Friday, December 9, 2016

The Freedom to be Good

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

The word utilitarianism itself is a mouthful, but it represents a belief and moral system that has been around since the 19th century, one that has both driven as well as has been driven by the Great Industrial Revolution. The basic idea is that you can determine whether an action is right or wrong, solely based on the outcome that it will produce. The utilitarian idea of freedom also seeks to create greater autonomy. Thus, the very principle has led to the automation of industry resulting in the wide-spread retrenchment of human labour. The problem that arises when utilitarianism is applied to persons is that a person’s value is reduced to his utility, his usefulness. Man becomes a mere cog in the entire machinery that sustains society. Likewise, the same may be said of religion and its teachings. Relevance has become modern man’s new benchmark for all and sundry. Whether it be a person, or a religion, or a particular doctrine, it only serves to have value and significance when it seems relevant in our estimation. The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception strongly refutes this position in holding that life has value from the very moment of conception and is not dependent on one’s usefulness to society or to others.

Through the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Church teaches that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” For many people, including Catholics, this dogma seems far removed from our daily lives and the many challenges we have to face. A former parishioner once suggested to me that I should tone down on Church doctrines and pay more attention to family and relational issues in my homilies. I truly understand his good intentions and the premise of his suggestion. He was approaching this from an utilitarian point of view. He saw a disconnect between the Church’s doctrinal teachings and the practical challenges of daily living. Little did he realise, that the answer to our daily problems are necessarily found in the Church’s perennial teachings on faith and morals. The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception is a case in point.

If we were to speak of the Immaculate Conception, a singular privilege that was accorded to Mary alone, we must first speak of Original Sin, a condition that affect all of us, the whole of humanity, with the exception of Jesus and his Blessed Mother. In fact the root of all problems, jealousy, envy, strife, unforgiveness, selfishness, etc is to be found here. As a result of original sin, man continues to live in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence, curtails his freedom and that the only way in which he can regain his freedom is by casting off the shackles of dependency on God. Just like an adolescent, he understands freedom as freedom from all restrictions. In brief, he lives under the delusion that he will truly be free, that he will be fully human only when he has cast God aside. Man is constantly tempted to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God's level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trust in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death. Being blinded by deceit he often mistakes evil for good.

Man fails to realise that love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is not a freedom from restrictions but a freedom to be somebody – it is the freedom to be good. And the only way he can freely choose to be good is when he unites himself to the will of God. For God's will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence a free creature.

Therefore, the crucial lesson we must learn and be reminded today in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception, is that a person who abandons himself or herself totally in God's hands does not become God's puppet, he does not lose his freedom.  Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.  Mary is that person and model which the Church holds up for our contemplation.  In Mary we learn that the person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God's hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive and generous person.

The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings. For this reason she can be the Mother of every consolation and every help, a Mother whom anyone can dare to address in any kind of need in weakness and in sin. Mary thus stands before us as a sign of comfort, encouragement and hope. She turns to us, saying: "Have the courage to dare with God! Try it! Do not be afraid of him! Have the courage to risk with faith! Have the courage to risk with goodness! Have the courage to risk with a pure heart! Have the courage to be truly free, not free from God, but free to become the very best person that God had intended you to become! Commit yourselves to God, then you will see that it is precisely by doing so that your life will become broad and light, not boring but filled with infinite surprises, for God's infinite goodness is never depleted!"

On this Feast Day, let us thank the Lord for the great sign of his goodness which he has given us in Mary, his Mother and the Mother of the Church. Let us pray to him to put Mary on our path like a light that helps us to be truly free -  to be good, indeed to be blameless and holy, to be beautiful in His sight.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Joy springs from the well of Hope

Third Sunday of Advent

“Every who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot.
But the grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not.
The grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season.
Now please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It may be his head wasn't screwed on quite right.
It may be his shoes were a little too tight.
But I think that the likeliest reason of all
Was that his grinch heart was three sizes too small.”

I suppose many of you have heard of Dr Seuss' Grinch who stole Christmas. For those of you who have an allergy to reading (and not just children’s books), you can check out the cartoon version that was produced back in the 1990s or the movie version, starring the ever energetic Jim Carrey. So, what was the Grinch’s problem? His heart? His shoes? Or just his plain innate nastiness? Or did he perhaps just find the joy of the Christmas season itself a little too exhausting? Let’s be honest, if you take the trouble to think about it, it does take a great deal of energy to be joyful. The Advent and Christmas Seasons are tough. Why? Because the “commercial pressure” to be happy is so immense and so intense. Just attempting to freeze a smile may lead to a lock jaw. Being a pathological introvert who enjoys my quiet moments away from the crowd, seeing the euphoric exuberance of others can indeed be quite draining.

How many of you have ever been truly happy?  Happy to the point where your face hurts from smiling or your stomach from laughing; happy to the point that tears run down your face; true bliss from whatever you’re experiencing at the moment. Moments like these are rare and when they do come, it is often fleeting. When the euphoria passes, it's back to the humdrum monotony of life. We know of so many who are hurting in this world. We too may be hurting. So many of us struggle with anxiety and depression, financial burdens, some have lost their loved ones, and a growing number who suffer loneliness, with no family or friend to console us. How could we possibly be happy or joyful with this dark cloud looming over our heads?

