Monday, January 14, 2019

Time to Speak, Time to be Silent

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Sometimes when we are presented with an opportunity to speak up, we would rather choose to remain silent. There are a myriad of reasons why we do so. Sometimes we tell ourselves, ‘We don’t have all the information to make an informed decision,’ or perhaps, we feel powerless to effect any change, or perhaps we fear rejection or risk being pulled beyond our comfort zone of anonymity. In any event, we think, ‘I’m not even on the committee – should I make this my business?’ The self-preserving spirit is constantly whispering in my ear – ‘Of what concern is this to me?’ We don’t speak up or get involved because we’ve been taught from a young age – ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.’

In a world that chooses to silence any attempt at reminding us of our sins, what seems to have suffered more than the lack of cognizance of sins of commission, is that of, sins of omission. Catholics are very familiar with sins against charity by saying things we should not say: gossip, calumny, detraction and the like. But holding your tongue when you should say something is just as evil. Many people fail to understand that you can sin by omission as well as by commission. To not say what needs to be said when it should be said is a sin against justice and is a cooperation with evil.  Unfortunately, our indifference, our lack of positive action, and especially our silence doesn’t let us off the hook. The Civil Rights activist and preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.”

In today’s familiar gospel story of the Wedding at Cana, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, saves the day by breaking her silence and then refuses to be silenced by what seems to be a rude rebuke from her son. Our Blessed Mother’s role in this First Miracle should not be trivialised. Instead of saying “Jesus and His Blessed Mother show up to the wedding”, it might be more accurate to say, “His Blessed Mother was invited to the wedding, and therefore He also was there”. The Blessed Mother is mentioned first. Jesus seems to be there because of Mary’s relationship to the couple being married. Furthermore, our Lord’s miracle was instigated by Our Lady’s charity, and she showed her charity not by keeping silent, but through her keenness of perception to know that there was a problem and her turning to Christ who could solve it.

The story highlights two essential points. The wedding needed Jesus. Without Jesus, the wedding would truly have been a disaster when the wine ran out. With Him in the picture, there is no need to press the panic button. But it is important to note that Jesus also needed Mary. In her compassion and empathy for others, she sees the coming disaster for the party and shame looming for the bridal family. Now, she doesn’t have a solution for the scarcity, but she notices when no one else does, not even the steward of the feast. Mary has the courage and tenacity to speak up. Mary alone sees the need and she sees the solution, it is her own Son.

You probably noticed that the name of the couple being married is not even mentioned. Pretty odd, isn't it? It seems to be the Holy Spirit’s way of showing that the events that took place at this marriage symbolise something much more for the whole of mankind.... beyond this particular couple. This is setting the stage for what happens between the Divine Bridegroom and His Bride. The Divine Bridegroom, of course, is Jesus. And the Church is represented by the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the first of all mankind to be born again in Jesus. Then the members of the Church, Mary’s children are represented by the others who receive Mary's instructions at the wedding: “Do whatever he tells you.”

It was St. Augustine who suggested that the Cana wedding somehow represents a much larger marriage between the Son of God and the Church, a marriage which is completed at Calvary. Calvary is the height of the marital commitment. Then we can understand why Jesus would address His own mother as “Woman.” This happens twice in the Fourth Gospel. The first time, at the Wedding at Cana and the second occasion, when He speaks to her from the cross. When He calls Mary “Woman”, it is because, what she is doing, she is doing on behalf of all of humanity. She is the new Eve. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the New Eve, begs the New Adam, Jesus, to hasten the “hour” that will restore humanity to its fullness, bring humanity eventually back to glory. Therefore, in both the story of the Wedding at Cana and the crucifixion scene, we see the pivotal role of Our Blessed Mother in the story of salvation.

Let’s come back to those last words of Mary to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” She doesn't tell Jesus, “They have a problem, fix it.” She does not insist or demand. She doesn’t chart out a course of action for Jesus, much less specify the manner in which Jesus must resolve the problem.  She leaves everything to the Lord’s judgment. Our Lady responds in obedience to the Son’s total obedience. Obedience to God’s will is a necessary condition for speech. She tells the servants to do what she herself would willingly do, “Do whatever he tells you.” These words carry much weight and significance because they are the last recorded words of Mary in the gospels. Thereafter, she observes a “vow of silence” throughout the gospel narrative and doesn’t even break it at the foot of the cross. Her last words would be her defining moment. It would mark her entire life’s mission – obedience to the will of God.

