Sunday, 31 May 2020

Pentecost Year A 2020

The Father and the Son are both conspicuously highlighted in the Bible whereas we get an inkling of the Holy Spirit. Today is His feast. Who is the Holy Spirit for sometimes we still hear people pray, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost”. The word “spirit” comes from either the Hebrew “ruah” or Greek “pneuma” denoting wind or breath. Both these words connote or imply the giving of life as we read that when God created man, He breathed into man’s nostrils to give him life. Ironical is it not, that in our mask-compulsory masses, that is gathering of people, imagine that nothing is more deadly than a breath of life. 

But, for now, just suppose that the Upper Room is filled with frightened folks, cowed by the spectre of barging-in Jewish authorities. In the quiet Cenacle, visualise the instance, when lighting in the room changes and tongues of divided fires appearing to rest on the heads of those gathered around Mary the Mother of Jesus—a flaring flame that neither burns nor scorches. But the effect was beyond radiance or brilliance—for from a dispirited and petrified band of followers, a vitalised and vivified company of Apostles emerges. 

Caged by the lockdown, afraid of contagious contacts, we sense a similarity between the Upper Room and our homes. We read of police arrests for those daring to flout the CMCO. Perhaps waiting despairingly or anticipating eagerly to break free of this oppressive prison, we can highlight the enthusiasm that the Holy Spirit is as we recall the revitalisation and the revival of a group of frightened men into fearless messengers. In an age of victims (note the burning in the USA), diversity and inclusivity, it is easy to latch onto the excitement of change or progress promised by the Holy Spirit. 

Our idea of progress or change is tied to the notion of novelty. In changing, we want to see the world a better place. Associated with this developmental notion of change is that life will become easier, safer and pleasurable. The movie Elysium depicts the human masses who are suffering on earth and aspiring desperately to live in this created habitat up in the sky where life is just fabulous. Imagine, cancer can be cured not even with a touch of a button but by voice activation. Just tell the artificial intelligence to alter the DNA of your genetic make-up, reverse your ageing body and when a body part breaks down, you can 3-D regenerate one. Would you not say that our lockdown whose aim is to prevent death is but a pathetic copy of this Elysian fantasy of blessed bliss? 

What the Holy Spirit did was not the shift we think change is supposed to be. Yes, there was change as the 1st Reading narrates how a group of devout men from around the Mediterranean basin suddenly understands these excited Apostles, each in his own language. But the Holy Spirit did not change the circumstances in which these men carried out their preaching. The Roman Empire did not suddenly become a better place to live in. If anything, the Roman Empire became even more violent toward those who were called Christians. What the Holy Spirit did was to transform the Apostles into fearless witnesses. 

The mission of the Holy Spirit is to assist us to become better Christians. Whilst He does not make this place hip or hunky-dory, He does apportion gifts. We hear this in the 2nd Reading. The diversity of gifts is not “personal” the way we understand personal as pertaining to the individual. Thus, gifts are remotely individualistic in terms of personal expressions as in what the ideology of inclusivity wants us to accept. Instead, there is a Body which the Spirit wants to create. 

It is the same Spirit that hovered over creation at its beginning who now ushers in a new dispensation or economy of salvation that is concretised or actualised through the birth of the Church. The Church assisted by the Holy Spirit inaugurates the new creation of humanity. As we heard in the reading, out of every tongue, the Holy Spirit forges of a new human family in the praise and service of God. Hence, the different or diverse gifts are all for the good of the Body which is the Church. 

So, in desiring change, creativity, or novelty we may miss the forest for the trees. Yes, we do not read a lot about the Holy Spirit, but He is right there at the beginning of creation and as well as the birth of the Church. For in the midst of the new dispensation or direction of which the Church symbolises, the presence of Holy Spirit is both a testimony of Christ’s work done on earth as well as the continuation of His work. If Pentecost is Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit, then the Spirit is the continued presence of Christ in the Church. 

To say that we know practically nothing of the Holy Spirit only reveals how little we know of our faith. The Catechism reminds us that through the Church we know the Spirit and there is an aspect of the continuity of Christ through the Spirit which we all may have taken for granted. And it is highlighted for us these days of the lockdown and social distancing. In the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ. 

