Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Lord Jesus Come in Glory


Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

This has been a dramatic year for Catholics around the world. As Pope Francis faces mounting pressure almost every day, to address the spiraling clergy sex-abuse crisis, bishops facing off other bishops, accusations of confusing teachings, has brought some new revelation or declaration. Many are predicting, thankfully some only tongue-in-cheek, that these things are pointing to the end of the world. The encircling gloom of the moral and spiritual decay we see in the world and within the Church, lends weight to this argument. But whenever doomsayers abound, unapologetic optimists abound the more with what sometimes seems to be a weak assurance: “It's not the end of the world… yet'” There are all sorts of ways of using that phrase. For example, it can be a way of saying that it isn't as bad as it seems. But the point of using this phrase is because we believe the “end of the world” to be a supremely bad thing. So we try to trivialise it or to postpone the end as far as possible and perhaps even avoid it altogether.

It may come as little consolation to some of you to know that the belief that the world was quickly coming to an end, was the basic sentiment of many Christians, and in fact most people, in the decades following the death of our Lord. In fact, our Lord, even predicts this moment without disclosing the exact date or time, “In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”. This certainly conjures a frightening image of cataclysmic destruction of cosmic proportions, that all that we know will cease to exist; all that sustains us is coming to an end. But this type of “doom speaking” is actually a style of speaking and writing that is today described as “apocalyptic.”

What apocalyptic writing always does is to resonate with the experiences of the people who hear it. Shortly before today’s passage, our Lord foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The audience for whom Mark writes his Gospel already knew that, the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD, and for many of them the destruction of the Temple was a momentous event that shook them to the core. The Temple, the House of God, Judaism’s centre of the universe, was destroyed in the Roman invasion. As far as the Jews and even Christians were concerned, this marked the “end of the world.” In fact, the Temple was seen as a microcosm of the universe, and astrological symbols representing the heavenly bodies in the universe were embroidered into the veil that formed a physical barrier that separated the holiest sanctuary of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, from the rest of the building. Was this what was meant by the “sun” and “moon” being darkened and losing their brightness? Probably.
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And that's what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel. The Gospel can sound rather forbidding, because they are about the end of the world, in the sense of the end of time, the last days. But actually, they also refer to events that have already taken place, “I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place.” The end of the world has happened. And instead of being bad news, it’s tremendously Good News. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross at Calvary is the ending not just of an age, but of all the ages.

When reading today’s gospel, our attention would certainly be taken up by the cataclysmic signs mentioned, namely that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” With so much happening on a cosmic scale, one can certainly miss the point. But the next line gives us the clue. “When you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.” It’s just like the fireworks that go off before the start of an important event. People are often distracted by the pyrotechnic display in the sky, failing to see or forgetting for a moment, that this isn’t the focus of the celebrations, just the trappings; it isn’t the end, just the beginning. In other words, when reading today’s gospel, the focus is Christ, the Coming of the Son of Man in glory and victory, the one who is “near” and in fact “at the gates.”

To understand the Second Coming of Christ calls for understanding the Greek word ‘parousia’ (lit. ‘a being near’) used for this event. The choice of the word in Greek can speak of the reality of Christ having arrived (His first coming among men), His presence in our midst as well as His coming again in glory in the future to judge the living and the dead. Time and space collapses with this critical intervention of God in human history. We are living in the end times. The end is already here, but it has yet to be consummated. When is that going to happen? We should not be preoccupied with predicting the date of Christ’s Second Coming. “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”(Acts 1:7)

At the end of the day, we will never be certain when the world will really come to an end. We won’t even be sure that the signs are really signs of the end times and not just natural cataclysmic events arising from shifting continental plates and changing weather conditions or just the usual turmoil that the Church is experiencing and has always been experiencing in the past. All these may seem pressing but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us that these things should never distract us from three certainties which should always remain our foci.
1.      The first certainty is that Jesus is Risen and is with the Father and thus is with us forever. And no one is stronger than Christ. We are safe, and should be free of fear.
2.      Secondly, we are certain that Christ is with me. He is most certainly present in the Eucharist, the source and summit of my life. My faith in Him gives me the hope that the future is not darkness in which no one can find his way. Christ's light is stronger and therefore we live with a hope that is not vague, with a hope that gives us certainty and courage to face the future.
3.      Lastly, we are convinced that Christ will return as Judge and Saviour. Therefore, we must be accountable to Him for our every action and decision.

