Friday, 26 February 2021

2nd Sunday of Lent Year B 2021

Many couples who desire to conceive are unable to. Ironically, those who do not want or should not have more children grapple with unwanted pregnancies. Thus, the 1st Reading can become a struggle for many to understand what God seemed to be asking of Abraham and Sarah. They had been childless for so long that just when they seemed to be enjoying God’s blessing of a son, Isaac, the carpet is pulled from under their feet. It looks as if God is demanding for a blood sacrifice.

The question “What kind of God is that?” resonates angrily with the prevailing “offended” sensibilities we have. How can a good God actually tolerate evil, let alone, command it? Even the Catechism acknowledges this inconsistency (CCC309): “If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist?”.

But, setting aside this baffling mystery of God’s apparent indulgence of evil, we take a second look at the 1st Reading.

Firstly, the so-called sacrifice of Isaac comes across like an unreasonable God asking for proof of faith and obedience. Last week, I mentioned about the phenomenon of the “self-made” person. Instead of a capricious test of trust and submission, perhaps our contemporary captivation with achievement or accomplishment could possibly be applied to Abraham. What if Abraham wanted to give back to God something which befits His Divine Majesty?

The narrative might not support this interpretation but consider this. Human quest for excellence demands that we give our guests the best. Can you imagine yourself serving your most esteem visitor in mediocrity? “Cincai bocai” (thoughtlessness or apathy) flies in the face of who we are. The more important the visitor, the warmer will our reception be. Likewise, the tradition of dressing our best for Sunday worship is a reflexion of this principle at work. We want to give our best to God.[1]

Granted that the neighbouring cultures in Palestine practised human sacrifice, it might not be absurd to view that Abraham may have been influenced. For example, Chinese are used to “angpows”. Now we have “ch’aypows” (Green as in Islam) for Hari Raya Puasa and “kiopows” (Purple or Lavender as in Hinduism) for Deepavali. In other words, Abraham wanted to give back to God and the only thing which was most valuable to him was his son, Isaac—fruit of his old age. In his mind, Abraham thought that God would have been pleased by this kind of sacrifice—like the believers of the surrounding religions. This episode of the Abrahamic sacrifice of Isaac is supposed to be the repudiation by God Himself of senseless human sacrifice. So, on top of the mountain, in place of a human holocaust, God ordered the oblation of the ram caught in the briar.

Abraham’s journey of faith and obedience symbolises man’s attempt to render the best to God. Human holocaust merely signifies man’s desire to return to God that which befits God’s dignity. However, it is a poor sacrifice simply because nothing of what we have can offer to Him can ever equal God’s status. It is actually the other way around in that God has been actively seeking us out. This brings us to the 2nd Reading and the Gospel.

In St Paul, we get a clearer picture of who God is. We do not have Shylock for a God who demands His pound of flesh. Au contraire, our God is the reverse. He goes out of His way to engage us where we are in order to redeem us to the point that this God sacrifices His Son for us to be saved. As we reflect on Abraham’s struggle to be faithful to God, we get to see that God is actually the more faithful partner in terms of His salvific will.[2] In this human-Divine exchange, God is the one who bridges the chasm between Him and us. Thus, the Transfiguration must be seen in the light of Jesus Christ preparing Himself for the task of saving mankind.

The context of salvation is located in the conversation that took place before today’s Gospel. Jesus asked the Apostles whom they thought Him to be. After establishing His identity, that is, the Apostles now know that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus tells them in no uncertain terms what kind of Messiah He will be and what is to be expected of Him.

Even though the ascent to Mount Tabor gives us a dazzling display of divinity, we are reminded that salvation is to be found in obedience to Jesus Christ.[3] Thus, God’s faithfulness to us is written in the language of our obedience: “Listen to Him”. In fact, the root of the word “obedience” is found in the word “to listen”. Obey comes from “ob” (to, toward) and “oedio” (hear/listen). To be saved is to listen to Christ the Son.

Sadly, we are living under a dictatorship of noise and it might be hard to hear Jesus speaking to us. In fact, Abraham’s experience could also be said to be one of hearing. He could have been so caught up with “obeying” what he felt was God’s desire for him that he missed out hearing what God was truly asking.

From John’s Gospel, we hear that before the Incarnation, Jesus was the Word of the Father from eternity. In the Word becoming flesh, it means that speech defines man. Yet, the Word must have come from silence. According to Cardinal Sarah, “although speech characterises man, silence is what defines him, because speech acquires sense only in terms of this silence”. Hence, Lent requires that we have to listen to Jesus Christ if we ever want to be saved and, like Abraham, to offer God the best. This best of who we are is symbolised by self-abnegation, the very example seen through Jesus’ life. This explains the quintessential Catholic practice of self-denial which achieves two objectives—a training for the moment that we will be called to give ourselves totally to God and also teaching us to tune out some of the voices we hear so that we can pay closer attention to the One voice that matters. There is only One voice that saves. It is the One voice of the Shepherd.



