Thursday, May 17, 2018

Babel has fallen

Pentecost Vigil 2018

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. But no one can truly rejoice in this feast without recalling an incident that took place long ago on the plain of Shinar, which we had just heard in the first reading. Back then, men attempted to build an ancient skyscraper, up to the heavens. “Come, they said, let us build ourselves a town and a tower reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) This massive engineering feat was not motivated by the desire for development nor for the welfare of the people. Needless to say, they were not building a temple to God. The text clearly states that they were doing this to make a name for themselves. It was a monument to their ego. Pride, was the drive behind this project. They sought to establish a unified society. They thought that by means of technology they could continue to live in sin and impunity without having to suffer the divine punishment of another flood. If the waters start rising, just start climbing!

Here we see clearly what St. Augustine would describe later as the “city of man” as opposed to the “city of God.” According to Jewish tradition it was Nimrod who organised and oversaw the building of the tower of Babel. Nimrod is a prototype of the Antichrist, the ruler of the city of man, i.e. those who seek to live as if man is God. Every despot and dictator follows the same mould. Nimrod and those following him wanted to build a city and a tower, to make a name for themselves in order to preserve their man-made projects, to exalt themselves to heaven while living in opposition to God. God saw that, when so unified, the city of man would be capable of unrestrained evil. Just as He had mercifully driven man out of Eden to prevent him from eating of the Tree of Life and so living forever in his sinful condition; so also at Babel, God acted mercifully in confusing man’s language, to prevent the city of man from carrying out the great evils it would do if united together in opposition to God. God delayed judgment of the city of man to allow man to repent. It was an act of mercy, not a punitive one.

But God’s redemptive purpose was not merely to prevent man from falling into greater evil; He also set out to restore to man the true unity he enjoyed in Eden, a fellowship in the Divine Trinity. Only by this communion with the Divine Persons can men be truly united to each other; the true unity of men with men only comes about as a participation in the divine unity of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son with this ministry of reconciliation. After His death and resurrection, but before His ascension into Heaven, He commissioned His Apostles to “make disciples of all the nations.” Fifty days after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, and filled with the Holy Spirit they began speaking in other languages which they had not previously known. On that day, three thousand heard their testimony, believed and were baptised. On Pentecost Day, the Church was born.

One of the primary purposes for Christ founding a Church is to undo the division of the human family effected by sin. The Tower of Babel is the paradigmatic referent of Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” Pentecost is the supernatural redemptive reversal of Babel, and this is why the Church is the anti-Babel. The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to reverse that division by means of a divine ingathering. All the nations of the world are to stream into her doors, into one household, the household of faith. The Church is the house of the Lord, and because He builds this house, those who labour against it, labour in vain. Apart from Christ, man cannot form such a unity, though he thinks he can. A Utopian world without the need for heaven would eventually be a living hell. By his own power man attempts to recover each of the gifts lost or damaged by Adam’s sin. He attempts to gain immortality through genetic manipulation, pharmaceuticals and medical science; love through pornography, fornication, adultery and other forms of sexual aberrations, and wisdom through electronic technology, internet and news media. But he is only capable of “creating” a distorted parody of the original perfection.

Man continues to reach the heavens through his own devices in order to discover the answer to life’s problems. Little does he realise, that all such attempts will inevitably meet with failure. Ironically, there is no need for him to build a tower to find an answer. The answer chose to leap down from heaven, the Word of God descended and became flesh and after His ascension, the Spirit descended upon the Church at Pentecost. Unity is ultimately a gift from God. And this is why unity is the first of the four marks of the Church: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Life of the Church is the supernatural Life of the Trinity, not from man, but from the God-man, and not ordered to natural earthly bliss, but to the supernatural end, heavenly beatitude, which is the very perfect and eternal communion of the Three Divine Persons. In this way the Church reverses Babel, not by man’s own efforts, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ, to incorporate all men into that Body.

God wants all men to be united through being incorporated into the body of Christ, i.e. the Church: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism into one God. The true unification of man takes place only through Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Church. But modern men, who have no place in their hearts for God, always seek a substitute for the divine. And the city of man continues to seek peace and unity through political, economic, technological and military means. Yet the city of man can never find true peace and unity through these means. It can only wrought destruction as evidenced by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

Into that mystical Body, men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation are to this day still being incorporated, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Church and her sacraments. And that is the reason why we must never cease to reach out to our relatives and friends and invite them into the Church. Often, Catholics fail miserably in this aspect due to misplaced notion of respect for the other. The Church is meant to be a sign to the world of man’s original social purpose, the harmonious union of all men. In the mystical Body of the Second Adam, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the first Adam’s sin (i.e. division and strife and dissension and schism) are done away, the damage of Babel is healed.