For many of us, one word to describe the Sacraments could be this: boring. It is ritualistically rigid and formally flat. Surely the Holy Spirit cannot be contained by such constraints. As we crave creativity and change, we may have forgotten that progress is not just novelty but also continuity. So, if Pentecost marks the birth of the Church, then she is the living Body of Christ. As the Sacrament of His salvation, she continues in her pilgrimage to heaven through the exercise of Christ’s ministry in the world, so as to bring humanity into greater conformity with Him. St. Augustine taught us, "what the soul is to man's body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church. The Holy Spirit does in the whole Church what the soul does in the members of the one body." The Spirit is “boringly” a Spirit of continuity. 

Through the Holy Spirit, every Sacrament is the liturgical action of Christ Himself through the instrumentality of the Church. Thus, the bread and wine are changed truly, really, and substantially into presence of Jesus Christ—for we must eat and drink of Him in order to have eternal life. Many people have been deprived of the Sacraments. Whilst in these days of the pandemic, where the preservation of life seems to have become the paramount goal, the celebration of Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit’s power is not the prolongation of earthly life but rather the gift of the Holy Spirit is to fulfil Christ’s promise for us to enter into heavenly life with Him. We continue to pray for the end of the pandemic so that the Sacraments of eternity may be restored to all who are struggling on this pilgrimage to eternity.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

7th Sunday of Easter Year A 2020

This would be Day 3 of what could be considered the original novena. The Pentecost or Holy Spirit Novena took place when Jesus instructed the Apostles to remain in Jerusalem. If the Ascension were celebrated today, then we might just miss out on what a Novena is all about. The Eleven had returned to Jerusalem and there, gathered in the Upper Room together with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and some others, they waited in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Waiting-in-prayer has taken an unplanned but central role in our lives these days. What do I mean by this? 

At the start of the lockdown, stopped in our tracks, the widespread prediction was that people would soon get fat from depression bingeing. When this is over, we will be seeing lot of bursting or bulging waistlines. Instead, the contrary is true. Quite a number of people have slimmed down. Hanging in the air is a fog of anxiety created by our powerlessness. As the race continues with the search for a vaccine to Covid-19, we seem to have our back against the wall. In many places, the stranglehold on the economy is not viable or sustainable in the long run. There are two aspects of human life that we should take note of. One is that power abhors a vacuum. When a king is weak, there will be plotting behind his back. Our backdoor government is a prime example. The “Old Man” is not as powerful as he was before. Two is that the economy cannot stop. Right now, the CMCO is merely lip service to the contagion containment exercise because people without work will soon starve. 

This Sunday of waiting gives us a chance to see us for who we truly are. We are dependent creatures and for the longest time, we believe that we are in control of our destiny. Much like the Apostles. Prior to the Passion, Jesus predicted their loss of faith but Peter, brash and not a little arrogant said, “Though all lose faith in you, I will not lose faith… Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mt 26:35). Elsewhere, in John’s Gospel, Peter said, “I will lay down my life for you” (13:37). We witnessed how scattered they were when the Shepherd was stuck. Strong, generous and brave they were not because pride blinded them to their weakness. So, in the Upper Room, the Apostles teach us what it means not to be in control. The Good Shepherd truly knows His sheep, and He tells them to remain in Jerusalem. For the task He has entrusted to them, they will need His strength. There in the Cenacle, they experienced first-hand that waiting is praying. 

However, the suggestion of praying might seem insufficient for us as we are unaccustomed to helplessness. We are uncomfortable with powerlessness because our scientific skills and technological triumphs have lulled us into thinking that we are in control. At this moment, our saviour is the elusive vaccine that medical science is chasing after. Whereas, God has been reduced to the option of last recourse. How often have we turned to prayer the moment we encountered difficulties? Or, more naturally, do we not automatically think of a solution on our own first because we believe in our own capabilities and that we only turn to God when all else failed? The truth is, the more powerful we are, the more we need God. Science on the other hand generates a false disproportionality, that is, only the weak needs God. Hence, the original novena restores the right relationship we have with God by teaching us prayer and showing us that dependence is not a disability nor weakness.

Today is also Communication Sunday. We associate communication with preaching. However, praying also communicates. It is easier to spring into action because we are result-oriented. When success is predicated on output, it makes praying a losing proposition because it is not profitable—for most people, a waste of valuable time. But, praying communicates or expresses the correct relationship we have as creatures with God. 

