Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Who's the Greatest?

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

If you have been a fan of world class boxing back in the 60s and 70s, there can only be one answer to the question: “Who is the Greatest?” Spontaneously, you would have shouted “Muhammad Ali!” Who could forget his personal tag-line which rhymed with his name, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?” “The Greatest” had become this three-time heavy weight boxing world champion’s self-styled personal accolade.

Few of us may have the size of Muhammad Ali’s ego to even claim to come anywhere close to being “the Greatest,” but this question continually lurks at the back of our minds as we ponder and assess the power dynamics of those around us and our own little spot therein: “Who is the greatest?” When you walk into a room, look around. Who has the most power? Who gets the best seat? Who has the right to speak first or interrupt? Who sets the agenda and has the greatest ability to turn their will into reality, change intent into action? Jesus was aware of power dynamics and had a very specific approach to them. We should too.

“Who is the greatest?” This question might seem delusional to some and childish to others, but for those who first followed the Lord it was a very real question. Being Asians, we can probably somewhat grasp how deeply status is ingrained in so many cultures, and certainly this was the case of the culture from which the gospels come to us. Your standing affected how you lived your life from day to day, how you related to other people and they to you. It was of utmost importance to a person’s self-worth in terms of how he was regarded by his community. Working out the appropriate honour and respect due to an individual was a constant task whether in worship, or in discussions, or in eating family meals, or receiving guests and seating them, or greeting people in public and so on. The disciples were no different to anyone else in asking such a question. The real difference comes with what the Lord has to say on the subject. Christian culture would have to take a radical departure from this cultural norm of placing rank and status as values to be sought and pursued.

It is understandable that at this point in the narrative the issue has arisen. Shortly, before the Lord had singled out the three of them, Peter and James and John, and they were led up a mountain to witness His transfiguration; not long afterwards the brothers James and John were asked to sit on His right and His left in His glory. Jesus’ actions seem to portray Him as a power player, someone who appreciated the significance of an inner circle – it was not strange for them to suspect that He was playing some intriguing elitist chess game with them. No wonder, the question plaguing them, though until now unarticulated, is “Who is the greatest?”

During His public ministry, the status and reputation of the Lord had grown from that of someone unknown to that of a great prophet, teacher and healer. But now He is alone with His disciples minus the crowds. It’s obvious that His message is not meant to please the audience.  He then delivers this bombshell “the Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise." The way Jesus puts it, there is no question of it not being true. It will happen. Moreover, Jesus doesn’t just say it once. He goes on saying it to them. But the disciples cannot understand Him.

As they were attempting to make sense of Jesus’ predictions, there was another undercurrent that added fuel to the confusion. These disciples who were in the constant company of Jesus, were factious and antagonistic towards one another, quarreling as to which of them was the most important and deserving in the group. When the Lord asked them what they were discussing they were shamefaced about it. And so the Lord speaks to them about status in His kingdom. He says, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." In effect He tells them that, contrary to cultural norms, they should seek to take the place of the lowest status. Of course He Himself is the first of them to do so when He endured the shame and humiliation of crucifixion. He would abandon Himself to the will of others, becoming the least in that He would put himself at the service of all, even going as far as dying for them. In that way, He would become the greatest, a paradox at the heart of Christianity. As His disciples, they too should emulate His example.

The Lord then took a child as a visual aid. The Aramaic word for ‘child’ is also the word for ‘servant’ and to understand the implications of this, we must realise that cultural view of children is quite different from our perception. Then, children were totally at the mercy of adults, unlike today where adults are at the mercy of children. Today’s children have been shaped by a culture of entitlement. But the children of first century Palestine were not demanding expensive toys from their parents or clamouring for the latest smart phones or tablets because everyone else at school had them. Children during Jesus’ time had absolutely no rights (human rights being a relatively modern innovation). The key point about the child is that, in that time and place, a child had absolutely no status whatsoever. A child was totally dependent on others and in this sense powerless. It is this kind of child that our Lord tells His disciples to receive.

By putting the unimportant child, the child which all the adults ignore, the child whose opinion has no value in their eyes, in the centre of the room, He gives the child the most important place. The one of no status is given the position of greatest honour. The last is placed first. Note here that unlike the other gospels, our Lord does not ask His disciples to become like that child. Rather, the invitation is to receive that child, which is to look after him. It is in receiving such a person, notwithstanding his or her total lack of standing or status or importance, that a follower of Christ will receive God the Father. Jesus turns their whole way of looking at themselves and others completely upside down.

