Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Can you drink the cup that I must drink?

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

“Can you drink the cup that I must drink?” If we are being asked that same question today, I believe that our first and primary concern would be about hygiene. “Can I actually catch a disease from someone who shares my cup?” Picture that anxiety that is running through your mind as you see a friend request to share a bottle of water with you or wants to taste your drink.

If you are worried about sharing a cup because it can make you sick, the context of our Lord’s request is far more insidious. Sharing a cup with the Lord can get you killed! When the Lord asked His disciples if they were willing to drink from the same cup that He would be drinking, He was making an allusion to an important position in the king’s court – the Royal Cupbearer. The Royal Cupbearer was an official of high ranking who enjoyed the King’s trust. He earned the position because he was regarded as being absolutely trustworthy. It is no wonder that he was often an intimate confidante of the king, as most drinking buddies are, who often shared some of his deepest thoughts and secrets with this person and perhaps getting some good piece of advice in return while enjoying a sip or several sips of wine from the cup. This official was honoured with a seat beside the king at his dinner table, a position many have coveted but few have had the privilege of being accorded. Thus, the Royal Cupbearer perfectly fits the bill of occupying the seat of honour which the two sons of Zebedee requested from the Lord.

But there is a catch. The reason why the Royal Cupbearer enjoyed the King’s confidence and trust and was given the honour of sitting near him and even having a first sip or first taste of food before everyone else including the king, was because he was tasked with tasting drink or food from the king's cup, or plate, to make sure that his drink or food was not poisoned. The trusted cupbearer would be the one to discover the true contents of the wine even at the cost of his very life. In other words, he was the guy who would take the fall for his King. If it was poisoned, he died, sparing the king's life. He would then be hailed a national hero. If it was safe, he shared the honour of consuming a royal meal and he remained in the king's presence and confidence. With honour comes the courage to die for one’s king. Drinking from the cup meant accepting what the king dealt out - both good and bad, joyful or sorrowful—all who drink of the King's cup will share in his fortune and his future.

Likewise, in the case of our Lord and His disciples, drinking the cup which the Lord drank from means to accept whatever that cup represented. When James and John asked for the favour of being able to sit one on His right and the other on His left, they did not know what they were asking for. Our Lord challenges them with another question, “Can you drink the cup that I must drink, and be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?” Once again, they do not take the cue from the Lord that they may have to drink more than they care to swallow! They answer affirmatively before they realise what Christ's cup contained.  And thus our Lord issues this prediction, “The cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptised you shall be baptised, but for the seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant, they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.”

Those seats of honour were given to the two thieves who were crucified with our Lord. But what about the fate of the two brothers? James the son of Zebedee was the first apostle martyred, early on by Herod (Acts 12:2). Though John was the longest-lived of the twelve, apparently living nearly to 100 years, he certainly suffered greatly at the hands of persecutors. Not only did he spend many years in exile on the Isle of Patmos, one tradition says he miraculously survived being boiled in oil! The undeniable truth that every follower of Christ must accept is that part of what the Lord’s cup entails is suffering. When we drink of His cup and receive His baptism, we are saying that we are willing to suffer with Him and experience with Him whatever He ordains for us. We symbolically pledge that we are willing to walk down the same path He walked, with similar consequences.

What about the baptism which the Lord spoke of? Was He referring to His baptism in the river Jordan? Hardly. In fact, the Lord was pointing ahead to His Passion. His baptism is the full immersion in humiliation, degradation, and suffering which He endured during His Passion. So, the baptism is connected to the cup. Our Lord experienced an immersion in evil and suffering so as to overcome and gain the victory over sin and death, granting us the opportunity to be immersed in waters of baptism for the remission of sin in His name. Without His cup and His baptism, there would have been no salvation.

Now all these seem foreboding and scary to any prospective Christian and it should. But there is certainly a bright side to this too. In the normal order of things, the cupbearer will take the first sip before his liege to ensure that it is safe for the latter’s consumption. But this is not the case with our Lord who takes the initiative. We drink from His cup only after He had drunk from it. Unlike the Royal Cupbearer who has to take the fall for his king, our King, instead, takes the fall for us. But there is more.

