Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Do we really see?

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year A

Do you remember last week’s gospel reading where you heard the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well?   Very similarly, this week’s gospel passage is rich in symbolic imagery that points to the liturgy of baptism which the Elect will receive on the night of  the Easter Vigil: Light and Darkness, Sight and Blindness, Enlightenment, Baptism.

According to St Augustine, the blind man represents the human race wounded by original sin. Just like the blind man who could not be held responsible for his physical blindness, none of us can be personally faulted for the condition that has infected the whole human race.  However, the story of original sin, is the flip side of the story of saving grace.  By virtue of the sin of Adam, by virtue of the blindness which we suffer from original sin, God sent His only begotten Son to be our redeemer. Because of Adam’s sin, we are born “blind” but in the baptismal font we are illumined by the grace of Christ.  This, is what we see in this story - Jesus performs a ritual much like the way we are baptised: He first anoints the man’s eyes and then tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. Anointing, washing, enlightenment–all these are “code words” for Baptism.  So after undergoing this ritual, the blind man’s eyes are restored. But, he only sees partially.

Having his physical sight restored, our protagonist is able to see Jesus, and yet, ‘he does not yet SEE our Lord’. Although he is able to see, he still has a long way to go to see Jesus fully, and face to face. He has a journey to make in order to do that. The same may be said of us. Baptism is not the end of our journey but the beginning!  It renders us able to see; though we are still new born babes. We need to grow. We can see, but there is so much we haven’t yet seen.  This is where the second half of the story makes sense.

The man must grow in his faith to come to know who Jesus Really Is. Look at how his partial perception is described. For now, he merely understands Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” It is merely hear-say and impersonal.  This surely describes a lot of modern Christians today. They know about Jesus but in truth, they do not know Him. Many Catholics in the pews are “sacramentalised but unevangelised,” and they remain ‘unconverted.' This is what some would call “pagans in the pews.”  That is, they have received the sacraments, but have never really met Jesus Christ and do not know Him any more than in an intellectual way. He is little better to them than “the man called Jesus.” They’ve heard of Jesus, and even know some basic facts, but He still remains a distant figure in their lives.  When asked questions about Jesus, they would respond just like this man, “I don’t know.” That’s why they become easy targets for Protestant proselytism.

The text proceeds to show us the progress this formerly referred ‘blind man’ makes in coming to know and finally see Jesus. It is interesting that this progress comes largely through persecution. Being witnesses of the Light can be hard work. Just as the gospel story unfolds, the ‘enlightened’ followers of Christ must be prepared to face incredulity, persecution, and hardship for the sake of that faith. It is one thing to have Jesus light up our lives but it is quite another thing to live that life in the same light day to day, especially in the midst of a world consumed by the darkness of sin and unbelief. 

Persecution, need not always be understood as being arrested and thrown in jail or even executed. Persecution of course, can come in many forms such as puzzlement and even rejection by relatives and friends, ridicule of our faith, or even those internal voices that make us question our faith.  But, in whatever form, persecution has a way of making us face the questions, and refine our understanding. Our vision gets clearer as we meet the challenges.  Have you ever noticed how many Catholics eventually come to better know their faith after they have been challenged by non-Catholics. As he is challenged by his neighbours to say something about Jesus, the man moves beyond calling him “the man called Jesus” and progresses to describe Jesus as a “prophet.”

Having been denounced by his own parents, the formerly referred ‘blind man' is subjected to further and more intensive interrogation. This is not entirely a bad thing as we note that the continuing persecution seemed to make him grow even stronger and more able to withstand his opponents. Note his determination and fearlessness in the second interrogation he faces, which includes ridiculing him and placing him under oath. The result of this has further deepen his vision of Jesus. For, at first, he saw Him only as “the man called Jesus,” then he sees Him as a prophet, now he goes further and sees Him as “from God.” He’s progressing from sight to insight. His ability to see, given to him in baptism is now resulting in an even clearer vision. This then, leads us to the climax of this man’s journey.

