Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Who is this?

Palm Sunday

Today’s liturgy is unique not only because we had a mother of all liturgical processions at the beginning of mass, but we were also treated to two gospel readings from the Gospel of St Mark. The first is an account of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the second is Mark’s Passion narrative. If you are familiar with the gospels, you would know that St Mark provides us with the shortest account, just sixteen chapters in its entirety. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into shorter stories or even a shorter passion narrative. Mark’s Gospel has famously been described as a passion narrative with an extended introduction. This is because around one third of the gospel is devoted to the Passion story.

In fact, St Mark’s gospel stands out in a special way as the Gospel of the Cross. It is possible that the evangelist started with the Cross and then worked backwards. The cross inevitably casts its shadow over the story. Mark does talk about some of the miracles that Jesus performs, but he argues that the true messiahship of Jesus cannot be recognised in His miracles. Rather, true messiahship, true kingship, true authority, can and would only be revealed on the cross. St Mark wrote the gospel not to explain the scandal of the cross but to remind his readers that this part of the story was absolutely central to their faith. Mark seeks to underline the link between Jesus’ death and the cost of discipleship. “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  The crucifixion was not just a metaphor, but a real possibility. The crucifixion was not just meant for the Lord, it's meant for us too. 

Two distinct but interrelated threads converge in the Markan passion story: the portrait of Jesus as the Son of God who is also the suffering Son of Man, and the portrait of the disciples. These are not courageous super-heroes of the bible but weak, selfish and brittle men. In the first instance, Jesus’ life climaxes with a selfless sacrifice. In the second instance, the disciples show themselves to be weak, cowardly and even ambitious, despite the occasional bravado, words and promises that do not translate into reality or action. In the end, one of the closest followers betrays Jesus, Peter denies Him not once but three times, and the rest flee for their lives. Not a great track record for the inner circle.

From the very beginning of the Gospel, the characters in Mark have inquired after Jesus’ identity. They have wondered whence His power over demons came, and how He could teach with such authority. In the final days, Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem as king in the line of the great king of Israel, David. Throughout the passion story, this search continues, with much of the questioning of Jesus surrounding the entire notion of His “kingship.” The chief priests, elders and scribes seek to know if He is the Messiah, the long-awaited leader who would cast off the Romans, while Pilate, the visible sign of Rome’s presence and power in Jerusalem, inquires directly about the nature of Jesus’ kingship.

At the end of the day, Pilate and Jesus’ opponents agree on one thing: Jesus is no king, at least not one that conforms to their categories. In Pilate’s mind He is a harmless victim of the leaders’ envy; to the leaders He is a false and dangerous claimant to religious authority. So ultimately Jesus is mocked for His pretensions to kingship: a cloak of purple, a crown of thorns, a reed sceptre, and a parody of homage that turns violent. But the reader of Mark’s passion story knows that it is not Jesus but those symbols of abusive power that are being mocked.

The end comes swiftly in Mark’s account; the story is told in few words, as if it were too painful to say more. After His condemnation by Pilate, Jesus is mocked as a king and from the cross, He is again mocked by passers-by as “King of the Jews” and “King of Israel”. Ironically, what His mockers don’t realise is the truth of their words. Jesus is, in fact, a king, but not the kind they expect. His kingship consists not in leading armies but in being a true shepherd who cares for His flock, a suffering Messiah whose identity can only be understood from the cross that He came to bear. He is a king but one whose power is expressed not in exploiting or “lording it over others” but offering the greatest service. Here is a sovereign who does not wantonly take the life of His subjects but gives them life. Yes, this story is not an account of mere human failure. It is rather the story of a “king” who redefines the nature of kingship and who makes the ultimate sacrifice for His people by the gift of His own body and blood.

During the death watch, a parade of mockery dredges up the issues of the trial and hurls them at the man on the cross: His threats to the temple; His power to save others and now His inability to save Himself. Mark casts this last taunt in strongly ironic tones: “Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, for us to see it and believe.” But we the audience, know that Jesus’ power is demonstrated not in shedding the cross but in carrying it, in giving His life for others. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it”. Ironically, no one else sees this except the Gentile centurion. The death of our Lord would ignite faith in his heart. The sight of the Crucified Lord triggers the first complete confession of faith, “In truth this man was a son of God.” And just like that, the man who presided over Jesus’ execution, the man who ordered the nails to be driven into His hands and feet, became the first person to become a believer after Jesus’ death. Such irony! What an awesome, exciting testament this is to God’s grace! God was willing and eager to save one of those primarily responsible for the murder of His Son. What greater irony that the true identity of our Lord would and could only be revealed on the cross.

