Friday, 28 February 2020

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

There is something about our Catholic intuition that more inclusive than it appears. It is basically a sensibility (a principle upon which our sacramental system is built on) that is founded on a sensitivity to life. If you like, it is an adaptation to life after the Fall; a life which we are all too familiar with.

If, in the preceding Gospel passages, Jesus taught the Beatitudes, then last Sunday and this, He enters into the heart of them by reinterpreting the Torah, the Law inherited from Moses. Today, He tackles the last two pronouncements by connecting them to a perfection we should aspire to because it reflects who God is.

Therefore, the standard of Jesus is definitely higher. In promoting this, He might appear to have repudiated the Lex Talionis of Leviticus. This law of retaliation does come across as barbaric from our civilised vantage point. What, you might ask, will an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, lead to? You might think it a tad too vengeful. As Gandhi was supposed to have remarked: soon enough everyone will be blind. Precisely, the Lex’s legitimacy is derived from the context of tribalism. The Lex is limiting meaning that if you need to strike back, you are curtailed or prevented by the law from exacting damage/retribution beyond what you had suffered. If I had been wronged, you can bet that a big part of me wants to strike back even more. Hence, Jesus proposes an ideal which goes beyond the need for reprisal, thereby inviting us to follow His example.

Only love can take us beyond revenge.

Perhaps it makes sense, especially so within the framework of a multi-religious society, to hear people say: all religions are the same. After all, every religion instructs its followers to do good. Whilst it is true that every religion prescribes virtue, still that does not make them the same. What may render all religions seemingly alike is that being a Christian makes no difference at all in the religious equation. In fact, those who are not Christians behave better than some of us. An example. When the time comes for a blood donation drive, the Buddhists will be there to give. Catholics? We are afraid that the drop of blue blood in us might just be drained out of us if we were to donate blood.

Our standard should be exceptional. Exceptional is just another word for saintly.

I am sure you must have heard of this post-Vatican hymn: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love”. I hesitate to sing this song for obvious reasons that our love, if at all, is rather measured and calculated. We are afraid to lose out and fearful that people will take advantage of us, no? The truth is, in a competitive world, being a Christian is a vocation to “losing out”. The thing is, “losing out” is not the same as resignation. It is not the same as being stepped on. Someone bullies you and you think that it is your Christian duty to quietly accept it as suggested by the Gospel. Here, I am not in any way declaring that the Gospel is wrong. Just that the losing out as prescribed by Christ pertains more to the consequences that come with living up to His standard.

For example, when there is injustice, we take the side of the disinherited, disenfranchised or dominated. In the context of Laudato si, we should stand with the environment and the poor who are most affected by climate change. It is as simple as taking the trouble to ensure that we reduce our plastic footprint and not only lowering our carbon cost. This country has the distinct notoriety of being Asia’s worst plastic polluters—a 16.78kg per capita per annum. So, where the world pushes for convenience, we resolutely take the path of conservation. Just one simple act. Make sure you have tiffin carriers in the boot of your car. How often have I forgotten that and when I am packing takeaway, I would say, “Aiyah. Never mind. Next time”. Where the world urges reckless consumption, we endorse careful moderation. Where the world pushes for the utilisation of nature we seek a sustained care for our common home. In all these, there is a lot of losing out when we follow Christ. You only have to refrain from bribery, and you know what I mean by the “cost of discipleship”.

When the 2004 tsunami devastated Aceh, Christian aid agencies were the first to enter into the desolate ruins to help and provide refuge for those affected. What brought Christians there was the love of Christ. It is this same love that brings many into the frontline of difficulties even at the cost of their lives. No greater love a man has than to lay down his life for his friends. That is the depth that Jesus invites us to in our discipleship.

Of late, we have received calls asking if we have Mass. In a neighbouring country, Masses have been suspended indefinitely, all in the effort of arresting a contagion that is scaring more people to death than actually killing them. The point is that more people have died from dengue fever than from Covid-19. With dengue, we have not stopped living but in response to Covid-19, there is no longer the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday except for the “virtual” obligation to attend Mass via YouTube.

I had a query from someone who happens to live in the said neighbouring country asking if it was OK to miss Mass here in JB. The question was rather telling—perhaps a revelation that the person was already on a path to something more than what is required by the law. Exactly what the Lord was trying to bring out in deepening the Torah.

