Tuesday, 28 January 2020

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

The significance of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan continues to reveal itself for us and it has profound ramifications for us as Church. The context of this unfolding is to be found in a region which was considered to be the back of nowhere for a nation which was promised a land of milk and honey. The returning Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali settled in a part of northern Palestine within the vicinity of a tiny lake otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee—a region also called the Galilee of the Nations or Gentiles. There amongst the non-Israelites, they practically had to eke out a living. The Prophet Isaiah promised these people who lived in darkness that a great light will dawn upon them.

As John had been arrested, the ending of the Baptist’s preaching actually ushered in a new ministry. Immediately after His baptism, Jesus left the security of His home for Capernaum, a town in the heart of Galilee. He enters the fray by going right into the heart of darkness to shed His light not just for His own people but for all of mankind. It can be said that Jesus had a primary ministry to the Jews, but this geographical itinerary, according to Matthew fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah. We so often think of St Paul as the Apostles to the Gentiles, but the seed had already been planted here by the Lord Himself.

Thus, the ministry of new light and new life has begun. The Messiah who wants to establish this new kingdom started with a simple but unexpected message of repentance. Whilst His listeners were not unfamiliar with this theme, however, their expectation might just be different. They were expecting something else.


Their ancestor’s journey from Egypt into the Promised Land could only be described as epic in the sense that God was truly with them. In their sojourn from exile, God showed Himself to be the Emmanuel--the God-with-them. However, here in the land of the shadow of death, they were wondering where God could be. They were a people not only disenfranchised economically; they were also politically emasculated; living as it were under the thumb of Rome. For these impoverished people, a light that shines should be one that brings about change both in the sphere of politics and the arena of economics. 

However, repentance must begin with a change of heart, not with an overthrow of government. It definitely does not take place at the wheel of fortune—no matter how you spin it. Change takes place at a more profound level. We know that the biggest battles are fought within the human heart. Transformation is hardest with the self. Hence, “Repent for the Kingdom is close at hand” is a clarion call to people to be ready for the rule of God in their lives. The Messiah has come to inaugurate a new age whereby God can be truly felt as Emmanuel as they undergo transformation.

This mission of transformation started with the calling of the four. The vocation of these four might possibly lead us to conclude that theirs was a ministry of specific service which for us is translated as a call to either the priesthood or religious life. Far from it. Whilst it is fair to speak a of specific vocation to the priestly and/or religious life, at the heart of Christ’s mission is the fundamental transformation of a person or the conversion of one’s heart.

Perhaps we can find an equivalent in our experience to illustrate what it means to be changed interiorly.

How many of you have gone for confession and have not found the change you so desire? We do not just sin. It is not generic because each of us sin in a particular way. Take your pick from the seven deadly sins. We normally think of sin in terms more salacious, like lust, but it can simply be as subtle as gossip or gluttony. The Lunar or Chinese New Year is a season for gluttony, is it not? A person goes to confession but comes out and sins again. You might tell yourself, “Do overeat. Be moderate” but soon enough you would have overeaten. Repeatedly one overindulges as if there were no change. The point is, the pace of change or the conversion we seek is painstakingly slow, at best. At worst, we give up in despair as some might do, telling ourselves, “What’s the point? Nothing changes”. In the meantime, our waistlines bulges. 

Contrast this unchanging self with that of our country and see how that measures out. We elected a new government in 2018 but life has been basically, forgive the language, Shitsville. We expect the government to roll in all that they had promised but really, at the heart of the transformation we desire is a system that is almost corrupt to the core. I have a friend who sells beauty products and she told me she had a regular client who used to buy facial cream to the tune of RM20K each time for use on his body. You would be forgiven if you thought that this “he” was a short fat lady who loves to “advise something”. He has since stopped buying because that kind of obscene spending is dependent on the availability of dirty money in our system. You can ask the upmarket restauranteurs too. The same kind of free spending before 2018 has now dried up. The system we have is finding it difficult to purge itself. In fact, we had all profited from this corrupt system which now we are suffering the painful detoxification that has to take place. The point is, if we who hunger for change is that slow in our conversion, can you blame the system for being seemingly static? Our instant-gratification mentality expects speedy changes out there in the system but we are not ready to make interior changes that are necessary. The transformation we want must begin with the human heart. A clean government must begin with a “clean people”. It does not take place overnight and if you want consequential change in this country, start with yourself.

