Monday, 28 October 2019

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The general theme remains on prayer whilst spotlight has shifted. Last Sunday, we were counselled to pray persistently. This Sunday, the attention is now centred on the person who does the praying, that is, on the pray-er himself.
The first reading is clear on this point. For sure, God hears our prayers. However, He does not listen to prayers based on the merit of one’s station in life. There is no hierarchy of honour in the sense that God only listens to the prayers of powerful personalities. As the Psalmist rightly suggests, “The poor man called; the Lord heard him”.

The Gospel follows a line of thinking that whilst God hears our prayers, it is the attitude that we bring into our prayers that becomes the deciding factor in God’s answer or justification of the person.

The Pharisee was not condemned for his praying. In fact, he should be commended for he belongs to the elite of the praying-class, if you like. Matthew described them as wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels. They followed the injunction of Deuteronomy 6: 6-9 “to tie and bind the commandments as symbols on the hands and forehead” but they forgot that the law should first and foremost be impressed upon the heart. Thus, an inflated sense of self-righteousness derived from adhering to the letter instead of cleaving to the spirit of the law, took away from him God’s justification. Smugness or self-satisfaction opens no celestial doors. Heaven bends its ear down instead to the tax collector, one who is the opposite of the Pharisee and who belongs to the class of the despised because he stood well-aware of his poverty before God. In his self-awareness, he came away from his prayers justified.

These two opposing portraits can tempt us into complacency, tepidity or apathy. On the one hand, we might be tempted to think that we are nowhere near the Pharisee. The negative characterisation of the Pharisee sounds closer to a caricature than it is to reality. You would reason for yourself that who in the right frame mind would want to be like that? Self-righteous and judgemental. In fact, words like “bigot” or “racist” are the best weapons to shut out dissent. This fear of being labelled is one reason why we have stopped using our faculty of “right judgement”. For example, in the area of sexual identity, no one wants to be called a “bigot” simply for upholding Church teachings. In general, no one thinks of himself a Pharisee because it is a word synonymous with hypocrisy.

On the other hand, instinctively we also do not quite identify with the Tax Collector. It is not so much as non-identification with his humility as with his sinfulness. What do I mean by that? Firstly, since we are nowhere near the Pharisee, we can take it that we are quite “humble”, so to speak. Secondly, and more importantly, nobody sins anymore. Fulton Sheen spoke of this in one of his works on Mary.I never could see why anyone in this day and age should object to the Immaculate Conception; all modern pagans believe that they are immaculately conceived. If there is no Original Sin, then everyone is immaculately conceived. Why do they shrink from allowing to Mary what they attribute to themselves? The doctrine of Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception are mutually exclusive. If Mary alone is the Immaculate Conception, then the rest of us must have Original Sin”.

Fulton Sheen was right. Many of us behave as if we were immaculately conceived. Or, we may think of us as sinners but our self-perception can be rather diffused in the sense that we accept it but at the same time feel that we cannot be that sinful, can we? What is this ambiguity but a kind of spiritual smugness or complacency and this can be observed in our Catholic confessionals. Without breaking the seal of confession let me illustrate a possible scenario in the confessional that priests do encounter from time to time. Some people who come in to confess do it similarly to what the Pharisee did in the Temple. They dare to sing their own praises. In a matter of fact, they declare that they go Church regularly and whatever needs to be done is religiously followed. And the sins they confess are usually the sins of their spouses or colleagues. If not, they justify their sins in the form of blame: Someone made me do it. A priest-friend related this that he would tell some parishioners, “You came into the confession without sin but you leave with four sins, namely, (1) the sin of boasting or pride, (2) the sin of self-righteousness (which is a form of obstinacy and a refusal to repent thereby rendering it a sin against the Holy Spirit, (3) the sin of complaining and finally, (4) the sin of lying (to oneself that one is not a sinner when through and through one is but a sinner)”.

To be justified, like the Tax Collector, is to be made right before God. Only sinners need justification. If we were immaculately conceived, like Mary, there would not be the need for justification. We should be able to stand tall before the Lord. Yet, we know that we are nowhere near Mary’s sinlessness.

In summary, our take-away lesson today is not that we are superior to the Pharisee in the sense that we are not that judgemental. We may be but that is not the point here. The lesson we can learn is that the Pharisee looked at outward appearances whereas the Tax-Collector focused on the heart. (Cf 1 Sam 16:7) He could stand right before God not because he was humble but because he had come to recognise that the heart was where the devious thrived—the battleground between sin and grace, between condemnation and justification and between hell and salvation. That was why he stood not looking up but acknowledging the shame of his sinfulness whilst waiting for God to make him right.

