Saturday, 30 January 2021

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021

A day in the life of Jesus will be spread over the next three Sundays beginning today. We begin at Capernaum where He taught in the synagogue as well as dealt with an unclean spirit. Both in the task of teaching and exercise of exorcism, His authority was visibly displayed. For Mark, there is a clear distinction between the authority of Jesus and of the Scribes. For the Evangelist, Jesus’ authority did not come from without but from Himself. He needed no external validation, and it is this that the people resonated with.

What lessons can we draw from the authority of Jesus?

Firstly, given the world we live in today, our attention is naturally inclined toward Jesus as the trustworthy teacher. More than ever, where integrity is in deficit, we look for leaders who are both sincere in speech and authentic in action. Consider the approach to the Covid pandemic in this country. Many, if not all of the initiatives to control the contagion are coming from the exigencies of political survival rather than the well-bring of the country and the citizens in the fullest economic, social, and religious sense. If anything, we are left with a cynical distaste for the crippling crisis we are caught in.

Therefore, a teacher or any leader for the matter of speaking, like Jesus would be fresh air and for us, a welcome change from this putrid political haze we are forced to breathe in. But, even as we yearn for true teachers, genuine ones, we may fail to make the connexion between the truth that liberates ignorance and the truth that sets free a demoniac.

What often escapes our consciousness is how pervasive demonic presence is. Again, we are directed to the type of activity we know of in movies like “The Exorcist”—the kind that is ghastly, grotesque, and gruesome with the scrapping, the snapping, and the snarling. In a way, such notions are restrictive and as such, we are hemmed in. Scientific that we are, we tend to shift “demonic possession” to a corner, a place where we can deal with—being that it belongs to the realm of the fantastic or the perceptibly unreal, scientifically speaking. So, on the one hand, we are entertained by the supernatural horror genre but in another way, it is isolated so that it does not affect us when we return to the “real” world.

The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis might just disabuse us of these ghostly images that come from our present rendition of evil. According to Lewis, Screwtape, the name of the senior Devil, is cultured. He even admires history and likes philosophy. Quite different from what we read in today’s Gospel. If we imagine the encounter between Jesus and the Devil, through our supernatural horror movie mode, we can possibly hear the hoarse growling of the Devil “I know who you are: the Holy One of God”. Then we see the Devil throw the man into a convulsion before departing. So, what is more dramatic?

But consider one of the advices given by Screwtape to Wormwood, his diabolically inexperienced nephew. Courtship is the time for sowing those seeds which grow up ten years later into domestic hatred”. Nothing dramatic about the advice. But how many couples have we known who during courtship could not live with each other but soon after detests even the shadow of the other? Of course, we do not think of this as the Devil’s work but instead explains it away as a pathology; we think in terms of neurosis, psychosis. In other words, sick in the head is nothing more than being sick in the head.

We no longer think of the Kingdom as the establishment of Christ’s rule over all of creation, visible and invisible. Instead, we think of it in rather material terms like the liberation of man from his economic or social captivity. As Charles Baudelaire, a French literary figures, in an article in Le Figaro (1864) apparently said, “… (L)a plus belle des ruses du Diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas!” More or less, it is translated as “the cleverest ruse of the Devil is to persuade you he does not exist”. And he has convincingly led us into believing that he is not there. Consider what Screwtape says, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turning, without milestones, without signposts”.

The separation or blacking out, in other words, the lack of consciousness on our part of the Devil’s reality dichotomises our world view in such a way that we fail to see that the education that lifts us up and out of our ignorance is surely the same liberating force that freed the man from the oppression of the Devil. The authority of Jesus works the same in both the situations in today’s Gospel. It is to our peril that we forget that the Devil is hard at work in his opposition to the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ.

