Sunday, 26 April 2020

3rd Sunday of Easter Year A 2020

I know. It is already the 3rd Sunday and it feels like our passage out of the tomb is similar to being trapped in a never-ending maze. There appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel except to forge ahead in this meandering labyrinth. The Gospel this Sunday can help us in this pilgrimage. Given the present paucity in the public celebration of the Mass, the road to Emmaus is just as well a good place to begin a reflexion on this unique situation where the Mass is absent in the lives of so many who hold the truth of the Real Presence.
It is an accepted interpretation that the trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus which ends with the Lord breaking bread is an ambulatory depiction of the Mass we celebrate. Just as in our regular Sunday Eucharist which is broadly composed of two liturgies—of the Word and of the Eucharist—He began by enlightening the minds of the two disciples with Scriptures: “Then starting with Moses, He explained to them the passages through the Scriptures about Himself”. Secondly, to crown the day, He celebrated the liturgy of His own Body and Blood: “While He was at table with them, He took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them”. This narrative gives us the familiar phrase that “They recognised Him at the Breaking of Bread”.

Well and good but somehow at the start, the two Disciples also expressed something which may resonate with us today. Even though quite a few have expressed that the lifting of the lockdown would not be soon, those of us who are waiting for the curtain to lift are impatient at this extended intermission. We hear at the start of the conversation with Jesus that the two had harboured expectations: “We had hope”. Some of us too have hoped that we can somehow return to the life which we know so well.

We are, after all, Homo Consumptor (or in mock or dog Latin, Homo Consumericus). Our entire economic life is premised on this cycle of exploitation, production, and consumption. The closure of malls has only witnessed the explosion of online shopping—our courier services are not only overwhelmed by delivery deadlines but are also laughing their merry ways to the banks. Furthermore, we are expecting oil price to rebound once the supply chain that feeds our consuming habits cranks up again.

To match this consuming philosophy, the coronavirus pandemic is considered merely a glitch of nature, as it were. And if Louis Vuitton can conscript or re-purpose its production line to manufacture face masks, you can imagine how every endeavour is directed to the discovery of the elusive vaccine to help us, not so much as to live healthily but to return to a life we have come to expect as typically ours as a Homo Consumptor. Imagine what the so-called “new normal” of social distancing would do to an economy that rests solely on the consumption of leisure?

What is relevant to us is if we would dare to run against conventional wisdom that this nature’s glitch could also be God appearing and speaking to us. Just like what He did to the two oblivious Disciples in their despairing departure from Jerusalem. Of course, our current theology does not permit a God who dares to punish us let alone chastise us. We have imprisoned God in a gilded cage of mercy without justice. A capricious God is not reasonable, it would appear, for it would harken back to the days of the Olympian deities easily insulted and wounded by our insolence.

However, canon law possibly provides us with what is more in tune with our understanding of God. Whatever penalty we find therein, its aim is never punitive but rather rehabilitative, restorative, and finally redemptive. The Mass was once commonly called the Holy Sacrifice. The notion of redemption gels with the language of sacrifice. He offered His life as a sacrifice in order to redeem us and to restore us to grace. Hence, if God were to punish us, He is not out to even the score or to get even with us—a kind of tit for tat. No. If at all, God punishes, it is in order to reconcile us to Himself as St Alphonsus de Ligouri characterised in the prayer of a sinner: O God I have so much offended you, chastise me in this life, that you may spare me in the next”.

Perhaps, Covid-19 is the pause we all so needed for the purification (or to use the argot du jour, sanitisation) of our expectations. Whatever the cause of this viral affliction, be it nature’s caprice or God’s punishment, we are being purified. God’s wrath and His mercy are not polar opposites or mutually exclusive but rather they are two sides of a coin. Even if we choose the think Covid-19 in terms of eco-catastrophe as the result of our misuse of freedom, it belongs to the permissive will of God that we are being afflicted by this pandemic to turn us back to God.

