Sunday, 29 March 2020

5th Sunday of Lent Year A 2020

The veiling is a tradition that does not seem to have anything to do with the Gospel. In fact, it is a liturgical action which predates the current choice of the Gospel for this Sunday. The shrouding is symbolic of Jesus hiding Himself[1] whereas the Gospel is of the raising of Lazarus.

Perhaps these two are not mutually exclusive, that is, veiling and death are both linked to the process of preparation. The raising of Lazarus is like a foretaste of or a preparation for the victory of Christ’s Resurrection. In thinking of the glory of the Resurrection, we can sometimes forget that it is also an invitation to think about dying and death.

That the miracle is stupendous or breath-taking is without a doubt. Lazarus is brought back to life. The enormity of this miracle is amplified by a view that some Jews held of death. According to this notion, at the time of death, the soul even though it has left the body, lingers nearby for about 3 days hoping to be reunited. That Christ tarried for 2 days after receiving the news of Lazarus’ serious illness/demise meant that His arrival at Bethany would have breached the 3-day “statute of limitation” for the soul to reunite with the body. Hence, we hear the protest when Jesus told them to roll the stone away: “Lord it will stink”.

Corruption had set in and this miracle truly proved that He is the Lord of life. And yet, the raising of Lazarus, stunning though it may be, it is not the centrepiece of the 7th and final sign of John’s Gospel. It is the conversation between Jesus and Martha.

Your brother will rise again”.
Martha said, “I know he will rise again at the Resurrection on the last day”.
Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”.
Yes, Lord,” she said, “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world”.

She believed in the Resurrection on the last day and Christ confirmed her faith, even before the arrival of the last day, by raising her brother. Now, here is the crucial point. Even though Lazarus was brought back to life, he was not brought back to a life forever. Here we find an encouragement to think about dying and death. However, in our normal day-to-day living, we are accustomed to assigning causes to death. This or that person died of this or that cause. The truth is with or without causes, people will die. We all die.

Death is our doorway to the Resurrection. Lazarus would die again, even though scripture does not record it. Dying is our preparation and for that we are truly a people of the Resurrection. Sadly, we are also a people of the instant noodles or coffees. We want the finality of heaven without the precursor or the preparation. We want the Resurrection without the Calvary.

The veiling on this Sunday is a herald to the coming Easter Resurrection. The covering of the statue is symbolic of Christ’s divinity hidden because His humanity is now on “trial”. He obeys through His humanity in this slow and painful march to victory; a path that must ascend the height of Calvary. In other words, there is a dying before Christ grasps the joys of the Resurrection. Calvary is the preparation that we too must undergo.

Many are not willing to wait or to suffer. We are afraid of dying and death, but we all desire the Resurrection. Social distancing may be an effective solution in the containment of the contagion but beneath it lurks the fear of death. Sadly, the unquestioned notion of “not dying” (never mind what the cause of death is) has been mistaken to be eternity. As proof, we have a hundred and one products designed so that using them, we can “put off” thinking about death or pretend that we will not die or that death does not exist. Not dying is not eternity.

We should not be raring to die because we are not suicidal but neither should we be that afraid of death.

What is really painful for so many is to live “aimlessly”. Benedict XVI used to relate the story of the 49 Christians of Abitene who in AD304 suffered martyrdom because they had defied Emperor Diocletian’s decree not to celebrate Mass on Sunday. When asked, on pain of death, why they had disobeyed the Emperor, one of them said, “Sine Dominico non possumus”. “Without Sunday we cannot live” in other words, “We cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb”.

Without the Eucharist, we are not. This is our desert. For the laity, it is the absence of Mass. For me, it is Mass without a congregation. Our “Easter” will seem joyless. Christ has indeed veiled Himself from us and our Calvary has been extended beyond Easter. Acknowledging the fact that physically we all have to die one day, the lack of Mass is also a spiritual dying which we are called to. May this absence deepen our hunger for the Eucharist, the food for the Resurrection. More than faith in our self-machination[2] or our prowess, perhaps, we should also turn earnestly to our Lord who has chosen to veil Himself from us. He alone is the Lord of life and death—not science, not even social distancing. He is the Lord of the Resurrection and the Life. The Resurrection belongs to eternity and eternity cannot be contained in this temporal realm.  Let us turn to the Lord of eternity for help in our sickly world, to give us back our Masses—the viaticum needed for our Calvary and our Resurrection.