In summary, the ministry of Jesus to the Gentiles is a universal ministry for it affects all and sundry. We have already established that we do not really need to go far. It is right here within our hearts for we are our own greatest cross or our greatest enemy. For us, an advice would be patience because conversion is always an ongoing process. It never stops. You might fall but get up and continue living in hope. As for the country, I cannot tell you how to vote. The calling of the four is just a beginning but it is not the end. The ministry to change continues with the Church as she must stand as a people who have been renewed and are still undergoing the process of purification so that she can stand out a light drawing those who walk in darkness into the Light of Christ. It is not the preserve of the few priests or religious. This duty is incumbent on all of us.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

We have entered into tempus per annum or what is commonly known as Ordinary Time—a rather misleading name for this season for it suggests of a characterless humdrum or a time that is unremarkably pedestrian. In short, boring. But the change in colour may help us appreciate the season better because green evokes life and therefore hope. The word “ordinary” instead of mediocrity actually hints of order, measure and rhythm. Thus, in these next 33 or 34 Sundays, the Church invites us to enter and meditate on the life of the Lord—His miracles and teachings—in light of the Resurrection.

However, there is an element of repetition this Sunday because the Gospel, rather than continuing with Matthew from last week, is taken from John and it seems to linger on the event of Christ’s baptism. John the Baptist gives witness to the Lord by not adhering to the standard protocol. “A man is coming after me who ranks before me because He existed before me”. John recognises his place in the schema of eternity and hence he cries out what we hear at each Mass: “Behold the Lamb of God”

Whilst repetition can be tiresome, it may be good for us to reconsider what it means for ourselves to be baptised and to follow Jesus. A key to understanding our baptism may be found in the 2nd reading. Corinth represented a pagan world and not only was it a heathen city for it was notorious for its immorality. In greeting the baptised of Corinth, St Paul calls them the Church, the holy people, the saints sanctified in Jesus Christ. Here in this opening speech, St Paul zeroes in the effects of their baptism which is an incorporation into the Body of Christ as well as their participation in the mission of the Church. Grafted into Christ, every Christian is on mission.

In light of the immorality of the city of Corinth, the Christians did have a heavy responsibility. In fact, Paul had to remind them of this burden as he wrote to chide them for failure in their Christ-like duties. Perhaps it is good clarify that to be holy is not an indication of one’s merit as if one were great. Instead, holiness is an attribute of God and our holiness is indicative of our closeness to God. As Israel was holy, our holiness is a sign that we have been set aside for Christ. Hence, like Israel of old, a Christian through his or her baptism has been set apart to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

How heavy do you think this responsibility is?

Firstly, the answer to this question can be found in the symbol of the Lamb. Jesus allowed Himself to be sacrificed on behalf of His people so that He could carry on Himself the sins of others. His sacrifice frees us from the bondage to the slavery of sin and death. As St Peter reminds us “You were ransomed… not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb”. In a way, Christians are called to a life of sacrifice. No greater love than to lay down his or her life for his or her friends. This is the real cost of following Jesus Christ.

At the back of our minds, I supposed people are already working out the dues of discipleship, calculating the price for sacrificing. Like a lamb led to the slaughterhouse, one figures, “Err, is it worth it? Did I sign up for this?”. I doubt anyone in the right frame of mind would subscribe to this kind of discipleship.

However, let us look at the sacrifice of discipleship through the lens of the Ordinary Time.

If bland is supposedly the character of the season, then perhaps, sacrifice is to be found there. The grand gesture of death on the Cross is but once in a lifetime. Since you are not cats, I presume that you can only be killed once. Thus, the many deaths on the crosses of life are what we ordinarily endure throughout our earthly existence. Life is markedly routine and regular. We move without fanfare through the predictability of our domestic arrangements. Whatever is promised of excitement, it possibly affects a mere fraction of our timeline. Otherwise, in what is basically ordinary, we are called to be faithful. This requires a death like no other.

We need not look far for this kind of death on the Cross. Caring after a child who is special. Assuming responsibility for the well-being of a debilitated spouse or an aged parent or parents. Making your rounds as a doctor and treating each patient with loving consideration. Serving your most trying customer as if he or she deserves your undivided attention. Living with a disability that robs you of the simple joys of life. Submitting oneself to the rigours of getting up early to beat the jam before entering into Singapore and enduring the congestion coming home. Coming for obligatory Masses even when you feel disinclined to. Anything and everything can take on the nature of a sacrifice. It is frequently in the quiet rhythm of life that God’s will is to be found. Herein is the connexion between the bravado of death on the Cross and the unexciting monotony of faithfulness to the station of one’s life. Perhaps Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, may shine a different light for us to see. He says, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death; the valiant never taste of death but once”. The contrary could also be true that from the perspective of discipleship and not cowardice, that death on the Cross, that final one sacrifice is only possible because we have already died a thousand deaths before arriving at Calvary. Humble submission to God’s will requires daily dying to oneself.