Salvation is indeed a tricky business. If we are not sinners and if we have no sin, then there is no need to be saved for only sinners need redemption. Otherwise, we can stand like the Pharisee in our self-righteous judgement of other.

There can be a latent Pharisee in us if we do not realise that God is touched when we forget the self. For, if we are too full of ourselves, there really is not much room for God’s grace to work. The tax collector gave no excuse for his sin and for that, God’s grace was able to work its best by granting him justification and thereby saving his soul. Let us be mindful that only the prayer of the humble sinner can throw open the door to God’s liberating mercy.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The first reading and the Gospel both handle three connected themes. Firstly, they both narrate the healing of lepers.[1] Secondly, they also detail the gracious behaviour of the “unentitled”. In the Gospel especially, it does not seem that those who should be grateful are grateful. Instead, it was left to these two foreigners to acknowledge their healing by giving thanks. In the case of Naaman, the healing became the occasion for the confession of faith in the God of Israel which leads us to the final theme, that is, the connexion between faith and salvation. To the Samaritan, Jesus makes clear the link between having faith and being saved. “Go on your way, your faith has saved you”.

To express his gratitude, Naaman offered a gift but it was rejected by Elisha. The subsequent action of this healed man in securing permission to cart home as much earth as two mules could carry provides an interesting insight into who we are as humans in general and as Catholics in particular. 

By way of illustration, let me draw your attention to a place not far from Prague in the Czech Republic. The town is Kutna Hora where next to the cemetery stands the Church of All Saints. Beneath lies an ossuary, a place where dead peoples’ bones are deposited. Actually, it is more of a chapel decorated with human bones. The sophisticated amongst us might just sneer at the ghastliness of this memento mori[2] whilst the superstitious might just recoil at the sight of this ghoulish construction. Why did it come about?

It began in the 13th century. An abbot (Henry) of Sedlec Abbey, like our Naaman, brought home earth from the place where the Lord breathed His last and scattered it across the cemetery. The short of it, at least 30000 people, if not more, have been buried in the plots there. Obviously, there was not enough space and hence the exhumation and the subsequent use of the bones for furnishing—chandeliers, candelabras, coat of arms of the benefactor family and even monstrance.

Both Naaman’s carting of soil and the cemetery burials are sacramental acts. Naaman asked for the soil where he encountered the God who healed him. In wanting to be buried in a cemetery plot which contained some scattered earth from the Holy Land, those dead can feel a little bit closer to the Lord. What about us?

By nature, we are as sacramental as these people are. A sacramental gesture is both an act of faith and an expression of gratitude. The French use a word for the things a person brings home after a tour or a pilgrimage—souvenirs.  Of course, English uses the same word. Sadly, the many souvenirs we encounter are kitsch or corny bordering on the sentimental or may even be caricatures of the place. They are a shout out to the ugly, the tacky, and are superfluous or unnecessary reminders of the place where we have been to. Maybe a patronising declaration to the deprived, those who do not have the luxury of travel: “Been there and done that”.

We have forgotten that the etymology of the word “souvenir” is “coming up from below”. In the case of Naaman, the earth below one’s feet functions as a reminder to give thanks to God for the graces received. Otherwise, it is just earth (or dirt). Like the sad magnets that jostle for space on the door of a fridge. An act of remembering, that is, a memorial, is always to give thanks for having been to a place and for receiving graces. Hoarding which in today’s world is considered a form of sickness is exactly so because it misses this point—sacramentality expresses gratitude more than it is an attachment to the object itself. Otherwise it is just sentimental or even a bad memory.

Without getting caught up in the definition of what a sacrament is, a sacrament is first and foremost an act of God’s generosity. It explains why Elisha refused Naaman’s gift. One does not have to pay for God’s generosity except with gratitude. According to basic catechism, the Sacraments are channels of grace. Instinctively we think in terms of a flow—a unidirectional flow—like a river—something coming towards us from God. However, the word “grace” in “Let us say grace before meal” demonstrates otherwise. The food is a gift which now occasions a thanksgiving on our part. Grace is thus a two-way street.

Now, it makes sense that we also call Holy Communion, apart from it being a sacrifice, a communal meal, a memorial, the Eucharist. “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification.  Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving’” (CCC, 1360).