The answer to the question is this: As long as one lives within the territory where the suspension applies, one is exempted except for the “virtual” obligation. We actually do not need the Romans to send us packing into the Catacombs. The fear of liability is enough to drive us into virtual existence.[1] Be that as it may, the enquiry reveals how the human heart knows that there is something deeper than a mere obligation. This is where the Catholic sensibility comes into play.

If we resort to obligations, we tend to obey the law of inertia by seeking the barest minimum. What better way to deal with the minimum than prohibition? For example: “Thou shall not kill” is easier to process than a positive command “Thou shall love”. How does one “love”? It leaves us uncertain as to whether this act or that act counts as loving. Hence, “Thou shall not kill”, “Thou shall not steal”, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s wife”, and etc.

But we are called to more. We intuitively recognise that the human heart is created to contain the universe. This Catholic sensibility is expressed in our act of contrition. “O my God, I am truly sorry for all my sins. I detest them because they deserve your just punishment but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love…”. Within this prayer, we encounter the bare minimum, which is the fear of hell acting as a deterrent against our sinning. It also captures what is essentially our nobility that we refrain from sin because we love God. The Catholic sensibility holds that if the love God does not prevent us from sin, at least the fear of hell might.
Thus, the love that Jesus commands us to is by nature less prohibitive and by instinct, more generous. Lazy and sinful humans that we are, we tend to settle for that which barely fulfils the minimum requirement. This kind of easy-going discipleship is not supported by the Jesus in today’s Gospel. The requirement for the discipleship of the Kingdom goes deeper than what was prescribed by the Torah. Whilst our Catholic sensibility does accommodate human frailty, it is through the Sacraments that the Church strengthens us to surpass mediocrity, raising us from the mundane to the magnificent. We are created to embrace heaven and so Jesus asks us to go all the way. There is no halfway on the road to paradise.

[1] The phrase “virtual obligation” is possibly an oxymoronic term. Virtual means “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact” or “not physically existing but made to appear by software”. If virtual reality is not real, then can virtual obligation therefore oblige? In any case, electronic confession, that is, via the internet is not valid.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

The Gospel is a continuation from last Sunday—though not from the feast of the Presentation but rather from the 4th Sunday of Year A. Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up a hill and there He sat down and taught them the Beatitudes. Today, the blessed exhortation is condensed into succinct commands to be salt of the earth and light of the world.

The first reading provides an insight into what it means to be salt and light. The Israelites bemoaned that their fasting had gone unnoticed by God. The answer from God was unexpected but instructive. He revealed to them that fasting should be more than the physical deprivation of food. Israel’s light will shine when they recognise that fasting must include the cessation of injustice. In other words, fasting is at the same time alms-giving. It is never therapeutic (that is, losing weight to fit into your dress) but rather social justice (that others might have enough to eat).

This social context of justice is still relevant in our time. Laudato si raises the awareness that our consuming habits do have a deleterious effect on the people who live beyond the pale of plenty. A good example is to consider the many island-nations whose topography places them scarcely above sea level. The Maldives may conjure up a picturesque post-card of idyllic isles with stilted chalets floating along the fringes of atolls. But the cruel truth is that a 1-metre rise in sea level will wipe the entire archipelago off the face of the earth. Maldives is not the only island-nation threatened by climate change.

The demands of justice require that we lead by example. Social justice should be ecological in its expression. And, in order for our light to shine bright, we need to change the way we organise our lives—from eating, to drinking, to living and to travelling. A bottle of Evian water is not only expensive, but it also has a large carbon footprint because it is shipped so far away from its point of production, the French Alps. In other words, our consuming habits should be less of a consumption and more of a conservation—to live simply so that others can simply live.

Apart of this ecological challenge, how else can our light shine and how do we salt the earth?

Take the current concern that is the COVID-19. We are not entirely sure how it spreads but that it does. What should our response be?