Finally, baptism inducts us into the life of Christ where we mirror Him offering ourselves to be a sacrifice pleasing to God the Father and at the same time, to be that light of Christ that shines out from the darkness of sin and death. This mission of being a light to the nations might sound glamorous until you begin to work out the mechanics of what it entails. Let us be clear that this light of Christ is never about us. The best analogy to illustrate this truth is found in the relationship between the sun and the moon. The moon emits no light of its own. It merely reflects the light of the sun. Likewise, a Christian is not a light of his own merits. He shines out only because he has allowed the light of Christ to pass through him as a prism allows for the refraction of light. Furthermore, according to Shakespeare’s observation, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. This is true for so many of us who serve out our life sentence in the ordinary. Thus, we find our salvation not in being great but being faithful.

Many of us might not feel the brilliance of Christ’s light shining out through us. After all who are we when our flame flickers under the tempest of strong temptation to sin. But, when every Christian dares to hold out the light of Christ, no matter how small, you can be sure that Jesus the Lord will shine brightly. As St Teresa of Calcutta reminds us, “It is not how much you do but how much love you put into what you do that counts”. There is a little Gospel ditty that runs through my head and I would not sing it even to save my life but “This little light of mine” surely saves the day: So, be that light of Christ that counts.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Baptism of the Lord Year A 2020

I have heard of a case where a single parent of a child requested that a Muslim be the godparent of the child. Good for you if you were shaking your head in disbelief. But, by and large, it is not surprising that some people do not really know what baptism entails except that it is purely a customary convention that one submits to. For some, it is no more than an accepted norm and it explains why having a Muslim godparent might make just burnish one’s social credential. Cool is it not that my child’s godparent is a Muslim, especially in a country that fears the Cross more than Dracula does?

According to Canon 872, “Insofar as possible, one to be baptised is to be given a sponsor who is to assist an adult in Christian initiation, or, together with the parents, to present an infant at the baptism, and who will help the baptised lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism, and to fulfil faithfully the obligations connected with it”. A godparent or a sponsor, as the official term goes, is to help the newly baptised live a Christian life. 

While it is true that a Muslim[1], can validly baptise a person, it is impossible for a Muslim to teach a baptised how to be a Christian because he or she does not lead a Christian life. A Catholic who lapses in practice, let alone a Muslim, cannot be a godparent for the simple reason that the responsibility to mentor a baptised is impaired by the fact that one does not live it himself. For example, would you trust your invasive medical procedure to a doctor who has not practised his surgical craft for 20 years?

Today, as we mark the end of the Christmas season, it might be good to step back and take a look at the necessity of baptism, the sacrament of incorporation into the Body of Christ. This is relevant because we live in a multi-ethnic set up where a simple cultural expression has the explosive potential of bursting into a confessional conflict. A good example was the simple hanging of lanterns in a school that promised to flare into a religious bloodbath. For sure this is an exaggeration but this country excels in a language most people want to avoid learning—(the language of) Stupid. The result though is we live in fear and we might be tempted to compromise on baptism in the name of harmony by consoling ourselves that “every religion is the same since every religion teaches us to do good”.

The Catechism will hopefully enlighten us and disabuse us of this error. In (#1257), “(t)he Lord Himself affirms the necessity of baptism for salvation. It is necessary for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitudes”. Thus, she cannot neglect this mission entrusted by the Jesus that all who can be baptised are “reborn of water and the Spirit”. By nature, the Church is missionary and so, to be Church, she needs to bring this sacrament to those who may be searching for it. 

However, there is a small print to this necessity. God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments. What this implies is that we have a duty and we cannot shirk from our duty to make available this sacrament to those who can ask for it. But to save, God can do it any which way He wants.

