Thursday, July 23, 2015

在祂内,我们永不失望



乙年常年期第十七主日    

     我们华人在宴请客人的时候,总是习惯要烹煮和准备多一些,因为如果不够食物吃,将会是一件非常尴尬的事,所以多准备总是好的。不过我想今天福音中的故事,可能是任何中餐厨师的噩梦。试想一想,仅有的五饼二鱼却要喂饱五千人。当问题变得太大时,我们便开始怀疑天主是否有方法解决,往往因为这样,我们会陷入失望的情绪中。

    有两种失望的情绪时常影响我们,相信也干扰了当时的门徒。这两种情绪都蒙蔽了基督存在的真理,让我们看不见祂。失望的情绪使我们忘记耶稣掌控一切,忘记了在祂内没有不可能的事。首先,人们为自己所欠缺的感到失望。我们时常担忧我们认为不足够的——不够钱、没有朋友、不够智慧和不够时间等等。这种失望和恐惧的情绪往往将造成我们的贪婪、嫉妒和野心。我们想寻求和得到更多,永远也不知足。

    第二,人们为所拥有的感到失望。尽管我们承认自己不缺少什么,但是仍然会认为所拥有的不够好。不管是自家的孩子、丈夫或妻子,甚至是堂区神父也不够好。最后,人们会因为要负起艰难的任务而感到失望。许多人害怕面对失败,所以不愿意出来服务,又担心会被问题难倒,于是在还没开始之前就已经放弃了。

    当面对的挑战远比我们应对能力来得大的时候,正当我们遇到挑战而不知道该当怎么办时,那正是我们应该将目光移开困境,举目仰望耶稣的时刻了。不要失望,因为在耶稣内没有不可能成就的事。我们会从中得了一个重要的教导,那就是山中圣训中真福八端的道理——神贫的人是有福的

    奇迹通常就在有所欠缺的情况下发生了。为什么呢?因为当你样样都具备时,你根本不需要什么奇迹了。若你丰衣足食,你已不需要为生活挣扎,你不用面对痛苦的事实,只要签一签支票,万事都可解决。唯有那些贫困的、失望的、无助的、想尽法子并耗尽所有的以及什么都没有的人,才会看到天主显奇迹的大能。

     在每台弥撒中,请别错过正在祭台上发生的奇迹。让我们将生活中导致我们沮丧失望的种种忧虑放开,并透过五饼二鱼,举目望向耶稣的奇迹。在弥撒圣祭中,普通的麦面饼和酒变换为基督的圣体和圣血;普通一块可以满足饥饿感的麦面饼竟成了不朽的仙丹、死亡的解药。在每台弥撒中,我们手掌中小小的一块圣体,一块小得似乎会在我们手掌上消失的圣体,隐藏着创造这天地万物的全能天主。这圣体就是生命之粮,就是天主子、就是我们的救世主,就是那愿意用自己的体和血喂养我们的救主。这圣体就是我们希望的基础,在祂内,我们永不失望!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

In Him we shall never despair



Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Having overseen events where we had to cater for thousands, making sure that no one went home hungry, I can see how the possibility of feeding five thousand in today’s gospel reading would be any caterer’s nightmare. Thankfully, we Asians are in the habit of always cooking and serving up more. Yet, it’s hard to comprehend how Jesus and his disciples could resolve the issue of feeding five thousand on a meagre meal of five barley loaves and two fish. It would be a Herculean task by any measure. No wonder the Apostle Philip exclaimed, “five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that between so many?” How do you match the immensity that is experienced with the insufficiency that is expressed? But we need to remember that in the economy of the Kingdom, these things cannot be reduced to a formula of figures.

The juxtaposition of a situation of cosmic proportions with that of meagre, insignificant even miniscule resources is deliberate. It not only heightens the narrative, but also sets the stage for what is going to be revealed. All four gospels relate the episode of the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus, but only the fourth evangelist called it a sign (Greek, semeion). Each sign should be understood as a vehicle of revelation and a personal encounter with Jesus as Lord. In each sign, a challenge is issued; those who witness the sign are summoned to go beyond the sign and to believe in the One whom the sigh has revealed. Today’s gospel, the real focus of the miracle is not the five loaves or the two fish, nor  is it the multitude who is fed, but Jesus Himself, Jesus who is both the Bread and the Bread-Giver of Life of the World. The story certainly points to more than an ordinary miracle involving multiplication of food. It ultimately points to the Eucharist, which in turns point to the messianic banquet in heaven.