And so as we begin our Holy Week, we begin this liturgical climax of our Christian faith, we rejoice at the return of our King, our great and beloved prince, who would risk everything including sacrificing His own life in order to save His people. We accompany Him into Jerusalem, as we follow Him to Golgotha and beyond. Let us pursue this course to the very end, without turning back, without distracting ourselves with some other detour, without running away from the horror of the cross.  And if anyone were to ask us, “Who is this?” “Who is this king that you follow?” Let us join the Roman centurion in confessing, without flinching, without hesitating, “In truth this man was a son of God.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

We want to see Him

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year B

Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we enter Holy Week. It is not surprising, therefore, that our gospel story brings us to the very threshold of the events which would culminate in the Holy Week. But many would be distracted by what they see or rather not see. But the Church does not intend for this to be a distraction. On the contrary, it is meant to help us keep focused. Of course, I am referring to the covering of the crucifixes and all the images this Sunday. Many are familiar with the wider practice of the veiling of the crucifixes and images that takes place after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday in preparation for the unveiling on Good Friday, but having these already covered on the Fifth Sunday makes no sense. Well, veiling the crosses and images on the Fifth Sunday of Lent is an option in our liturgical books but, why? What does this ancient practice mean?

In the old liturgical calendar before the reform, the season within a season beginning with the 5th Sunday of Lent was called the Passiontide due to the fact that the Passion account of our Lord was read on this Sunday, Palm Sunday and Monday to Wednesday of Holy Week. In the old liturgy, the Sunday’s gospel had this concluding sentence: “But Jesus hid Himself and left the temple” (John 8:59). The great nineteenth-century Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Gueranger gives a mystical interpretation to the veiling in relation to this gospel. Just as Jesus hid Himself from the Jews who wanted to stone Him, so by the veils He is now hidden from the world in preparation for the mysteries of His passion. How about the statues of the saints? Well, the statues of the saints are covered too since, if the Master Himself is covered, so should be His servants. Another spiritual interpretation of the veiling is based on the fact that in Christ’s passion, not only was His divinity obscured but so was, in a certain sense, His humanity. He was so disfigured by the blows and scourges that He was hardly recognisable as a human being.

Though both the season of Passiontide and the liturgical readings for this Sunday have changed, the veiling of crosses may well accentuate in a dramatic way, the thirst of the Greeks who wanted to see our Lord at the beginning of today’s gospel. They approach the apostle Philip and put this question to Him, “Volumus Iesus videre.” “We should like to see Jesus.”  

Why were these Greeks looking for Jesus? The gospel tells us that they had come to the festival for worship. They may have heard many reports about the Lord, including the recent news that He had raised Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. Different people looked for Him for many different reasons. The Scribes and the Pharisees looked for Him in order to trap Him in their theological quarrels. The Elders and the Chief Priests were always looking for Him to kill Him. Herod the Tetrarch longed to see Him, perhaps out of curiosity. The crowds looked for Him because they wanted some bread and more miracles. The sick looked for Him in search of healing and consolation. Mary Magdalene looked for Him in search of forgiveness. Are you also looking for Him?

The words of these Greek Gentiles mirror the desire to find some sort of “God” that is found in most if not all cultures throughout human history. There is in the heart of every human being a natural thirst for God, which nothing, except an encounter with Him, can ever totally extinguish. This thirst for God is felt by everybody, including those who claim not to believe in Him or those who have no name for Him. Notice how this thirst becomes more pronounced whenever we are in dire straits. In times of doubt, when we experience the darkness of prayer and the dimness of faith, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” In times of bodily or mental pain, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” In times of loss, when our grieving is unbearable, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” Many of us want to see Jesus only because we want Him to solve our problems and, possibly, make our lives easier.