In a zeitgeist or climate of “What can I get out of this”?, this link between the sacraments and gratitude is largely forgotten. Some 22 children will soon be receiving Holy Communion next week. It is a big event for them. All of them will be decked up but it will remain only an event which reflects what the sacramental life is for many of us. Not a progression into deeper gratitude but rather an event or a milestone to be chalked up. Therefore, confirmation is not entering deeper into a discipleship with the Lord. Instead for some, it is the last step before graduating outside the Church until before the next milestone, that is, the sacrament of marriage where confirmation is made a prerequisite before one can get married.[3]

Our sacramental life has a more disciplinary character than it is an expression of love. Consider that both the words discipline and disciplinary are derived from the word disciple. A disciple follows expressing a dynamic and organic kind of relationship whereas words like discipline or disciplinary connote rather static duty. In fact, the word disciplinary is closer to punishment than it is to love.

This is perhaps a reflexion of our natural posture which is to lament. When things go bad, the first word that comes to our mouth is a sigh and the first thought that comes to mind, like any good atheist, is “If God is good, then why is this happening?”. We have come to expect a God that not only does our bidding but guarantees that nothing bad should ever happen. In other words, our hearts are only big enough for a God who will obey us. We have this naïve expectation that for life to be good, it has to be smooth sailing; forgetting that we live in the Valley of Tears.

Sacramentality is however an invitation to live our entire life in gratitude, not in entitlement. If everything is grace, then everything calls for us to be thankful. Our cue comes at the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Accepting God’s presence, we praise Him by lifting up our hearts and giving Him thanks. This act of gratitude might not mean much but it may change how we perceive gratitude when we consider that the first Eucharist was born in the shadow of the Garden of Gethsemane. Even in the face of death, Jesus Christ begins His prayer by giving thanks to God. How much more must we to do that? Especially when we are pressed down. That way, our hearts grow bigger for the Lord to whom we owe everything and our relationship with Him goes deeper.  From the Common Preface IV we realise how fundamental this gratitude is for our salvation. “For, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation, through Christ our Lord”.

In conclusion, when we do not know how to thank God and we only thank Him because He does what we want, then the devil has won. He has made us forgetful. As Jean-Baptiste Massieu said, gratitude is the memory of the heart[4], so gratitude opens our eyes to see how much God is present in our ordinary lives. The Eucharist is the perfect place to start living this gratitude. Let us joyfully give thanks to the Lord our God.

[1] The precise meaning of the word leprosy in both the Old and New Testaments is disputed. It probably includes the modern Hansen’s disease (especially in the New Testament) and other infectious skin diseases. If one prefers to be more polite, Naaman, the Samaritan and his other nine companions were healed of their “epidermal affliction”. However, this euphemistic tendency of political correctness might just conceal the real horror this disease has on peoples’ imagination. For the longest time, leprosy was considered a curse from God and is associated with sins. It is a disease that does not kill but neither does it seem to end. It lingers for years, causing degeneration and deformation the body. To live is to be like a walking dead!
[2] Latin for “Remember you must die”. An example is wearing a skull pendant.
[3] Canon 1065.1 states that “Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before being admitted to marriage, if this can be done without grace inconvenience”. This requirement is not absolute meaning that the lack of confirmation does not affect the validity of a marriage.
[4] It is true that bad memories have long shadows. However, nobody in the right frame of mind intends to keep bad memories. In doing so, they become a prison.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The Gospel today is a continuation of last week. “Lord, increase our faith” is a genuine response of the Apostles. The Lord had told them to forgive unconditionally. And they were probably grappling with how to do it. Ordinarily, people are forgiving but to forgive unconditionally, like 7 X 77 times, it can take a toll on a person’s “stock” of forgiveness.

Therefore, to do what the Lord expects of us, we need the increase of faith the Apostles were asking for. What do we understand faith to be?

By way of catechesis, faith is both a gift and a response. It is a response that man makes to God who reveals and gives Himself to man. In that way, man submits both his intellect and will to God. In other words, it is trusting God who has revealed Himself in Sacred Scriptures through the Church. It is not enough to know God because the devils also know him. What they do not have is faith in God for that would be an act of the will. Faith in God requires that we choose Him and not just know about Him. In the end, we will be judge not by our knowledge of God but rather by our choice of Him.
It is easy to choose God when things are going well for us. When everything seems to be running smoothly, we may think that we have faith. But what happens when our faith is sorely tested. The first reading says that much. Habakkuk laments the silence of God. He cries to God who apparently does not intervene. Instead, God asks him to trust and to have faith. According to God, the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

Hence, the Apostles’ request that Jesus increase their faith makes a lot of sense. Why? For us, our faith largely has been tied to material well-being. Many examples. Some pray to God for success in business venture. Others are praying for a suitable job and hoping to get it. Parents or children pray for their loved one to be healed of a debilitating disease. Others are longing for the return of their lost one, like those who are still waiting for MH370 to be found.