The enormous dilemma awaiting a solution all speaks to us about immensity, about abundance: not the kind of abundance that comes from careful gathering and accounting; but the abundance of God's providence. ‘Looking up, Jesus saw the crowd...’ (v 5). It seems St John the Evangelist wants us too to lift up our eyes, he wishes to draw our attention to view things not only as they are but what they could be. We are given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet. Just as the disciples and the crowds were invited not to live their earthly lives by addition and subtraction, we too are invited and challenged to live our lives according to the economy of heaven. As Jesus lifted up his eyes to look at the crowds, we the audience are invited to lift our eyes to look at Him and to see what is happening.

Of course, our attention goes immediately to the impossibility of the situation. We see the five thousand and we see the five loaves and two fish. “What is that between so many?” Contrasted with the immensity of everything in that scene is the poverty of resources. The figures just don’t match. You can smell the despair that hangs in the air and perhaps be drawn to it (if not for our familiarity with the gospel story and its conclusion). It wouldn’t take long for even the most optimistic person to conclude that it simply couldn’t be done. Despair sets in whenever we are unable to see beyond the problem.

Four sorts of despair often affect us as they would have affected the disciples.  Each one blinds us to the reality that Christ is present, He is control, and nothing is impossible for Him. 

First, they despaired over what they didn’t have. Philip quickly sized up the crowd and said that it couldn’t be done financially. They just didn’t have the money to do what Jesus was suggesting. And even if they did, there weren’t enough stores and markets in tiny Bethsaida to buy the goods.

Second, they despaired over what they did have. All they had was the lunch that a little boy had brought, nothing more than the ancient equivalent to a “Happy Meal”.

Third, they even despaired over the humble nature of what little they had. It wasn’t just five loaves and two fish, but, as John tells us, it was five “barley” loaves and two “small” fish. Barley loaves were pretty poor things to offer to people and was usually reserved only as animal feed. And the word used to describe the fishes is one that refers to a tiny fish that you eat whole, in a single bite. It was a pauper’s meal.

And finally, they despaired over the enormity of the task. In a deserted place, at this late hour, how could they possibly find sufficient food for the massive crowd.

As a result, the disciples clearly didn’t want anything to do with this problem. And on a purely human level, who could have blamed them? The situation was humanly impossible.

When we face a challenge that is bigger than we have the resources to accomplish, and when we simply don't know what we are going to do, it’s time to lift our eyes from problem and fix our gaze on Jesus instead. Do not despair, for nothing is impossible for Jesus. It is here that we learn an important lesson – a lesson taught on another hill and in another gospel, the Gospel of St Matthew, the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Miracles seem to happen in situations of scarcity rather than plenty. Why? Because where there is plenty there is no need of miracles! Where there is plenty you don't have to struggle, you don't have to come up against realities too painfully, you ease your way through everything with a cheque-book. It is the poor, the desperately helpless one, the one who has exhausted all options and used up all resources or had nothing to begin with, who will recognise the power and blessedness of God’s intervention.

At every mass, let us not miss the miracle that is taking place on the altar of sacrifice. Let our eyes, our thoughts, our visions not be fixed on whatever issue or problem that may be weighing us down. Rather, let us look up, beyond the multitude, beyond the measly five loaves and two fish, beyond the problem that weighs us down, to see the miracle of Jesus. Ordinary bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Ordinary food that satisfies our hunger now becomes the elixir of immortality and the antidote to death. At every mass, the tiny host, so small that it seems lost in the cup of our hands, veils the Thrice Holy, Omnipotent, Almighty God who Created the Universe. Here is the Bread of Life. Here is the Son of God. Here is our Saviour, who deigns to feed us with his own flesh. Here is the foundation of our Hope, in Him we shall never despair!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A New Brand of Clericalism



Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

This week I would like revisit the theme of the priesthood in the Church. I know, it’s not Good Shepherd Sunday. And yes I know, you don’t want another long apology from the priest defending his own policies and justifying his own quirks and fancies. The fact of the matter is that the readings today have something in common – the theme of shepherds.

Most, if not all, priests are embarrassed to speak about the priesthood because it sounds like an arrogant egoistic attempt at self-aggrandisement. I guess it has become more prevalent these days as the priesthood is often accused of suffering from the sin of clericalism. Clericalism can be defined as a state of affairs in which there is an unnecessary or overly exaggerated importance attributed to clergy, in such a way that the laity relate to them as subjects to be ruled rather than a people to be lovingly pastored. The impression is that all priest revel and grovel for ecclesiastical ambition, status and power – vices condemned by Christ himself in the gospels.

So those who oppose clericalism often end up bashing the clergy. But, the problem here isn’t the priesthood per se or the hierarchy, but rather the identification of the priesthood with clericalism. As in all vocations or professions, there are good shepherds and there are bad shepherds, and we must always be on guard against the contagion of clericalism that can infect everyone, even the best of us. But the solution to clericalism is not the democratisation of the Church nor is it to be found in the abolition of the hierarchical priesthood in favour of the priesthood of the faithful. Eventually, you end up replacing one “shepherd” with another but now under a different guise, a different label, a different form of clericalism. The truth of the matter, a point confirmed by Jesus at the end of today’s gospel, is that the Church is always in need of shepherds.  