It may not be fashionable to “blame” the Devil and neither should we. There is a difference between a medical disorder and an oppression. The truth is many of us may unwittingly be under the rule of the Devil. We may not be drooling or contorted but our fears or prejudices can be as shackling as a demonic possession. Yes, we should not see the Devil where he not, but neither should we ignore him where he is. The point is a mental condition can also mask a preternatural reality. Even as we assess it psychologically, we also need to discern it spiritually.

So, in summary, the Gospel reveals to us a facet of who we are. Our hearts long for and rejoice whenever we get a taste of authentic teaching or genuine instructions. However, the manner in which Christ exercised His authority over the unclean spirit invites us to recognise as well, especially in this “supernatural-anaemic” world, the subtle presence of the Devil who works quietly behind the scenes to destabilise the Kingdom that Christ has come to establish. For example, our current pandemic may come across as nothing more than a viral infection gone wild. Bear in mind the tremendous spiritual damages that it has engendered. For one, our natural fear of death is nothing short of phobic in proportion to the point that we readily sacrifice spiritual salvation in the name of physical preservation. It is this tail of the Devil that the Gospel is perhaps teaching us to acknowledge so that we can submit to Christ for He alone has the authority to free us from captivity, either from ignorance or from the reality of the oppression of the Devil.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021

The previous week, we bade farewell to the Baptist. In fact, he bowed out with a key message that discipleship should always be a signpost—one who points in the direction of the Bridegroom. The best we should be is the groomsman. This week we continue to explore the idea of discipleship.

Both the first reading and the Gospel tie the notion of discipleship with the message of repentance. But, as the experience of Jonah suggests, repentance is more than just the absence of sin. It is more active in the sense that one turns away from in order to turn towards. Consider the dramatic conversion of the first reading. It was a time of xenophobia as Israel was in exile. She was a victim playing the blame-game especially of the foreigners in whose land she was now disenfranchised. And of all things, Jonah was asked to preach to these aliens. To his surprise, one and all citizen of Nineveh turned away from sin and turned towards God.

The second reading provides the basis for this conversion. In order to turn away from sin and turn towards God, St Paul speaks of the provisional nature of the world. The world as he knew it was going to end therefore the Corinthians were advised not put all their trust in the world. The context was clear—St Paul thought he was living within the imminence of the Parousia. He, like many of his contemporaries, believed that Jesus’ return was sooner rather than later. On the one hand, such an advice can sound depressing, if not distressing, especially in a time like this, a raging pandemic, when everything is uncertain. But, on the other hand, it is living with a hopeful sense of dependence and a recognition of how reliant we are on God and how much our lives should be directed to Him.

Within this framework of St Paul’s provisional cosmos, where we are shown that nothing is more contingent than a raging pandemic, the question is, how can we be disciples in a passing world?

Apart from the economic havoc, an issue that this pandemic has underscored is the reality of death. That this pandemic has been devastating, in every sense of the word, is true. However, our reaction might just reveal where we are and where we have come from. To a large extent, the prevailing attitude has been to ignore death. This outright attempt to deny mortality has largely been unsuccessful, which may explain why we want to control the narrative. A hedonistic lifestyle is a good illustration. Live today to the hilt without a thought for tomorrow. A more excellent example is the phenomenon of euthanasia. It shows that even at the hour of death, we want to be in control. Whilst the acceptance of assisted death is not as widespread here as it is in some parts of the world, perhaps what is more indicative of that determination to disregard death is the mushrooming of nursing homes. They simply symbolise our desire to shift death away from our line of vison. Stating this is in no way a judgement of those who have an elderly parent in a home.

Instead, it is trying to make sense of St Paul’s exhortation in the second reading. Death, which is a “passing away”, can teach us how to live in this world that is itself fading away. But it is complicated because along with disdaining death, we may have also lost faith in God. Faith helps us navigate death as well as gives dignity to human existence because it sustains and helps us grapple with the incomprehensible.

What has clearly replaced a faith in God is another faith—a belief in the engineering prowess of our technical, social and political skills; that these are adequate when facing the full reality of life and death. As such, our faith in God is nothing more than a faith in ourselves. If not, faith just means that God must bend to our will.