So, the readings today set us on two complementary, rather than contradictory, paths. One where we must raise our voices and another, where we must keep silent. In respect of the injustices and evil and the need for reform that we see around us, we must not be quelled into silence. Just like the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading, we must “not be silent.” When it comes to the gospel, we must shout from the rooftops. All of us are called to give witness, to preach the good news of Our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls. Even St. Paul tells us "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16). Like Mary, we must choose to speak out even when we risk inconvenience or embarrassment. We need to understand the great peril we are all in by keeping quiet about the Truth and about the Faith.

But then, Mary also shows us the value of silence. Mary's silence is not only moderation in speech, but it is especially, a wise capacity for remembering and embracing in a single gaze of faith the mystery of the Word made flesh. It is this silence as acceptance of the Word, this ability to meditate on the mystery of Christ, that Mary passes on to believers. In a noisy world filled with messages of all kinds, her witness enables us to appreciate a spiritually rich silence and fosters a contemplative spirit. Mary witnesses to the value of a humble and hidden life. Everyone usually demands, and sometimes almost claims, to have his or her entitlement fulfilled. Everyone expects esteem and honour. Mary, on the contrary, never sought honour or the advantages of a privileged position; she always tried to fulfil God's will, leading a life according to the Father's plan of salvation. Instead of saying “Do whatever I tell you, “ she teaches us that the most important words we must share with others is “Do whatever he tells you.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A New Creation begins

The Baptism of the Lord

With the renewal of the Liturgical Calendar after the Second Vatican Council, there are some strange and mysterious anomalies that have given rise to debates and controversies. Today’s feast is one of those “things.” Some commentators insist that today, the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, is the end of the season of Christmas, since this event marked the end of Jesus’ early life and the beginning of His public ministry, and since the Church recalls Our Lord's second manifestation or epiphany which occurred on the occasion of His baptism in the Jordan (tied to the first epiphany to the Magi which we celebrated last week during the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord). And yet, there are many who insist that today is the beginning of Ordinary Time, since next week is already the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, thus suggesting that this week, should be the First Sunday. Whichever position you may be partial to support, the ambivalence of situating this feast in either Christmastide or in Ordinary Time reflects the mystery of endings and beginnings. In a way, an ending can be a beginning.

The significance of the event of the Baptism of the Lord lends to this ambivalence. It is both an ending and a new beginning. The Old Creation marred by sin and the Fall of our first parents come to an end as it is plunged symbolically into the waters of the river Jordan and with the re-emergence of our Lord from the waters, He inaugurates a new creation. Yes, our Lord, the only begotten Son of God, descended into the muddy filthy waters of the Jordan to sanctify it and to give it the power to beget sons of God. The event takes on the importance of a second creation in which the entire Trinity intervenes. The readings of the day all point to this powerful rejuvenating image of a New Creation.

The First Reading is the famous passage set to music in utterly sublime fashion by G.F. Handel in the oratorio The Messiah.  These verses mark the transition in the Book of Isaiah from the prophet’s (God’s) condemnation of Israel for past sins (Isaiah 1-39) to hope for restoration in the future (Isaiah 40-66). The hope for restoration is dependent on a mysterious and highly enigmatic figure known as “the Servant.” It is clear to Christians from the earliest times, that Isaiah’s “Servant” is Jesus Christ. More than that, in today’s gospel, in the very scene of the Baptism, the voice of the Heavenly Father identifies Him as the Beloved Son. These verses help us to see the coming of Christ as the time for restoration and forgiveness. The arrival of Jesus in public marks the end of the condemnation of sin (in the ministry of John the Baptist) and the beginning of the forgiveness of sin and healing (in the ministry of Jesus).

The responsorial psalm praises God as the creator of the heavens and the earth.  The principle of creation is summarised at the end: “You send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” This Psalm helps us to understand the Baptism as a great manifestation of a New Creation.  Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the first creation, so in the Gospel reading the Spirit will descend on the waters and Jesus will emerge.  Jesus is the New Creation.  He brings us into a whole new existence.  We don’t really start to live until we know Him.  This is why St. Paul can confidently claim, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!” (2 Cor 5:17).

The second reading is a short homily, if you will, from St. Paul on baptism. Salvation has been made possible for all humanity that has been enamoured and trapped by “everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” It is essentially the relentless and self-destructive pursuit of money, sex, and power that we see all around us.  The New Creation is “to live good and religious lives here in this present world” because we have become “heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life.”  It is a totally different kind of life from the ground up, because instead of desperately trying to have as much pleasure as possible before we die, we spend our lives in peace preparing for eternity.  This is the new life inaugurated by the “cleansing water of rebirth and by renewing us with the Holy Spirit which He has so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our Saviour.”

