Sunday, 27 December 2020

Holy Family Year B 2020

The best time to celebrate the Holy Family is for Christmas to fall on a Wednesday because it allows space for the preacher to breathe. Otherwise, we just rush from Christmas to the Holy Family. How do we speak of the Holy Family? Certainly, this pandemic has emphasised the family as well put more strain on it. Some are separated on account of work. They suffer from missing their family. Others, stuck at home, family life has been a joy or occasions of sin. In close spaces, they get on each other’s nerve.


More and more, the Church’s kerygma or proclamation is being restricted by thought policing which could, in some ways, reduce the Feast of the Holy Family to a Sunday of platitudes.


What do I mean by that?


Firstly, the present concept of the family is more fluid than fixed. The idea is fundamentally governed by the tenets of diversity and inclusivity which effectively renders our teaching on the subject matter “judgemental” as soon as it deviates from the accepted conventional wisdom or the prescribed narrative. According to the present diktat, a family is anything but God-given. Since we deal with cold hard facts, the criteria for what a family is must remain within the domain of social construct. It is up to us to define what a family should be. This makes preaching about the topic difficult.


Given the challenge, let us start with what we have—a platitude. The Holy Family is the model for our families. Even though scanty, the Gospel gives us glimpses of their lives. Joseph and Mary’s travel to Bethlehem for the imperial census taking, the labour of Mary and delivery of the Child Jesus in a shack for animals, the presentation at the temple where the Mother is reminded that a sword will pierce her heart. Then, the sudden midnight flight into Egypt. Later, the traumatic 3-day separation of the child Jesus from their parents after their visit to Jerusalem. In other words, despite holding the title “holy”, they were not immune to the many travails and trials that “normal” families undergo.


In their tribulations, we have a lot in common with them. However, there are two verses from Luke’s Gospel which might make us think beyond platitudes. “Meanwhile the Child grew to maturity, and He was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with Him” (Lk 2: 40). “And Jesus increased in wisdom, stature and in favour with God and men” (Lk 2: 52).


We can presume that Jesus grew in maturity under the purview of both Mary and Joseph. Nobody grows up in a vacuum. We come from relationships, good or bad. Thus, when He left at the age of 30, Jesus would have had a great deal of experience living with Mary and Joseph. This is perhaps where we leave the platitudes and face some hard facts about the human family. What state is the family in today?


Firstly, both Joseph and Mary were involved in the life of the Child Jesus. As the Gospel illustrated today, they both presented Him in the Temple. They took Him every year to Jerusalem showing that religion was not a one-parent affair as it would be in so many of our families especially when one spouse is a Catholic. This is not a judgement against the one-Catholic-parent phenomenon as it is an inconvenient picture of life since we live in a multi-religious country.


The point is the involvement in the religious formation of children. For many, this would mean equipping them with information. Register the children and sending them dutifully for their Sunday catechism. But, training them in the faith is more than just information. It requires that a parent or both parents themselves know the faith and live the faith. This connexion between knowledge and life is the basis for our credibility. What we believe should be how we live—Lex credendilex vivendi


It is not always easy. For example, parents in an irregular relationship, as in a divorcee who is remarried civilly. The couple wants their child to be baptised. How does that work? Canon 868 §1, 2°, states that “there be a realistic hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic religion. If such hope is truly lacking, the baptism is, in accordance with the provisions of particular law, to be deferred and the parents advised of this reason”. The divorced and remarried Catholic partner, in effect, is living in sin, which is a compromised position as far as lex credendilex vivendi goes. It sounds politically incorrect to use the moral terminology “living in sin” but it is a fact. Of course, pastorally, we try our best to help the irregular couple sort out their situation. But, for some reasons that they cannot or do not want to regularise their situation, we would have no choice but to refuse the baptism of the child.[1]


In this victim-sensitive era, such a decision would be considered too “judgemental” and “uncaring”. One can always cite the German experience whereby the laws of the Church should be tailored according to our situation. Since more and more people are getting divorced and remarried, why not Holy Communion for them? Are we not supposed to show mercy? If they want to baptise a child, why not?