So, the cataclysmic signs that accompany the end should never be a reason for fear but always one of hope. The signs indicate an undoing of creation in anticipation of a re-creation. What these forces destroy is not goodness or life, but rather the power of evil and sin. Destruction has to come before perfection. When things look really bad, a glorious recovery is imminent. As the historian Christopher Dawson put it, “When the Church possesses all the marks of external power and success, then is its hour of danger; and when it seems that no human power can save it, the time of its deliverance is at hand.” History moves toward this steady goal - Jesus Christ. He is the central figure of all history. And so we as Christians should not cower in fear but joyfully welcome the day when Christ returns. This is exactly what we pray for at every Mass. 'Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory!' or 'When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.' At every Mass we are always praying that Christ will come again.

The end of the world is therefore a supremely good thing, and it is something that we Christians pray for and look forward to, not because we are fed up with this world, but because we love this world even as God loves it, and we long for it to be made whole and perfect, which God in His love for us will accomplish. He will return in triumph to fulfill God’s eternal purpose with all of creation. And that would be a marvel to behold. Until then, we pray, “Maranatha!” “Come Lord Jesus!” And to those who say, “the world is ending”, we reply, “Bring it on!”

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

God is watching


Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

As Catholics, we shouldn’t always take the Bible literally, but we should always take it seriously. To take the story of the Widow’s Mite seriously, we must keep the condemnation in the story. This story is meant to confront us, but it has, repetitively, been interpreted to condemn others or in a limited way, to highlight the virtue of generous giving. Catholic priests jump at the opportunity to use this passage to highlight the need for Catholics in the pew to give more. The collection usually increases this Sunday, but just this Sunday only! Unfortunately, it usually returns to previous levels the following week, exposing a very Catholic phenomena – Catholics usually give out of guilt, not out of passion or commitment. But the character of the poor widow being held up as a model for generous giving is secondary to the condemnation which precedes and follows this episode.

The story begins with a condemnation of the scribes. The condemnation is primarily concerned with their preoccupation with the mere appearance of holiness. The extent of their faith runs no deeper than religious displays: flowing robes, respectful greetings, seats of honour in the synagogue and at banquets. Just like the rich at Temple treasury, the scribes make a show of themselves too, drawing attention to themselves rather than to what matters – God. Though, the scribes of Jesus’ time may be identified with the clerical class in today’s Church, I think the net of the condemnation is cast wider. Let’s be honest; most of us can be quite vain with our appearances, and this is not confined to personal grooming but also to how others perceive us.  We can’t deny that we need to be treated with respect. In fact, this is compounded by the culture of entitlement.  We enjoy being honoured, especially for our successes, and acknowledged for our contributions. But our Lord singles out one particular sinister activity of the scribes that reveals the horrendous nature of their hypocrisy: They swallow widows’ properties.

It is not known what the exact nature of “swallow(ing) the property of widows” was in Jesus’ time. The Greek word translated “swallow” (κατεσθίω), suggests an action of “consuming completely,” leaving the victim penniless. The problem with both the scribes and the Pharisees is not simply their religious hypocrisy (though that was itself evil). They compounded their sin of hypocrisy by actually overturning the Law of Moses.

What was the Law of Moses that was being overturned or violated here? In the Old Testament, widows, along with orphans and aliens, were the most vulnerable and dependent class of people in the land. As such, widows were entitled to unique protection under the Law of Moses, which forbade anyone to afflict a widow, and any such violation would result in God punishing the offender with the sentence of death. A widow was particularly vulnerable and dependent because of her inability to provide for herself. A woman without a husband or sons would be unable to support herself. To remedy this, the Law included all sorts of safeguards or safety nets designed to ensure that a widow would not become destitute or starve. A triennial tithe was set aside for them. They were given the right of first gleaning after the harvest had been completed and landowners were specifically warned not to harvest so thoroughly as to leave nothing behind. This backdrop brings into sharp relief the criminal nature of the scribes’ activity. The scribes who had swallowed the property of the widows were guilty on all counts!