We have received the pastoral directive that churches will remain shut for as long as the MCO is in place. If we consider this Easter as a prolonged Lent, we can also think of this pandemic as an extended novena—a sustained or protracted period of waiting and praying. If the prophets can cry out, “How long, Lord, do we have to cry for help”? We should pray like them. Interestingly, the word “patience” is related to both waiting and suffering. We are waiting for God and at the same time, many are suffering. 

While these nine days are a time of waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, we can also look at it as the Lord, through our suffering of Him seemingly not answering our prayers, is teaching us to look at the world differently. When a person breathes in an odour for a long time, after a while, he gets used to the scent that it no longer registers for him. Take your pick, fragrance, or flatulence, when you smell it all the time, it does not register any more. Same with us. Two phenomena might help us understand this lingering pandemic. The way we have treated the environment—not as stewards but as exploiters. Or the economic migrants. We are used to a certain way of doing things that we no longer think about them and their consequences.[1] 

Perhaps, we are now called to be more conscious of our responsibilities towards the environment as well as to those who never get a fair share of the economic pie. Our guards for example. The two of them work 7 days a week. Would you ever want to see your husband or son to slave like that? So, rather than viewing this unproductive period as God’s punishment, we can look at it as God’s gift to us, to wean us from the unquestioned status quo—destruction of the environment or exploitation of labour. When the pandemic is over, it is conceivable that we cannot go back to model of “business as usual” in the way we treat the environment and the manner in which we “consume” labour. When people are hungry, competition which is the norm of our economic engagement may need to embrace cooperation as an improved paradigm for progress. This type of conversion does not happen overnight. 

It is not surprising that this original novena is not popular. Instead, we have novenae to the Divine Mercy, St Jude and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. Many novenae centre on asking whereas the Holy Spirit is given so that we may conform ourselves more fully to Christ. We do not always get what we want. Hence, these days we give ourselves to God for Him through the Spirit to shape us for the mission of the Son—Go baptise in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Thus, this is a time of patient waiting. In this pandemic, we have come to recognise that even though we are at the top of the food chain, we are not invincible. In fact, nothing is more vulnerable than to be on top. Only God is truly invincible. We are shown during this contagion what it means to be waiting for God. The waiting has not been easy, and it is definitely not pleasant. There could be more purification for us to undergo before we see the light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, we have a lot of praying to do. Like the Apostles gathered around our Lady, we can do no better than to pray.


[1] A good example is the description we have of social or physical distancing as the “new” normal. New normal in itself is an amoral description. It chronicles the way things are now. Almost like, take it for what it is and move on. Whereas, abnormal is a term which is morally loaded. We have taken it for granted that the environment is basically raw resources for our exploitation as much as cheap labour is material capital. The “new” in “new normal” provides space for changes to be accepted without questioning the cost of the change. In terms of ecological sustainability, we have been advocating the reduction of single-use plastic because of its environmental impact. But, with new normal since it is amoral, single-use packaging has become the accepted standard. It is possibly better to characterise what have now as abnormal. However, one needs to be careful here because the “old” normal was not “sin-free” as it also required critique for its profiteering and consumeristic attitude.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Ascension Year A 2020

Have you watched Ratatouille? An animated movie that glorified a rather simple vegetarian dish. The title plays on the word “rat”. It is about a rodent with an acute sense of taste and smell, named Remy, who desired to be a cook. In one sequential scene, he nibbled a piece of cheese, sampled a bite of strawberry, and finally savoured both together, with each action animated in musical flurry that felt like a firework exploding in the oral cavity.

You would be wondering why this little description. If a rodent can be depicted to have such a pleasurable experience, you can imagine how magnified, many times over, sensual experiences will be for human beings. Presently, we have been asked to socially distance. A more appropriate term to describe this organisation of our social space is physical distancing because a huge facet of our life is physicality. We are not just souls but body and soul. Thus, a full life for us is a bodily life in which after our rising and assumption into heaven, and there, through our body, we will experience heavenly life in a more intense and profound manner.

Today, as the Gospel ends, the 1st Reading takes off. There, we catch a glimpse of where Jesus was heading to. The Ascension is a reminder of this possibility because it is at the same time, a celebration of our future. When the Lord ascended into heaven, He did not leave behind His human nature. He brought with Him, the very nature He shared with us. Literally, our experiences in heaven will be way beyond the phrase “out of this world”.