Yes, there are good shepherds and bad ones. In the first reading, the Prophet Jeremiah is asked to condemn the bad apples. The shepherd who is all about self-preservation, who allows the flock to be destroyed or scattered is repugnant to the Lord. It doesn’t help to soften the harshness of the words of the Prophet to know that he was referring to the Kings of Israel rather than to priests.  But the Lord also makes a promise through the prophecy of Jeremiah, that He will not allow bad shepherds to destroy his flock. This is a consoling promise that should not be lost on us today. In spite of the scandals that we see plaguing the Church, many of which stems from bad shepherds or bad shepherding, we must firmly believe that the Church will not be abandon to the tyranny of the wolves. The Lord Himself promises to shepherd the flock.

We see the Lord fulfill this prophecy in today’s Gospel. Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a Shepherd. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, sprang into action and brought them back to the fold. Moreover, he had promised in Jeremiah’s prophecy that he would “raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them.” The first wave of these new shepherds were the apostles. The Lord’s first gesture of compassion was inviting them to be with Him, to teach them how to be good sheep, to “come away” with Him and to “rest” in Him. These shepherds need to know the Lord, to love Him, before they can radiate His love contagiously to others who hunger and thirst for the Lord. Without prayer, mission and ministry would easily descend into activism. The second gesture of his compassion was shown to the crowds in teaching them. Jesus reminds us that to impart the truth to someone is a great act of charity. In fact, to “instruct the ignorant,” is one of the greatest spiritual works of mercy and has always inspired those in the Church to pass on the truth of Christ. When priestly ministry is translated into activism, when shepherds abdicate their responsibility to teach, we see the emergence of a new kind of clericalism, one that goes beyond the external trappings – the titles we hold, the garb we wear, the vessels we use in the liturgy. This new brand is more subtle. 

There is a clericalism that does not accentuate but rather blur the lines between clergy and laity. It’s often regarded as the laicisation of priests (not to be confused with the canonical process of releasing priests from their priestly state) and its corollary, the clericalisation of the laity. It’s as if we are telling the laity, your baptismal dignity is not good enough unless you start behaving and doing things like a ministerial priest; or to the priests, you are not inclusive or humble enough unless you behave like the average Joe.

There is another brand of clericalism that comes across as a condescending attitude matched by words and actions. It patronises and denigrates those who disagree and uses ad hominem attacks to belittle. It denies the legitimate rights of the faithful to choose the manner of worship or devotion that is legitimately authorised by the Church. Instead, of submitting to the legitimate authority of the Magisterium, to the disciplines of the Church, such form of clericalism begins to impose its own brand of justice, ideologies, laws, and rubrics on the faithful. Such clericalism often insults the intelligence of the faithful, who wish to be treated as adults.

And finally there is a form of clericalism that has infected the celebration of the liturgy. According to Pope Benedict, when the priest “becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him… his creativity sustains the whole thing… Less and less is God in the picture.” The priest is now pivotal; his personal preferences and creativity (or lack of it) give form to the whole liturgy. This is the essence of clericalism - the person of the cleric as the focal point and centerpiece of the whole act of worship.

Just before leaving my last parish, I shared with the congregation how difficult it was during the first months after my ordination to be addressed as “father.” I was embarrassed because the honorific seems too presumptuous and showy. I was mistaken, of course. Years later, I would come to recognise the importance of that address – what it means to be a father. The title reminds me of the weighty responsibility of being a spiritual parent, a shepherd. More than anything else it reminds me that I no longer live for myself, I do so for others, I do so as an icon, a sacrament of the Heavenly Father, and of His Son, the Good Shepherd. Though clearly a sinner, I stand in the place of God himself. What a privilege? What a challenge?

I came to realise that accepting the title was not arrogance. In fact it was hubris to refuse it. More than anything else, the title “father” depersonalises the priest. Yes, in a world so obsessed with the cult of personality, so obsessed with charismatic personalities who flaunt their unique individualism, the title “father” objectifies the priest, makes him anonymous and undistinctive, separates his personality from his priestly identity as one configured to Christ.  To deny the title “father” and insist on being called by my first name, would indeed be clericalism at its worst. It’s like saying I am more important than my priesthood. Today, let us continue to pray for the Shepherds of the Church. What the Church needs today are not shepherds who behave like wolves or even pretend to be lambs. What we need are shepherds who behave like shepherds and live up to its high demands.