspective that freedom is most gained not by accumulation but rather by divesting. To own a lot, it would require that we let go a lot. Remember the story of the Rich Young Man whom Jesus invited to go sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor so that he can follow the Lord? Our man turned away sad because he was unable to let go. 

To be fair, divesting or letting go is not to be valued for itself. Life’s goal is not renunciation per se. Within the framework of an autonomy-conscious culture, liberty is often considered as “freedom from”. What does it mean to be free from rules and regulations? Not many realise that we merely trade in one set of constraints for another and almost unwittingly. For example, at a certain age, a young person will begin to rebel against the rules and regulations at home. If the father is very strict, soon enough every rule that seemed to work in the regulating relationships will quickly be viewed as stifling freedom. Praying the rosary at 10pm every night is alright when a child is 10 years old. But, at 19, I am sure the teenager would consider this curfew a curb on his freedom to stay out late. Ironically, it would never occur to night owls to consider their cherished freedom as a form of slavery. To do what you want, when you want, how you want and where you want is slavery to your whims and fancies. Indiscipline is a debilitating form of slavery. Those of you who procrastinate a lot will know what this “freedom” or rather slavery means.

Our young today face many challenges. One of them is the vision of life that does not go beyond the self. For example, these days when we organise camps, our kids are told to bring their own plates and cutlery and they are encouraged to wash up after their meals. All very “Laudato si-ish”. It is a good practice because away from their house-help, they are taught to be responsible. Unfortunately, this pedagogy does not deviate from a selfishness which is at the root of our environmental crisis. We continue to inculcate a vision does not go beyond the self. When our kids wash their plates, they can be meticulous about cleanliness but still they require another kind of “house-help” to clean up the clogged sink. I was at a camp the other day and we all use communal baths/toilets. Nobody stooped low enough to remove the debris clogging the sinkhole because it is so “Eww”. In itself, that is no proof of selfishness. Instead, their inability is indicative of our myopia, our short-sightedness whereby our children have not been inspired with a vision that goes beyond the self. 

The freedom in the Gospel that Jesus invites His disciples to, requires a love that ventures beyond the self. In other words, the freedom we aim for through the renunciation of possessions or family has a higher purpose. The life of grace is a conversion that seeks to be “free from” so that we can be “free for”. We forego a lesser love for a greater love—so that our heart can embrace an undertaking far greater than ourselves. St Augustine’s famous experience of his restless heart chronicles this endeavour. The heart is always looking to obey someone greater than inself. If we do not obey Him, we will languish in “obedience” to our stupidity and ultimately and unsuspectingly may become instruments in the hands of the Devil.

We need wisdom to choose the Lord. Only the greater, the higher, the nobler, and finally, God alone gives meaning to the laying down of one’s life. No information, no knowledge can lead us to take up His cross. Only the wisdom of God can. St Paul told the Corinthians that the Cross is certainly foolishness because the world does not know God through wisdom. To choose a greater love, we require His assistance. As the Collect from the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time reminds us: Grant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure... So we ask the Lord for the wisdom to let go of lesser loves that tie us down so that we may hold on to the greater love that endures to the glory of God our Lord.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The First Reading details the gathering of all peoples by God. The calling within the context of the Gospel criterion of the narrow gate is challenging not least because we all breathe the rather vapid or sterilised air of a therapeutic mindset. Here in Luke’s Gospel, the Lord seems to be rather uncompromising. Firstly, the background is a Jesus on the resolute road to Jerusalem. He is on the move and given that time is of the essence, He zeroes in on decisive matters without beating around the bush. For example, to someone intending to follow Him, He decreed that anyone who puts his hands on the plough and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of Heaven. That is pretty harsh, is it not? And we are not used to such “judgemental rigidity”. We expect a kinder Jesus; one who is more “understanding” of human frailty.


Today, as mentioned at the beginning, we live in a therapeutic society because everything existential about us seems to require “fixing”. Instead of life presenting itself as a set struggles, in other words, life is unfair and we should deal with it to the best of our ability, sadly, we have grown accustomed to expecting life to be uncomplicated and free from angst and anxiety. Have you ever caught yourself saying “I don’t deserve this” when you encounter difficult people or situations? Since life is a struggle and stressful, apparently almost everyone is either neurotic or clinically depressed, manic or suffering from one of the new-fangled conditions like shopping addiction. But, worry thou not because we have a fix for every tic, if not a pill for every ill. Within this afflicted ecology, the new language to acquire is “self-esteem”. Everyone needs his or her ego to be massaged in order to feel good about himself or herself. Anything less is considered to be problematic and needs to be treated. The point is, it is not enough to be good. It is imperative that one should feel good.