In itself, the Resurrection was definitely an unimaginable event. Certainly, it would be headline grabbing. Anywhere and anytime, a dead person coming back to life is newsworthy. However, we also remember that Lazarus came back to life. Or, the son of the widow of Nain. Or, Jairus’ daughter. Yet, the narratives of these three miracles of coming back to life left out a critical element—they all died again. Thus, the Ascension is the crucial difference between a resuscitation of a corpse and the resurrection of a body. Still bearing the wounds of His Passion in His glorified body, the risen Christ has ascended and is now seated at the right hand of the Father

As the previous translation of the preface suggests, Christ, the mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of all, has passed beyond our sight, not to abandon us but to be our hope. Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church; where He has gone, we hope to follow.[1]

From this we can gather that, risen and ascended, He has indeed opened the gates of heaven for His brothers and sisters. We have a future with Him that is not merely spiritual but also bodily. Secondly, whilst labouring on earth, we are not bereft of His presence. It is not as if He ascended and that is the end of the story. Yes, He left the Disciples but no, He did not abandon them and us.

Therefore, as the Disciples returned to Jerusalem, they were filled with joy because He departed promising the presence of His Holy Spirit. Accordingly, He will be with them through the Spirit. And we know how powerful the Spirit is acting in the Church and in the world.

However, the coming of the Holy Spirit might give us a fleeting feel that “physicality” is no longer involved in the sense that like the wind, the “spirit blows where it wants”—spontaneous and unencumbered. This image blends in with our notion of “freedom”. At times, it is even hinted that there exists a division between the Church and the Holy Spirit. The Church is regarded as too rigid whereas the Spirit is described as liberating.

Listen to what the Catechism has to say of the Church and the Holy Spirit and how they are related. The Church, a communion living in the faith of the apostles which she transmits, is the place where we know the Holy Spirit:- in the Scriptures He inspired; in the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses; in the Church's Magisterium, which He assists; in the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, in which the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ; in prayer, wherein He intercedes for us; in the charisms and ministries by which the Church is built up; in the signs of apostolic and missionary life; in the witness of saints through whom He manifests His holiness and continues the work of salvation. (CCC688)

Can the presence of the Holy Spirit be more tangibly conventional than this listing? It is not a wishy-washy Bohemian presence in which doing what we want is the highlight. For example, with regard to the Sacraments, as Pope St Leo the Great reminds us, “What was visible in the Redeemer has now passed into the Sacraments”. Every Sacrament we celebrate, it is Christ who, through the Spirit acting in the Church, is Himself celebrating it. So, whilst Christ is no longer with us in a physical way, still His presence is physical in a way because He makes Himself available to us through the Sacraments.

This perhaps explains why people are hungering for the sacraments especially the Sacrament of His True Presence. So many are asking for the churches to be reopened because they desperately need the assurance of His True Presence especially in this time of the pandemic.

Finally, if all creation came to be through Him, then the Ascension marks His return in which He brings with Him, not just our human nature, but the entirety of creation. In Him, the creation’s groanings find an answer. Yes, we still have the pandemic to contend with, but we are not living in hopelessness because, no matter how bad things are, He has established His Kingdom. In the Ascension, He showed us His dominion over all creation. All authority has been given Him. Even in this time where we feel defeated. Our hope is with Him because He has prevailed. He ascended, seated at the Father’s right hand, He pleads our case. If blood is thicker than water, heaven is certainly thicker than earth. Our lowly nature is glorified in Him. So, we have a future and we can do no better than to entrust our present plight to Him.


[1] The new translation reads like this: For the Lord Jesus, the King of glory, conqueror of sin and death ascended today to the highest heavens, as the Angels gazed in wonder. Mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of hosts, He ascended, not to distance Himself from our lowly state but that we, His members, might be confident of following where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

6th Sunday of Easter Year A 2020

As the weeks stretched into months, the extended movement control order seems to have prolonged our Lent even as Easter is drawing to its close. Though the exuberance or the energy of Easter is muted by the anxiety and fear surrounding the never-ending pandemic, we are never in total darkness. Yes, we can sense the end of Easter coming because four days from now we will mark the Ascension. However, as if we were watching a trailer of a movie, we catch a glimpse of the Pentecost of the Holy Spirit in the 1st Reading and are introduced to Him as the Advocate (Paraclete) in the Gospel. The passage taken from the Last Supper when read in the light of Easter gives us hope because we are now promised the Holy Spirit.