Yes, we do live in a culture and society that gives great significance to status and rank. Perhaps, it is further compounded by the culture of entitlement. Entitlement creates an inward, self-focused, self-centred person. The heart of entitlement is that we deserve to be respected, to be regarded as important, our rights are to be safeguarded, benefits are to be accorded to us, and we deserve to be treated as “special.”  We come to believe that our parents owe us, our society owes us, the world owes us and the Church owes us. Why should God be exempted from this list?

Every now and then, it is good that something happens to shake our sense of entitlement and to remind us that we are not that special. The painful truth is that life doesn’t owe us anything. Our parents don’t owe us an inheritance. The government doesn’t owe us a subsidy for every commodity. God doesn’t owe us a blessing or even an answer to our prayer. Neither is our country the best, our race the most superior, our clan the smartest nor even am I the greatest. To be a Christian, to follow Christ, is to be consciously aware of our status and to willingly give up power to the least, the last, and the lost. And if that question were to pop up once again, either in our discussion or in our own personal rumination, “Who is the greatest?” Let us answer without a doubt and without any hesitation: “Jesus Christ is the Greatest!”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Cross will Shine once again

Exaltation of the Cross

To non-believers, to celebrate the feast of the Cross makes no sense at all. It is sheer lunacy. To those who don’t believe, it is a symbol of death, shame, and defeat. There is nothing glorious about the cross and the one who hangs on it. There is only shame. Shame stripped away every earthly support that the Lord had: His friends gave way in shaming abandonment; His reputation gave way in shaming mockery; His decency gave way in shaming nakedness; His comfort gave way in shaming torture. His glorious dignity gave way to the utterly undignified, degrading reflexes of moaning and groaning.

But for us Christians, the Cross is the greatest summary of our faith. St. Francis of Assisi used to call it his “book,” where he learned all of his wisdom. The Cross is also the key that opens the doors of heaven. St. Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas, said, “Apart from the Cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” If we wish to get to eternal life with God, we must climb up with Jesus by means of the Cross.

Yes, the Cross of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is a sign of contradiction to the values and principles of the world. The Cross summons us to change the way we see things. It shows how God can bring good out of evil, order out of chaos, meaning out of absurdity, and life out of death. It urges us, challenges us, and demands us to look at the world in a vision and in a way that departs from the vision we might have under a secular perspective. It calls us to look at our relationships with others, to look at life, and to see death in ways that are inside-out and upside-down from those who have no faith, and those who are forced to see them through the eyes of fear. Pre-eminently, the Cross is proof of how far it is that God our Father has gone to prove His love for you and me. Strangely and in a seemingly contradictory way, the Cross is a sign of Love. No!  It is not merely a sign or a symbol, it is the ultimate proof of God's love for us.

Death, under the Cross, is not an ending, it is a beginning. Suffering, pain and loss under the Cross, are no longer things that separate us from God, rather they unite us to Him. Tragedy under the cross is not ultimate, it is only temporary. Sin under the cross no longer alienates us from God, it occasions His coming to us in the midst of our sins in His merciful love. The humiliation the Church and her ministers must endure today, would not be a sign of her destruction, but rather of her purification.

What does it mean for the Church to walk in the path of our Lord? If the Church truly continues the ministry of Christ in the world, then she must embrace the Cross. And this ultimately leads to rejection, humiliation and even persecution. The Third Millennium has been called by many names, but perhaps one of the most apt descriptions of this new millennium is that it would be called the Age of Martyrdom. For indeed, we have seen the martyrdom of more Christians than in any of the previous centuries. The painful irony is that the persecution of thousands and millions of Christians who have to live and survive under the shadow of the cross are now overshadowed by the spectre of a new global wave of clerical abuse and cover-ups. These abuse scandals are doubly scandalous because they come at a time when the Church is entering a new era of persecution.  Although the scandals certainly demand our attention, they also serve to draw attention away from the plight of persecuted Christians.  Unfortunately, the story of immoral clerics and cowardly bishop is far more juicy than the plight and sufferings of persecuted Christians who continue to labour under the crushing weight of the cross.