Hence, the challenge of passing through the narrow gate. Coupled with the therapeutic society is a welfare state of mind. It means that both society as a whole and the Church in particular owe it to us to make us feel good. There do not seem to be enough gold stars to give out in kindergartens since every child needs to feel special. By the way, is it not ironical that we want to make people feel good and hence retarded has become “special”. If “special” is so special, how come nobody wants a “special” child? The kicker, however, is this: it does not take much to extend this therapeutic expectation to God Himself. If God owes us something, whether it be happiness or health, well-being or wealth, we will naturally feel cheated if our expectations are not met. If benefit and contentment have become the goals of life, then God and by extension, the Church and society exist only to facilitate these ends. Do you ever watch AGT or BGT or the Voice, etc? All one needs is “My brother is dying from cancer and one of his goals is to see through to the finals”. Then, the crowd goes “aaah” and whilst the contestant is singing, the camera pans to the tear streaming down a judge’s face!

People regularly believe in God until a tragedy strikes. If things or events do not go according to our plans, the problem is with God. Why is He unkind? In other words, God should bend to our will rather than we to His. If that be the case, how do we enter the narrow gate? For the entrance, meaning if it is a given, it demands that we make ourselves small enough to fit through rather than it enlarges itself to suit us. Here, I will use an analogy but I am not fat-shaming. If you want to look stunningly svelte in your chosen wedding dress, you have just got to squeeze a slimmer self into the gown. As an aside, kudos to those who are not ashamed of their shape or size.

The same problematic of entitlement can be gleaned through the change in the translation that took place at Advent in 2011. Remember the Institution Narrative? “It will be shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins”. In Latin, the wording is pro vobis et pro multis and thus, the literal translation we now hear is “poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.

The “many” created such a furore. There are priests who refused to use the word “many”. From the perspective of a God who owes it to us, “many” does come across that God is stingy with salvation. How dare God not want to save all? The profound truth is the Lord Jesus came to save all people. The reality is, however unappetising, some will be lost not because God is stingy with salvation but rather God cannot save us without our consent. St Augustine was right to remark that the God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent.

Thus, the man who asked Jesus on who can be saved is clarifying the issue for us. No one, not least, God, society or the Church owe it to us to make us happy. If anything, we owe it to God to make ourselves salvageable. Salvation as indicated in the Institution Narrative cannot be brought about mechanistically without our willing or participation. Through faith, we are invited to accept God’s gift of supernatural life and thus participate in it through a life which is in accord with the will of God, so that we can be numbered amongst the many whom Jesus has come to save. If the gate and the path to heaven are routinely described as narrow. It means that we must dispose ourselves for salvation. Our disposition is one way of saying to God, “No, you do not owe it to me to save me but I owe it to you since I desire your salvation”. It is consenting to God to save us. God does not condemn us to hell. We have the freedom to exclude ourselves from His generous mercy. The ball is not in God’s court; it is really in ours.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

Do you remember a time when male fashion was inspired by prison attire? The sagging pants was supposedly worn to reveal one’s undergarment at best or one’s crack in the derrière at worse. At one time, some of our youths were also spotting this fashion. The need to blaze a fashion trail so as to stand out from the mediocre masses is understandable but in the end, the need to be different resulted in everyone sporting an exposed rear!

A famous 19th century French diplomat to the USA, Alexis de Tocqueville observing American democracy, remarked that individualism is ironically conforming. We have an innate or inborn desire to stand out and be an individual and yet, the paths we forge appear to be just like everyone’s else. Furthermore, he noted that to be different or to be an individual requires one to break free of imposed restrictions but eventually, one grows tired. What does it mean to be free and not be constrained by traditions? The reality is that after a while it becomes meaningless unless we have the very people whom we have rejected affirming us in our decision. If you are “free” and nobody notices you, what does it mean? Perhaps you understand the allure of Facebook or Twitter. These social media massage the loneliness of our individualism by affirming our choice to be different. If no one likes your posting, does it not feel pointless and lonely? The modern desire to stand out alone is predicated on the support provided by the undifferentiated masses. True individuality is “silent” because to say “I don’t need you” is really to assert the contrary. Meaning? I actually need you so that I may be able to voice aloud, “I don’t need you”. 