For example, on an island, at the back of nowhere, there is an indigenous tribe whose members are shorter than the grass. No missionary has ever stepped ventured onto the island. Can the inhabitants there be faulted for not knowing of, not asking for and not receiving baptism? It explains what was said earlier that God is not bound by the sacraments. So yes, baptism is a norm but not an absolute necessity. There are some who desire to be baptised but never received it. For example, the catechumens who are killed in a religious persecution, they receive what the Church traditionally called the “baptism of blood”. They are saved even though they have not received baptism. Then, we also acknowledge the possibility of salvation for those, according to the 4th Eucharistic Prayer, “and all who seek you (God) with a sincere heart”. Under the inspiration of God’s grace, those who have no possibility of knowing the Church, but are seeking God and striving to do His will, they are saved by the “baptism of desire”.

The difference between normative and absolute necessity does not excuse the Church from her mission. It just means we have a challenging obligation to make Christ and His Church known. In this matter, we are not helped by ourselves being resistant to God’s grace. We do the Lord a great injustice because our bad examples (our sins) may be stumbling blocks to belief and to reception of baptism and incorporation in the Body of Christ.

If the world were lost, it is not because Christ is not powerful. The sad truth is that the world cannot see Christ because they cannot see past Christians. If only Christians appreciate their baptism more and the implication of what it means to be baptised, we could be truly the light that shines for a world to see. This is not because we are better than the world but because Christians are made to shine brightly with the light of Christ.

Why is Christ’s light not shining brighter? The reality of sin could be an easy answer. But, perhaps, it could be our conception, idea or notion of what it means to be a Christian. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”.

In short, salvation is free but not cheap. In other words, we need to take seriously what it means that we have been saved. Bonhoeffer was right to speak out against cheap grace. Immediately after Christmas, on 26th Dec, we enter promptly into the truth of our salvation—St Stephen—the protomartyr. And even the Innocents are not spared on 27th Dec. Fuzzy warmth is a nice feeling, but these saints remind us time and again that there is a cost to pay for our discipleship. It does not seem fair but when is life ever fair in this valley of tears?

Perhaps, the cost of baptism has not been sufficiently appropriated by many Christians. We want a discipleship without the hardship. We definitely want an easy Christ to follow. But there is no way that Christ comes without the cross. The poor appreciation of our baptism may explain why we seek an easy discipleship. 

However, if we wade into the River scene at the Jordan, we discern a clear model or exemplar for each one of us. When Jesus stepped into the waters to be baptised, heaven opened up with the voice confirming Him to be the beloved Son. This is what happens at our baptism for in the Sacrament of Baptism, (along with Confirmation and Ordination) there is an effect which is permanent and it cannot be lost or erased, not even by mortal sin. We call it a spiritual seal, an indelible mark, a character or an ontological change. St Paul in scripture calls it “putting on Christ”. It is a configuring or a reshaping of a person in such a way that he or she now bears the shape of Christ. It can never be changed. Even if you changed your religion, the shape inside you is that of Christ the Lord. This is how much the Father wants to love us as it echoed in the Preface for Sunday VII: “For you so love the world that in your mercy, you sent us the Redeemer, to live like us in all things but sin, so that you might love in us what you loved in your Son, by whose obedience we have been restored to those gifts of yours that by sinning, we had lost in disobedience”.

Through baptism, the Father configures our souls into the shape of Christ His Son so that what He sees in Him, He will also see in us. That is how deep the love that God has for us that He made baptism a necessity for salvation so that each one of us can be incorporated into the Body of His Son, the Church. In the 1st Reading, we are told that “the islands are awaiting His law”. The question is not if they are awaiting. Instead, the question is if we are ready ourselves for the law before bringing His law to those hungering for it. The failure in numbers, the crisis of Church membership, as only 1 in 6 is a Christian, points not to a crisis of doctrine. Rather it is symptomatic of the crisis of discipleship.

[1] Canon 861 & 2 states… (i)ndeed, in a case of necessity, any person who has the requisite intention may do so. It means anyone, even if the one baptising is not baptised. The minimum requirement is the “intention of doing what the Church does”.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Epiphany 2020

Carols were still being played at a nearby Mall on 1st January. A pleasant surprise because one would have expected the outlets to trot out commodities all crimson and red so as to reap the Lunar New Year retail wave. So, carols being played should be the way because the 12 days of Christmas should end on the 6th of January—the proper date for the Epiphany. However, for the sake of convenience, we have transferred ours to the Sunday between 2nd and 8th January.