[1] The 5th Sunday of Lent coincides with the 1st Sunday of the ancient season of Passion-tide. Before 1962, the present 5th Sunday was called Passion Sunday (the week that followed was called Passion Week) and the subsequent Sunday was called Palm Sunday (which flowed into Holy Week). With the revised calendar, both Passion and Palm Sundays coalesced to become The Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. However, what has remained of the ancient season of Passion-tide is an option to mark the change of pace that began with the 5th Sunday. At the end of the Gospel of Passion Sunday (that is, following the old liturgy), the line goes like this: Jesus hid Himself and left the temple (John 8:59, also cf Jn 12:36b). Hence, the tradition is to veil our statues inside and outside the Church. This veiling is to remind us of the Redeemer’s humiliation so as to imprint the image of the crucified Christ more deeply on our hearts. It is also a form of fasting of the eyes. As Jesus hid His divinity to undergo the Passion, we deprive ourselves of His glory until we experience it at the Resurrection of Easter Vigil.
[2] Many hold this belief that the solutions to myriad problems of the world are to be found in technology, economics and material progress. Thus, the supreme good is “well-being” in order to enjoy life. Suffering is to be avoided. Even God must also fit into the philosophy of “well-being”. At present, science has become our “god” because only science can deliver the cure for the virus. God, if He even existed, is only for those who are weak (and opium-starved). Thus, if dependence on God gives psychological comfort, so be it. Otherwise, God should be kept out of the search for whatever solutions to the problems that ail man. There is no indication that many of man’s material problems have spiritual roots. In interpreting Canon Law, the principle is Salus animarum lex suprema, the salvation of souls is the highest law. The question to ask in this “protection” against the contagion is to what purpose are human lives saved, if the souls are eternally lost? The fight against coronavirus is helped by faith in God and not by its destruction. The Church should be at the forefront of this fight. At present, even though we cannot gather, the Church should spear-head the fight through our prayers. Praying in virtual gathering is OK but praying in close physical contact is anathema considering that the reigning “god” is science. Not that we abandon precaution but scientific “precaution” has a tendency to be tyrannical since it commands our total obeisance whilst instilling fear and because it cannot brook the God that is its author.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

4th Sunday of Lent Year A (Laetare Sunday) 2020

The Gospel is an invitation to ponder the situation that we are suffering under. The prevailing philosophy for the Jews of Jesus’ time accepted a causal connexion between sin and sickness. If you were sick, it is the result of sin. So, when asked, Jesus did not entirely dispute the causal link between sin and sickness[1] but instead invited the disciples to acknowledge the sovereignty of God. Through this healing of the blind man, God will be glorified.

Sadly, the healing had to be controversial as it took place on a Sabbath. Here, we can immediately detect the catechetical undertone. We witness the slow process of darkening on the part of the so-called glitterati of the time—the theologians and scriptural scholars; those who have reason to pride themselves as knowledgeable in matters of God. Whereas the one who was physically blind gained sight and slowly but surely moved from sight to insight. He progressed into the light first through the recognition of Jesus as a prophet and then acknowledgement by worshipping Jesus as the Lord.

For our elect, we hope that at this juncture of their faith journey they too are moving like the man born blind towards the light of belief. For us, we pray that we will be spared the blinkers of the Pharisees, a hardening of the heart that blinds them to the glaringly available evidence. In other words, they can see and yet are so sightless or clueless.

