Wednesday, January 17, 2018

It's Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Time is elusive. We have measured it since ancient times with the sun and the seasons, and as our minds developed, so did our timepieces. As much as we have fantasised about the day when man would have control of time, whether it be in stopping time or time travelling, time eventually slips through our fingers. Everything we do is marked by the steady march of time. We lose moments to the past, never to be regained, leaving us with regrets and missed opportunities because no one can turn back the clock.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. The first is the more popular of the two, and in terms of etymology, it has found its way into modern English words like chronological and anachronism. It refers to clock time – time that can be measured – seconds, minutes, hours, years. The Greeks have personified chronos as a weary, bent-backed old man with a long grey beard, carrying a scythe and an hourglass. His resemblance to the Grim Reaper is not accidental. Chronos, is the stuff that kills you. The wrinkles etched on my face and the grey hair sprouting out of my scalp are visual reminders of it. It takes away everything.

If Chronos was commonly depicted as an old man, Kairos, on the other hand, was a young man, lithe and handsome. Where chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative. The latter measures moments or opportunities, not seconds. Kairos refers to the right moment, the opportune moment, the perfect moment, the moment for decision. Let me give you a concrete illustration of these two perceptions of time. For example, you look at your watch at 8 am this morning. That’s chronos showing up on the face of your watch. And then you ponder and realise that it’s time for mass in an hour. You finally make a decision to come to church for mass. That’s Kairos. How wonderful it would be if our mass timing follows Kairos instead of chronos? Instead of the standard hour, everyone should be here till you all get the message.

When Our Lord came into public ministry, it was a fulfillment of promises past, a cosmic collision of chronos and kairos. It was a perfect moment, the right moment, the opportune time.  In today’s gospel, we see the consequence and conclusions stemming from Jesus’ declaration that “’kairos’ (not chronos) has come.” This moment is bursting forth with meaning, a moment pregnant with possibilities. In that very announcement of the gospel of Christ, we see the God-given moment, the floodtide of opportunity, the moment when heaven touches earth and the earth is aligned to heaven in a conjunction that will never be witnessed again. Since that “time,” our experience of time will no longer be the same.

If Kairos is the moment of decision, the moment of action, the moment of change, what is that decision, that must be undertaken? The words that follow immediately after the announcement of kairos time sets out the path we must follow, “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Pope Paul VI observed: "These words constitute, in a way, a compendium of the whole Christian life."  They are the sum and substance of being Christian. The Gospel in a nutshell. To repent and believe the good news is nothing less than a spiritual revolution. It is the divine turning point, God turns to man in a way that was unprecedented and never anticipated, inviting man to turn to God in the most radical of ways. The Greek word “metanoia” expresses this reality.

As Pope Benedict XVI puts it in his book Credo for Today: “Metanoia . . .  is actually the fundamental Christian act, understood, of course, in terms of one very definite aspect: the aspect of change, the act of turning, of becoming new and different.  In order to become a Christian, a human being must change, not merely in one place or another, but unconditionally, down to the very bottom of his being.” This can only mean that such turning is never a one-time event but a continual, constant, perpetual, habitual resolve to change one’s heart, to follow only one master, and one master alone. The person of Jesus is very clearly at the heart of metanoia.  The Christian metanoia hears but one voice--the voice of his or her Beloved- and that is not the voice of "everybody," of prevailing standards, of the majority, of a particular political party, of academia, of celebrities, of ever-shifting convention, or even laws.  When we encounter the Lord Jesus who calls us by name, we have two options: continue on our way, or metanoia.  We either follow our own path or follow Jesus on the way. There is no third way.  In metanoia, we can honestly say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” 

Understanding time from the perspective of Kairos also provides us an answer to the common frustration we experience over the seemingly lack of response we get from the Lord. When we ask for something right away, it might not always come. Or when we don't ask at all - but it shows up!  It can be frustrating, but it is a good reminder that He is God and we are not. We can’t control Him just as we can’t control “chronos” as much as we think we can. “Kairos” time, on the other hand, represents discontinuity, when an unexpected barrier forces one to move off a planned course and adjust to new realities. In the case of the disciples, though it was the appointed time and the right moment, the appearance of Our Lord and His invitation may have come at a time when they least expected it. They had one schedule in mind; but the Lord gave them another. That is why, we should always be on the lookout. We should live our days looking for those moments, those inexplicable times when His will and His way intersect with our daily walks. And they can happen anytime! Asking, “when is it going to happen?” is the wrong question. We should be asking, “Am I ready to respond when the time comes?” and the time is always “now”!