The coming of the Holy Spirit inaugurates a new dispensation or arrangement in the economy or plan of salvation. Christ who fulfilled the Father’s mission of redemption whilst He walked the earth will now continue to save the world through His Church. The same mission is carried out with the powerful assistance of the Holy Spirit. 

With the Holy Spirit, the Gospel is carried away from Jerusalem to Judaea, to Samaria and through Paul, to the ends of the world. In the 1st Reading, we note Philip the deacon, whose election is recorded in the Acts, had successfully evangelised the Samaritans (sworn enemies of the Jews) and they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. When the Apostles—Peter and John laid hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit. While the separation between baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit in a way prefigures the practice of reserving the Sacrament of Confirmation to the Bishop, the point was possibly to highlight the Pentecostal experience that they had of the Holy Spirit. 

Without a doubt, the success achieved by Philip should be attributed to the Holy Spirit. And yet, equally crucial to the ministration or preaching of the Gospel is the agency of the man. In other words, God works through His human instruments as St Teresa of Avila reminds us “Christ has no body now but yours”. Hence, Philip became the voice of the Holy Spirit. Philip did, as what St Peter exhorted “(A)lways have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have”. The agency of man is central to the spread of the Gospel. 

How do we evangelise? As a quotation goes, “You might be the only Gospel that others read”. Two points to take note of most especially in this time of pandemic. 

Firstly, we evangelise by becoming docile instruments of the Holy Spirit. By docile, it implies that we be active in knowing and living our faith. There is a correlation between theory and practice, orthodoxy and orthopraxis, or thinking and doing. As social distancing dictates, anything that is considered non-essential has ground to a stop. In terms of formation, our knowing may stagnate since we are not fed intellectually. Thankfully, the internet grants easy access to trusted knowledge banks which we can tap in. Instead of bingeing on Netflix, we could invest time in reading or updating. To be able to give reason for our hope requires that we nourish ourselves intellectually; grounding the knowledge of our faith on solid foundation so that we can testify to why we believe in what we believe in. 

Secondly, as we live in an age of constant surveillance and instant information, we have to deal with the reality of what is called the credibility gap. All one needs nowadays is to whip out a phone and voila, someone is virally famous or infamous as many cases are. Rightly or wrongly, the truth no longer resides in being true in itself meaning that it is not enough that truth is objective. Instead, truth is narrowly defined as credibility in the sense that no matter how objective it is, it does not matter if the person who states it does not adhere to it. In other words, veracity is gauged by hypocrisy. A good example is the statement that smoking bad is invalidated by a smoker who makes the assertion. Our challenge is that when truth is defined by “credibility”, the standard of morality will drop as the integrity-deficit of our decision makers can become an excuse for our lack of virtue or moral depravity. 

It is not supposed to be that way, but we live in an age of “seeing is believing”. Whether we like it or not, the articulation of one’s actions speaks louder than the eloquence of one’s elocution. It is primarily through the manner of life that we evangelise the world. In short, holiness does not consist only of coming to Church. It requires that our Gospel be preached through our actions. 

When this pandemic is over, we will have to deal with the aftermath. We do not fully know what the effects of a sustained isolation are going to be like as we are dealing with the anxiety as to when this pandemic will tide over. For some people, the world might as well have ended because the lifting of the lockdown will see them out of employment. All the more, Christians need to give the reason for their hope. Hope does not take away the pain of suffering thought it can ground us in the certainty that even though we live in difficult times, God is still in charge. He who had bought us at the price of His Son’s life will not abandon us. It is not time to let go of our praying. That is why the rosary chain started at the beginning of the lockdown must continue. And all kinds of spiritual exercises that one is engaged in, continue with them. Though we are separated, we are not alone. Jesus is always there with and for us. Often, He uses His human instruments to reach those who are in need. 