[1] Otherwise, who is He? By our utter lack of deference, we have somewhat irreverently reduced God to a nobody.

[2] The Transfiguration is actually God’s answer to Man’s quest for the Divine, our longing for the Saviour. Ever since Babel, man has been finding ways of accessing salvation.

[3] In the Transfiguration, there, in the midst of Jesus’ display of His divinity, we discover the answer to how we can reach up to God. Firstly, we can stand before the Father through the one oblation that can stand up to God’s scrutiny. Secondly, our dignity before God is to be found in Jesus Christ who through His self-sacrifice is the best offering of all.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

1st Sunday of Lent Year B

Year A’s Gospel, which is taken from Matthew gives us a full display of the temptations of the Christ. In Mark, the 3 Temptations barely warrant any mention. The scant details we have are firstly, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Secondly, there, in the desert, He was tempted by Satan and was surrounded by wild beasts. Finally, He was ministered to by angels. Brief though the descriptions may be, we hear the echo of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of the ashes that we are to repent and believe in the Gospel. Jesus gave this exhortation at the end of His desert experience. For us, it comes at the beginning of Lent.


If our starting point is repentance, what is it? It is a process more than it is an event. An event connotes a single moment that may be incidental to one’s life when in reality repentance as a process describes our journey of conversion and therefore of the struggle to conform to Christ. Since our pilgrimage of life takes us through the valley of tears, we also grow in the realisation that throughout this lacrimarum valle, temptation will always be our companion.


An elderly religious once answered a question on the certainty of his priestly vocation which he replied, “I won’t know for certain if I was truly called until they hammer in the last nail in my coffin”. On the one hand, even then, one cannot be sure that that priest really did have a sacerdotal vocation. He could have just stayed on because he did not know where else to go and life was too good. (A good indication of this is when a priest does no work or has no drive to minister or he wants an easy life). On the other hand, this wise quip of the elderly cleric highlights for us the ubiquity of temptation for as long as one is alive.


This spiritual reality is reflected in a petition of the Sacrament of Anointing. A person is already quite dead, mostly immobile, and incapacitated and yet the prayers goes like this: “Free him from sin and all temptation”. When I first gave Extreme Unction, my reaction was always, “Err… what sin? What temptation?”. The point is life is not life if there were no temptations. In fact, they are heightened more so during Lent. It makes sense that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. There, in the wilderness, He faced Himself—being surrounded by the wild animals is a good icon of the temptations that Jesus grappled with.


Perhaps it is testimony that life has become soft and easy that we have come to expect a smooth and easy journey through life. It is as if life owes it to us to ensure that we should not be tempted. Nothing erodes the confidence of the modern person more than his inability to control his destiny. Our existential loneliness is aggravated by the Pauline dilemma whereby we cannot understand why we do what we should not and do not do what we should.


A reason for the severity of this feeling of being forsaken is that zeitgeist of the present milieu is deeply self-made. We seem to delight in our capacity self-definition or self-determination.[1] Hence, when confronted with the mystery of temptation, we are deeply aware how alone we are, and in failure, we experience an acute sense of abandonment by God.


When tempted, we may just react in two ways. Why bother? After all, we have been forsaken and we wallow in a hopelessness best exemplified by Oscar Wilde’s despair. “I can resist anything except temptation”. Alternatively, we feel done to or aggrieved that we should even be tempted. How can God let us be tested that much? It is the “Why me?” phenomenon we hear so frequently.


Consider the contrast between grey and black. The disparity is not as great as the difference between black and white. That is the contour of the temptations of Christ. He would have felt even more tested than we can ever be. Why? He was sinless and therefore the scourges of any temptation would be even more agonising. In other words, we should not be “discouraged” but instead take comfort that Christ Himself had been tempted.


Temptations arise because of the vocation to goodness (or holiness). Sadly, the notion of a good life is no longer a struggle of living virtuously but rather a good life is largely equated with an easy life. Like the man who wanted to build a bigger barn to store his grains. Our modern equivalent of this notion of an easy life once again takes its inspiration from Oscar Wilde. “The only to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”. If we assess the level of hedonism surrounding us, it must be true. We are no longer motivated by the noble or have the drive to excel in virtue. If present usage in English has a way to describe this plateauing of our motivation, it is this: to be good, one has to be “bad”.


That there can never be a moment where we will not be tempted can be frightening. But, if repentance is a life-long process, then we should expect to be surrounded by the wild beasts of our temptations. We will have to face them and possibly spend a whole life exorcising our demons. We might think of our temptations as external to us, but they are not—many tussle with the demons inside us.


Lent’s penitential disposition is hopeful because it is our training ground. It is the battlefield for the virtue of following and conforming to Christ the Lord. The saints in their struggles for a virtuous life will attest to this—the closer we intend or desire to get to God, the stronger will our temptations be. We are by no means finished products. We are always in the process of becoming what God has called us to be. If the angels ministered to Jesus, we can trust that the Lord Himself will look after us, no matter how sore the temptations can be. So, we should never be surprised by temptations and we should even be less surprised by our failures because Lent is a time to rely on Christ for the strength of resistance and purification. Our ultimate deliverance from the struggle with sin can only come through Jesus for He has overcome the tempter.