When human pride drives us to build monuments to ourselves instead of to God, we repeat the sin of Babel. When we seek to sow seeds of discord and injure the unity of the Church in order to build our own little niche of the kingdom, we participate once again in the discord of Babel. When instead of being spiritually fruitful, we try to build our own material security, we repeat the infidelity of   Babel. When we refuse to hear God’s word, He sends us strong delusion — or a confusion like He had sent to Babel. When men are full of human pride, confusion always results. We live today in a world of religious “babble.” Only the spelling has changed. What can reunite men and end the religious confusion?  By simply listening to God and obeying His commands!  When we are attuned to the language of God, the language of barrier of men can be dropped so that God’s message of salvation can be heard once again with utter clarity.

Babel, the city of man, forever represents the confusion and division of humankind; but the city of God, the resplendent Church whom we call Mother, draws men and women of every language, colour, culture, and nationality into a kingdom where there is neither Greek nor Jew, bond or free, but where all are one in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Harvest of Fruits

Pentecost 2018

Many of you are aware that Pentecost is an important feast in our liturgical calendar and for good reason. Pentecost signifies the dawning of the age of the church, a new era in which the Spirit’s gifts, previously limited to particular people and situations, are now distributed liberally to all the people of God, young and old, male and female, slave and free. In popular parlance, this feast has been described as the “Birthday of the Church.”

But did you know that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival? That’s right. And not just any Jewish festival, Pentecost was also a harvest festival, a first fruits harvest festival.  Now when I say that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival, you would not find that in the Old Testament, at least no reference to the word “Pentecost.” This is because the word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word for "fiftieth" (pentecoste). Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday. Although you won’t find the word “Pentecost” you would find references to the Feast of Weeks (because it fell at the end of the seventh seven-days-week after Passover, the Jewish equivalent of Easter). Pentecost and the Feast of Weeks are really the same thing. The Hebrew name for this festival is “Shavuot,” which means “Weeks.” So seven weeks after Passover, after seven sevens, that is, on the fiftieth day, they had this festival.

What was Shavuot or Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks about? Well, as I said, it was a harvest festival. When Israel would get into the Promised Land, and the Lord would bless them in that bountiful land, then thereafter every year when the first fruits of the wheat crop would come in–at this time of the year, in late spring–the Israelites were to have a festival and give thanks to the Lord. They were to remember and to rejoice. They were to remember how the Lord brought them out of their bondage in Egypt at the Passover, and brought them up into the Promised Land, where they could enjoy such bounty. Another thing that was remembered and celebrated by Jews at Shavuot was the Lord giving His Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19 it does say that Israel came to Mount Sinai around that time of the year, so the giving of the Torah became associated with the Feast of Weeks as well. And so it was a time of rejoicing, a time to remember and a time to rejoice in what the Lord had done, a time to rejoice over the gift of the Law and the Covenant.

So it’s Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover. The disciples of Jesus–indeed, the whole company of believers–were all together in Jerusalem. Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days earlier, and now they were waiting there, together, as He had instructed. They were not the only ones in Jerusalem, because, Pentecost was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (the other two being Passover and the Feast of Booths), so you have all these scattered Jews, from all over the world, coming into Jerusalem to worship at the temple. A fitting audience for what was going to happen next!

Then the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and they were overwhelmed by what sounded like a gale force wind, releasing them into strange tongues, so ecstatically that the bystanders assumed they were drunk. They weren’t, it was all happening too early in the day, as Simon Peter noted, perhaps with a touch of humour. It certainly bewildered the crowd. The descent of the Holy Spirit, and thus the creation of the Church, occurred in this eruption of mutually unintelligible languages, in which nevertheless the mighty works of God were praised and proclaimed accessibly to all and sundry. Peter began preaching to them about Christ crucified, whom now God has raised from the dead and who has been made their Lord, the very same one that they had crucified. This message cut the hearers’ hearts to the quick, and heeding Peter’s exhortation, they repented and were baptised. The Acts of the Apostles speak of three thousand were added on that very day. In so many ways, Pentecost is truly a harvest festival, not of the crops of the people but rather the people themselves, and the three thousand were the first fruits of that harvest. Soon there would be thousands–no, millions–more. But the Pentecost explosion has not ended. Its ripples continue to be felt throughout the world through all generations. So it is for us too, at this Feast of Pentecost.