Whether we like it or not, Covid has merely laid bare this nakedness of ours, that is, we can die and our faith in God is weak. A firm faith would have allowed us to perceive death, while not positively willed by God, nevertheless, it would be permissively allowed by Him as part of His mysterious plan of salvation. Faith in God gives us a perspective which may allow us to hold death, if not like St Francis of Assisi who considered death to be a sister, at least death as the essential key in the passageway to eternity. Therefore, Covid has done two things. It has brought death squarely right in front of our face as well as challenge our faith in God.

This is where our discipleship comes in. Christ called the four of them for a purpose—to be fishers of men. Of course, at the top of every vocation is the call to salvation. Everyone is called for salvation. However, salvation ought to be worked out in the concrete. So, how do we exercise this discipleship in a situation where the fear of death has become almost a deity to be worshipped? How can we be disciples of faith in God who remains mysterious in the workings of the world?

Firstly, as disciple we must recognise that here and now is not all there is. To say the least, our civilisation is in existential shock as our “normal” has been so disrupted that we struggle to expand our vocabulary to embrace the “new normal”. Our novel arrangements have been, at best “disincarnational” since we have veered toward the glorification of the virtual, and at worst, flounder helplessly in mere materialism as they have left many adrift and alone in facing the incomprehensible abyss of death. There must be more to life than the here and now. This brings us to the second point.

A disciple has to live beyond the here and now. A disciple of hope with a knowledge that is grounded, neither endorsing reckless fatalism (takdir) nor enmeshed in destructive fear. This hope allows us to hold the tension between what is necessary in health measures—masks, social distancing, avoidance of large crowds and what is essential to us as social beings—meaningful contact that is human in expression. Ultimately, our faith accepts that no solution, this side of eternity and apart from God, is fool proof. “To live forever” is not eternity.

In a world searching for direction amidst uncertainty, the disciple is called to be the solid Gospel of Hope. Today has been designated as the Sunday of the Word of God. This Word of God, the Gospel of Hope is where one encounters a rightly ordered perspective where the mortal is understood through the lens of the immortal. We are called to a fearlessness (not recklessness) in the face of death so as to be a sign of hope in a God who, despite all the despair surrounding us, is working for our salvation. Therefore, our hope is not in the cure, even if it is a great good, but rather our hope is in God because faith in Him is the only vaccine against a madness of death without eternity.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021

Even though, we have entered Ordinary Time, we are still not done with John the Baptist—almost equivalent to the phenomenon of “having the final say”. But his was an amazing “last word” and there is something for us to learn. John stared hard at Jesus and exclaimed: “Look, there is the Lamb of God”. This theologically loaded statement, coupled with the first reading from the Prophet Samuel, frames an understanding of the public ministry of Jesus in terms of the vocation and mission of a disciple. We witness in a dramatic fashion when John pointed Jesus out to be the long-awaited Messiah. Immediately, the two disciples of his left to follow Jesus.

Last Sunday, we stated that the primary goal of Jesus’ public ministry is aimed at our eternal salvation. Nevertheless, His ministry shapes our vocation and mission as disciples.

Firstly, how to live our vocation is already convincingly demonstrated by John the Baptist. He remained the perfect Best Man who knew his place in the larger scheme of things. If you take a moment to imagine that grand gesture. Here is someone whose role was no more than to point in a certain direction. There was no second thoughts or hesitation. In an age of personality cult, John the Baptist should be the Man of the Year only because he excelled at being “a nobody”.

Secondly, while this self-effacing action of the Baptist is important in framing our Christian vocation, the encounter between Jesus and the two can better deepen our appreciation of our mission as disciples. Our vocation like John is always to be Christ-centred. In everything we do, He must increase while we decrease. When Christ is at the centre, then the conversation between Jesus and the two soon-to-be disciples will shine a light on our mission. “What do you want?”, “Rabbi, where do you live?”, “Come and see.” and “We have found the Messiah”.