[1] 100 years ago, there were only 50 independent countries. Today, there are more than 200. Countries are personal self-definition write large. At more psycho-social level, the whole gender-identity politics is possibly another expression of this “self-definition”. No longer will nature dictate who I am. I determine what I am.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2021

WWJD. What would Jesus do?

Today’s Gospel should be read in the context of the First Reading. The Book of Leviticus laid out in detail what was to be done in cases where skin infections had been detected. As diagnosis was an imprecise science then, it required little for someone to be excluded. For example, psoriasis which we know now to be a common non-contagious skin condition, would have already triggered some forms of aversion or avoidance. Since containment is an exercise of self-preservation, isolation became the chosen cure for contagion. We may have advanced aeons in medical science, and technology, but in a sense, this practice of segregation is not foreign to us. An effect of the pandemic has been to quarantine out of fear that the disease will spread unchecked if we did not sequester those who have been infected. Of course, the aftermath of a Covid-19 infection is not as hideous as leprosy is, but the effect is nevertheless similar in that people have to be excluded. And in the case of leprosy, death is not just physical, it is social too. There is something about leprosy that causes people to shrink.




To understand why people draw back from leprosy is to pay attention to creation. It is orderly, structured and inherently beautiful. Translated, it means that physical integrity, that is, cohesiveness is an expression of creation’s harmony. In a manner speaking, what disrupts this stability or upsets this balance is sin. Leprosy’s devastating hideousness is a good symbol of sin’s ugliness.


Whether society during the time of Jesus was holy or not, the fact remains that people had an instinctive sense of what the holy should be like. As holiness is an attribute of God, there needs to be a divide between what is divine and what is profane. Whether the people live up to the standard demanded by holiness or not, they have an other-worldly perspective. Thus, the physical or physiological deformity of leprosy is considered to be the contamination of the profane, a sign of the corruption of sin. Heaven, because it is beautiful, has no place for ugliness. Thus, the expulsion of the leper is treated as a punishment for sin. The leper is to be excluded until he is made clean or restored to holiness or wholeness.


However, there is an internal contradiction in this approach to interdiction and integrity, to sin and restoration. This law of exclusion does not make sense because one has to remain excluded until one is made clean or restored to wholeness. How is one to be healed or restored to the community if one cannot be approached? Thus, the question at the start on what Jesus would do is answered by the account of the healing today. It is remarkable that Jesus allowed this leper to come near Him. In asking for a healing, the leper, who is already socially dead and may as well be physically dead, was symbolically expressing his faith in the Resurrection. He desired to be restored to life.


In other words, today’s Gospel shows Jesus entering into the realm of the sinful in order to save those who are brought down by sin. In so many accounts of allowing sinners to touch Him, we can already sense what is more than mere sacramentality at work. In the Incarnation, Jesus crosses the border from the invisible to the visible in order that the visible may have access to the invisible. While a sacrament is defined as the action of Christ done through the Church, it is more than that. The boundary which separates us from God is broken in such a manner that Christ effectively heals creation as it lays groaning and waiting for the Saviour. He does not save just by a fiat. Instead, He saves by taking upon Himself the burden of our slavery. The consequence of Christ’s touch is significant because the Sinless one now becomes the one impacted by the sin of separation. After the leper blabbered his mouth, Jesus took the leper’s place. The price of Jesus inclusiveness was His banishment. Indeed, He came to save, not to condemn.


This saving inclusion of Jesus is something which resonates with us. In fact, we can see that man’s history, by and large, has been a progressive record of social inclusion where we witness the gradual emancipation from the subjection of slavery to the sovereignty of self-determination. However, we have also arrived at a point where politics have invaded the theology of inclusion.


This politics is coloured very much by tolerance disguised as “inclusivity”. As Fulton Sheen used to comment on the development in the USA, “This country is not suffering from intolerance but rather of tolerance that makes no difference between right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. The country is not nearly so overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded”.


The theology of inclusion must always be seen in the light of salvation. Jesus came to save, and He wants to save all. He is inclusive and the operative word in His inclusion is that we want to be saved and we want to be conformed to Him. The adulterous woman standing before Him is our standard for inclusion. She was supposed to be excluded on account of her sin, but Christ made no judgement about her sin except that the condition for her restoration, for her inclusion, was that she should sin no more.


Leprosy has become a curable disease now and for that, we have become “blind” because we can no longer fathom the “deformity” of sin and its effects on our souls. Still, Christ does not shrink from saving souls. The only shrinking has to come from us. Do we want to be healed? If we do, like the leper, only then will the reconciliation and restoration take place in our lives. Otherwise, inclusion makes no sense except that it makes us feel good about ourselves and could even canonise us in our sinful deformity. But nowhere will we be near to heaven which in the scheme of salvation is the ultimate expression of Christ’s inclusion.