This new perception of time has deep implications for us. So many people are confronted with tremendous workload, impossible datelines and stressful work schedules, present company included. So often in our individual and community lives, in our various ministries, parishes and daily lives, we simply plod along from day to day, living with a sense of hopelessness, monotony or heaviness. There are two ways you can look at it. Chronos, or chronological time, doesn’t help at all, “I have so much to do and so little time and the time is just passing by!” Most time management books focus on chronos. We are locked into chronos time. If we Christians only manage our chronos time, it will result in well-organised lives. Unfortunately, well managed lives often miss out on Kairos. Or one may begin to look at everything from the perspective of Kairos, “I have two hours of my time, what is the best way I can use it. Should I pray? Should I take out my bible to read?” Perhaps, as followers of Christ, it would be good to begin to look at life through this second way. Let’s face it, the amount of tasks you have is probably never going to reduce. The backlog is probably full no matter how hard you try. And that is ok. Time (Chronos) can just pass by, but what happens to you can be Kairos.

At some time during a lengthy homily, you would look down at your watches, and ask yourself silently, “What time is it? When is this priest going to stop?” I guess, that’s the wrong question. In fact, it is the hour, it is the decisive moment, it is the opportune and most urgent time of decision. And it is not us who should do the asking but Christ. Today, Christ stands at the door of your heart knocking. It’s time to open the door and let Him in. Time to heed the call to repentance and to whole-heartedly believe in the Lord of Time and History. Time to stop walking away, but start walking in the direction of Christ. Do not delay!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What do you want?

Second Ordinary Sunday Year B

Christmas is just over. Christmas presents would have long been opened, the boxes and wrappings discarded. Some people would have been overjoyed whilst others disappointed with the gifts they had received. It seems ironic at times that our benefactors would often ask us the question: What do you want? It would be ironic because many would actually not get what they wanted. Our requests would often be out of the budgetary reach of the giver. That’s obvious – because if the object was really cheap, we would have gotten it ourselves! But the gift is received with a polite smile albeit veiling a secret wish that next year, we would get lucky and finally receive what we really wanted.

What do you want? This is the question which Jesus asked his first set of disciples in today’s gospel reading. Although this is one of the most frequently asked questions, many of us have a hard time answering it. We might know what we want in the grand scheme of things—perhaps some version of health, happiness, and prosperity. But what do we want right now, in this very moment?

Before we ask this pertinent question or make a request of another, we may want to take some time for reflection. For when we consider the question, “What do I want?” our first answer may be to ask for something that may just momentarily satisfy a thirst or desire. Having received what we had asked for, we may then have to live with regret for the rest of our lives for our folly and lack of far-sightedness. What we seem to want now may not really be what we want for the rest of our lives.

Our parents, our peers, and our culture have taught us that it is selfish to ask for what we want. Indeed, cultivating equanimity strengthens us when done as a spiritual pursuit. But if our “equanimity” is tinged with resentment or fear, then we are fooling ourselves. We would benefit ourselves and others by acknowledging the full range of our experience, and asking for what we want.

Whenever we ask this question, we may mean one of several things. First, we may be asking: “What do you want to have?” This is a question concerning possessions and things. Very often, God seems to be a big Santa Claus. We often think that God exist in order to meet our every need. We often pray for this or for that! When we don’t get what we want, we often complain and blame God for our predicaments.  This question turns on the functionality of our relationship with God. God is as good as He delivers. God is a big vending machine who is expected to dispense His goodies when we press the right button.

Second, the question could also mean “What do you want to do?” We often think that Christianity is about doing this or that. That is partially true but not entirely. Christianity refers primarily to who we are – to our identity. It is precisely because of our identity as Christians that we must do good and avoid evil. Therefore, our doing, our action flows from our identity – who we are. And this is who we are: “we are temples of the Holy Spirit.” We belong to God or as St. Paul writes in the second reading: “You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for.”