The scene swiftly moves from our Lord’s condemnation of the scribes to His observation of the people who make contributions at the Temple. He is observing how the wealthy are making their contributions to the treasury, and making a show of it just like the scribes, when suddenly one lone and impoverished widow enters the scene. She also makes her contribution, but by any normal standard it is an insignificant amount. The amount she gave made no difference to the Temple.  It was worthless. But in Jesus’ eyes, however, it is an offering beyond ordinary measure. He tells His disciples that the widow’s offering is actually greater than all the offerings made by the rich because the value of the offering is best measured against the financial worth of the offerer. It was far superior to the others, for it was all that she owned. At this point, we can recall our Lord’s teachings to His disciples on bearing their cross and offering self-denying service to others. The poor widow has embodied that teaching in her own sacrificial giving. How different she is from the wealthy, who give only from their surplus (after their own needs are satisfied) and thus never feel the joyful pinch of self-denial in the cause of love! Most absurdly, what the Lord observed in His day remains true today — those with the least, by percentage of their resources, continue to give more than the wealthy!

Mark’s concern is to create a sense of contrast between the widow and those who exploit widows. While the scribes use the pretense of religion to gain money, the widow’s piety is expressed through her willingness to give money—even if her giving exhausts all of her resources. She possesses what God loves: faith expressed in good works. It is a matter of genuine faith, which the widow expresses by the generosity of her offering (she trusts that the God of Israel will meet her needs), versus unbelief, which the scribes express by exploiting their office for their own financial gain. The scribes seek to gain honour and privilege in the eyes of men. The poor widow is only concerned with gaining God’s favour. Hers was a faith working through love, theirs was only a hollow religion.

So, how does this story confront us? First, the widow provides us with a picture of true faith, having a confident and complete trust in God. The quality of her faith stands in sharp contrast to the false piety of the hypocrites, who are more concerned with appearances than being in a right state with God. From her example, Christians everywhere are encouraged to live a life of similar faith, meeting the needs of others while trusting that their heavenly Father, “who sees what is done in secret,” will meet their own needs.

Second, the widow is a symbol: She is one of the last exhibits of evidence in God’s court to seal His case against the rot and corruption of Israel, which finally ends in the destruction of the Temple. Let us not be deluded to think that this condemnation is reserved only for the scribes or Israel. This story should also make us cringe. Our indifference to the needs of others, our penchant to pursue self-serving agendas at the expense of others has rendered our worship void. The cries of those whom we have turned a deaf ear or a blind eye to, the victims of our exploitation, will reach the ears and eyes of God. No fraudulent or exploitative act goes unnoticed by the one who sees all. Just like the rich man who was condemned for his indifference to the poor beggar Lazarus, we will not be spared judgment.

Never be deluded into thinking that God is blind or deaf to our predicament. Where is God when the scribes devour the widow’s property? Where is God when there is an injustice? Where is God when our society seems to be losing its moral and spiritual bearings? Where is God when a crime is committed but the perpetrator set free? Where is God when our institutions are corrupted to the core?  Today, we have the answer. Our Lord is watching. If He can notice a poor widow drop two tiny insignificant coins into the treasury, we know that He watches our every step. If He can see through the precocious ostentation of the scribes, He will also notice our begrudging attitude, our miserliness and see through our hypocrisy. God is also watching. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake, He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

#LoveWins?


Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

When the US Supreme Court ruled by a 5 to 4 vote in 2015 that the US Constitution guarantees the right of marriage to all persons, without exception, meaning same-sex marriage is now a constitutional and legal right, supporters celebrated by making the hashtag #lovewins viral on social media. Outside the Supreme Court, the police allowed hundreds of people waving rainbow flags and holding signs, to advance onto the court plaza as those present for the decision streamed down the steps. “Love has won,” the crowd chanted as courtroom witnesses threw up their arms in victory. It is ironic, that those opposed to the decision to redefine the age-old definition of marriage came to be labelled as “haters” – the logic – if you are against same-sex marriage, you are against love, therefore, you are a “hater.”  It is interesting how “love” too has been redefined to include those who agree with one’s ideological positions and excludes those who don’t. It is more ironic that if you are a supporter of a traditional viewpoint of marriage, you are a “hater” too. To put a label on people as a way of closing off the debate or as a way of vilifying those who disagree really runs counter to this whole idea of “love.”