How many of us can relate to John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading? He is imprisoned because he has lived his life searching for the one who had caused him to dance with joy in his mother’s womb. But the darkness of prison has entered John’s soul, and he feeds on delusion. He is plagued by self-doubt and confusion. We hear it in the question he poses to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?” Jesus could have answered with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ but instead He alludes to the situation we had just read in the First Reading. “Go back and tell John what you hear and see, the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor, and happy is the man who does not lose faith in Me.”

We don’t know how John reacted to Jesus’ response, but I imagine that he was filled with joy again when he heard enumerated on the lips of his friends, the miracles that Jesus was performing. After a life consumed with seeking "the one who is to come," he knows, not only has his search not been in vain, but that, he has indeed prepared the way for the Messiah.

This is how we can experience joy everyday even when we are facing difficulties. Joy isn't emotionally or spiritually or intellectually dishonest. Christian joy doesn’t mean that we are sticking our heads in the sand and saying, “it’s fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine” while running past the gutter of broken dreams with eyes averted. Joy isn’t the denial of grief or pretending happiness.  As our Holy Father, Pope Francis reminds us, “A Christian does not numb the pain, even the strongest pain that shakes his faith, and he does not experience joy and hope as if it were always carnival.”

Joy is born, not from pretending everything is fine but from holding both hope and truth together. Joy is the affirmation that there is a Truth truer than any trouble or affliction, the Truth that Love wins. It is the joy of experiencing the faithfulness of God, the calm confidence in His Providence and the pure delight in knowing that He loves us. No matter how bad things may seem, no matter how reality falls short of our expectations, no matter how dark the situation may appear, we are confident of the victory won by Jesus Christ.

Thus, Christian joy is a joy that springs from hope, a hope in a God that will never renege on His promises, a hope in the resurrection which conquers our ancient enemy Death, a hope in a transfigured creation, a New Earth and a New Heaven, where the weary hands will be strengthened, the trembling knees steadied and the faint hearts lifted up. We hope for the Day when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unsealed, then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongues of the dumb sing for joy.” Our Christian joy is not the result of mere good fortune or the absence of troubles, but is always born of the hope that the Lord is coming and He will make all things well. The Good News is that the Lord indeed has come. This is what Christmas is all about and what we hope Christ will accomplish at His Second Coming. The joy of the Lord is rooted in the now and the not-yet of the Kingdom of God.

For those struggling with depression, despair and the confusion that comes from living in troubled times, these texts have a lot to tell us. I will not deceive you. We can expect to encounter more moments of darkness, delusion and doubt on our journey. But that is not all that we can expect. The Church and her liturgy, however, refuse to allow us to crawl into our Grinch hole to mope about the tragedies of life or to insulate ourselves from future troubles. Today, the Church reminds us that we are made for joy. This is affirmed right at the very beginning of our Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus… With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” Joy, therefore, is the fruit of a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ. Joy is knowing that even the nastiest Grinch can be transformed into the most generous-hearted and joyful person, when he allows the encounter with Christ to cast out the darkness from within his soul.

Advent invites us to broaden our vision of faith and hope. This will be our true source of joy – knowing that God’s thoughts will always be above ours and His ways will always be far better than any effort we can muster. It is a joy that can only come in trusting in a God that will always exceed our expectations! Happy is the man who does not lose faith in Him!

Men have pursued joy in every avenue imaginable. It is not something which we can manufacture. It is certainly not to be found in alternative spiritualities or in atheism. Nor is it to be found in wealth, fame, pleasure, power or position. Where then can true lasting joy be found? The answer is simple, in Christ alone! St Ambrose puts it succinctly that the real cause of our joy is Christ Himself. ‘For us, Christ is everything. If you have a wound to heal, He is the doctor; if you are parched by fever, He is the spring; if you are oppressed by injustice, He is justice; if you are in need of help, He is strength; if you fear death, He is life; if you desire heaven, He is the way; if you are in darkness, He is the light.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016





耶稣是很久以前所预告的默西亚。他是读经一里依撒意亚先知所预许那一位从叶瑟的树干将要生出一支嫩芽……上主的神要降在他身上。 预言中的那一位将以和平及正义为支柱建立天主的国。这个国的建立不是靠武力,而是靠人心的悔改。如果拒绝悔改,天主的国就无法进入我们的内心。

如果我们听从悔改的召唤,就不能再歧视他人;不该再对其他民族、语言、文化及信仰持有偏见。如果我们不尊重他人,就不能自称为天主的选民。正如圣保禄宗徒在读经二中所说的同心合意,因为这样才合乎皈依及悔改的召唤。我们的教会不断地被挑战要 同心合意,所以,没有所谓的华人教会、印度人教会、讲英语的教会或讲国语的教会。教会是由不同种族、语言和文化的人所组成的。与他人合一共融及放下自己的成见就是效法洗者若翰的榜样。透过合一共融,我们以先知的身份对马来西亚社会的种族隔离和歧视发言。