The final straw for him was when he was being thrown out of the synagogue, as many early Christians were. He has endured the hatred of the world, and the loss of many things. Instead of being broken and disillusioned, the man had remained resiliently steadfast. Now, cast aside, and hated by the world, the Lord approaches him. Now it is the Lord's turn to interrogate him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Sir,” the man replied, ‘tell me who He is so that I may believe in Him.’ The Lord replies, “You are looking at Him, He is speaking to you.” And finally, we have a confession of faith from a man whose physical, as well as spiritual eyes, have been fully restored, “Lord, I believe.’ And he stooped to worship the Lord. This final stage is the best of all. He actually sees Jesus and falls down to worship Him, Jesus is not only a prophet, He is not only from God, he IS God. Christ has fully enlightened this man.

This is our journey, moving in stages to more perfectly know Jesus. It is a journey not only for the elect as they prepare for baptism but it is a journey that all of us must take for the rest of our lives. Some of you know Jesus in an impersonal way. Some think that he’s just a good man, a prophet equal to the likes of the Buddha, Muhammad or Confucius. The challenge would be to finally arrive at this personal confession of faith, “You are the Christ of God! You are my Lord and my God.”  One day we will see Him face to face. But even before that time we are called to grow in faith by stages so that we can see Jesus for who He is. Remember the beautiful promise of St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Cor 13:12). For now, we must make this journey.

May we ever cling to the Light that banishes the darkness which is all around us. When the world, which constantly seeks to undermine, manipulate and distort the Truth, twists the meaning of the words of the man whose sight was restored and asks us, “Do you want to become his disciple, too?”… let us shout, unafraid and in loving faithfulness, “We do and we are, because once we could not see, but now we see clearly!”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Mercy and Truth meets at the well

Third Sunday of Lent Year A

Hardly anyone would dispute that in today’s gospel passage, you would find one of the most beautiful dialogues from all of the four Gospels, and perhaps in all of Sacred Scripture. Christ our Lord, wearied from His travels, sits by a well in Samaria, and asks a woman who happens to be there to give Him a drink of water. The woman is taken aback, that a man should break taboo and speak to her, let alone a Jewish man (the Jews and Samaritans were not on good terms). So as expected, she reacts with cold defensiveness. The mutual aversion and hostility of both races to each other may be lost on many of us moderns. However, a Jewish Mishnah may provide a pretty accurate idea of how they felt about each other, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.” Sounds familiar? Thereafter, their exchange seems to descend into a friendly battle of wit. Nevertheless, Christ is not put off by her initial unfriendliness. He gently persists and gradually brings their conversation to a point where she is ready for Truth, and He reveals Himself to her as the Messiah.

In the movie version, this particular scene of the Gospel of John, provided me with a fresh way of looking at the Samaritan woman. The actress who portrayed the Samaritan woman was certainly headstrong and certainly not shy. She was anything but pretty. Truth be told and pardon my uncharitable assessment, she reminded me of a haggard old whore who had seen better days. The association with five husbands and living in sin did not help. But what really struck me about the movie's artistic interpretation of the woman was that she was a little more “sassy” than what I had expected, in both her mannerism and wit. It was as if she was actually flirting with the Lord. The divine irony at play was this – it was the Lord, the Divine Bridegroom, who was actually wooing her over to salvation. It thus makes sense then that St Augustine speaks of her as “a symbol of the Church not yet made righteous.”

The conversation between the two fascinates me. It helped me understand how the Lord mercifully courts sinners even when the latter chooses to play hard ball. It pointed me to an amazing characteristic of the Lord in the face of the cynicism and sarcasm of a sceptic, and how authentic mercy can win over another hardened sinner. Aggressive polemics seldom win converts. There is a discernible process in which the Lord leads this woman out of her life of despondency and sin into that of grace.
First. He meets her where she is. He didn’t keep a safe distance by avoiding her like the plague for fear that any association with this woman would sully His reputation.
Second.  He gently but firmly helps her to recognise her weaknesses, her spiritual lack and her sinful lifestyle. In order to offer her mercy, He had to bring her to repentance; and to do that, He had to reveal to her the truth of her sins.  He did so, and he did so very clearly, and also gently.
Third.  He leads her to recognise Him. For indeed, the Lord Himself, is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can go to the Father except through Him. She didn’t need a counsellor, or a companion, or a confidante. She needed a Messiah, a Saviour.
Finally, He invites her to participate in that very mission of saving souls and commissions her to bear testimony of Him to others, thus putting her on par with the other apostles.

The story shows that Jesus offers divine mercy in the living water of grace, which washes away sins and cleanses souls. The woman went to the well to get a jug of water. Instead, she got so much more; she actually got a cleansed and refreshed spiritual life.