Very often we fail to encounter Christ either because we do not seek Him or because we seek Him in the wrong places or for the wrong reasons. If we are looking for Jesus for the wrong reasons, chances are that we will be gravely disappointed, because we may not find Him. It’s not as if Jesus has chosen to hide from us. But our inability to encounter Him is due to our own limited vision - He simply does not fit into our expectations of Him. The Jesus whom we are searching for is indeed the very image of the Compassionate and Loving God, but He is also the Law Giver of the New Covenant which raises the benchmark for discipleship, the Teacher who shows us the Way that is narrow, the Saviour who beckons us to follow Him on the same path of renunciation to Calvary, the Judge who passes sentence on both the living and the dead. Thus, in order to encounter Christ, we must do so on His terms and not on ours. And there is no other way of seeing Him unless we are prepared to follow Him and become “like the wheat of grain which falls on the ground and dies,” and then we will “yield a rich harvest.”

If you would like to see God today, where can you find Him? There is no limit to the places and occasions where one may find Him. But the primary place for encountering God is in Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, the Primordial Sacrament of the Father, He who is the ultimate and perfect revelation of God. Today we continue to encounter the Word Made Flesh in scriptures and in the Apostolic Tradition. If you want to see Jesus, then read the Scriptures frequently and devoutly, for as St Jerome tells us, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” But most of all, we encounter Him in the flesh, truly, really, substantially, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. If you want to see Jesus, then celebrate the sacraments, especially that of the Eucharist and Penance, reverently and frequently, for as Pope Benedict wrote, “the liturgy is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond.”

Perhaps, there is another reason why so many can’t see Christ of God. We need to realise that it is we who are actually doing the hiding and God is doing the seeking. Due to the Fall, our likeness to that of God has become hidden and veiled. And because of our own personal sin and just like our first parents, we have often “hid from God” and not frequented the sacraments, out of shame. We hide ourselves from God because we wish to hide our shame and our insecurity. It is not Christ who hides Himself. It is us sinners who choose to hide from Him.

In a world that is losing its sense of purpose, these simple liturgical actions do have a rich mystical and spiritual meaning and purpose, pointing to a spiritual reality that is often hidden from a world that wears materialistic blinkers. Many continue to desire seeing. However, this desire may be felt in different degrees. In some, it is so ardent that it becomes a conscious daily longing. In others, it is so faint that it is hardly noticeable, because it has been suffocated by other worldly substitutes. The consoling thing is that Jesus also wants to see us too. That is why He came into the world. As we seek to encounter Him, He also seeks to encounter us. And so, we pray, we plead, we beg the Lord for this one request, “we would like to see Jesus.” And so we will. If you want to see Jesus, come to the table of the Word and the Eucharist, and you will find Him there. So, as the Church veils and unveils the Cross and sacred images, remember who it was who first veiled Himself to us, and then unveils us of our shame and sin.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Love is Free but it isn't Cheap

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B

You may have heard of this story. The man was at Hallmarks looking at a birthday card for his wife. One card had these beautiful words:
My love for you knows no bounds.
I would climb any mountain, pay any price, make any sacrifice
To show you the extent of my love. 
The man went to the sales clerk and said, “I love the message of this card, but do you have anything cheaper?”

I’m sure his wife and all the women in the room would agree, “Talk is cheap. Real love is costly,” and then add “Where’s my diamond ring?” The world is full of bargain hunters like this man. Among these are ever so many who hope to get something for nothing. But more often than not they get disappointed. This applies not only to material things but also to relationships. Just look at the underlying sentiment of a majority of modern-day love songs, what they say is that love is both pleasurable and free. Anyone remembers JLo’s chart topping hit in 2000, “Love doesn’t cost a thing”? Despite its falsity, modern culture doesn’t seem to let up on this mantra. Our culture worships at the altar of sexuality and the promise that doing what feels good will lead to fulfillment. Unfortunately, this is not true, and there is a wake of people with the costly wounds and scars on their souls to prove it. And so the search goes on and perhaps the goal would continue to be elusive unless one comes to accept that authentic love can only come at a great cost to our own comfort, convenience, and reputation.