Instead of presenting the teaching of the Church as a challenge for us to live according to the will of God, we are often asked to accommodate the human condition which begs the question for us to reflect on. Is the family merely a human construct? Or does the human family belong to the will of God for mankind? 


Christ Himself was clear that marriage belongs to God’s providence. From the beginning God created Man, male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. Thus, the Church teaches that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Consistently, through the centuries, the Church has upheld the sanctity of marriage and family life. As such, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Furthermore, the Church believes that life begins at conception. Finally, children have to care for their aged parents for that is an integral part of honouring one’s parent. 


The will of God remains that the building block of every morally functioning society is the family. It is central to humanity’s well-being. But more and more we are being socialised through the mainstream media that the family is nothing more than just an arrangement of choice and convenience. Just watch any of the content offerings on Netflix and you will get to see all kinds of arrangements passed off as “family”. It is a subtle process of normalising what was once outside of normal.


If the will of God for man is our starting point, then these alternative forms of family we socially construct is nothing more than legal fiction. They are not salvific no matter how much we pretend or protest that they are.


Our experience of Big Tech, misinformation and manipulation has shown us that what is “good” can be framed or shaped according to the diktats of those in control.[2] These powers that be may have the upper hand. We may not be able to rewrite the imposed narrative but what is within our control is our cooperation with grace. As St John Paul II exhorted: “Family, become what you are”.[3] The formula of becoming a family is found in the 2nd Reading used for Year A.[4] In short, to become what you have been called to be, follow the example of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We cooperate with God’s grace in showing to the world that the family has always been what God had intended for the good of mankind. The Holy Family is holy as a whole because each one of them is a Saint.

[1] What is the point of baptising a child for a child ultimately not to live the faith?

[2] If you want to know what your spouse or children are at, use their Google search of their devices and you will get a glimpse of their preferences coming out as targeted advertising. I get a lot on Malaysia Airlines because I search for travel possibilities etc.

[3] John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, Nr 17.

[4] You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same. Over all these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, because it is for this that you were called together as parts of one body. Always be thankful. Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. Teach each other, and advise each other, in all wisdom. With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs to God; and never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, give way to your husbands, as you should in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and treat them with gentleness. Children, be obedient to your parents always, because that is what will please the Lord. Parents, never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated. (Col. 3: 12-21)

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Christmas Dawn Mass 2020

I was privileged to make a retreat in a Jesuit vineyard. It was just about the beginning of spring and it was cold. In the whole of Australia, that was the only place that has a chapel with a crypt underneath it. Living almost permanently under the pollution of light in our country, one never realises how bright the stars can be. I walked out one very dark night, looked up into the sky and saw a streak of bright sparkles, otherwise, known as the Milky Way. Captivating as it was, I did not linger long because my mind drifted to the crypt under the chapel on my left which gave me goose bumps.

Today’s Dawn Mass reminded me of that night. Too bad we had no Midnight Mass for that would have given us an idea of what was involved. In the material darkness of the night, we are reminded that there is a darkness more pernicious than just the absence of light. It is a darkness of the mind and of the soul, a spiritual darkness which only Christ the Light can dispel.

The Dawn Mass however shows us to whom the Light first appeared. On the very night of the Saviour birth, there were shepherds out in the cold and as dawn was breaking, a bright light appeared, and an angel announced to them the birth of the Messiah. The annunciation ended with a heavenly chorus that inspired our Gloria, a prayer recited or sung at Mass on feast days and solemnities.

Our notion of the shepherds has possibly been glamorised over the centuries. Almost all of the pastoral figurines we have in our crib sets would show one of them humbly shouldering a sheep whilst carrying a staff. Why not? After all, our image of Jesus is that of the Good Shepherd which actually proves the point of romanticisation. What is more? The Pope asked the pastors to smell of the sheep. But shepherds were the outcasts of the community—socially ill-fitting and religiously rejected. They were considered unclean for both a social setting and the Temple worship. If we need a modern copy, they were the “Banglas” or “Nepalis[1] of their time for they took on the manual tasks of a labour undesired.

It is to this group of the unwashed masses, that the Gospel of salvation was first proclaimed. There are two ways—ad extra et ad intra—to approach this message and both reveal how extensively merciful God is in His salvific will.

