Saturday, 28 November 2020

1st Sunday of Advent Year B 2020

We seemed to have left behind the Last Judgement as we enter Year B. Here the liturgical landscape is shaped by the concise Gospel of Mark. Whatever form the terrain may be in months to come, we begin our Advent journey by reflecting on the virtue of patience. Though the theme of watchfulness is replayed this Sunday, however, the accent is on waiting patiently.

Sadly, we have quite successfully purged patience from our religious DNA. Our sense of waiting has been dulled that it is identified with boring, frustration and irritation. The proof is in the pudding as they say. If the Christmas tree has anything to do with the season of Christmas, traditionally it should be put up on Christmas Eve.[1] Alas, for some, the tree is already up even before one can say, “Bob’s your uncle”. More pressing in our impatience is the anxiety regarding when we can do away with masks, sanitisation, and social distancing. Quite literally, we are simply choked by or suffocated from waiting. Just as an aside, a possible reason for our present spike in Covid cases could be that people are just too impatient to allow the disease to come under control.

We are not alone in this for Isaiah himself showed this impatience too when he yearned for God to tear heavens open and to come down. But the Prophet also humbly recognised that God the Father is the potter still at work in shaping the clay. Spoilt or entitled as we are by instant gratification, God’s time is not and can never be under our command.

When time is beyond our control, what we have is our watchfulness as we wait patiently. This is where we have not really left the Last Judgement since we are straddled between the 1st and the 2nd Coming of Christ. We acknowledge the 1st Coming historically in the Incarnation as we await the Lord of Judgement in the 2nd Coming. The present is wedged between the past and the future.

It is this present which St Paul speaks of in the 2nd Reading. While we wait for the Lord to be revealed, we asked the Spirit to keep us steady and without blame until that day arrives. We ask His grace so that we can carry out His mission while in this world. Just be ready to suffer as we wait for God’s Kingdom to slowly take shape. Be prepared to face loneliness because God will often seem to be absent. According to a quote widely attributed to St Augustine: “if God seems slow in responding, it is because He is preparing a better gift. He will not deny us. God withholds what you are not ready for. He wants you to have a lively desire for His greatest gifts. All of which is to say, prays always and do not lose heart”.

Do not lose heart if the progress is slow. The Spanish word for wait is “esperar” whereas hope is “esperanza”. To wait is always an expectant or hopeful wait because in the end, God can be trusted. Waiting may be hard but it helps us better appreciate what we will receive. What we do is to cultivate a watchfulness that recognises Him in the present. In the Gospel, the door keeper has this added duty to stay awake for the unexpected return of the Master. It is fascinating that this wakefulness involves some deprivation on our part. When one stays awake, one does not sleep. That is self-denial. Advent’s purple is a stark reminder of the penitential character of this season which if you translate it, it is accompanied by some asceticism on our part.

Watchfulness and longing are two sides of a coin. When we are watchful, we long for that which we are watching out for. That means there must be some hunger within, an aching emptiness that we feel. Without that hunger, what is there to long for? Without this emptiness what more do we need? This kind of “self-contentedness” is closely related to the experience of crying at a funeral. People who have no love or who are self-contained cannot cry.

Being watchful and waiting as we hunger for God to come, we stay awake so that death does not find us asleep from too much enjoyment. Even in this downturn of a pandemic, the shopping centres are already chiming their jingle bells hoping that the cash register will “ker-ching” as well. Decorations are a plenty, but they can be distracting as they hurry us to break out into a full Christmas celebration to the point that we forget the waiting and the longing. In fact, with our festival-laden calendar, the mall cannot wait to get rid of one set of religious ornaments so that they can put up the new decorations for the next.

For Advent, it may be a good idea to be out of synch with this movement so that we can pay attention to our present. Our temptation is to ignore the present because we are busy preparing for or worrying about the future. The future is essential, but we can miss the present to the point that we have stopped living in the present. Again, in the Gospel, when the master left his servants, he did not leave them to sit idly whilst waiting. Instead, he left his servants in charge, each with his own task. Our challenge as we wait is to engage ourselves profitably in the present.

As LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea tried to explain the theory of relativity, and I paraphrase “that putting one hands on a hot pan for a second feels like an hour whereas spending an hour with a beautiful woman feels like a second”. Here is where the relativity comes in. There is something paralysing when we wait in fear and anxiety. Like the naughty child waiting for his father to come home so that he can mete out the punishment. But when we wait in hopeful expectation, it is liberating and energising. This approach is reflected in the Collect we heard before the Liturgy of the Word. Even though time may not be under our control, still the Collect says we should “resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at His coming”. The response is ours alone to make.