In the gospel, the description of the scene of the Baptism is deliberately meant to be an allusion to the creation in the Book of Genesis – “heaven opened”, “Holy Spirit descended” all evokes the image of the Spirit “hovering” over the waters of creation. Then just as the original work of creation begins with God breaking His silence, the Father breaks His silence and speaks these words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.” The “beloved” son is an allusion to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Jesus is the New Isaac, the Beloved Son who will sacrifice himself on the holy mountain of Calvary. St Paul tells us in the second reading that the new Isaac “sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.”

The words “You are my Son” recalls the royal coronation hymn of David found in Psalm 2:7. It is an affirmation of the Davidic covenant, by which each heir to the throne had the privilege of a filial (sonship) relationship with God: “I will be his father, and he will be my son.”  This echo implies that Jesus is the Son of David, the heir to the throne of Israel.  In fact, the baptism comprises of the washing and anointing ceremony by which each Son of David marked the beginning of his reign (see 1 Kings 1:38-40).  Note that in most of the Gospels, shortly after the Baptism, Jesus begins to preach “The Kingdom of God has arrived.”  Indeed, because He has begun His royal reign.

In this great Epiphany of Christ, or as the Eastern Christians would call it, “the Great Theophany”, the great manifestation of God, the Most Holy Trinity, Jesus is introduced as the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament expectation: He is Isaiah’s Servant, the new Isaac, the new David.  But especially in today’s reading, He is the manifestation of the New Creation.

In submitting Himself humbly to the baptism of St. John the Baptist, however, Christ provided the example for the rest of us. If even He should be baptised, though He had no need of it, how much more should the rest of us be thankful for this sacrament, which frees us from the darkness of sin and incorporates us into the Church, the life of Christ on earth! His Baptism, therefore, was necessary--not for Him, but for us.

Baptism is indeed the New Creation, the first stage of the resurrection: immersed in God, we are already immersed in the indestructible life of God, the resurrection begins. Through baptism we have truly been incorporated into a New Creation, a new life and way of existence.  However, it takes faith to experience this.  If we do not believe the truth of what has happened in our baptism, the reality remains true, but we do not experience the fruits of that reality.  In our prayer this Sunday, let’s meditate on the reality of the gift of the Spirit which renewed each one of us in the sacrament.  If necessary, let’s renew the sacrament of Baptism by going regularly for confession.  And finally, let’s remember that the New Creation is the world to come, the fullness of life that we will experience after the death of this earthly body.  If we are still living day by day for pleasure, for money, sex, and power, we are actively undoing what Christ has done for us in baptism.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Lead us to the Light, Lead us to the Truth

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Although we Christians have been taught and we know that Easter is our greatest and most important feast in the Church’s liturgical calendar year, most of us, if not all of us, have a soft and sentimental spot for Christmas. One can safely say, Christmas is everyone’s favourite feast (for believers and non-believers alike). But I must say that what I love about Christmas by far, is the last day of this shortest season, the Feast of the Epiphany, because of its sacramental richness displayed in the many customs that have been passed from one generation to the next. In every way, the Church, through these sacramentals and customs, is giving life to, and making visible the very meaning of the word “Epiphany.”

In common and secular parlance, epiphany refers to insights, realisations and awakenings, “aha moments” and even major, life-changing revelations that have had the greatest impact on our lives. The word takes its name from the Greek “epiphania,” which denotes the visit of a god to earth. To us Catholics, the Epiphany is more than just a beautiful word; it signifies the feast in which we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus Christ. The feast actually unites three events in the life of Christ when His divinity, as it were, shines through His humanity: the adoration of the Magi; the baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and the first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. Moreover, at Epiphany the Church looks forward to the majestic second coming of Christ when His manifestation as God will be complete.

The story of the Magi and the brightness of the star also speaks to the minds and hearts of the men and women of our time, men and women who continually search for truth. Saint Augustine wrote, that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Pope Emeritus Benedict in his homily on this feast describes these wise men in this fashion: “These men who set out towards the unknown were, in any event, men with a restless heart; driven by a restless quest for God and the salvation of the world.  They were filled with expectation, not satisfied with their secure income and their respectable place in society. They were looking for something greater. They were no doubt learned men, quite knowledgeable about the heavens and probably possessed of a fine philosophical formation. But they desired more than simply knowledge about things. They wanted above all else to know what is essential. They wanted to know how we succeed in being human. And therefore they wanted to know if God exists, and where and how he exists. Whether he is concerned about us and how we can encounter him. Nor did they want just to know. They wanted to understand the truth about ourselves and about God and the world. Their outward pilgrimage was an expression of their inward journey, the inner pilgrimage of their hearts. They were men who sought God and were ultimately on the way towards him.”