Post-pandemic will truly be a test of morality as we become the voices, the hands, the feet, the eyes of Jesus in the world. It will be a great time of Catholic courage especially when we help rebuild society—this time by looking out for those at the fringes of society. A neighbouring country famed for her progress now realises that the contagion goes unabated not amongst her cultured and sophisticated natives but rather in the hidden and segregated immigrants. This is not a moment for smug sanctimony or virtuous self-satisfaction. We could be worse because our immigrants are not segregated. Instead, they are unseen, unacknowledged, and untested. Our infection numbers could be higher. The greater number amongst the crowded indentured workers merely highlights that our consuming lifestyle is not restricted to the consumption of material resources but is premised on the massive exploitation of cheap labour. Consumerism devours humanity because this unseen resource is someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, husband or wife. As Jesus cared for His sheep, we will also have a lot to care for. There was never a time when the Church did not rise to the occasion when she was needed—she educated the poor and she cared for the sick. Today, we will have to tend to those who fall by the wayside because they cannot keep up with the race to material prosperity. 

Finally, St Paul VI in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi says “for the Church, the first means of evangelisation is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbour with limitless zeal. Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses”.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

5th Sunday of Easter 2020

The Gospel is rather repetitive in the sense that on Friday and yesterday, we read from almost the same passage. Reflecting on it feels very much like attempting a 3rd squeeze of santan (coconut milk) from grated or desiccated coconut.

What is significant in the Gospel is the imminent departure of Jesus. It was the Last Supper and to a certain extent, the Disciples were at a crossroad, each wondering if he should leave or stay. We know that Judas left. In this Farewell Discourse, Jesus spoke of His impending death and His return. It would make sense if He were referring to His appearance after the Passion, but the context of the conversation was otherwise. He was speaking of a future return. Two observations to be made of the coming future.

Firstly, it is certain in the sense that His absence would not be a sign of abandonment but rather a groundwork of preparation. He is going to prepare us a place so that where He is, we may be too. Hence, speaking to their disquiet, He exhorted them to trust in Him.

Secondly, between now and the future, we have an interim to live. As Thomas enquired on the direction to this heavenly destination, Jesus gave Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, the guide here that will lead us there.

Within this interim is where we work out our salvation. How?

In the first reading, we hear of how the early Church was expanding. Last week, the focus in general was on the priesthood of the ordained. This Sunday, we have a sort of continuation. As with all human organisations, progress is measured by the development of structures to accommodate increase and expansion. In other words, the Church, like all human groupings, went through the pains of growing up. As she grew in stature, she needed to differentiate through the separation of roles. St Peter himself noted, “It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food…”. The need had arisen for a separate service to free the Apostles so that they could concentrate on their spiritual duties. They elected deacons to serve the temporal challenges of an expanding community. However, this differentiation of or “ordination” of deacons in the community did not result in a kind of hierarchy of exclusion meaning that everyone shared in the one covenant of belonging to the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the consecrated nation and a people set apart for God. Later in the Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul would describe the diverse charisms given to the Church for her good. Therefore, our salvation is worked out in the many ways we serve God and people.

In the 2nd Reading, St Peter speaks of salvation as a life-long process whereby we grow closer to Jesus. As paths towards any centre converges, we too draw closer to each other and in the course of growing closer to Jesus, we also learn how to love one another. Quarrels may sound jarringly scandalous as we read in the 1st Reading—so early in the history of the Church we see how fractious the community was, divided as it were along linguistic lines. But quarrels could also illustrate the learning mechanism in community building. They were learning how to love. As with anything in the order of grace, when we keep close to Jesus, we will be able to love—even our enemies.

Therefore, loving each other in Christ becomes a powerful message of salvation as well as a mission in the world as we bring it to everyone. It is neither an easy message to embrace nor a painless pursuit. We recognise how fragile human relationships are because we effortlessly get entangled in the awkwardness of race, the complexities of languages and the convolutions of genders. In this gigantic cauldron of pity party, where everyone is a victim, it is easy to flag any one of these badges of “honour”. A current example is that it has not taken long to raise the racial nationality of Covid-19.

Racially divisive or not, we will soon meet with the challenge of discipleship in a post-covid-19 world. The situation will call for our Christian response to the reality of economic disaster for individuals and families. If an incoming tide raises all boats, then the outgoing flow lowers will usually translate into financial hardship or ruin for all who are at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Since we are socially distancing, the ripple effect of a near total shutdown on the economy is not fully felt yet. As things stand, we are helping to deliver cooked food to migrant workers who are left high and dry as their services are not required now.