It sounds "horizon-tal" in the sense that it is like a projection into eternity, but it actually speaks of a Christ who also comes to us here and now and not just in the future. Apart from caring for the poor, the orphans, and the widows, we have a duty to repent and be converted for our longing for God can be desensitised by the lack of recognition for our sins and waywardness. To resolutely run requires that we let go of our sins and our baggage. Longing for the coming of Christ is also a time of renewal. Thus, we face the reality of our who we are and beg that God, the potter, will slowly mould us into the jars that He wants of us.

Finally, there is a way to understand this pandemic in the context of Advent’s waiting. The breakneck speed of our lives has been throttled down and at the same time, the wait for a cure interminable. Given that we can be so blind and clueless, instead of searching for distractions, waiting is also a time of purification for our sins, a period of setting right our priorities especially with regard to heaven. Time is God’s gift to cultivate the virtue of patience. As we wait for Him to deliver us, there are many opportunities to exercise patience as we stand in solidarity with those who need our care and compassion. Christ is already with us in all who are suffering from and afflicted by the pandemic. Let us welcome Him now and forever.

[1] The seasons of Advent and Christmas are not synonymous. Apparently, the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree at St Peter’s Square started during the pontificate of John Paul II in 1982. It seemed that the Vatican had sort of resisted this tradition on account that it was a Protestant custom.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Christ the King Year A 2020

We have two images coming from seemingly polar opposites. The solemnity of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI, through the encyclical “Quas primas”. It was a response to the rise in nationalism and secularism observed in societies in the aftermath of World War I. At one end of the solemnity pole, in presenting the Lord as King, we get a figure who is regal, majestic and powerful. Here is the benevolent Lord of all creation who has come to gather all into His Kingdom. At the other end of the Gospel pole we are presented with a stern portrait of a terrible and almost unforgiving Judge. He sits poised to separate sheep from goats, so that He can banished those who have failed to make the mark.


These two images are not as mutually exclusive as they seem.


Firstly, majesty, regality and sovereignty are qualities that inspire and draw us to the person who has them. The problem is we are drawn to the power inherent in these attributes for the wrong reason. A rationale for why a sublime notion of kingship has become alien to us is because we know no better than the collection of classless and crass royalty who at best are mostly narcissistic in their self-importance. (The royalty we know are trapped by their fast cars, royal palaces etc). The closest living example we have of an ideal monarch that inspires is Elizabeth 2nd of England[1]. Forget the pomp and pageantry associated with the UK royalty but instead, focus on how through the decades, she has dedicated herself to serving her people, her country and the Commonwealth. She could be a standard to emulate but alas we have so few of her kind.


Secondly, the dignity of royalty and dominion are meant to ennoble and enthuse us to greater heights, heights in which the self is not defined by power. Instead it is marked by humility and the best expression of this magnanimity is meekness and renunciation. “His state was divine but He did not cling to His divinity…”. Christ the King proved His royal lineage through an oblation of laying down His life for those whom He had come to save—an echo of this can be heard in the Preface later.


Thirdly, inherent in the notion of nobility is the idea of “beau geste” which is attractive simply because it draws us out of our selfish concerns to the care for others. When captivated by the gracious gesture of selfless love on the part of the Lord, we will change. If you did not know it, when we are seized by the splendour of His self-sacrificial love, the narrow space of our heart will enlarge. Just take a look at our saints. Their hearts expand to embrace the universe—like St Teresa of Kolkata’s love for the poor. Saints give their all for the love of their King, their Lord and their Saviour. In today’s context, this care for people must extend to the concern for the environment—a cause quite close to heart of Pope Francis.[2]


Fourthly, the solemnity is a cue that Christ should not remain merely a leader in name. As Head of the Church, we are incorporated into His Body through the Sacrament of Baptism. As members of His Body our task in this world is to make sure that our ecology, both human and natural should be shaped in His image. That way He becomes truly the King or the Leader of our souls. When He is our leader, the two images of Him as our King and Judge become two sides of one coin. The blessed Christ preaching on the Mount of Beatitudes and the strict Christ mounted on the throne of judgement are not two different realities. Instead, when Christ is King of our hearts, when our public life mirrors our private life and we will have no fear of Christ as the terrible judge because our private life can stand up to public scrutiny.