But to say that love is free is not entirely false. Love is always free. It’s undeserved, unmerited and unconditional. But yet again, the paradox of love is that it comes at a heavy cost. True love demands sacrifice. Someone else has to pay for it. Yes, love involves great sacrifice. The great paradox of love is that though it may cost us nothing; it costs God everything. The German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reminds us that though God’s love is a free gift, it does not come cheap. It comes at the cost of God’s Son. “Nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.” The cost of our love has been paid by God. God’s love is not a sappy, sentimental, romantic feeling nor some warm fuzzy words that you would find in a Hallmark card. Rather, it is the love of self-sacrifice. He demonstrates this sacrificial love by sending His Son to the cross. “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” The cross is proof of the extent of God’s love.

“Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.”There is no doubt that this is a definitive statement about the extent of God’s love. But it also speaks to us of the true value and worth of our lives which we often discount.

Each one of us has a deep longing to be truly loved. But, in our desperation to be loved, we make compromises. To make ourselves appear loveable, we are quick to trade in authenticity for approval, and to sacrifice integrity for acceptance. In this bid for the approval of others, we fabricate for ourselves a façade to cover our hidden vices and dark addictions. We neatly present our lives in our carefully-curated social media posts, hoping to elicit affirmation, likes, more likes, and certainly love. We are narcissist who leach off the approval of others. But the truth is that Facebook likes can never be the measure of how much we are loved. It is entirely self-defeating and tenuous to feed our sense of self-worth through the borrowed compliments of others. One day, this façade will fall like a house of cards blown by a gentle breeze.

So we find ourselves alone - for no one knows us as we truly are; only as we have made ourselves to be. We find ourselves like scared children lost in a shadowy world of our making - a world of pretences and edifices. We long to be truly loved, and we long to be truly known. But we are constantly disappointed, constantly dissatisfied, because this is a longing that no finite, fickle and fading human love can satisfy. Yet there is one who looks into the depths of our hearts, who knows us intimately. And, keeping His gaze there, He says, “I love you.” This one is Jesus Christ. And His talk is not cheap. He had paid the heavy price of it on the cross.

He searches the deepest depths of us, our flickering virtue and devastating vices, our moments of triumph and our crushing insecurities - and He loves us. His gaze pierces through the façade of our imposter, sees us as how we truly are - and He accepts us. Through Him, we are truly loved. As St Paul tells us in the second reading with so much conviction, “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy, when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ…” And we know that we didn’t do anything, in fact we are incapable of doing anything to earn this love. St Paul assures us that this is an absolute “gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.” In this love, we are totally secure. Our identity is defined as children beloved by the eternal Father. No more striving. No more faking it. No more putting up a smokescreen just to appear loveable. God sees through it all, and in His Son, still loves us entirely and unreservedly.

This is the good news we rejoice over today. There's no such thing as a person God no longer wants. There are only people who haven't accepted His love. This is it: We are saved by God because He loves us. We are saved not because we deserve it. We don’t deserve it because we are sinners. St Paul in his letter to the Romans (5:8) teaches, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We are saved not because we have earned it. Love and salvation can never be earned. This is the extent of the love of God – that He saved us despite our sins and not because we were good. God came not to condemn us but to save us.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13). The Eucharistic sacrifice we offer at the altar is the same sacrifice of Christ, who lovingly laid down His life on the Cross for us. “In this way the love of God was revealed to us. God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him,” (1 John 4:9). We are shaped by God, and this divine love is life-giving, joyful, and transformative. This is the Christian image of God.

True love is sacrificial, costly, a love that no flawed human being can provide. God sent His Son to die on a cross as a substitution, to take the weight that we could not bear, to forgive us our wrongdoings and to bear upon His own shoulders our brokenness. Because of this precious, eternal sacrifice, God looks on us as He looks on His Son. We are given a place at His table, as beloved children - not because of what we’ve done but because of what the Son did.
The nail-scarred hands of God reach down to us; His nail-scarred feet run after us in love.
He alone sees through the imposter, sees the brokenness hidden behind the façade, and still loves us. He has done what we cannot do - that much is assured. He has paid the price, but we must acknowledge Him as our Saviour - as the only way to true love.
He confronts us with one burning question:
“Do you love me?”