Do not get this wrong. Asking from God is perfectly legitimate because He is Providence. But sadly, the notion that God is personal and caring has been defined narrowly by how far and how much He accedes to our requests. I am sure you may know of someone who has stayed away from Church because God did not answer his or her prayers. A simple explanation for this departure is that faith is not really an assent of the will to God but rather “faith”, as we understand it, has come to denote how much God is willing to assent to our requests.

This makes the latter part of the Gospel a huge challenge. Luke tells us that we must wait on God. Using the image of a Master and servant, no one should expect that being a servant is anymore than that. The servant does what he is paid to do, no matter how tired he or she is. This sounds rather harsh but the point is, just like the servant who has served, our response to God is to the trust without expecting any recompense. That is difficult since we are easily aggrieved or hurt. We have become hyper-sensitive and our feelings are easily wounded. More than that, we feel entitled which makes the Gospel sound rather offensive.

Faith in God will stretch all our resources. In case you have not noticed, it appears that those who trust God more are the ones who suffer most. This rubs against the grain of our materialist logic. There is a saying, “Friends with benefits”. Of course, it means something else if you Google-check the phrase. The point is that when we are friends, there has to be some benefits like expecting our friends not to stab us in the back. As the saying goes, “With friends like you, who needs enemies?”. Logic dictates that if we were God’s friends, surely, there must be benefits. 

But, saint after saint disabuses this logic. It does not follow that faith will shield us from troubles. St Teresa of Avila was on a mission somewhere near Burgos and there was a river they had to cross. She assured her companions that since they were engaged in God’s work, what better cause than to die in the Lord’s service. She bravely led the way across the river but the current was so strong that she lost her footing and was on the point of being carried away when the Lord sustained her. “Oh my Lord,” she exclaimed in her familiarity with God, “when will You cease from scattering obstacles in our paths”? “Do not complain, daughter”, Jesus answered, “for that is how I treat My friends”. Her reply? “No wonder Lord, you have so few friends!”.

Precisely, people are afraid to become friends of God for fear that God will send obstacles to test them. It is as if it does not pay to be His friend. The thing is this: God may have few friends but that is not because He treats them badly. It is more likely that when we become His friends, the devil will attempt to disrupt the friendship and make us lose faith in God. And furthermore, when things are going well for us, it does not always mean that God is blessing us. Look at how evil men flourish. Especially those who have sold their souls to the devil. Have noticed the key players in the previous administration and how they were rich beyond all expectations. I am quite certain that their riches were not divine in origin. What we may surmise is when evil men flourish, they fall within the category of God’s permissive will. We do not know why He allows it but trust that God knows what He is doing.[1] Alternatively, when things are not going well, it does not mean that God is cursing us. Like Job where God’s permissive will allowed the Devil to test him, so in our case, God allows our testing so that our friendship with Him can be purified.

As the Apostles found out, that life is tough, we should ask God for faith and like a plant we should nourish this faith. Praying and not giving up on prayer even if everything seems hopeless is one way of keeping our faith alive. It follows that adhering to one’s devotional practices is also a good thing to do. In other words, do not stop, even if you feel that what you have been doing is useless for that is truly an act of placing one’s trust in God.

The entitled victim in us, perhaps needs a kick in the rear to wake up our faith. For like Habakkuk, we are accustomed to complaining. We are pampered and like “Snowflakes”, generally melt under pressure to the point that we people disagree with us, we feel done to. The politics today is a politics of “hurt” and “taking offence”. Everyday, we read this race or that religion is offended. I have read somewhere that hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times. It is a vicious cycle and you can guess which stage we are right now. 

In summary, faith in God is resilience in a time of darkness and difficulties. Our Lady at the Annunciation has taught us this beautiful lesson when she said yes to God. She teaches us that faith does not make things easy. Faith only makes them possible. Trust in the Lord, in good times and in bad. And until the Lord opens the next door for you, as you wait, praise Him in the doorway.

[1] There seems to be a decoupling between wealth and blessing. As Matt 5:45 reminds us that “God causes His sun to rise upon the good and the bad, and He cause it to rain upon the just and the unjust”. If wealth is not a blessing, then, what is it? The key is found in Lk 12:48 “So then, of all to whom much has been given, much will be required. And of those to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be asked”. In the new covenant, wealth is more a responsibility than it is a blessing. If the Communion of Saints is to mean something, then the one “blessed” with more is to be responsible for more. Blessing is never for one’s own benefit but for the good of the communion.