What is relevant for us is a recognition that right at the very beginning, in building up the community, both salvation (the message of the Apostles or heaven) and service (election of the deacons or the interim) went hand in hand. In other words, each Christian serves according to his or her charism as he or she follow the way marked out by Christ Himself. There is a proportionality between heaven and service. The more we hunger for heaven, the more we take in the word of God, the more we want to serve Him here. That is the mark of the Saints. They never run away from hard work and sacrifice because of their love for God.

In the Gospel, Philip asked to see the Father whom Jesus loves so much. So, Jesus gave him this answer: “I am the image of the Father. To see me is to see the Father”. St Paul in his letter to the Colossians called Jesus the Image of the Unseen or Invisible God. In the language we are familiar with, Jesus is the Sacrament of God the Father. Analogically, this could also be said of the Church—to see Church is to see Christ. Somehow, we balk or flinch with this audacious comparison because we see how scarred the image of the Church is, even in the 1st Reading and recently with all the scandals we have. These are not signs of God’s failure or that His message is not valid but rather of Satan’s presence.

In our endeavour to faithfully serve to Him between now and heaven, we can be sure of one thing. Satan would do his utmost best to convince us otherwise. As our little prayer at the end of Mass asking St Michael’s assistance indicates—Satan prowls the world seeking the ruin of souls. All our efforts would come to naught if we do not guard ourselves against the agent of perdition—Satan.

For now, know that nothing, not even the most heinous crime, invalidates this truth that every act of Christian kindness and generosity is really a reflection of who Jesus is. Whether we live up to our calling or not, He is still The Way, The Truth and The Life. So, instead of focusing on that which is unchristian, perhaps we should look for evidence that following Christ is still a viable option—we see this in the men and women who continue to serve without counting the cost. The other day, I volunteered to be a driver to help my sacristan send food to the migrant workers. At one of the stops, we waited for quite a while for the recipient to come down from his rented flat to collect food. You would think that people on the receiving end would be grateful and therefore be hasty. I was grumbling in my head and finally, the person did not show up. Those delivering food must have endured this on a daily basis and NOT a complaint escaped their lips—indeed a humbling lesson to learn on Christian charity and service.

Finally, we are progressing towards the Ascension. The choice of the Gospel makes sense. Jesus has gone to prepare a welcome for us and He would return when the time is right. As we wait between now and eternity, we have His blueprint which marks the sure Way to heaven as we serve the Truth and embrace His life.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Good Shepherd Sunday 2020

Since Easter we have been hearing from John’s Gospel. The exception was last week when we made a Lucan detour trailing the two Disciples who walked to Emmaus. John’s Gospel is theologically descriptive because he employs various images such as the Light of the world or the Bread of eternal life to portray Jesus. The prevailing portrait this Sunday is pastoral as Christ is painted as the Good Shepherd as well as the Gate of the sheepfold. This ovine outline lends itself to what today is commonly called Vocation Sunday. Is it time to wax lyrical about the call to priestly and/or religious life?

How are the images of the shepherd and the gate related specifically to the call of priestly and/or religious life?

Firstly, it makes sense economically for a few shepherds to share an enclosure. Secondly, the shepherd is also the gate to the sheepfold because he sleeps at the entrance to protect the sheep in the enclosure from being raided. Since space sharing is economical, each sheep must know the voice of its shepherd. Thirdly, according to Jesus, the sheep that enters the sheepfold will be saved. And not only that, the sheep can come and go—a freedom which not given to the sheep that enter via the gate of the Northern Wall. They go through a one-way street in order to be sacrificed. Furthermore, in addition to salvation and freedom, the sheep that belong to Jesus will find pasture and plenty.

This idea of the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is central to the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. He does not only do it of Himself. In fact, He made sure that this vocation continues in His Church. But we know of late that this vocation has been tainted. As He Himself criticised the pharisees and the scribes for their lack of love for the flock, many of those who follow Him have fallen short. However, it does not invalidate this sacred service which He has left behind for His Church. The vocation is still central to the definition of what it means to be Church. As the Second Reading hints, the invitation for sheep that strayed to return to the fold applies as much to the shepherds who pastors in the name of Christ.