Ad extra, Christmas should make us think of those whom society would deem as undeserving of salvation. Broadly speaking, we may have focused too narrowly in terms of “giving attention to”. For many of us, the Christmas spirit is to think of those whom we seldom have a second thought for. Perhaps this explains the “feel good” factor in some of the things we do. For example, once a year, as an expression of CSR—corporate social responsibility, companies will rush to distribute aid to the poor because it elevates their social standing or people who donate feel good that they have given attention to those at the margin. Many of the homes can be choosy at this time saying that they do not need your extra fruitcakes, used clothes, or hampers. Better still, they do not want KFC. Focussing on the poor is good but it is more than just economic attention. In the same way, we also take a closer look at people whom we may have neglected over the months. Our parents, our spouses, and our children. But, have we been so taken up by the material necessities of life that we have forgotten that people need more than just corporeal care and concern? Or even emotional support. All these ministrations, crucial as they are, they do not touch the heart of the Gospel message and that is redemption and salvation. Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ the Saviour, not the teacher, not the prophet, not the guru and definitely not the therapist.

Thus, the question is this: “Who needs the good news of salvation brought to them?". "Who needs to know that Jesus Christ the Saviour is born?".

A question like this can be deceptive because we tend to think ad extra meaning that we gladly scan for those who need to be saved but what about ad intra. Most of us are comfortable with the idea that there are people out there to be saved but can be genuinely obtuse when it comes to ourselves. Am I in need of salvation? Do I need to be saved or only others do?

The amazing thing about us is that we seem to measure “evil” in the extreme like murder or serial killing. I have read a quip which says, “If you want to look thin, stand next to a fat person”. My apologies if it comes across as “fat-shaming” because that is not the intention. The point is, “How good are we if compared ourselves with the depraved in order to feel good about ourselves?”. Since I am not killing anyone or stealing money like Najib had done, then I must be pretty decent.

Depravity is never a reliable measure. We should glance upwards for our benchmark. God created us in His image, and this is where we all fall short, again and again. It is the perfection of God that we are supposed to live up to. That scale no one can ever measure up to on his or her own, not even Mary, the immaculately conceived Mother of Jesus. It is only with God’s grace that we do.

While the vices of sin are many, what is more deceptive is when we do not recognise that we need to be saved. One of the things which the pandemic has uncovered is this blindness. Apparently, modern pagans that we are, according to Fulton Sheen, we have all been immaculately conceived and the only default setting we have is to rely on our own devices[2] failing to realise that God alone is our Saviour.

The very appearance of the angel to the shepherds reminds us that no one is exempt from God’s salvific will. Everyone needs to be saved. As the shepherds hurried to welcome the new-born King, let us join them, recognising that we, like the rest of mankind, need salvation. God has given us His Son, Jesus Christ to be our Saviour. Glory to God in the highest.

[1] Precisely! It comes across so wrong to use them as examples and yet, our foreign workers are the ones who bear the brunt of the dirty, dangerous and difficult work that no citizens in the “right frame of mind” would want to do.

[2] A statement like this might sound anti-science and definitely fatalistic but it is not. We ought to use our God-given talents to do what is necessary. But we should never lose sight that God alone is our Saviour.

Saturday, 19 December 2020

4th Sunday of Advent Year B 2020

We lingered with John the Baptist for two consecutive Sundays. At our first encounter, the Baptiser reminded us of the need for conversion and repentance. Last week, he stood as the beacon of joy, a joy that flowed from the recognition that humanity’s salvation was near. Today, we shift our attention to Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.


If John the Baptist represents the last of the Old Testament prophets, then Mary will have situated us within the age of the New Testament. The covenant with David will come to fruition in the mystery of a humble peasant girl in Nazareth. In the 1st Reading, David was ambitious to house God in a temple fitting for His divine majesty. But God could not be outdone. Instead, He gave David a house, a dynasty to last forever. The promise to remain forever with David has come true in the womb of Mary. Her “fiat” or “yes” to God has exalted her womb into the new Ark of the Covenant.


The focus of Mary might look like a devotional excess from one side of Catholicism. The modern discomfort with this Marian exuberance may stem from our deflated self-worth rather than from the fear of idolatry. This accusation of exaggerated affection emanates from the air of anti-heroism[1], meaning that, we want Our Lady to be like us—sad and sordid. You see this in the modern reinterpretation of the Marian motif. The most famous of whom is our songbird Madonna—who dresses up like a whore in some of her performances.