This harvest is the fruit of the seed sown by Christ. We recall Our Lord's words in John's Gospel anticipated in the conversion of the Samaritan woman at the well, the first missionary: “I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already ripe for harvest” (Jn 4:35). Our Lord gave the apostles to understand that only after His death would they reap the harvest of the seed He had sown: “’One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that which you did not labour; others have laboured, and you have entered into their gain” (Jn 4:37-38). From the day of Pentecost, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the apostles will become the reapers of the seed sown by Christ. And indeed, on the day of Pentecost, there was an abundant harvest!

The harvest is also the fruit of Christ's sacrifice. Jesus spoke of the sower's “toil,” and this consists especially in His passion and death on the cross. Christ is that “other one” who has laboured for this harvest. He is the one who has opened the way for the Spirit of truth, who, from the day of Pentecost, begins to work effectively by means of the apostolic kerygma. So, we cannot boast or take credit for what has happened, what is happening and what will be happening in the Church. It is all the fruit of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross and re-presented at every Mass. At every Mass, we do not only witness the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ made present again. It is Pentecost too that is made present again. And, that is the reason why it is accurate to say that the Eucharist makes the Church.

Pentecost was and continues to be an outpouring into real people, lives receptive to the Spirit, ready to emerge from locked rooms into the community to preach, heal and minister to others. We are these real people today who need this outpouring of the Holy Spirit so as to come out from the safety of living behind locked doors. Though it is safe and secure to live our Christian lives from behind locked doors; but just like fruits, when they are kept locked away and not eaten, they eventually rot and go bad. Our fruits demand sharing and witnessing. Without such testimony the “word” of our Lord is soon forgotten, and we settle for our own words and we become an echo chamber for our own ideas. Pentecost serves, like every birthday celebration, to remind us that our lives are meant to be shared. Everything is a gift meant to be used fully and joyfully to our benefit and that of those around us.

Pentecost day is marked with exuberance, confidence, abundance. In dark times, when our future is uncertain, when the forces of evil seem more prevalent than the good, when there is every reason to despair and give up, when our lives seem old and tired, Pentecost invades our lives once again and reminds us, that we are part of the harvest of fruits sown by Christ and made possible by His sacrifice. And that, changes everything!  The great news of Pentecost is that even when things which seemed impossible begin to happen, and a message that seemed difficult to comprehend or express is widely proclaimed. Pentecost reminds us that just when we thought there would be no closure to the story, with the Holy Spirit, we will find fulfilment and completion. Pentecost is not just a season or annual feast for us. It is not simply a fact or event that we commemorate. It is our beginning, our entry point, our ever-present moment. The Holy Spirit continues to work in us to transform and inspire us, so that God’s great work of salvation can be shown forth in us and brought to its completion. Inspired by the Holy Spirit’s action, we receive the courage to lift our hearts in hope, and the Spirit fills us, making us new.

Friday, May 11, 2018

We've got to pray just to make it today

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year B

Remember MC Hammer, that rapper artist who made it big in the late 80s and who gave a new definition to big baggy pants – well it looked rather like two helium balloons encasing his legs. His single most successful hit was ironically entitled, ‘Pray.’ Like other rapper artist, MC Hammer was never known for his humility. His songs often fed his inflated ego and spoke of exaggerated personal achievements that towered over others. The hubris of the artist and the lyrics were often the selling points. But in this single hit, he highlighted the reason for his unexpected success. The answer was found in the refrain that littered the whole song, “We got to pray, just to make it today.”

Jesus isn’t a proficient rapper by any standard but seems to agree with the logic of the above song, “We got to pray, just to make it today!” In today’s gospel, we hear Him praying to the Father in this magnificent prayer recorded in Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel. Throughout the Last Supper Discourse and as Jesus and His disciples make their way to Gethsemane, Jesus continues to speak to His disciples, preparing them for the future, and assuring them of His provision for all their needs in His absence. At one moment, He is teaching His disciples, and in the next, He is praying to the Father. The Lord was acting as a high priest on behalf of His people, thus earning the passage this name – ‘The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus.’