Therefore, it is very likely Jesus wasn’t asking His disciples what they would like to have in terms of possession. Neither was He telling them what to do. Rather, Jesus was asking His disciples and each of us today: “What do you want to become?” That is the fundamental moral question. We often think morality is the do’s and don’ts, about following a set of rules or disciplines. But at the heart of morality, the very essence of our Christian identity, in fact, is relationship and relationship is always about becoming. We are called to be better, to be deeper, to be stronger, to be more perfect. And the basis of that call is our relationship to Christ and to God. Ultimately, though we are already sons and daughters of God at our baptism, we are called to grow and become disciples of Christ, and that is an entire life’s project. We are work in progress. We are “becoming.”

Many of us do not really know what we want to become. We often think that it has to do with personal ambition. ‘I want to be rich.’ ‘I want to be successful.’ ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ‘I want to be an engineer.’ Is this what Jesus meant? Certainly not. Jesus was trying to challenge these first disciples to take a deeper look into the foundation of their identity – He was challenging them to ask the few most basic questions in life: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What does God want me to become? What is my fundamental relationship to Christ and to God?

The problem is that many people do not ask these questions. Many have not thought of it while others choose not to think about it for one reason or another. Perhaps, we fear the changes that must take place in our lives, if we try to find answers to those questions. We would certainly not be aware of these questions when our lives are cluttered by so many other noises and voices and other questions. 'What course should I take for my college education? Which house should I buy? Which man or woman shall I marry? What steps must I take to be more successful?' The temptations of the world, power, riches, popularity, if we allow them to do so, sometimes drown out the voice of God.

We must learn to listen to the voice of God in prayer. We must learn to discern His voice and distinguish this voice from those of others. We must learn to listen as Samuel listened and say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” When we are strangers to prayer, silence and reflection, we would allow ourselves to be consumed by our worldly ambitions and plans, define ourselves by work but fail miserably in preparing the most important thing which we all need – salvation of our souls.

In order to become the persons God intended us to become, in order to live out our dignity as God’s children, we must be followers of Jesus. We must learn to live and walk with Jesus. Jesus invites us each day to “Come and See” – to journey with Him, to discover His plan for us, and to learn from Him. If we want to see our parish become a more vibrant, faith-filled and welcoming community, we must first learn to become that.

As we have begun a new year, we are presented with a whole range of possibilities, adventures and new opportunities. If asked this same question, many people would certainly ask for wealth, health, peace and success. But as Christians, when asked this question, we are reminded of the same question posed to our parents at our baptism. The answer is certainly none of the above but simply, eternal life. To the question ‘What do you want?’ which is asked by the priest, our answer should always be – “Eternal Life”, that is, to know God, to love Him, to serve Him and be with Him in Paradise forever.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Venite Adoremus

Solemnity of the Epiphany 2018

In 11th century, a special type of sacramental painting or iconography developed in the largest church in Christendom, the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, a title referring to Christ. The icons displayed Christ or Virgin Mary sitting on a throne flanked by emperors and the empresses, as if they were equals or even best buddies. An ancient wefie (group selfie) at best, or celebrity photobomb at worst. There is one rare exception that most visitors would not miss. Strategically located on the tympanum above the main entrance, the Imperial Gate, we see the depiction of Christ sitting on His throne. On His left is a strange figure not sitting but kneeling, or literally prostrating himself before Christ. Who could this figure be?

Historians have identified him as Leo VI or widely known as Leo the Wise. Though popularly lauded as a relatively wise ruler, Leo was hardly a virtuous one. He had incurred the wrath of the Patriarch and the Church when he got married a fourth time which was prohibited by Church law, the first three wives died under strange and mysterious circumstances and coincidentally, none of them could produce a legitimate heir for him. His unique posture at the feet of the Lord, however, raises a myriad of  theories. Some would see it as a penitential posture: Leo is placating the Lord and seeking pardon for his past crimes. But when compared to the other mosaics within this grand church, this icon may be a reminder to all future emperors as they pass beneath it that no one is worthy (not even an emperor) to sit on the left or the right of the King of Kings. True authority and wisdom is not found in such seats of honour but only at the feet of Our Lord, Holy Wisdom, in humble submission and obedience.

Today’s Feast also gives us a tale of wise men, who could also be kings, and who fell at the feet of Jesus to pay Him homage. Perhaps if St Luke had included additional information in his Christmas account, we might have had precise details. But St Matthew’s account is vague, shrouded in mystery: “After Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east.” Intrigue swirls around these festooned foreigners. Where did they come from? With a wink St Matthew writes, “the East.” Indeed, his description is so utterly non-specific that church traditions in dozens of countries claim to be their country of origin. And who were they? Technically speaking, St Matthew, using the Greek term, calls them magi—but what are magi? Are they kings? Wise men?