If we share in His shame and suffering, we shall also share in His glory. If we struggle in the battle of overcoming with Him, we shall certainly savour the victory by Him. If we die with Him and for Him, we shall be resurrected with Him. For us, the cup of the Lord is also the blessed cup of salvation. This is what happened on the last evening before His passion. At the Last Supper, a Passover meal presumably, four cups are used to represent the experience of the Exodus. The first cup of wine is called the cup of sanctification which commemorates the promise of liberation. The second cup commemorates the plagues that came upon Egypt. The third cup is called the cup of redemption. And finally, the fourth cup is called the cup of completion, where God says: “I will take you as my own people.” It is the third cup, the cup of redemption, which scholars argue is central to the Mass. Over this cup, our Lord spoke these words, “This is my blood!”  But also notice the fourth cup, during the Last Supper. According to scholars, the Lord did not offer the traditional fourth cup, until He offered it on the cross. Thus explaining the last words of the Lord on the cross, “It is fulfilled!” “It is completed.”

We will soon eat and drink of the Passover meal of our redemption at the table God has set before us. What an honour to eat of the Bread of Life and to be His cupbearer and drink of His cup! How important it is to ponder these things before receiving our Lord in Holy Communion. St Paul advises us to be careful not to eat the bread and drink of the cup in an unworthy manner, lest we bring judgment or condemnation on ourselves. When we receive our Lord in the Most Holy Communion, we signify the depth of our commitment, our “communion”, to share in Christ's passion, death and resurrection. Taking Jesus’ question “Can you drink the cup that I must drink?” seriously, would radically change our lives. He is asking us, “Are you willing to take the fall for me as I have for you?” If we accept the sorrow of the passion and death into our lives as well as the joy of the resurrection, we live as people who hold the cup and say “yes.” “Yes” to the crosses in our lives as Christians. “Yes” to the gifts in our lives that come from God. “Yes” to sharing the cup filled with both joys and sorrows. For we know that when we say “Yes” to the cup of suffering, it inevitably means saying “Yes” to the cup of blessing, the cup of our salvation.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Reach for the Sky

Twenty Eight Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Lots of things have been weighing on my mind lately. Not just issues regarding the direction of the parish, the interpersonal conflicts taking place between parishioners, the pains and aches of the individuals who come to me for counselling and direction, but also the present and future state of the Universal Church, wounded, traumatised, and scandalised by division and sin. The question I have for the Lord when I go into prayer somewhat reflects that of the rich young man in today’s gospel. “Good master, what must we do…?” I guess it would be the same question that many of you would ask the Lord if you had the chance.

Before going into the story, beware, the spoiler. The story, I’m afraid, ends on a sad note. We must not, however, be too quick or harsh to judge the rich young man. He was no ordinary frivolous youth lost in worldly pursuits. He sincerely desired eternal life and wanted to know the winning formula for salvation. The young man claimed to be a good observant Jew who faithfully kept the Law. He just wasn’t too sure whether he had missed anything. His persistence in pressing the Lord for an answer would eventually lead him to one that he did not bargain for. The answer would require a price too heavy to be paid; a cost he was unwilling to bear.

The reason for me introducing the story by going straight to the ending, is not meant to spoil your listening pleasure. It is meant to highlight one significant point – the failed story of the rich young man need not necessarily be ours. Our story could have an entirely different ending, provided we are prepared to learn from his mistakes.

The first mistake of the rich young man was that he failed to recognise Jesus as Lord. He could only manage at best a title of honour, “Good Teacher.” Jesus, perceiving the youth’s inability to move beyond human categories, answers with another question, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The Lord was laying out a simple logic for the young man’s consideration - If Jesus is good, then He is God. He is no mere teacher, or philosopher or prophet. This would only make His teaching on par with other great teachers in history. But the Gospel that Jesus Christ came to reveal is not information about God, but rather God Himself in our midst. Pope Emeritus Benedict taught that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” His teaching does not only make us better persons, it is the definitive way to salvation.

The second mistake of our protagonist was settling for less when he could have achieved so much more. This is best summed up by Yogi Bear’s philosophy, “Why do more when you can do less?” Many Catholics have grown quite complacent with their faith acquired during childhood.  We have become too comfortable with our present state of affairs. Instead of a Missionary Church, we have become a Maintenance Church. ‘Attending mass, sending the children to Sunday School, listening to enduring long services and homilies already seem to be a great deal demanded of me.’ We have become complacent of doing nothing and just maintaining the status quo. Complacency is faith’s worst enemy. When religion is so wrapped up in its single concern of ensuring its survival in a world grown cold to the sacred, and therefore, settles for the lowest standards to accommodate changing fads, it will finally and quickly bottom out and will not rise again, and only at a dreadful cost to souls.