So much hatred pours daily into our newsfeed. Ironically it’s all directed in the name of tolerance, progress and love. I don’t think that the word “love” means what they think it means. Our culture uses the word love to mean just about everything except what the Bible means by it. “Love,” hasn’t just become synonymous with unfettered sexual expression, it has become tantamount to a kind of sexual gospel that is blinded to all other concerns, especially moral concerns. It’s not merely enough to have the freedom to marry or kiss whomever one chooses, but one has to submit to celebrating this kind of sexual liberation to show any conception of love. This secularised appropriation of love shares much in common with the corrupted form of the Greek “eros”— erotic love that is presumed to lead humans to “supreme happiness.” Yet, as Pope Emeritus Benedict warned in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “this counterfeit divinisation of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanises it.”

Anything that defies this new secular religion which glorifies “love” as doing what you want with whomever you want, and does not cater to the personal and explicitly sexual desires of the individual, is immediately described as “hate.” But, philosophically speaking, this self-defined dichotomy of love and hate undercuts the dynamic nature of love itself. Not only does it remove the biblical notion of agape (which is the word used in today’s gospel), or a kind of love that, in the words of Pope Benedict, “seeks the good of the beloved…ready, and even willing, for sacrifice,” but it removes God from love. In a way, a love which is separated from God eventually leads to a rejection of God. After all, St John tells us that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). 

Let’s come back to today’s gospel. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that the greatest commandment is simply love. You will be shocked to discover that Love (love per se) is not the greatest commandment. Look keenly at the words our Lord uses. There is the first commandment which is very important than any other command. To be ‘first’ in this context is closer to the idea of being the first stone laid—the cornerstone, upon which all of the other stones must rest. Consequently, the greatness of the love commandment lies not in its surpassing value over and against all of the other commandments of Jewish law but, rather, in its ability to hold up all the rest. This is the love of God. All other commands have a basis and root in this command. So, if any person asks you what is the greatest command, do not say love, but love of God. To take God out of the equation would be a gross misrepresentation.

Quoting from the “Shema”, the fundamental creed of the Jewish People, the love of God must be total. Loving God with one’s entire heart means loving Him from the very root of our being; loving God with one’s entire soul means loving Him passionately; loving God with all of one’s strength means loving Him with all of the power we can muster; and loving Him with all of one’s mind means loving Him by studying His ways and learning to do His will. That is why in the Fourth Gospel, our Lord tells His disciples that if they love Him, they should keep His commandments. The true litmus test for love is obedience to the Father’s will and God’s commandments. Love can never mean abusing our freedom and seek to live a life at odds with God’s plan for us, for our relationships, and for marriage and family.

You can see from the above that to love God supremely and to love man in a corresponding way is no light task. It is sheer human impossibility! Everything rational in our mind tells us that we ought to have such love. But every irrational thought tells us that we cannot. If we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that none of us has loved God in such a way. We might love God more today than we loved Him yesterday, but we still do not love Him as we ought. That is why we will always fall short of living up to the demands of the commandment and that is also why we must repent daily for our failure to keep it.

Our Lord knew what He was saying by saying that the greatest command is love. The world teaches that you can love your neighbor without even caring or loving God and this is the highest degree of hypocrisy. A man cannot love neighbour without first having the love of God. True love comes first from loving God and without God there is no love even to neighbour.

What, then, should be the Catholic response to both the hijacking of “love” and “hate”? The answer is simple: We must love in a Christian sense. We must show that love is, and can be, more than two men kissing; more than a hashtag and a rainbow flag; more than something that benefits just us. We must show love in all of its healing power of forgiveness, in charity, and in what is no longer rational, yet still reveals the light of faith. We must also never blur the lines between sin and virtue. We cannot and should not obfuscate the nature of evil. Let’s call a spade a spade – sin has nothing to do with love. In fact, sin is the exact opposite of authentic love.  Above all, we must have courage, and we must continue to live our lives with faith, showing the world the true value of loving God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our beings, and being witnesses of this self-giving love to others, especially to those on the fringes of society and even to those who are undeserving of love.

Today, the hashtag - #LoveWins -popular on social media, is easier to understand and accept than the Church’s unchanging teaching on what love and marriage is and what it is not. In the end, we Christians do agree that love will win in the end, the love that Saint Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4–6: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not boastful, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.” It’s an important reminder that “love” and “truth” go hand-in-hand: We must speak the truth in love to our fellow men and women, and there can be no love that denies the truth. “Love is the light—and in the end, the only light,” Pope Benedict tells us, “that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working.”