What Epiphany means for the Latin-rite Church is that Jesus, the Son of God has been revealed primarily to the Magi. However, His baptism at the Jordan where a voice was heard declaring Him to be the beloved Son and the Wedding at Cana where He transformed water into wine, are also both epiphanic moments because the glory of His Divinity was manifested. For the Eastern Rite Church, the Theophany is focused more on the revelation of His divinity at the Baptism in the River Jordan.

Christmas without either the Epiphany which in Greek is a revelation from above or the Theophany a revelation from God does not make sense. From a certain perspective, the event of Christmas is a kind of looking back at the life of Jesus to make sense of it. Just like John did with the Prologue. Compared to Luke and Matthew who both gave an account of the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Christ, John entered right into the heart of the mystery to announce that before the advent of human history, the Word pre-existed time and the Word was God. In fact, the early Christians, notably those from the East, lumped the Nativity together with the Visitation of the Magi, the Baptism and also the Wedding at Cana as one celebration on 6th Jan because for them, each one of these feasts is but a manifestation of the Divinity of the Christ child. It was only with the passage of time that these events separated to become different feasts. It was the Council of Tours in AD567 that set both Christmas and Epiphany apart by the 12 days we know as the season of Christmas.

It is not surprising that Christmas takes centre-stage so much that we do not fully appreciate the impact of the Epiphany. This is possibly because we have been myopically blind-sided by the commercialisation of a theological truth—the birth of the Saviour of mankind. This is the irony of it. In a globalised economy, where speed and scale reign supreme, ironically, the truth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, has been narrowly relegated to the fringes of the local, provincial or sectarian. For example, fashion now dictates that Merry Christmas be replaced by Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings so that we do not offend those who do not believe in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, sensitivity seems to demand that we do not impose Christianity’s world view on others. The paradoxical point being that this theological truth should be relative to time and place, whereas the commands of consumeristic capitalism do not seem to share the same humility. Everything must serve the might of the market economy but not Christ the Lord.

But the Epiphany is proof of Christ’s universality. The corners of the world have come to pay homage to the King of kings. There is a song which is old, as some of us are, but it a reminder that there is a search which is primordially human and which the Wise Men submitted themselves to. The title of the song is rather inappropriate, “Looking for love in the all wrong places”.

Let us consider this innate search or latent longing. We all long to be loved. We all want to be needed. We all yearn to live forever. Having these desires may help explain our inclination to sin. Firstly, man was created to love, serve and the revere God. Somehow, this interior orientation of man towards God been damaged and weakened by Original Sin. Man has a bent or a propensity to sin because his desires have become disordered. Hence, sin is analogous or comparable to looking for love in all the wrong places. As our moral compass has been compromised by Original Sin, our search often ends up short because we mistake that which is not good, not true and not beautiful as the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In our quest for the one thing that can satisfy us fully, that is, God Himself, we often settle on that which leaves us longing for more. Now you understand why drugs—not just narcotics drugs but power, sex, money, technology—are so captivating. They promise us fulfilment but end up enslaving us.

Today we celebrate not just any truth but the Truth. And, it is not local or confined to a specific geographical location. Instead, this is Truth in cosmic proportion. The Magi who had been searching, have now found the Truth their hearts have been aching for. The name Jesus means God saves. Presumably, the one who saves is also the one who created. To think that God saves only Christians is to reduce the Creator of all that is, to merely a deity amongst deity, thereby negating everything we believe about this God. God saves and the Saviour is the Saviour of all. Whether we want to be saved or not is altogether another matter but the point here is that we who believe in this universal Saviour somehow live as if He were just the Saviour of Christians—betraying a tribal mentality that we do not really know our God or believe in Him as we should. Perhaps it explains why some of us turn to bomohs so easily…

It is said that the Epiphany is a manifestation to the Gentiles. But upon deeper reflexion it should lead to the conclusion that it is more than just a showing forth to the Gentiles. In the visitation of the Magi, we recognise that everyone, Gentiles or otherwise, is looking for the One who created us, the One who has saved us and the One who will satisfy us completely. God has put a God-size hunger in our hearts for Him. Whilst the Epiphany is acknowledgement that God came and revealed Himself to us, the Magi symbolise our search for our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sanctifier. Hence, the Epiphany is not just any revelation but THE revelation which answers all our questions about who our Saviour is and how He has entered human history in order to save each one of us. God wants to save everyone, not just Christians. Whilst Jesus the Head labours to save mankind, each one of us has profound duty to ensure as many as possible are incorporated into His Body, the Church.