Christians have been trying to nail down their identity for millennia. St Matthew’s story demonstrates that the Magi were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams. As early as the second century A.D., Tertullian was laying out arguments that the Magi, while astrologers by trade, were considered kings. He argued that their visit fulfilled Solomon’s prayer in Psalm 72—“May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” Despite disagreements about their true identity and origin, here are a few facts. The word magus is of Persian origin; however, Basil indicated that they were not confined to a specific empire but “scattered all over the country,” which subsequently gave rise to the medieval tradition that they represented three different continents, Asia, Africa and Europe (the Americas were yet to be discovered). As a result of the three gifts offered to the infant King, gold, frankincense and myrrh, their unspecified numbers were eventually narrowed down to the three.

Call them Magi. Call them wise men. You can even call them kings if you’d like! Each label shines a light on a different facet of the story. Whatever you choose to call them, these men are the first in the canonical New Testament to bow and worship the Lord Jesus. We would do well to follow their example.

Pope Emeritus Benedict describes the Magi as men of hope and seekers after truth who, in every generation, have been on the look-out for the true star of salvation. There is a restlessness at the heart of our humanity that is always searching for fulfilment. It is a restlessness that drives our lives and can bring our lives to the only One who can bring rest to our restless souls. In following the star, the Wise Men pursued that universal longing of the heart, refusing to be led astray until they came to Jerusalem. When they finally found the child, their excitement could not be contained. “The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage.” The search for wisdom, the search for Truth finally led them to kneel before the Christ-child.

This is the key to understand their story. These wise men or kings had come to worship the King of Kings. They understood who He was and what their place was. They did not come to hang out with Jesus. They did not arrogantly arrogate to themselves the right to sit on his left or right as equals. Their proper posture was to kneel in humble submission at the feet of the Lord. These wise men knew that they were not His buddies, bros’ or BFF’s. They came to worship Him. This is a point that is so often ignored in the confusion generated by the dumbing down of theology and liturgy, the latest church fads and even within what passes for music these days. There is a purposeful blurring of the lines between whom we are and who God is. Contemptuous familiarity, in the form of casual dressing and postures, seems to be the norm of the day when coming to church. There is little or no serious sacrifice on our part. It implies a kind of friendship without any serious commitment. That explains the demand and the push for lighter, shorter, less painful and uncomfortable, more fun, more exciting, more creative, and definitely more entertaining masses.

But today’s Solemnity of the Epiphany offers us a realignment of our orientation. The magi offer us the supreme goal of our lives – it is to encounter Christ our Lord and offer Him our worship and adoration. We were born to worship God, not to be His buddy. Unlike other astrologers who were busy studying constellations that could guarantee good fortune and ward off bad luck, unlike King Herod, the Jewish priests and ruling elite who were concerned with self-preservation, the magi were able to transcend their own selfish goals and ambitions to discover their salvation in the Christ-child. In this sense, the Mass is a kind of epiphany, a manifestation of Christ in person, body and blood, soul and divinity, calling us to transcend our self-absorption. Epiphany is an invitation to restore the sense of the sacred, to return Christ to His rightful place as the real star of the celebration, and to give priority to worship in our encounter with Him. Pope Emeritus Benedict once taught that “the liturgy is not a kind of ‘self-manifestation’ of a community,” in other words, it is not an Epiphany of man. Rather, it should always be an Epiphany of God – Christ who manifests himself not only as man but under the form of bread and wine. He noted too that when priests or parishioners reflect on how to make the liturgy “attractive, interesting and beautiful,” they can “risk forgetting the essential: That is the liturgy is celebrated for God and not for ourselves.”

The story of the Magi has been celebrated in song and Christmas pageants and their images have adorned our beautiful crèches.  But, their story holds so much power for us in our lives if we could only learn from them. It is a reminder that our search for what is good, what is beautiful, what is true can only find its ultimate fulfilment in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and that true wisdom can only be found when we are prepared to kneel at His feet. Let us not come with empty and grasping hands but with everything that is of value to worship the true King and Saviour of the world. Venite Adoremus! Come let us adore Him!