Just after the Baptist’s last words, “Look, there is the Lamb of God!”, both Andrew and John left even without a goodbye and went toward Jesus proving that built into our human nature is this search or a hunger for the Divine. Both the question, “What do you want?” and the answer “Rabbi, where do you live?” correspond to this instinctive drive of Man—he yearns for the Divine.

According to the Catechism, “The desire for God is written on the human heart because we have been created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw us to Himself. Only in God will we find the truth and happiness we never stop searching for” (CCC, 27).

The two faculties of the soul, the intellect, and the will, are on this never-ending quest for what is true and good. We want to know the truth and we desire the good. We saw an example of that in the Magi who came looking for the true God. They willingly sacrificed their comfort for Him. The same longing is detected in both Andrew and John. Every respectable Jew waits for the promised Messiah and when the Baptist pointed Him out, they jumped at the chance to follow Him. They may not know fully the nature of His Messiahship but that did not deter them.

It is good to know that our desire is not a one-way street. It made sense that Jesus invited them to “Come and see”. God may have created us to search for Him, but He does not leave us in a mindless pursuit. He takes the initiative to reach out to us because “God, as the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason. Without this capacity, humanity would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Human beings have this capacity because they are created in the image of God” (CCC 36). So, right at the beginning of time, even in Genesis already, after Adam’s fall, God went searching for him. God has never ceased in His search for us and the point is, we would not know that He is searching for us if He did not put it there in the first place.

Thus, the invitation to “Come and see” represents the initiative of Jesus in meeting both Andrew and John. To stay with God expresses the inherent desire to “escape” this passing world. Our Advent liturgy kept reminding us that amid passing things we should hold on to things that endure. We seek a permanence that is absent from this world or a permanence which temporality cannot fulfil. Whether we realise it or not, we long to contemplate the face of God and be taken up by Him so as to draw life from Him. We recognise the same thirst to contemplate in the sisterly “quarrel” between Mary and Martha. Mary had discovered the joy of contemplating the Lord whom Martha and many of us “doers” cannot comprehend. In other words, Mary had caught the beatific vision in which God alone suffices.

God, the subject of our search, is the reason for our sufficiency, not our material progress or accumulation. The Greek word “enthusiasm” possibly captures the experience of having tasted God. It is to be taken into God “en theo” which overflows into a passion in sharing it with others. “We have found the Messiah”. We have found what our hearts have been looking for. Now that they have touched the Divine, more than sharing the experience, they brought Peter to Jesus to the same experience.

In this encounter between Jesus and the two disciples, we catch a glimpse of how our mission should be shaped. Like I mentioned last week, we often envisage discipleship as “doing good”. While that is good, what is more profound is to make available the encounter with Christ and souls longing for salvation. Otherwise, it does not make sense to speak of baptism. Our mission to be disciples requires that we contemplate and be touched by God and with that to go out and bring others that they too may be touched by Him and thus be saved. Like John the Baptist we make clear that path for people to come close to God.[1]

In conclusion, salvation is not a promise that we will not face troubles. In fact, sometimes the knowledge of Christ and His salvation comes at a heavy price. The Baptist himself paid the ultimate price of witnessing to the Christ. But, right until his beheading, he unstintingly pointed to the Christ. His penultimate act was to point out the Lamb of God to the disciples who have been searching for Him. So, if we take seriously our vocation and mission, we should emulate John the Baptist in his humility as always being the pointers to Christ. And our mission like Andrew and John is to seek God so that our intimate knowledge of Him will spur us to lead other to Him.

[1] It may come across that “feeding the poor”, that is, doing good is not something urgent. It is. Attending to the cry of the poor is necessary. But what is the logical conclusion of feeding the poor? An amelioration of their condition? What is the goal of creating a "just world"? That they have a “decent” life? That they may enjoy what we are enjoying? The question to ask is this: Their decent life and what we are enjoying, can these conditions be equated to salvation or to heaven?