We are in the darkness of a long and lengthy Lent. But there have been lights shining if only we are attuned to them. It is not the light of commercial success—like the “ka ching” of online shopping. Rather, the pollution over parts of China, the mass and cheap production centre of the world, has improved and here in our country, even our rivers are cleaner now. Once we return to normalcy, we may have to rethink our cycle of consumption to replace it possibly with an economy that better expresses what it means to be graced human rather than how much we can regain commercially. It may be true that the market is about life, but life is not entirely about the market. Scarcity, competition, and consumption are not the only invisible hand that runs the economy. When the lockdown is lifted, there will be wounded to be cared for. Even now, they are already showing up on our radar. How do we mobilise the other invisible hand of Christian charity, so that the human landscape can better mirror the image of Christ? St Peter puts it through the language of grace in the 2nd Reading to live worthily the new state of life which we have gained through Christ’s Resurrection. Thus, caring for those injured by the pandemic is witnessing to Christ who has risen and is also alive in us.

This economy of sharing, giving and self-sacrifice is established on His memory, not on a virtual memory of Him. The two disciples’ experience walking to Emmaus establishes the paradigm for who the Church is and how central the Eucharist is to her identity. The Eucharist should belong to the essential services because Christ the Lord Himself wants to feed us with His Body and Blood. We should never be content with this virtual feeding but creatively must look for ways, within the law, to allow this essential service to be available in spite of everything.

Finally, Dietrich Bonhoeffer commenting on the Church as the Body of Christ said something to this effect that “Christ’s body (the Church) takes up physical space here on earth. The body of Jesus Christ can only be a visible body or else it is not a body at all”. For now, we seem to be trapped in this isolating tomb of “Eucharistic fast” and worshipping in exile, almost in a disembodied Church. Yet, we are resolutely hopeful because the Lord is still sacramentally present in both word and sacrament to the small the community we have, as in 3 religious sisters and a sacristan. In hope we pray for the end to this prohibition of providing this essential service, a cure for Covid-19 and most of all, we pray that this deprivation of the Mass will only deepen our love for His Sacramental Presence.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

2nd Sunday of Easter Year A 2020

We are still within the Octave of Easter. The Resurrection is still fresh in the experience of the Apostles. It should be ours as well. Sadly, all around, we are reminded that we might still be in the tomb. So, let us focus on what the Resurrection is and what it implies for us.

Have you watched DC’s Justice League of 2017? There you get a glimpse of the “resurrection”. Superman has died and the world is deep in disturbance. Fuelled by the selfless sacrifice of Superman, Bruce Wayne, our Batman makes a stand against the evil forces of Steppenwolf bent on retrieving the three Mother Boxes. But then, Batman cannot do it without Superman. So, with his newly-formed band of superheroes—Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg, they devise a way to bring Superman back. Using one of the Mother Boxes, they managed to “resurrect” Superman.

That is where the analogy ends.

Superman was revived. He was not resurrected. Much like Lazarus when he was brought back to life. Both Lazarus and Superman are a type of Christ, but both needed to be revived. Even the mighty Superman who is formidable needed outside help to return. If anything, Superman’s revival shows us how stupendous the Resurrection is. It is beyond this world. 

Today we catch the Resurrected Christ appearing to His disciples behind closed doors. He alone is the Risen one because He rose through His own power. He fulfilled the challenge He issued to the authorities: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again”. The Resurrection was not the result of the Apostles’ faith. It was not because they believed in the Resurrection that it was so. Rather, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, their many experiences of Jesus after His death paved a path for them to embrace the reality of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is ultimately a statement about the human body. It is not easy to accept that the human body can be raised to life. If Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain, Jairus’ daughter or even Superman have anything to teach us, it is that they are merely foretastes of the Resurrection.

However, our current cosmology is scientifically based. It is not established on a foundation of abracadabra or magic. There is no place in science for this possibility. Dead means dead. The truth is, then and now, ever since the Fall, humanity has struggled with the idea of the Resurrection. Man has grappled with the feasibility that fallen humanity can be raised from the dead. In one shape or another, we have contended with the practicality of salvation. One of the earliest forms was the Gnostics who rejected created flesh as a worthy vehicle for salvation. How could God take upon Himself fallen flesh? The Resurrection is not necessary for salvation, hidden knowledge is.

In our days, a subtle indicator of the rejection of the Resurrection is to be gleaned from the dystopian movies and series available. Dystopia is the unacknowledged stepchild of the Culture or Civilisation of Death. It is an apocalypse that projects despair and desperation into our future. Hence, in place of The Lord of the Rings, we have The Game of Thrones. In place of angels welcoming us, we have zombies falling over themselves trying to eat us alive. There you have it, a grim a picture of a future doomed to hell.