It is sad to see Christians discouraged by the sins of other Catholics, and, yet, it seems that the greatest suffering of the Church comes from the wounds of her members. The Catechism quotes on this point a pope who personally embraced the suffering of the Church in himself: “The Church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for those offenses, of which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Pope Bl. Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, § 19). If the Church is called by God to sanctify the modern world, how else would this happen but on the Cross? The Church’s path is the path of the Lord: Calvary.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, or better known by her pre-baptismal Jewish name ‘Edith Stein,’ once taught on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: “More than ever the cross is a sign of contradiction. The followers of the Antichrist show it far more dishonour than did the Persians who stole it. They desecrate the images of the Cross, and they make every effort to tear the cross out of the hearts of Christians. All too often they have succeeded even with those who, like us, once vowed to bear Christ's cross after him. Therefore, the Saviour today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.”

Every time when I am beset by anxiety and troubles, every time I feel the weight of my responsibilities, every time when I am overwhelmed by shame and failure and tempted to give up, I look at the Cross, it gives me courage and hope, more than anything else the world can offer. When I look at Our Lord hanging on the Cross, my heart is filled with all that is beautiful, even in the midst of the world’s ugliness, all that is bright, even in the midst of the world’s darkness and I’m reminded once again, that death will not have the last word, suffering and failure will not strike the last chord, darkness will not mark the end of the story, sin will not hammer the last nail, but it would be life. Love will have the last word. “For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not be lost.” More than ever before, today’s feast invites all Catholics, scandalised by the horrors of the clergy sexual abuse and the divisions within the Church, to look at the Cross.

We are, indeed, in the throes of an agonising trial, a trial which is the test of our Hope and of our Faith in the Church: the test of our Hope and our Faith in the Cross. So let us regain our courage, and as that great medieval spiritual work tells us: “We have begun: we may not go back, nor may we leave off.  Take courage brethren:  let us go forward together.  Jesus will be with us.  For the sake of Jesus, we have taken up this Cross; for Jesus’ sake, let us persevere in it.  He will be our Helper, Who is our Captain and our Forerunner.  Behold our King marches before us, Who will fight for us. Let us follow Him manfully, let no one fear terrors, let us be ready to die valiantly in battle; nor let us bring disgrace upon our glory by flying from the Cross!” (The Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chap. LVI)  Then, the Cross will shine once again, not as a symbol of our shame, but the Triumph of Christ over evil and darkness.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Doing what you say. Saying what you Do

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

The Malays have a saying: “bikin tak serupa cakap, cakap tak serupa bikin.” Translated into English this could probably mean: not doing what you say, not saying what you do. Most people, I imagine, can think of an occasion when they’ve said one thing but done another. This seems to be the kind of thing St James is talking about in today’s second reading. He gives the example of someone who sees people in need and expresses the wish that they be fed and clothed, but without actually doing anything about it. This kind of behaviour prompts the question, “Did he really mean it?” This example from the Letter of St James, of course, is not only meant to make us think about the particular moral case: it is also an illustration of his main point about what it means to have faith.

“Faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it is quite dead.” St James is saying that faith without deeds is just the same as a tree without fruit, it is useless and might as well be dead. Of course, we all know that it is not the fruit that keeps the tree alive. However, the tree which does not yield fruit is as if it were dead. If you operated a fruit orchard that had a non-fruit bearing tree, you would most likely decide to cut it down. Likewise, the authenticity of our faith can only be proved by concrete actions, by our readiness to walk the talk, to live out what we express to be our faith. If we truly believe in the value of our product, we would stake our entire career, our entire lives on it.

But then the gospel passage takes it up another notch. If faith without works is dead, then a confession of faith without embracing the cross would similarly be a vacuous statement without true worth. The gospel story starts off with St Peter’s famous profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. He is right in stating this Truth. This indeed is the central tenet of what, as a result, we call Christianity. But such a statement would soon prove to be weak and baseless. Not because of any inadequacy on the part of the theological formulation, for Jesus is indeed the Christ, but on Peter’s failure to match his confession with the affirmation of accepting Christ’s mission and ultimately his own mission as a disciple. Christian faith, if it is genuine, motivates the entire person. Simply to believe that a few of the Church’s teachings are true is no Christian accomplishment. One’s entire life must answer God’s call. This is what St Peter fails to understand even when he utters one of the most profound truths in the gospels.