But the truth is that our Marian emphasis is never enough. Why? The person of Mary must be seen in the light of salvation. She stands as a symbol of our need for the Saviour. Here again, the other side of our Catholic sensibility might be offended. She is, after all, the Immaculate Conception—the woman born without Original Sin, the last person in need of salvation. How can she then symbolise our need for the Saviour?


I know, this is a terribly misleading statement. Precisely that it is paradoxical that in Mary, who played such a pivotal role in the life of Jesus, that the offer of salvation was given to the only person who appeared to have no need of a rescue. It is a false paradox.[2] Why? Not even she, whom William Wordsworth exalted as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”, is exempted from the need for redemption proving to us that salvation is a serious business. We need the Saviour.


This need is acute even if we did not realise it. In those days of old, people were aware of God’s faithfulness as in they live more precariously—droughts, earthquakes, storms, and truly needed to depend on God to face the unknown. Today, we have our predictable and controllable modern amenities. Clap and voilà, we are lit. Practically everything we want is at the touch of our finger tips. Until now. For many are vaguely conscious of God’s presence in the sense that we have Him at a comfortable place where He is useful. Many turn to God only as a last resort because it is more reliable to depend on ourselves and our capabilities. For the intractable problems with the desirable solutions, if God answers, well and good. If not, we have not lost more than we already have.


This is our utilitarian blindness. We believe that our problems originate from a brokenness in the systems, be it in the economic, social or political realms. As such we can fix them. These various structures are good because they belong to our human ingenuity and intelligence. And they are all gifts from God. They help organise our lives. When we have poverty, we try our level best to solve it through our economic, political and social policies forgetting that there is “brokenness” that cannot be fixed no matter what. For example, we believe that if we recycled enough or use less resources or whatever they may be, then the earth will return to that green and lush planet that has a place for everyone. It may be true, but it is not the entire truth.


Our complex arrangements, good that they are, they are not our Saviours. The classical case of the communist project, with its planned economy was an attempt to recreate paradise on earth but it has instead resulted in untold misery. It is the same for people, who tired of unhappiness, escaped to another place to establish a more perfect system. They will soon find themselves entangled by the reality of sin—jealousy and greed.[3] These sins point out that human nature needs a Saviour. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us.


However, we are struggling to trust in God. We rather trust our machinations. In fact, this pandemic is somewhat a proof that we are still dependent on ourselves. Instead of also turning to God more fervently, we seemed to have settled into some sort of paralysis as we come to terms with the uncertainty of the new normal, so it seems. Placing our hope in the vaccine has lulled us into a kind of false security because unwittingly we are waiting eagerly, aided by the “saviour” of a vaccine, to return to the normalcy we know as if we had no need of conversion or better still, no necessity of salvation. Business as usual is our default expectations.


It is only a matter of days before Christmas. If to be saved is the natural and necessary setting for all mankind, Mary included, then Mary is truly our model. She accepted the will of God even though it carried with it risks and dangers, but she relied on the everlasting promise of God to David that He would be faithful. The significance of Mary’s fiat is the dawn of human salvation. From the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel, Mary now plays a prominent role in the salvific history of humanity. But, not only that.


We have a facility of separating that which should be an interior movement into a purely exterior event. What do I mean? Christmas becomes just an occasion, almost accidental (and not essential) to who we are. That way, it can become an excuse to celebrate but not really an invitation to each one of us to be “Christmas”. For the Father’s choice of Mary means each one of us is also highly favoured or blessed and chosen. Not necessarily to be the biological mother of Jesus but that we become the fertile spiritual soil for the Word to fall and germinate. As the antiphon declares “Drop down dew from above, you heavens, and let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Saviour”. The Saviour is born of a Virgin. He awaits to be born in our hearts.


[1] Think Suicide Squad. Every one of our heroes is a criminal…

[2] In view of her role as the Mother of God, she had been saved already by merits of Jesus Christ. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception explains it.

[3] Think any “perfect” groupings where soon enough there will be jealousy etc…