This story brings out two important underlying themes, Mercy and Truth. The popular notion is that Mercy and Truth are at odds with each other. Mercy dispenses with the need for Truth, and too much Truth is always unmerciful. What they fail to realise is that the Church holds both together in harmony. Today’s reading is a good reminder that there be no false divide between mercy and truth. In fact, they are one. Mercy is the best path to Truth and Mercy without Truth is not Mercy.

Obviously we should make one point clear: mercy is not about hiding or burying one’s face in the sand, or turning the other way so that you may appear not to have seen a situation that requires action. On the contrary, mercy can only be mercy when it rests on the bosom of truth, the truth about man – sinful man but also the truth about Jesus, Our Saviour and Our Lord, the Lamb of God who alone can take away the sins of the world. The encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman offers us a good example. Here, we see both mercy and truth working hand in glove to bring about the conversion of the Samaritan woman. The Lord dealt with her mercifully by not avoiding her and treating her like a human person worthy of respect. But He also challenged her with the Truth of her sinful life and that of true worship. Mercy demands that the truth be told. This story teaches us that people are not afraid about the truths of their lives, even the most embarrassing truths, as long as they come to recognise that that very Truth is not meant to be used as a weapon to further injure or humiliate them, but rather it is the very means by which they will be set free.

And to the Elect who are gathered here for the First Rite of Scrutiny and Exorcism, remember this story of the Samaritan woman because it is also your story. The thirst for truth –like the Samaritan woman, this is the first condition required of us in order to meet the Living God in life. Following the thirst for truth, you have journeyed in the RCIA these past few months. You have come to encounter the Truth not just merely in the dead text of doctrine or Sacred Scripture but in a person. Yes, for us Christians, Truth is not just a mathematical equation or a scientific discovery nor is it a philosophical hypothesis. Truth is the Lord Himself. It is He who tells us, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But it is not enough that you thirst for the Truth and come to know Him. Here is the final condition, without which the sprout of the quickening spirit will wither. You need to live in truth every minute; you need to experience your life constantly in the presence of the Living God. Here He is, with me. He sees my actions, He anticipates the feelings of my heart, He sees the movement of my mind.

Saturate yourselves, our friends, with the water of life. Approach Christ, to its Source, and approach in “spirit and truth.” And sources of living water will flow through you to those who have not yet found the living Source and are suffering from thirst in the desert of life.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

He will be present in both the 'blues' and the 'pinks'

Second Sunday of Lent Year A

My good friend, who happens to be a Jesuit, and I often take digs at each other especially when our eccentric idiosyncrasies start showing up in public. In jest, we express great concern for each other and take turns asking, “Have you taken your pills today?” The imaginary pink pills are the uppers and the blue ones are the downers. Whenever I return from a pilgrimage, I would secretly wish that my stash of pink pills are real and not just some fictitious creation. I usually suffer not only the ravages of fatigue, from a demanding itinerary and extensive travelling, but also a certain emptiness and disappointment caused by PWS or “Pilgrimage Withdrawal Syndrome” (I’ve invented the term myself so don’t try looking it up in any medical dictionary). As much as I wish to prolong the experience of 'touching heaven on earth', the reality of my everyday mundane existence comes crashing down, to remind me that I’m not in heaven yet. I’ve got to contend with a mountain heap of backlog in paperwork, a list of appointments to catch up on, and pages of unattended emails waiting to be answered in my Inbox.  It’s back to the hum drum drudgery of business as usual. It’s the whole experience of coming down from the mountain.  This is the REAL world!

This must be the experience of the three disciples, Peter, James and John. Above all of the foreshadowing of dark things predicted by the Lord Himself, above all the dark things that will soon follow, today’s mountain story rises above a brooding plain. It was a ‘pink pill’ experience. The Lord takes Peter, John and James up to a mountain and there, His glory shines through in some inscrutable way. The Greek word that describes this mystery is “metemorphothe”- the verb form of “metamorphosis.” The wondrous unfolding of a butterfly as she spreads her glorious wings upon emerging from the dark and colourless cocoon. And, as an icing on this picture perfect moment, two Old Testament greats appear beside the Lord.