The depth of Peter’s understanding and his willingness to translate his words into action would soon be tested. Immediately after the confession, Our Lord then tells His disciples that the Son of Man is destined to suffer grievously and even to be put to death. Not for a moment did Peter think that the Lord was playing with words. He started to rebuke Jesus. The Greek word suggests a formula that is used by exorcists to exorcise the possessed. Jesus’ announcement is close to madness. He must be possessed.  Far from telling Peter to calm down and not be so literal, Our Lord in turn rebuked him savagely, “Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” When Jesus tells Peter to “get behind” Him, He is in fact telling Peter to resume his position as a disciple, for the things of God can be learnt only when one falls in behind the Lord and walks along His way, the way that leads to suffering, death, and the rising to new life. Any other way is not God’s way. Peter must allow God to take the lead and not assume to give directions to God. For only Satan would dare to be so presumptuous.

And what is more, such a disciple would have to be one who was prepared to be rejected even as Jesus would be. Jesus warned them that in loyalty to Him, there would be renunciations for them to make and crosses for them to carry. They would need to have the courage of their conviction, and in so doing they would transcend all the hostility that might be thrown at them. Faith without good works would truly be lifeless unless it bears fruit in the willingness to embrace the cross. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is one of, if not, the most crucial statements in the whole of the Gospels. It forces us to ask ourselves how much it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. A profession of faith may be a good start but it is this selfless renunciation and taking up of the cross to follow Jesus, to imitate Him, that would truly define us as a disciple, as a Christian.

The Lord therefore lays down three conditions for loyal discipleship – these are the “good works” that do not precede faith but rather are the fruits and consequences of authentic faith.

The first condition is to renounce self or self-denial. To deny oneself means to take oneself out of the centre of the picture and selflessly placing oneself at the service of Jesus and the good news. Although this has perennially been difficult, it is incredibly hard today in our modern culture of entitlement. Denying self requires us to give up anything that we would want or seek, that would hinder our doing the will of God. This does not mean that, if we want something, it is necessarily wrong. It means we must take our wants and desires down from the throne and place Jesus and His will as the governing power in our lives. It’s humbly acknowledging that it isn’t about us, it was never about us, but always about God.

The second condition is taking up our cross. When we are told to take up our cross, notice that it’s our cross and not Jesus’ cross or someone else’s cross, so it’ll look different than someone else’s. Our own cross is unique to us. St Luke adds “take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23). This is not necessarily a physical death as Jesus died for us (though such might be required), but a daily total sacrifice of self to do the will of Jesus. Many think this means bearing burdens, suffering hardships or just having a tough day. These are hardly crosses and we would risk trivialising the actual demand of Christ. Carrying the cross is not having the washing machine break down, getting a flat tire, having someone take your parking space, or putting up with an annoying spouse. The context of Jesus saying that we must take up our cross is suffering for His name’s sake. It has nothing to do with everything going wrong, but being willing to suffer shame, humiliation, ridicule and persecution for the sake of our Lord.

Finally, we have the Lord issue His almost familiar invitation “follow me.” It’s not just optional. It is an imperative command. The first two conditions prepare the way for the third: a continuous and sustained fidelity to Jesus, a following of Him by acceptance of His way of Life. The Greek word for “follow” suggests more than just physical movement of trailing behind the other. It calls for a complete imitation – to be “another” Christ. Coming after the mention of the cross, this demand means that the disciple must follow our Lord to the point of laying down life itself, the ultimate degree of self-denial. Our Lord bore a cross and we too must willingly bear ours to follow Him. But as we all know how the story turned out, we must follow Him not only into death but also the resurrection, to the attainment of true life, eternal life.

So let us profess and proclaim the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Faith of our Fathers, not just with our great doctrines, not just with the clarity of our creedal formulas, but by dying to the images of power that hold us captive, dying to our delusional sense of entitlement and then taking up our crosses for His sake and thereafter follow Him wherever He wishes to take us. Risking all, including our lives on Jesus’ promise that this is the only way we will find true life.  This then would be the most powerful testimony that our faith is quite alive and not dead!