Today, we see the rise of mediocrity in every sphere. Mediocrity today poses as democratisation, inclusiveness, populism, condescension, tolerance, broad-mindedness, optimism and even charity. Mediocrity provides our society the band-aid needed to shield it from the sting of suffering. In other words, mediocrity presents the promise of salvation without a cross, charity without needing to sacrifice. We try to make religion easier and more accessible in order to stem the steady decline in followers. But mediocrity is settling for cheap; it is selling a lie. The call to holiness, ultimately, is a call to perfection. Being average or just good when it comes to holiness, just doesn’t make it! The Church constantly calls us to walk the extra mile, to go out into the deep end, to make the greater sacrifice for faith. As Pope Francis tells us in his latest encyclical, “He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” (Gaudete et Exsultate # 1)You will hear Jesus constantly prodding you, “Why do less when you can do more?” The law may simply set the minimum base line. But the maximum limit is literally the sky – heaven, in fact! We are all called to be saints!

The third mistake of the young man was that his deeds did not match his words when it came to faith. The young man had claimed that he had kept the Law perfectly. But the sincerity of this claim would be tested by the demand made by Jesus to follow Him. His face fell and he went away sad because he could never part with his great wealth, not even in exchange for a greater prize, eternal life. Many fail to see the discrepancy, the dissonance between words and deeds. By claiming he had kept the Law, the man was declaring that he had obeyed the first commandment to love the Lord supremely and above all things, including wealth. He was also saying he loved his neighbour more than himself. But if he loved God and fellow-creatures more than he did his property, it would hardly be difficult and should have been quite effortless on his part to give up his wealth for the service of God and of man. But that was not the case. Words not matched by deeds are simply hollow and insincere.

Finally, the young man’s last mistake that proved decisive in determining his fate was that he chose to walk away. Situations arise where we may need to walk away, but then again, there are moments which calls for us to stand our ground. The call of faith demands that we make such a stand. The young man walked away from the heavy cost of discipleship but he also walked away from its reward, eternal life. Ultimately, he walked away from Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. In choosing to walk away, he has chosen to close the door on the Lord. It is ironic and yet beautifully consoling that the Lord does not close the door on him. The Gospel of Mark records this little detail, that the Lord whilst looking at him, ‘loved him.’

Having faith in the Lord and following Him along the path of holiness is not going to be easy. Recognising Jesus as Lord shakes us from our complacent stupour, challenges us to match deeds to our words, and calls us to reject mediocrity in all its varied manifestations and to aim high for perfection. Not only does this mean embracing a completely different style of living; but it also calls us to stand against a world that has grown indifferent to the sacred. The temptation to walk away is great, and many have done so, especially when the zeal has run out, scandals abound, the sentiment no longer enjoyed, the theology distant and less relevant, faith has become boring and empty and God has been reduced to an abstract concept. But today, the Lord throws us the challenge once again, ‘sell everything, take up your cross and follow me!’ We must risk giving up every false security, our comfort zones, and our complacent self-satisfaction with the status quo. Will you choose to walk away like the rich young man or stand your ground and accept the challenge of the cross? This may seem to be a tall order, but remember, "For human beings it (may seem) impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God."

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What God has united

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

As much as young couples preparing for marriage are already experiencing the jitters and the butterflies that come with uncharted territories, I often choose to aggravate their anxiety by issuing one last caution – “Be warned before you enter! Marriage is dangerous. So dangerous it can get you killed!” I don’t think that this is an exaggeration. It’s stating the truth, the hard truth about marriage. These couples are entering into something which only death can release. “What God has united, man must not divide.” Only God can divide and He does so through death. No wonder one traditional translation of the wedding oaths entails life-long fidelity “till death do us part.” As much as the world often mocks the Church’s teaching on the permanence of marriage, that marriage is a permanent commitment that can only be dissolved by death, the Church can do no more than teach what Christ has taught us from the beginning.

So what exactly is Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce? As difficult or as disagreeable as this may sound, Jesus did not mince His words when He described the action of divorcing one’s wife and remarrying another as “adultery.” In the gospel that we’ve just heard today, Jesus does the unimaginable. Many modern Christians would have imagined Him coming to relax the Law. We argue that it’s only human to fail: We live in an imperfect world made up of imperfect folks who often make imperfect promises. One would imagine our Lord agreeing with this and mercifully bending His teachings to match our predicament. But instead, He proceeded to raise it. The bar would no longer be set at a level that corresponds to human imperfections and limitations but rather it would be pegged to the standard of perfect love which the Lord had for His people. And how did He love them? He loved them to the end. God and not sin, would now be the new benchmark for all human relations.