The belief in the Resurrection belongs to the cosmic battle that is taking place and if are unaware of it, then we are merely pawns. But if we are, then our task is to enrol ourselves as soldiers. Firstly, as soldiers, we do not die. No. it does not mean that there is no death. War memorials to the fallen soldiers are testimonies that soldiers live on in memory and in a way, they represent eternity. As a symbol of the Resurrection, a monument to the dead reminds us that death is not the end of our story.

Secondly, as soldiers, the cosmic conflict we are embroiled in, can be observed in the war on humanity that seeks to render humanness, meaning, that which makes us essentially human, a danger. We have been introduced to the ultimate anxiety of the 21st century, that is, man is the virus. In Gen 2;7, when God fashioned man out of dust, He breathed into his nostrils a breath of life. Today’s Gospel has Jesus breathing on His apostles. The human breath which stands as the biblical metaphor for life has become death. In Covid-19, everyone is now potentially my death. Ironically, social distancing, which seeks to preserve life actually proclaims rather loudly death’s potentiality: “Stay away just in case you become my death”.

The war on humanness has implications for our Sacraments as we see even now. The cancellation of Masses is just one of them. The Sacraments are ritualised expressions of the Incarnation. When God took on human flesh, He made it possible for us to receive Him through the instrumentality or mediation of creation—hence, water, oil, bread, wine, and the human person of the priest. Mediation is concrete and real. It is not immediate or virtual because humanness by its nature is “contactual”. For example, artisanal bakers or pasta/ramen makers and in our case, the roti canai man. When they make the bread or ramen or prata with their hands, what does that mean? Are we just eating bread, ramen or prata or could there also be some skin shedding from the hands of the person who makes them?

The whole idea of eating a piece of bread with the baker’s skin shedding or perhaps added with his dripping sweat is rather revolting. We might not look at the artisanal bread, ramen, or a roti canai in the same way again. But, if you think about it, there is that much of “cannibalism” involved in these processes that they make the Eucharist rather tame by comparison; eating the Body of Christ is not revolting as anti-Catholics would suggest. Not that we are eating the skin of Jesus or anything of that sort in the Eucharist but rather that there is humanness involved when we interact with one another. In fact, the Body of Christ contains the full humanity of Jesus more than the “humanness” that goes into making of bread, ramen or canai.

On Friday 17th April, the Pope warned of the danger that we may lose sight of the communal dimension of Christian life. What is this “communal dimension” if not the mass or sea of humanity? Life-streamed Masses are good because we seek a familiarity with God, but this familiarity is communal in nature. It is intimate, it is personal, but it is also communal. Otherwise, it is private and close to Gnosticism when detached from the community.

Covid-19 reveals that we may be living two separate lives. One which holds the belief in the Resurrection. It is official and we profess it. But, in reality, it functions like a social convention since Christianity is based on the Resurrection but it does not have much of an impact on us. The other life which is more central to how we behave is that we do not believe that there is more to life after death. We have become so afraid of dying that the Resurrection makes no sense at all. Whether or not Jesus rose from the dead is immaterial because there is no humanity to save.

Without denigrating the difficulties and the sacrifices of the men and women in the frontline who are battling with Covid-19, the ban on religious services, in the case of Catholicism, merely highlights this social veneer of the Resurrection. In this climate of suspicion of anything that is human, what meaning does the Resurrection have? It has none. Without our humanity, what is there to talk about the Resurrection?

Today is Mercy Sunday—a reminder that Christ entered the human situation in order to save it. We are worth His Incarnation. He did not die for rubbish. He died for man so that we can enjoy the Resurrection. We are worth His dying for as He is worth our living for. This war on humanity readily viralises man, the Church, and the Sacraments. Both the Church and the Sacraments are concrete expressions of the Incarnation and therefore they touch on our humanness. According to Pope Francis, “This is the Church of a difficult situation, which the Lord allows but the ideal of the Church is always with the people and with the Sacraments”. The Church was sent by the Risen Christ to the teeming masses of humanity; not to hide in the cave of the isolation. So, let us pray for the end to this seclusion so that we can come out of the tomb and once again, through His Church, be touched by the Lord in His Sacraments.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Easter Sunday 2020

We continue with the saga of the Resurrection and this morning the focus in on the empty tomb. Note the irony. From Christ Himself, we hear that He compared Himself to Jonah and since Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days, He said He would remain in the earth for three days after which He would rise again. He also told them that His Body was the Temple, and should they destroy It, He would rebuild It in three days. He was quite clear that there would be the Resurrection. But, from the Jewish religious authorities, He was nothing but a charlatan. They branded Him a deceiver. And yet, they had a sentinel posted at the entrance to the tomb, just in case the dead body should come back to life. So, maybe, just maybe, they instinctively recognise what He was saying as something they should believe in.