The High-priestly prayer is divided into three parts. The first part (verses 1-5) speaks of Jesus’ own relationship with the Father. The second part (verses 6-19), which is what you had heard in today’s gospel reading, speaks of Christ and His disciples. The third part (verses 20-26) deals with the relationship of Christ and His Church. By stringing these themes together, Jesus presents to us a powerful model for prayer, or rather the attitude or presuppositions we must have as the premise for our prayer.

The first presupposition that is made, is that glory and suffering are not mutually exclusive. Jesus speaks of Himself being glorified by the Father. The manner of His glorification, the manner in which He will come to have authority over death and the power of evil is none other than the Way of the Cross. Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice on the cross will be His glory, and through His self-giving act, God Himself will be glorified. This seems strangely at odds with our notions of prayer. We often pray that suffering will go away and not the reverse. But the prayer of Jesus does not deny the reality of suffering. On the contrary, the prayer transforms the cross from a symbol of pain, humiliation and failure to one of joy, glory and victory. Christians do not pray away sufferings. Suffering, hardship and the cross are inevitable. We pray, however, that we may find glory in enduring our crosses so that God may be glorified. We pray that we may be united with Christ in the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of our salvation. We pray not just for temporary relief. We pray for eternal salvation.

The second presupposition of the High Priestly Prayer is that, it assumes the sovereignty of God in the salvation of men. Man’s welfare or rather his salvation is God’s principal priority. It is God who provides leadership as we have seen in the first reading. In the gospel, Jesus prays in such manner because He understands and is convinced that it is God who lays the foundation for communities. It is God who provides the mortar to the Church for its unity. It is God who protects us from adversity. It is God who makes communities, not man. It is God who saves us, keeps us, cares for us and liberates us. Without God, none of this would be possible. Thus, any prayer should begin with this firm conviction and faith that, it has already been answered by God in the best way possible.

The problem is that our prayers are often worded in a way where we have inserted a caveat or fail-save clause which betrays our lack of trust in God’s providence on the one hand, and a greater trust in our own devices on the other. Sometimes you hear people saying, “We’ve done all we can. The only thing we can do now is to pray.” We popularise clich├ęd statements like this “God helps those who help themselves,” treating them as if they were biblically inspired. Ultimately, these statements and beliefs are based on the premise that it falls principally on man to work out his own salvation and only when he has exhausted his resources, should he then rely on God. Therefore God would only be the second or last resort. That’s Pelagianism, not Christianity.

We often turn to human machinations and try to brainstorm alternative solutions when faced with a crisis. What more can we do to promote vocations to the priesthood? How can we be more creative in attracting the young to religious life? How can we work on the unity of our members? How can we convince more people to come to our BECs? How can we bring change to the political culture of this country? We place greater faith on our structural abilities than on the power of prayer. To dare to suggest that we pray is to suggest that we don’t have a backup plan. Therefore, many people often think that prayer is meant for those who are just not clever enough to solve their problems on their own, those who cannot resort to their rationality. We think that prayer is not for the strong. This explains why devotion before the Blessed Sacrament is never filled with men. Because men often pride themselves as rational beings, as Mr. Fix-it and Fix-all. So we tend to stereotype that prayer is meant only for old women, for the sick, and particularly for the weak – for those who have no recourses to any other solution except in God.

There is a time for prayer and there is a time for action. But action often seems more tangible and dependable than prayer. But the recent General Elections debunked the myth that action and prayer are incompatible or at least that the former is superior to the latter. Many took to prayer, even keeping constant prayer vigils, fasting and novenas, whilst others went on the political campaign trail. A colleague of mine just after having cast his vote in the morning commented, “The ruling party will retain its hold on power. There is no way the opposition will win with all the odds stacked against it plus the unfairness of the whole process. The only way they could win is through some sheer divine intervention.” Well, I guess his words were prophetic without him realising it at that time. Whenever, we place our hope solely on man’s ability and potential to effect change, we are bound to be disappointed. Our human projects may meet with failures but we can be certain of this, God never fails and He can never fail us. Let’s never waver in our prayers.

Today, we are challenged to make this paradigm shift to make prayer our first priority. Prayer is never a sign of weakness but rather, of strength. Prayer acknowledges that it is ultimately God who chooses leaders, calls vocations, forms communities, protects us from adversity, brings changes and allows us to love beyond what is humanly possible. Prayer should never be the last resort but the first thing we do in any situation. We must pray with the confidence that our Loving God has already answered our prayers. Though the outcome may differ from what we may conceive, we are assured that God’s decision and God’s action will always be the very best of human solutions. Just remember, “We got to pray, just to make it today!”