Our aspiration for individuality comes from a place of incompletion. It is God-given but it not an imperfection. Rather it is analogous to a homing device searching for fulfilment. Hence, there is a built-in loneliness that is implied by the drive for individuality and the readings today challenge individualism’s fear of loneliness. Firstly, the prophet stands alone against the accepted wisdom of the “wise”. Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian and somehow Jeremiah counselled surrender rather than fight in order to protect the city from destruction. He was opposed by the majority and he ended up suffering for his belief. It is hard to speak against conventional wisdom and one who can see more, will somehow have to pay the price of enlightenment. Secondly, how does reconcile Jesus as the Prince of Peace and the fate of those who choose to follow Him. Apparently the Prince of Peace is also the harbinger of divisive discord. What does it mean then to be a follower of Jesus if the result of loyalty is broken relationships? There appears to be a thread of commonality between the First Reading and the Gospel in that the path of the prophet leads to suffering as will those who choose to follow Jesus. Now, who in the right frame of mind wants this as a reward? 

It is natural to be afraid but apparently, the answer is also found in our individualism. But, with a twist. The misguided individualism that we crave actually requires that Christ comes down from the Cross. This individuality is at home with a Jesus who carries us when we are down but never challenges us in our comfort. However, the foundation of difference which we try so hard to establish is not to be found in a Jesus we fake. Firstly, it is not even found within us. Remember how Whitney Houston sang that the greatest love of all is inside of her? Sadly, that greatest love did not prevent her untimely death or even the death of her daughter. Secondly, this so-called basis of our individuality is not even found without as we realise how frighteningly lonely it is to depend on others to affirm us. When no one likes your posting and no traffic passes your blog, it can feel pretty lonely in cyberspace. 

The difference from the masses that grants us individuality is to be established only in God. Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan and a voice was heard coming from heaven: “This is my Son, the beloved”. Thus, Jesus was right about Him being the cause of division. He charts a path which takes us away from the conforming crowd. To stand out in a world that wants to fit in, we need to follow Him and find our peace in Him. That is where we will pay the price. It is not so much as we want to suffer or we want to be against the world but the price for our righteousness will require that we stand out on principles. 

To be a fashion setter is relatively easy. But, try being good or try being a just person. Try to be truthful for a change. These qualities stand us in our stead as followers of Jesus. Once you put on these qualities, you will soon face a world aligned against you because you do not submit to the approved strand of the reigning narrative. Let me illustrate how powerful this unspoken ideology is. Here, I am not agreeing with President Trump in what he says or does but to note how, rightly or wrongly, that he has the audacity to stand apart, again rightly or wrongly, from the received tradition of liberalism and when he does, the mainstream media are systematically arrayed against him. Without Trump, comedians will die from starvation. Of course, there are sycophantic voices backing Trump but the fact is how easily the “mainstream” media jumps at blaming him for anything and everything. 

In the same manner, the movie Unplanned which detailed the conversion of an abortionist has been characterised by Wikipedia as “factually incorrect anti-abortion propaganda”. It had limited release and virtually no access to advertising. It was described as “a wrong way to right some wrongs” by a website and “a gory mess” by a newspaper. Again, Unplanned is an example of the reigning strand of wisdom that demands our fealty. 

If these examples are too far away, closer to home, if you dare speak against the locus communis, that is, the kosher party-line that “balance” or “equality” is to be tilted, all in the name of racial harmony, the reprisal will be swift. And you will be forced to apologise etc. 

Try to do the right thing according to what is right and not what you think is right and you will be hated. However, the right thing is never about me but rather something far greater than me. The same Tocqueville said this about America and I think it opens a vista for us to consider how one can be an “individual”. It is a long quote but it is worth pondering upon. 

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbours and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great

To be an individual is to be great in goodness. This will make us stand out because the world, as it is, struggles to apprehend the meaning of goodness. However, a slogan which is a homophonic play of words might be helpful here. You would have heard of “No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace”. Jesus is truly the Prince of Peace and the peace we want is based on knowing Him. To truly know Him is to experience peace; a peace which allows one to undergo the suffering that comes from following Him. Once you have known Jesus, there is no taking away the peace you have from following Him, no matter where He goes. He is the true fulfilment of the individuality that we crave. In Him alone, can we find what we are truly searching for—the individuality prized by a craven world.