I remember an incident that took place in 2015 or thereabout. Two of us priests were on-board an Air Asia flight bound for Krabi. As the aircraft pushed back to taxi and take off, there was a loud bang when the aircraft plunged into darkness and shuddered to a halt. All we needed was for someone to shout “Fire” and the cabin descended into a pandemonium. The two of us sitting at the back of the aircraft were transfixed by the spectre of passengers clamouring and clambering over rows of seats desperately trying to get out of a plane that had not even deployed its emergency chutes. (To be expected from a cheap flight!).

This story proves a point that in any attempted conversation between reason and fear, fear always wins. We can never reason with phobia for it belongs to fear’s nature to cloud our judgement. Hence, what should our response be when the prevailing atmosphere is fear?

Here, I am not belittling the precautionary actions taken by the powers that be—civil or ecclesiastical. I am interested in overcoming mindless panic—the panic that drove people to snatch and grab from supermarkets. You would have seen the posted pictures from a neighbouring country of trolleys or baskets of food abandoned before the check-out counters due to impatience with the incessantly long queues.

Our lives are in God’s hands. It does not mean that we do not care or should be reckless as in running up to an infected person to breathe deeply the air he has exhaled. But, if we believe that our lives are truly in God’s hands, then, we need to trust in God’s protecting care for us. Two saints come to mind. Firstly, St Aloysius Gonzaga. He was in his early 20s when a plague hit Rome. He must have seen his companions and others fall from the plague. But, instead of cowering, he continued to care for the plague victims. Finally, he himself succumbed to it. The second saint is Damian of Molokai. He ministered amongst the lepers till the day he became one of them. Both trusted in God not in the sense that they did not take precaution but in the sense that they recognise whether a long life or short, they were at the mercy of God and as such were not afraid of death.

The fear that is gripping us is driving us into behaviours which may appear “rational” or “precautionary” but in reality, they are closer to panic. It is ironic that some of us practise the 3-second rule when it comes to food dropping on the floor. But God forbid that a minister (ordinary or otherwise) of Holy Communion’s fingers should touch a tongue for even less than a second. Granted that it is a stupid comparison but Holy Communion on the hand frequently involves contact unless I drop it from the air to avoid touching the palm of the communicant. What is worse are the microphones at the ambos and the Roman Missal on the altar. I suppose one can disinfect the microphones and their stands, but the Roman Missal is a veritable encyclopaedia of germs and viruses left over from a previous flu that a priest had. I am not referring to our dear Fr Michael. It could have been Fr John, me or any visiting priest. A healthy or sickly priest uses the same Missale Romanum.

So, what then? I should ever be afraid of going to the hospital to anoint the sick, but I am not. I trust that our Lord has my good in His sight for I am doing His work like Ss Aloysius and Damian did. In fact, yesterday’s sunset Mass, we had anointing of the sick. Could you imagine what a nightmare that would have been? Unwittingly, an infected person queues up to be anointed. After laying my hands on the head, dipping my finger into the oil to anoint the forehead and palm, would I not be transferring the infection to the next person to be anointed? Presumably, if we want surgical sterility to avoid infection, we will have to incinerate everything after each Mass—especially the Roman Missal. In a situation of mysophobia[1], it would appear that if you were sick, going to the doctor to rule out the infection does not seem to be enough.

Where do we draw the line?[2]

I am not advocating Holy Communion on the tongue or on the hand. I am trying to make sense of what is happening and taking note that irrational fear is relentless in its obsessive demands. The entire panic-buying and hoarding spree are basically jittery acting out. To let our light shine or to salt the earth, we need to stand apart from the current herd mentality and be beacons of reason but most of all to trust in God. We lead by example in not giving in to fear. Recently, I received two videos with the headline that Wuhan has finally reached JB’s Mid-Valley. A review of the videos revealed that a case was detected in Northpoint Shopping Mall. No prize for guess where Northpoint is. In other words, do not join the cabal of fear that drives you to viral a video you have received all under the guise of helping to protect others. The head of the WHO commented that the fear of COVID-19 is doing more harm than the infection itself. This frightened world (that does not really believe, let alone know God) is sorely in need of lights that dare to shine from a firm faith in God’s providence and our trust can definitely salt or preserve the community from descending into a paralysing fear.