In the current crisis of Covid-19, what is most glaring for us? What can it teach us? That this disease is a sign that God is punishing us? Note the question mark. The saints dare to make this connexion. St Bernadine of Siena said that pestilence or plague, famine and wars are three indications of God’s chastisement.[2] Today we shy away from such pronouncement. It does not fit into our beautiful notion of a merciful God—the Responsorial Psalms say as much—the Lord is my Shepherd. We have a God hopelessly in love with humanity. This God cares too much for us that He suffers with us. So, in our pains and deaths, God is suffering too. Indeed, misery seeks company!

Apparently, a bishop tried to explain the provenance of the virus as nature’s aberration. If you like, nature is like a stepmother to us. Thus, it should never be explained as God’s punishment, never mind that the virus arose from creation which has God as the author. In trying to excuse God as one who punishes, we end up not with a merciful God but rather a God who is weak and does not dare to exact justice. This image is definitely a poster child of a deistic god.

Furthermore, our “ecological” bent has lulled us into subscribing a notion that nature is pure and uncontaminated, whereas man is the polluter. We are shown pictures of plastic swirling in the Pacific Ocean and no prize for guessing who the culprit is: Man. On the one hand, the truth about nature is that it is more a stepmother to us than it is a mother and therefore nature can be a source of contamination for man. Try drinking natural water from an untreated source that flows through rocks saturated with cadmium? Thus, on this point, the bishop was right. But, on the other hand, the truth about Man is that he should have dominion over nature as a steward. It is a dominance that allows us to live in this world. Have you noticed that a place falls into ruin when it is abandoned? Nature takes over. In its pristine state, nature can be unforgiving and hostile. The point about this relationship between man and nature is that we have stewardship and our duty, if we follow the Lord’s command, is to humanise nature and not the other way around where we “comport” or naturalise ourselves so that the earth can be our mother. 

One thing for sure is that punishment or not, like the man born blind, the healing was God’s power manifested. If judgement is one of the last four things, perhaps we should consider that God does punish us for our sins. The last time I checked, sacred scripture supports this view. Man meets his justice, sometimes in this world but definitely in heaven. However, cities or countries do not have heaven as their goal. Where do they encounter justice? Think Jonah and the city of Nineveh. God punishes cities or countries. Hence, the three chastisements of God are plague, famines and wars; they represent God’s judgement this side of the curtain of death.

Covid-19 is showing us that there is a God. In other words, we have sinned. We are sinners one and all. When Jonah preached repentance, even the animals sat in ashes. But we, instead of turning to God, we turn to our globalised world—no less a modern Babel. A Babel which promises the unity of a people without borders; a unity which we can forge on our own. What is this but a form of blindness, a darkening because this global village is a universalisation of production and consumption. We produce in ever greater quantity in order to consume and we consume without much care for creation. God is possibly saying to us, enough is enough. The globalisation which destroys space and boundary has now by a virus defeated through social distancing.
We are looking for a healing for the world. But healing is not just a vaccine. It is also salvific. This we can discern in the Latin word “salus”. It means both health and also salvation. Thus, in our attempts to stay healthy, we should also be concerned for our salvation. Instead of turning to God, we have placed our faith solely in our ability to “conquer” nature (virus). We have forgotten that sin does make for a sick society. Yes, we do want a merciful God without justice but that is merely indulgence. The fact that Jesus did not dispute the causal link between sin and sickness might give us pause to reflect that perhaps there is conversion that we called to.

We are told that social distancing is one of the ways to overcome the spread of the virus. No one is told that perhaps conversion is also necessary. The 2nd Reading asks us to live as children of light. What does that mean? Like the elect walking into sight, does it also mean shaking off the sins that cling to us? That being so, Covid-19, if it is not to be perceived as a punishment from God, should be a reminder to us that we ought to turn to Him for we have sinned. Enforced social distancing might seem like a prison of isolation but it could also be a favour from God to enter into the open space of prayer and conversion. It is an invitation to put out into the deep so that we can pray and be converted. This grace is a true expression of our Lenten journey.

[1] By saying that neither he nor his parents sinned, the Lord was not saying that they were sinless.
[2] Tria sunt flagella quibus dominus castigat.