For Peter, this experience, however you imagine it, is a wonderful “upper” coming just after the “downers” of the last day where Jesus had reiterated His prediction concerning His own passion and just before the abysmal pit of sorrow that awaits during Holy Week. It’s a glory moment and Peter, caught up in a spiritual high, says in effect, “Let’s just stay up on this nice mountain. Let us hold onto this wonderful postcard perfect moment.” Peter wanted to make the memory last. He wants to hang on to the moment by building a physical Monument or Museum, so that they can all stay up on the mountain and be happy forever after. Perhaps, by staying secure up on the mountain, Peter could prevent the Lord from carrying out His threat to be killed. Peter had failed once to convince the Lord to abandon His course of action. Now, a wiser Peter has learnt the art of subtlety. No point arguing. Just distract.

It’s hardly fair to make Peter a foil. His reaction is so natural. There are at least two things that you and I are wont to do with fond memories. One choice is Peter’s first reaction. Let’s just retreat into memory. Let’s live there. It really is alluring to hunker down with the sweet memory and just settle in it. When the future veritably swarms with uncertainty, how wonderfully secure it is just to hide away in history. The other choice, is to take those fond memories, those glory moments, and find in them nourishment for an even more glorious future. Memory can be an escape, or memory can light the way when the present is unclear and the future is dark. 

The Lord, therefore, challenges Peter and all of us to take the second option. This is the reason why He refuses Peter’s request to stay on the mountain. A sentence later, they are on the path back down into the real world. Just when Peter suggests that they pitch a tent and stay there forever, Jesus leads him back down the mountain. He invites them—and us—to journey with Him back into life’s valleys. But Peter's memory of that mountaintop was something he would carry with him throughout the week of confusion in Jerusalem. And I would guess that it gave him hope in that valley of the shadows. After the life-changing experience of beholding Christ's divinity, the apostles must come down from the mountain and return to their daily lives. They are surely changed, yet they must continue their “ordinary” work of following the Lord and spreading His Good News.

Having worked in parish ministry for the last thirteen years, there were many times when I would rather experience spiritual ecstasy than go about the business of my daily parish duties. Writing bulletin announcements, planning for formations, attending meetings, handling conflicts and dealing with disgruntled parishioners are all a tad less appealing than encountering the Risen Christ at Mass or at a retreat or during a pilgrimage. Like Peter, I am ever so tempted to make all these things go away by holding on to that one sweet memory of being alone with the Lord.

But I guess the story of the Transfiguration is a good reminder to me that though the Lord can bring us up to the mountaintop to have a glimpse of God’s glory and a taste of heaven, and to experience His love so tangibly, we can’t stay up there. Life is lived in the low places, in the valleys. God has work for us to do. We should not forget about the mission of the cross that we are to pick up as servants of Christ. To gain our life we must lose it, to follow Christ is to take upon us the cross. To answer His call, to go and make disciples of all nations.

Yes, the gospel does not end with the Transfiguration. The ordinary continues, the habitual and the routine continues.  Sometimes, life can feel like a chore. But do remember, when your life passes through some pain or loss, remember your Transfiguration moment. After having encountered God, just like the three disciples, our lives are never the same again. The revelation of God’s glory has forever widened the horizons of our lives and that is both wonderful and terrifying. Terrifying because it sometimes feels safer to go through life blinkered, as it gives you an excuse for not doing anything. Something is at risk, we risk facing possible hostility, ridicule, shame and uncomfortableness, but these are all part of the call.

And this, is the mysterious nature of our faith. Faith is always drawing us onwards, drawing us further. Just when we thought we knew the answers, we have to set those answers down and move on empty handed. Just when the disciples thought they had reached the mountain of glory, they had to go down and start all over again - they did not ever grasp that they would have to lose all, to gain all. This is the God who calls us to let go again and again, as we move forward in trust. Our faith, our experiences of God has to be lived out, not only on the tops of mountains, but in the cold reality of the valley among people who are sceptics, people who are hostile and the spiritually ‘unwashed’. 

Ultimately, the transfiguration is not just about reaching the tops of mountains.  You see, it’s about the transfiguration of all of our lives and that includes the concealed rubbish too. Not only will Christ be revealed in glory on the mountain but He will also be revealed in glory in the loneliness, forsakenness and agony on a cross. And, He will transfigure that cross too - from a sign of death into a sign of life and hope. Yes, He will be present at the top of mountains and also in the darkest valleys. And, wherever we are, we must “listen to him”.   For an encounter with the living Christ is no less profound as we go down the mountain and go about our day-to-day work.