From the moment of man’s creation, God has remained faithful. Covenant is the key word to describe this relationship. God didn’t make a contract with us; God made a covenant with us. The covenant called the parties to mutual faithfulness, a faithfulness that is neither tentative nor conditional. There is no “break clause” in this covenant. But was it a happy marriage? Hardly. In fact, the whole salvation history is a story of man’s unfaithfulness matched by God’s faithfulness. God could have broken His end of the deal in the face of wanton breaches on our part. But He didn’t. God could have chosen to “divorce” His people. But He didn’t. Instead, God chose the way of love and forgiveness. This is the way of fidelity. To put it another way, He chose death over breaking His covenant with us. He staked His entire life on this covenantal relationship. He chose to stick with us in good times as well as in bad times, in sickness and in health, “till death do us part.” But even death could not separate us from His love. His unconditional love for us is therefore the foundation and the standard by which marital fidelity is to be built. Thus, we have the reason for the Church to defend its teachings on the permanence of marriage and the reason why Jesus spoke so harshly of divorce and attempted remarriage.

Perhaps, the world finds such an arrangement harsh and untenable. It does so because it seems that everything in this world is marked by a certain tentativeness, that’s why there is the inclusion of a break clause in most contracts to allow the parties to mutually exit the partnership when things turn sour. But the Catholic Church sees it differently. She takes a Catholic at his word when he makes his vows, freely and knowingly, at his wedding. The Church must likewise call him to lifelong faithfulness to that vow, for the marriage vows bring into existence a permanent union that is joined together by God. It is “God” who joins man and woman together,” and therefore only God who can put them asunder. The reason why the Church objects to divorce and would not allow a “second” marriage, is because the Church does not presume that it has the authority to erase the tape on someone’s marital history, and then pretend to take him at his word when he makes his wedding vows a second time.  Marriage is either what Christ taught us it is, or it means whatever you want it to mean.

Thus, the Church is not just being preachy and unreasonable when she tells you how serious she is about marriage. So serious that so many within the Church were willing and are willing to stake their lives on it. We do not only have the testimony of words but also the testimony of martyrs. They were willing to die not just for an idea or to defend an institution. They were willing to go to their deaths precisely because they were dying for the gospel, for Christ Himself.

There is no better place to witness this than in England. What caused the Church in England to break away from the Catholic Church to form the Church of England was this very issue of divorce and remarriage. All the country’s bishops, with the exception of Bishop John Fisher of Rochester, supported Henry VIII’s attempt to undo his first – and legitimate – marriage. Like Fisher, St Thomas More a layman and the king’s chancellor, also withheld his support. Both were martyred for defending the institution of marriage.

In a world that thrives on impermanence, where relationships are often abandoned and exchanged for new substitutes, just like the way we deal with our electronic gadgets and devices, we need to ask this question: Did Thomas More and John Fisher sacrifice their lives in vain? Were they mistaken? Could they be accused of being overly rigid in their interpretation of the law and sadly un-pastoral? One may argue that these saints lived in a very different age, with very distinct values and ideas. But have things really changed to warrant a change in the law or pastoral practice? Very much against the flow, St Thomas More and John Fisher and many more Catholics chose a path, a way of life which was going to bring them into collision with not only social mores, family and friends, but also with the highest authority in the land. They chose to die defending their faith. They chose to die defending the institution of marriage. On all these things they were prepared to stake their lives, literally, for they were things they could die for! So deep was their conviction, their faith in this that nothing could turn them away from the course they had taken, neither death nor life, no angel, no principalities, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing.

It perhaps seems strange to us today that someone should even consider giving his life for such theoretical, theological niceties. The arguments of our age turn around the fulcrum of whether or not, anything can be of such value and certainty that we should give our lives for it. Yet, again, while this argument rages, many Christians continue to give up their lives rather than to turn their backs on their faith.

What the Church needs today are not just eloquent preachers of the Word but convincing witnesses of God’s love, not merely through the weak testimony of our words but through the strong witness of our lives. There is no greater witness to this than the fidelity shown by a married couple to their marriage, the fidelity of a priest to his priesthood, the fidelity of a consecrated person to his or her vows. Remember that the ultimate strength of our convictions and the truth of our beliefs can only be proven by us staking everything on them, even our lives. To those contemplating making this life-long commitment in life whether it be to the married state of life, or the priesthood or religious life, my advice to you is “Throw in all your chips, hold nothing back and God would make up for what is lacking!”