The voice of the shepherd is indeed important for the sheep. The pandemic provides much to think about the voice that the sheep need to hear. So many weeks have gone by without the public celebration of the Eucharist. Of course, there have been numerous attempts to maintain a virtual link with the community. Still it remains that without a physical congregation what use is there for the shepherd? Using the analogy of Pope Francis, virtual connexion is no substitute for “priests as shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”. If anything, the voice of the shepherds is mainly drowned by other louder voices.

At least two phenomena can be observed in this current pandemic with regard to what sort of voice we are hearing. Firstly, in the name of self-preservation, groupthink has shaped our social, or better still, corralled our behaviour. Media has helped very much in this. We would like to believe that an individual is free to act but at its crassest, we have seen how easily media can convert innocent bystanders into a mob. If it does not, then it is certainly co-opted into publicly shaming the so-called “covidiots” so as to produce behaviour that is in accord with the accepted sensibility. For example, as long as one steps out into the public domain, one needs to wear a face mask. Otherwise, one may find oneself in the centre of a viral outrage for non-compliance. It is not freedom but fear that determine one’s conduct.

Furthermore, the pandemic has widen the space for one dominant voice to emerge. It is the age of the expert where the view of the technocrat dictates. Experts are important because they have the know-how. But, we can be easily cowed by the specialist, as it were, forgetting that they are also human and can be limited by their prejudices or self-interests. In any case, experts abound as Google has turned everyone into an authority on any subject matter. Today, everyone is a prime minister, president or pope.[1]

Perhaps what might interest believers is if experts were to predict that this pandemic is here to stay, for the vaccine will not be available for the next two years. Virtual community is the only possible way of ensuring that the health system can cope with the infection. Society is somewhat doomed. On the one hand, this hypothetical prediction sounds too dystopian and even far-fetched as evident by the push to ease the MCO here or lockdown elsewhere. Somehow, we do not quite believe that the situation can be that dire. On the other hand, in not so many words, economic gurus are pointing negative growth and predicting the collapse of the world economy. Plus, scientists push a view that the new normal of social distancing is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The question to ask is where, in this cacophony of competing ideologies, does the voice of the shepherds come in? In this hyperconnected world where viral outrage coupled with online shaming has become an accepted form of behavioural control, will and can the voice of the Good Shepherd be heard? Is there a distinction between expertise and wisdom or have we confused technique with intuition? It is not that knowledge and insight are mutually exclusive but shepherds of the Good Shepherd serve a truth which extends beyond this mortal domain. This question prompts us to appreciate the requirement that the shepherds that Christ has placed in His Church be those who truly know His voice. As God through the Prophet Jeremiah (3:15) tells us, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, and these shall feed you on knowledge and discretion”—this knowledge and discretion can only come through prayer and long hours of praying. This prolonged isolation only heightens this awareness.

Yesterday, we celebrated St Athanasius. He was exiled 5 times over a period of 17 years from the See of Alexandria for which he was bishop for 45 years. He was known as Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the world. Despite the powers of the world (successive Arian-leaning Emperors) shouting down at him, he stood firm in the defence of Christ’s divinity. By no means, Athanasius contra mundum is a suggestion that shepherds of the Church should take a stance against the world. Waxing lyrical this is not but rather, in the discharge of his duty, the shepherd sometimes will have to stand alone and even be hated for echoing the voice of the Good Shepherd. In an environment that is overwhelmed by the fear of death, it is as if, he must speak from beyond the tomb or from beyond the grave using a vocabulary of hope that both articulates the joy of the Resurrection and the beatitude of eternity. Thus, this vocation to the priestly/religious life must not preclude the possibility that one’s life can be lost in the service of the Good Shepherd and His sheepfold.

“Come! Follow me” is not an invitation to a life of luxury but to embrace a loneliness whose reward is not found in this world. It is not a vocation nobler than the service of marriage because married couples also suffer loneliness. But, as St JPII reminds us: “A priest is a man who offers his whole humanity to God so that God might use him as an instrument of salvation.” This is a vocation necessary for Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of all mankind. Besieged by pandemic panic that tries so hard to ignore God, to be a presence of the Good Shepherd is to be a sign of contradiction—not of fear but of courage, not of despair but of hope, not of death eternal but of life everlasting.


[1] It is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is a cognitive bias (that is, systematic error in thinking that affects people’s decisions and judgements) in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, it means people over-estimate their capabilities.