As for the sentinel posted, one could explain the fear arising not from the possibility of the Resurrection but rather on an apprehension that the disciples might come back to steal the body. This fear was unfounded for the simple reason that the followers of Jesus also never expected the Resurrection. Mary of Magdala brought aloes and spices to embalm the body. The had to rush to entomb the body as Sabbath was approaching. Hence, at the entrance of the empty tomb, the women thought that someone had removed the body. Furthermore, Peter and the other 10 stayed away until they were summoned. Added to this, we read in Luke of the two the disciples making their way to Emmaus.

No one had expected the Resurrection. No one.

Thus, the empty tomb is the crux of our belief in the Resurrection. Christianity stakes its authenticity on whether or not Christ rose from the dead. St Paul in the 1st Letter to the Corinthians could not have said more clearly: “And if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless”.

Through the Resurrection we have been saved. Now, sin and death no longer have their eternal hold over us. We take confidence in the fact that, through Him, His victory is ours too. No tomb can ever hold the Lord in. However, the empty tomb and the Resurrection require not just a holding on to but also a letting go of. The icon of the Anastasis or the Resurrection, otherwise known as the Harrowing of Hades, shows Jesus before the Resurrection entering Hell in order to set free those who have died. In one rendition of the icon, we see Jesus reaching out to pull Adam and Eve from the grave. Holding on to Jesus, both Adam and Eve had to let go of the tomb.

We can feel so overwhelmed by life as if we are trapped in our tombs—of anger, depression, hatred, perversion. When Christ rose from the dead, He broke these chains that keep us tethered within our tomb. He leads us out of these tombs into life. Thus, when everything seems to be out of control, we are not afraid because we can rest on the certainty that Christ Jesus has the ultimate victory. To follow Him, we must hold on to Him. Faith in the Resurrection means that we must let go of the tomb.

But there may be a crisis. We claim to be a Resurrection people but there may be a crisis of belief in the Resurrection. Firstly, some people live in opulent plenty. A good life is not seen in terms of a preparation for the coming future, a future after death. Instead, a good life is conceived of mostly in a material sense. For many people there is a desire for a better life. And like everything material, we find it hard to stop. Hoarding is perhaps symptomatic of this desire for material well-being. Material wealth has become the standard of or measure for success. Every parent wants his or her child to be up there. Does a parent ever wish his or her child to be a rubbish collector? Whether we like it or not, material wealth is not a reliable benchmark for a good life. Morality is for our goal is to live a good life not have a good life.

When life becomes so good, the horizon of the Resurrection can be obscured. We can be lulled into thinking and believing that this is the only life there is. In other words, our goal is to live a long life and to enjoy it. When the goal of life is its prolongation, we will be afraid to die. We are afraid to leave this material tomb in order to follow Jesus. We witness this crisis of the Resurrection especially when death claims a loved one. Some people grieve as if the end of a life is the end. Fullstop. This is a world that cannot imagine a life beyond the good life we have.

Today, the empty tomb stands as witness to a life that goes beyond this life. Fulfilment is not just a this-worldly word but it also the other-worldly word. Just think of all the injustice of life that never saw justice. For example. Cardinal Pell, if he were not vindicated by the court in this life, it is not a failure on his part. It is not the end. It may be a failure of justice on the part of the Australian court but what is important if we hold on to the Resurrection is that Cardinal will see his justice in the next life if he did not get it here. This is the meaning of the Resurrection. For every man or woman or child, whose life is cut short, whom life has dealt most unfairly the deck of cards, the Resurrection is the guarantee that what we do not have in this world, the Lord will ensure that justice be seen. Thus, we do not need to have the last word in every fight. We do not need to win every time. God knows and He will make right what this life does not and cannot give. But only if we believe that there is the Resurrection.

Peter and John ran to the tomb. They saw and they believed. For many people, seeing is the only path to believing. But Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who do not see yet believe”. We believe so that we might see and experience the Resurrection here and also in the life to come. He is Risen. Alleluia.