If the basis for the Solemnity arose from a reaction to the forgetfulness of Christian values, we now have our work cut out for us because the world has become so much more secularised than at the time the encyclical was written. We have gone through so many “-isms” and we are not in any shape better than before. Broadly defined, “-isms” are partial efforts at organising reality. “Nationalism” sees life in terms of a country.[3] Secularism undertakes to construct society without God. Socialism defines relationship through the lens of the community. Presently, we have “wokeism” which sets itself up as the ultimate standard in an endeavour to correct the mistakes of the past.


“-isms” can be misguided attempts to improve our world. It is innate in our nature to want a world a better place and we witness this idealism mostly in younger people. However, so many “-isms” and yet nowhere are we near the “utopia” that we aim for. The reason for our failure is possibly as Pope Pius X indicated, "...When once men recognise, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony... That these blessings may be abundant and lasting in Christian society, it is necessary that the kingship of our Saviour should be as widely as possible recognised and understood, and to that end nothing would serve better than the institution of a special feast in honour of the Kingship of Christ" (Quas primas, #19, 21).


Finally, the Last Judgement, even though it is set in coming future, it actually redirects our attention the present. This blends in with the objectives of some of the “-isms” we have—which are to improve the world. We are challenged to assess the current situation in order that our lives, private or public, under the Kingship of Christ, can impact the world. For this to happen, C.S. Lewis reminds us how we can be effective in this mission. If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next... It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth "thrown in": aim at earth and you will get neither”.[4]




[1] She should be styled as Elizabeth II of England but Elizabeth I of the United Kingdom. At the time of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) she was only the Queen of England and Ireland as Scotland had yet to enter into the Union with England and Ireland. Just like James IV of Scotland became James I of England and Scotland.

[2] The point is, in the pursuit of our Lord and King, what is also ennobling is the prompting to leave behind that which pulls us down. Sin definitely pulls us down and traps us here below in which the more depraved we are, the more entangled we become. Of course, the more we want to follow Him, the more the Devil is will do its utmost to deny us that chance.

[3] It takes “national borders” seriously. But any of the natural disasters will show that “national borders” are meaningless. Think of the annual scourge of the haze from smouldering forest fires in Indonesia. We are more interconnected than “national borders” allow us to admit. The present pandemic may illustrate how “effective” national borders are at keeping down infections but at what cost, to split families, loneliness of elderly and not to mention the economy.

[4] Mere Christianity, 1952. C.S. Lewis

Saturday, 14 November 2020

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

4th World Day of the Poor. Just the fourth time we are marking it. However, in the interest of fairness, I wonder why there is not a World Day of the Rich. But what do you know? Our trashy tabloids are filled with or more relevant, cyberspace is flooded with news of the Rich and Famous! Almost everywhere one encounters altars dedicated to their “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”. What is more? If you had idiosyncrasies and you were poor, people will label you crazy or mad. But, if you were rich, you are eccentric or outlandish. It is good that we are having a day to remember the poor in the midst of this ongoing crisis. As the 1st Reading suggests, the virtuous woman symbolises the Church who is also our Mother. As a caring mother, she opens her arms to embrace the poor. As such, the portrait of the Church as our caring Mother ties in neatly with the Gospel message today.




Firstly, the talents represent everything that we have. The conclusion of the Gospel directs our attention to how we should maximise the use of our talents because God will ask for an account of what He has given to us. In other words, where are we in terms of our responsibility towards what we have been endowed with?


A clarification might be needed though. In common parlance, the word talent means a natural aptitude or skill. But its original meaning is cash, large sum of cash. How large? A talent is not the same as a single unit of our devalued toilet paper (RM). It is an ancient unit of mass which, according to some scriptural commentators, is equivalent to the weight of an average person. A talent is therefore the sum of money that is about 50kg of gold or silver. In those days, silver was ranked as valuable as gold.


Hence, a talent is seriously a lot of money that the landlord has entrusted to his servants. This raises an interesting point. One of the things that this pandemic has taught us is what Najib had so presciently known: “Cash is king”. With cash, you can buy almost anything but at the moment where mobility is curtailed and the only venue that is opened to us is online shopping, we realise that restricted movement makes for unhappy shopping. There is only that much we can order online. We can continue to buy unnecessary things online but for how long? Hence, cash may be king but consider this scenario. What happens when money loses its currency? You might protest this to be ridiculous but apparently Netflix does not think so if you observe the plethora of dystopian movies they are peddling now.