[1] Mysophobia, the morbid fear of contamination, dread of dirt or defilement may have a link with xenophobia (the fear of foreigners). We read about this in some places where being Chinese is reason enough for suspecting one is a carrier of the disease.
[2] If we were serious about curbing the contagion, a logical step would be to initiate a total lock-down of the country. No one entering or leaving. No religious services. No schools. No travels. No commerce. Cease all human contacts. Nada! Zilch! In 14 days or thereabout, we would have arrested the virus’ expansive march. Our reluctance in taking this drastic and effective, but at the same time, “destructive” measure merely exposes our selfish underbelly—we are afraid to lose out in terms of commerce and trade. Apparently, life is precious but money is more! Perhaps what is even more illogical is this. There seem to be a narrow fixation with the idea that Holy Communion on tongue is the only source of contagion without taking into consideration the other possible points of infection—the handling of the Roman Missal, the microphones, the chasubles (worn by a priest who had flu), the unwashed hands that had driven to Church, touched the door handle etc. The unintended effect of this ironic and idiotic obsession with restriction of Holy Communion to the hand is that now, the Eucharist is no longer the Medicine of Immortality as described by St Ignatius of Antioch. Instead, it is the Medicine of Death!

The Presentation of the Lord Year A 2020

The Presentation of the Lord is also called Candlemas because it continues with the theme of light that has been illuminating our reflection over the last 40 days. It was also known as the Purification of Mary. You could have kept your crib until now because this feast marks the end of the prolonged Christmas season.

The scriptural basis for this celebration is found in a combination of two distinct prescriptions from the books of Exodus and Leviticus. According to Exodus, every first-born male, animal or human, belongs to God. Therefore, the redemption of the animal or the boy is paid for by a levy to the temple which does not require any sort of presence of the boy or the animal. What requires a presence in the Temple is the purification of a mother 40 days after the birth of her first-born son. In Luke’s Gospel, both redemption and presentation take place in one setting. Thus, Mary along with Joseph and Jesus came to the Temple—one to be purified and the other to be redeemed.

Set this Lucan scene within the context of the First Reading. There, Malachi paints a rather terrifying picture of the coming of the Lord. “He will take His seat as refiner and purifier; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and then they will make the offering to the Lord as it should be”. At the Presentation, the Lord now comes suddenly but He enters His Temple not as Judge but as a helpless infant—a member of the human family and not just any human family but a poor one, as indicated by the humble sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves that both Mary and Joseph offered.

There in the Temple the Old Testament meets the New. Both Anna and Simeon represent the expectation of Israel that God would send His Messiah to save His people. Christ is presented by Simeon as a Light for the Gentiles and the Glory of God’s people: Israel. In fulfilling Israel’s hope, this Infant will extend His salvation to the ends of the earth. At Pentecost, Luke will detail this fulfilment where through the unction of the Holy Spirit the Church will soon spread from Jerusalem to the whole world.

Today is yet another epiphany and one which we did something out of the ordinary. As Simeon exalted the Infant as the Light of the World, liturgically we imitated him by blessing our candles, lighting them and then holding a symbol of the Light of Christ, we processed into the Church. Some people also brought candles to be blessed for use at home. I remember when I was a child, during a lightning thunderstorm of strong wind and rain, grandma would tell us to bring out blessed candles and have one lit. That was because we lived in a house akin to the flimsy first hut of the Three Little Pigs, permanently in danger of being blown down by the strong gales. It was an act of faith in God’s protection.
To appreciate the liturgical action of blessing our candles and for the matter of speaking blessing our rosaries, scapulars and Crosses, we need to venture into the world of the sacramentals. Firstly, blessing is a sacramental act and in order to understand what it is, we need to differentiate a sacramental from what a sacrament is. Secondly, a sacramental can be anything. It is associated with the Church as “a blessing, an action or an object of devotion”—sign of the Cross, bowing, pilgrimage, medals and statues etc. According to the Catechism, “sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruits of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life” (CCC 1677).

As such, their efficacy is dependent on a proper disposition of faith since sacramentals only have potential for giving us grace. In other words, the Church gives us the sacramentals to excite our faith and to prepare us so that we can cooperate with God’s grace. Sacramentals should not be confused with the Seven Sacraments because the latter were instituted by Christ Himself. This means that sacramentals do not have the same type of saving grace as the Seven Sacraments. Sacramentals convey grace through the “work and prayers of the Church” (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae) and “by the work of the doer” (ex opere operantis).