In this splendid exposition of the condition of the Magi, Pope Benedict helps us to see the deep correlation between the quest of the Magi and that of our largely secularised non-Christian society. These wise men were Gentiles, not Jews. The term magoi in Greek refers to a wide variety of people, including fortune-tellers, priestly augurs, magicians and astrologers. Because of their connexion with the star in this story, it is safe to conclude that St Matthew identified them mostly with the last group. Instead of searching the scriptures, they looked to the skies, to the stars and constellations.  But in reward for their ardent though perhaps misguided search for truth, God in His great mercy, led them to Christ anyhow.

The universal message of Epiphany is also reflected in the other readings. The first reading speaks of non-Jews bringing gifts in homage to the God of Israel. Here the Prophet Isaiah, consoling the people in exile, speaks of the restoration of the New Jerusalem from which the glory of the Lord becomes visible even to the pagan nations. Thus, the prophet in this passage celebrates the Divine Light emanating from Jerusalem and foresees all the nations acknowledging and enjoying that Light and walking by it. Again in today’s Psalm, we are told that all the kings of the earth will pay homage to and serve the God of Israel and His Messiah. Thus, the readings express hope for a time when “the people of God” will embrace all nations.

As a privileged recipient of a Divine “epiphany”, Saint Paul in the second reading reveals God’s “secret plan,” that the Gentiles also have a part with the Jews in Divine blessings. Hence, St. Paul explains that the plan of God includes both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus implemented this Divine plan by extending membership in His Church, making it available to all peoples. Thus, the Jews and the Gentiles “now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them, in Christ Jesus, through the gospel.” Hence, there are no second-class members in the Church among the faithful. If you’ve ever wondered what the word “Catholic” means, here we have it.  Derived from the Greek word meaning “according to the whole,” it means that Christ did not come to establish some local religious sect for a select few, one “cult” among many.  No, the Church He founded is “catholic” or universal, spread over the whole world, welcoming the whole human race into one nation, one family, under one King.

God has shown us that pagans can be mysteriously drawn to him and used by him, at times even through their own imperfect traditions of wisdom.  Michelangelo depicts this beautifully in the mural paintings of the Sistine Chapel. Lining the top of one wall of the chapel are famous paintings of Old Testament prophets. Opposite them are not New Testament apostles as one may expect. But rather, a row of the Sybils, the pagan prophetesses of the ancient world, in whose oracles there were discovered shadowy allusions to a future Saviour.  Illustrating the insightful humour of Michelangelo, one of the Sibyls has her mouth agape with astonishment, her eyes fixed on the fresco of the risen Christ at the altar wall of the chapel.  Indeed, the deepest desires of all peoples, the elements of truth found in all their religions and philosophies, are fulfilled in Christ. From the very beginning of the Christian story, then, Jesus is clearly not just the Jewish messiah who has come to deliver the people of Israel from foreign oppression.  No, He is the universal king, the ruler of all, who has come to tear down the hostile wall dividing Jew from Gentile, nation from nation. This is the magnificent message of the Epiphany.

Does this mean that all religions are equal and that we should not impose our ideas upon others?  Not at all. St. Justin Martyr said that there are “seeds of the Word” scattered throughout the world.  But seeds are meant to sprout, grow, and bear fruit. These seeds are merely meant to be preparation for the full and complete proclamation of the good news in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the light who illumines our personal existence and who guides us toward the fullness of life in heaven. He is the light who guides us on our journey of faith. All peoples of the world have a right to this “Catholic” fullness.  And it is our obligation to share it.

When we think about the condition of the world today, we see a lot of darkness or, at least, a lot of fog. Many are longing for truth and meaning, hope and joy, whether they are actively searching or not. The task of the new evangelisation calls us to bring the light of Christ into this darkness, to help people to see through the fog of confusion in a culture of increasing secularism and relativism, to sieve through the many ideologies, opinions and subjective truths, and to identify and recognise the Truth. For us Christians, the Truth is a person, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The Church has the mandate from Christ to offer the light of the Gospel to all people. Christ is the light of the nations who came to offer salvation to all people. We are all called to be stars to lead others along the path toward Christ, to show God’s light by the way we live, speak, and act.