Just for the sake of argument, what happens when cash becomes useless?


This should give us pause to take stock of what it means to be rich or to have talents. Both the 2nd Reading and the Gospel invite us to reflect on what we are (talents) or have (wealth) with reference to the future. We will get a more concrete glimpse of this future in next Sunday’s Gospel which is focused on the Last Judgement.


For now, perhaps today could be the feast day for those who are named Gregory. St Paul addressed the anxious Thessalonians who were worried about the end of the world by telling them to be “gregoromen” (γρηγορῶμεν), that is, to be “watchful and alert” for the coming of the Lord. This kind of alertness means living with the values of the Kingdom, with a relativity in which who we are and what we have here is relative to where we will be next. All the talents, cash or otherwise, have been entrusted by God to us in connexion with the afterlife. We are to use them in as much as they help us go to heaven and leave them in as much as they prevent us from getting to heaven.


But this is easier said than done.


Some of us can be caught up with our possession that we forget that nothing of what we have is ours in the first place. A good example would be our children. Our attitude towards them mirrors our approach towards cars. Have you noticed how people treat their cars in the event of an accident? They stop in the middle of the road without consideration of others to argue about who was at fault. Why? Because cars are supposed to be “scratch-free”. Can you note the resemblance in how we treat our children? They are like priceless cars that should remain unscratched. Observe how over-protective parents can be. By saying this, I am not advocating reckless endangerment. What may be missed out is the uncomfortable truth that your children are on loan to you. They have been entrusted to you by God to be cared for, yes, but ultimately to be returned to Him as and when He deemed it fit to take them. None of us wants that. We would rail against God if He dared to take back what was originally His.


Now, if children are God’s loan to us, how much more our talents or our wealth?


Our attitude to wealth is fairly avaricious or rapacious in which we are fired by a vision of unfettered accumulation. Just think of the cyber entrepreneurs—Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Jack Ma. Can they ever finish spending their wealth in 20 lifetimes? That they are rich is not an issue nor is it a problem. But the wild amassing is rather emblematic of our attitude towards affluence where we view abundance in terms ownership and not stewardship, in terms of entitlement and not providence. In the matter of wealth or prosperity, the categories of “haves” or “have nots” are easy and neat. In this, you realise that one wants to be the other—the poor want to be rich. The other tries so hard not to be one—the rich tries to avoid poverty. Notice how tired the categories are. They are not entirely irrelevant but they do nurture a mindset of entitlement for the rich and victimhood for the poor. Furthermore, within this categories, the “haves” are supposed to be responsible for the “have nots” and this only creates resentment on both sides. In an absolute sense, the rich owe us nothing and they should not be made to feel beholden to anyone. The situation looks different when we look at it relatively. The rich are related to the poor because both inhabit the same planet.


Hence, with regard to talents and wealth, a more helpful perspective is to adopt the language of stewardship whilst leaving behind the vocabulary of ownership. This is not an advocacy for socialism. Not at all. What ownership does is to give the impression that it is absolute whereas stewardship connotes relationship. In radical terms, what I own is never utterly mine for it were absolutely mine, why can I not bring it with me when I die? Imagine if Jeff Bezos converted to Taoism and he dies. The closest he can ever get to his billions would be burnt joss-paper. (Or maybe burn our useless currency).


We are or we have is never for ourselves. We are or we have is always with others and for others. Think of a candle. What is it good for? To be lit and burnt off. As St Francis of Assisi taught us: It only by giving away that we begin to receive. Thus, we celebrate the World Day for the Poor for a good reason. Pope Francis challenges us to concrete action based on a solid sacramental theology. So, “if we truly wish to encounter Christ, we have to touch His Body in the suffering bodies of the poor, as a response to the Sacramental Communion bestowed in the Eucharist”.


We will have plenty of opportunities to touch the poor in the months to come as the effects of the Confused MCO (CMCO) kick in for so many of our struggling brothers and sisters. In the end when all is said and done, no amount of money can ever open the gate to where we are supposed to go. Instead, the gate to eternity is opened to those whom the Lord specifically called “good and faithful servant”. God does not only call a few. Instead, to everyone He gives them that possibility to be such. It is well within our ability to respond to Him. What are we waiting for?