Since the grace that God makes available is very much dependent on the disposition of the person performing the act, it means that, sacramentals are not infallible in their effects. They cannot be used as a “lucky charm” that works every time, no matter the disposition. It is quite common to see rosaries being hung from rear-view mirrors of cars, which in a multi-religious society, we see other religions hanging their beads too. There is a thin line between the rosary as a sacramental and a talisman. Inviting a priest to bless a car does not guarantee that one will never be involved in an accident. The rosary hanging in the car, the medal/scapular that one wears, the blessing of religious articles or pilgrimages are acts of faith. One must have a strong faith in God’s action or else it will become an empty ritual, lacking any personal effect, more like amulets used for protection. Here is the kicker: if one does not obtain the effect of the sacramental, it may not be due to a lack of faith but rather to God’s inscrutable will at work. We cannot fully fathom the working of God’s will. The point is: Do not lose faith.
The seven sacraments are different in that Christ Himself is the principal celebrant of every Sacrament. Christ Himself takes the initiative—He incorporates you into His Body in Baptism; He strengthens you through Confirmation; He feeds you with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist; He absolves you through Confession; He heals you through Anointing and finally, He sends you to serve either as priests or married couples through Orders and Matrimony.

Since He desires to give His grace to us, He Himself supplies for what is lacking in the priest who celebrates the sacraments, so that grace can be communicated no matter what. If a sinful priest says Mass, the Eucharist will still be changed into Christ’s body and blood (provided that the priest uses the proper words and matter required for the sacrament). Likewise, a baby who is totally unawares of the surrounding when baptised becomes a member of Christ’s Body. And even if you were a horrible man (but baptised), the marriage you contract with your girlfriend (also a baptised), is still a valid sacramental marriage. In short, the Sacraments give grace of themselves when we place no obstacle in the way whereas the sacramentals excite in us pious dispositions, by means of which we may obtain grace.
In summary, God’s action is much more powerful in a sacrament than any sacramental. As Christ Himself instituted the seven sacraments, the Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit establishes the sacramentals. Since sacramentals do not come from Christ Himself, they come and go according to the circumstances and place. Our Bishop, with approval from the Pope, can establish a sacramental for use in his diocese. Sacramentals can even be disbanded if they no longer serve a purpose. For example, there used to be a blessing of a telegraph which today is rather unheard of. Or there are Russian Orthodox priests who bless missiles (weapons of mass destruction) but after the downing of MH17, such a blessing would be considered rather inappropriate.

You should be able to appreciate that the sacramentals, while related to the Seven Sacraments, do not operate in the same way. Knowing this difference might help us to use them properly thereby disposing us to the graces God wants to give to us through the sacramentals.

However, is there a need to go through all these when we can go directly to God. A valid question. But, would you throw the body of your deceased parent to dogs for food? Why not? Dead people have not feelings and they definitely do not give a hoot if they look beautiful or hideous with the make-up. Now, if you are disgusted by such a suggestion, then you are already intuitively reacting from the space of sacramentality. We are more sacramental than we realise.

Earlier I mentioned about lighting a candle in a storm which we no longer do since we live in concrete houses. It begs the question if faith were needed only when we have nowhere to turn to? This is basically the position of some of us, no? We turn to God only when we have no choice.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, a rite which He has no need of, helps us to grasp the full meaning of our existence. Whether we need God or not, we are still dependent on Him and all sacramental actions are acknowledgements of this existential reality. Without God, we are not. Yes, the Seven Sacraments are definitely adequate to save us. But, the principle is that the sacraments, though efficacious in themselves, stand on the foundation of sacramentals/sacramentality. This is who we are as long as we are embodied spirits—our spiritual existence is mediated by our physical world. For example: In a marriage, you declare your undying love for your wife and you never fail to let her know. Yet, you have never lifted a finger to help her. Not a flower on her anniversary. Nothing. What love is that? Every act (sacramental, that is mediated) deepens the truth of one’s love in marriage. Sacraments without the sacramentals run the danger of the Sacraments becoming unnecessary. The denial of the use of the sacramental will soon enough render the Seven Sacraments useless and empty of its content.