Monday, 16 March 2020

3rd Sunday of Lent Year A 2020

The passage on the Samaritan Woman should be titled as the Lady IN the Well. She might as well be because she was not only looking for water but she appeared to be drowning in her search. The setting cannot be more controversial. To have an observant Jew speaking to a woman in public is definitely a taboo. To have drunk from her vessel would have rendered Him ritually unclean. Finally, there is the age-old animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews which would render their conversation next to impossible.

Conversation is an interesting word. The general sense is of talking to each other. But, more than 100 years ago, “criminal conversation” was a legal term denoting adultery. The word conversation actually shares the same root with another word conversion which is “to turn about with”. Here at the well, Jesus entered into a conversation with the woman leading to her conversion.

The story of her conversion can help us also in this situation of Covid-19.

In the case of the Samaritan woman “in” the well, she was looking for love, for fulfilment or for completion. In other words, she hungered for happiness. But, guess where she went looking for it? She had five husbands previously and now, she engages a “criminal conversation” with the present one.

In the long-drawn dialogue with Jesus, she was slowly led to her conversion. Jesus did not condemn her but through His gentle manner of exploring gave her enough space to recognise her own sinful situation as well as enough room to find a way out of it. This Sunday is the First Scrutiny for the Elect going for their Baptism. In their catechetical journey, we hope that through knowledge and kind understanding they too may acquire the strength and grace to change their lives.

Conversations should lead to conversion—to a change of heart, to a change for the better. We live a very polarised world; deeply divided by different ideologies that when someone says something it is not to enter into a conversation. One is either shouting out or being shouted down. Many of the so-called conversations take place within an echo chamber—where like-minded people gather virtually to exchange opinions similar to theirs; reinforcing one’s cherished views whilst rejecting alternative perspectives.

Conversion is often a slow process but, in a culture fattened by instant gratification, we seem to think that it is just a matter of willing. I want to change and I will change. The truth is, it usually happens this way: One step forward and maybe two steps backward. Often it is painful because it requires stripping away whatever false security that we have padded ourselves with. Just like the woman in the well. She thought her happiness was to be found in fleeting relationships. Hence, she needed strength to walk away from her criminal conversation.

For us, the conversation on Covid-19 has not led to conversion. We have ended up in fear. In the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman we witness the power of mercy in conversion. Perhaps we can learn this especially when we are engaged in conversation with those whom we want to kill or those who want to kill us. Patience and charity must colour our conversation even for those whom we think do not deserve it. Conversation, when soothed by the milk of charity can lead to a change of heart.

In some ways we can discern this process of conversion taking shape in the Diocese, praying and hoping that it will bear the necessary fruits. The 4Es of the Diocesan thrust begins with an encounter and ends with evangelisation. Interestingly, Pope Francis’ first Apostolic exhortation is entitled Evangelii gaudium. There, the Pope urges Christians to renew their personal encounter with Jesus Christ so that like the Samaritan woman who encountered Christ at the well, we can be enlightened and empowered to evangelise. Her profound conversion ended up with her becoming a joyful evangelist. She left everything at the well to go back to the village to tell them that she had found the only One who could ever fulfil her deepest desire.

We have no public Masses. It does sound like a defeat or a failure. But it could also be a blessing in disguise. In place of Masses, we have the Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Lent’s fasting and almsgiving are both practices of self-emptying; stripping ourselves of the false securities that cannot satisfy us completely. We are used to Masses or maybe even take them for granted. Now deprived of it, we begin to appreciate Whom we are receiving. Thus, the silent Adoration before the Lord present in the Eucharist is our act of purification. We come before the Lord whom now we cannot receive to beg Him to spare us so that we can once again receive Him. Perhaps at the end of the purification, we can hope that the Churches will be crowded but this time with people who have been deprived of the Eucharist. Sometimes we need to lose something in order to discover and appreciate the great Gift we had taken for granted—the Lord who alone is our fulfilment.