Tuesday, May 24, 2016

That may not unto dogs be given.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

My first, and I hope my last, experience of witnessing the desecration of the Blessed Sacrament in a Tabernacle under my care took place in the little chapel of St Theresa, Nilai. The tabernacle had been pried open, the Blessed Sacrament strewn on the floor, and the ciborium located therein missing, presumably stolen. It was a heart breaking moment to see how the Body of Christ had been thrown onto floor and trampled upon. My first reaction when I received the news was disbelief and then revulsion. I immediately alerted the Archbishop who instructed me to call for public act reparation for this desecration. I am embarrassed to admit that prior to this incident, I had never heard of this prayer. It was simply not taught in the seminary! 

The incident got me reflecting. It was no surprise that the thieves would target the tabernacle. It did resemble a security safe where one would place and hide one’s most prized possessions. I doubt if the thieves realised what they were taking. Perhaps they thought it contained money, but it contained something far more valuable. The irony was that they took the gold-plated ciborium but left behind the seemingly valueless wafers. They certainly were not aware that this was the Church’s greatest treasure, her most prized possession, more precious than all the gold, jewels and diamonds of the world put together – the Blessed Sacrament. I realised that my familiarity with the sanctuary, the tabernacle and its content had led to a contempt which could match or even surpass the level of desecration committed by these thieves. The truth is that they had an excuse, they were ignorant. I had no excuse, I should have known better but my familiarity had descended to callous contempt. Reparation, indeed, was necessary.

The communion we receive is no mere bread, it is nothing less than the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, both His Humanity and His Divinity, truly, really and substantially. Everything and anything Catholic flows from the Real Presence of Jesus Christ here in the Blessed Sacrament. Christ’s Presence among us in the Blessed Sacrament is the summit and source of our lives together in the Church. It is the heart of the matter. In a world where many constantly complain that God is visibly absent in midst of our troubles or where many have grown indifferent to His presence, it is easy to forget that our Lord abides in two homes – in heaven, where He shows Himself undisguised, as He is in reality; and on earth in the Blessed Sacrament, in which He conceals Himself under the cover of bread. The thought of this is mind-blowing! God literally, and not just figuratively or symbolically, resides in this house, in this Temple. There, in the tabernacle, He lives among us. God pitches his tent among his people.

If we only believe this, we would immediately cast aside our casual attitude, our loose dressing, our incorrigible lack of reverence, and fall prostrate before the very flesh of the Lord who created the universe and all therein, including us miserable creatures. But the contrary, unfortunately, is true of us. Often we pay more attention to our own creaturely comfort, we bemoan the tedium of the rituals, and we are so distracted by the tiniest of concerns. We half-heartedly kneel and if given a chance would happily abolish kneeling and genuflecting all together. And the irony is that kneeling is our last remaining experience of reverence and awe in God’s closeness to us. The Body of Christ is casually spoken of as “bread” and the Most Precious Blood of Christ ignobly referred to as “wine.” It’s a rarity now what used to be wide-spread practice, of making the sign of the cross and bowing to the Blessed Sacrament in the Church whenever we drove or walk pass it. If action speaks louder than words, than our attitude, our behaviour, our dressing would surely indict and condemn us. Our protestations of innocence would be in vain. 

We had just heard the beautiful Sequence written by the Angelic Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas, at the bequest of Pope Urban IV, in honour of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t know how many parishes or churches will opt to read or sing the sequence in its entirety today. Perhaps its meaning is too much above the average Catholic. I choose to have it sung here today, hoping that some at least will appreciate not just the rhythmic flow and lyrical beauty of the text but also its dogmatic precision, a precision not lost in the process of condensation. And yet, St Thomas, the greatest theologian of the Church since St Paul, would only have scratched the surface of what the Church or anyone of us could say about this sublime mystery and treasure. If St Alphonsus could say with all Truth of the Passion of the Lord, “that eternity would not suffice to meditate adequately upon it,” we may affirm the same of Jesus Christ hidden in the Blessed Sacrament.

Worldly lovers are accustomed frequently to mention and praise those whom they love, that others may also praise and laud them; how poor and weak should we then consider the love of those who call themselves lovers of the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, and yet who seldom speak of it.  A true lover does not act like this; they should speak of it, praise it everywhere, in public and in private, whenever it is in their power they try to enkindle in their hearts of all those ardent flames of love with which themselves burn for their beloved Jesus. How much of our words and actions truly affirm this statement taken from the Second Vatican Council, “The Eucharistic sacrifice is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life”.   

In his Encyclical On the Eucharist, Pope St John Paul II stated that “The Eucharist….is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history…the Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.” Only a pope who spent untold hours adoring the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament could write such words. When he first arrived at the Vatican, St John Paul II gave the Swiss Guard quite a scare. One day they couldn’t find him anywhere. Not in his library. Not in his office. Not in his bedroom. Not in his private chapel. They turned the place upside down. No pope. Finally, they reported the crisis to the pope’s secretary. He took them back to the pope’s private chapel. The lights were out. They tip-toed to the front. There was the pope face down on the floor in front of the tabernacle!  This saintly pope teaches us what it means to be so consumed by the Eucharist, what it means to “become what we eat.” It is this - that our whole life should be in imitation of our Blessed Lord, that our work, our homes, our prayer, our talk, even our fun and chill time should be a preparation for the Holy Mass. That with the right disposition and attitude, every single mass celebrated, even with the most minimal accoutrements, can be an extraordinary experience.

When we have lost a sense of the sacred, when we no longer show reverence to the Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we have little reverence for anything else. As a matter of fact all justice flow from this central reality. As Catholic Christians we judge our political, economic and political systems on the truth that each and every human person is sacred unto the Lord; each and every person is a temple of God’s Holy Spirit. Likewise, if wish to recover the lost sense of stewardship over creation, we need to also recover our sense of the sacred. The truth is that we continue to rape and plunder our natural resources because we’ve lost reverence for the presence of God in our world, in the trees and natural resources, in nature’s pure waters, in animals, in all of God’s creatures. We regard them today merely as useful, as things to exploit for profit.

Let us therefore ponder once again the gravity of these words penned by the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, as we prepare ourselves, unworthy as we may be, to receive Holy Communion, our most prized possession, our greatest treasure, the antidote to death and the elixir of immortality. Let us approach our Eucharistic Lord with humility and a clean heart. Lord we believe, help our unbelief!

“Behold the Bread of Angels,
Sent for pilgrims in their banishment,
The bread of God’s true children meant,
That may not unto dogs be given.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

God is in the Details

The Most Holy Trinity

It doesn’t take much to understand the expression, “the devil’s in the details.” Small, seemingly insignificant details, can be the key to success or failure. The Faustian myth of the devil striking up what seems to be an arms-length bargain with a desperate soul for some promised reward, illustrates it best. The devil must have invented the small print at the foot of the contract and conveniently forgotten to mention that any reward comes at a disproportionate price – the loss of one’s salvation. It is clear why the devil tries to hide the truth in the details.  Details are time consuming, nerve wrecking, tedious and can bog you down. Details seem to be the sole province of anal retentive personalities, obsessive compulsive individuals who drive you mad with their nit-picking and insistence on precision. No, the devil understands us too well. He wishes to cover-up the truth, disguise the truth, and tries to get it in the fine print so we don’t pay attention. He is the author of broad generalisations, ambiguity and confusion.

But many would theorise that there is a much older variation of the expression. Instead of the devil, it is “God” who “is in the details.” Many have postulated that both expressions refer to the same reality, though from different angles. “God is in the details,” suggests the fine details improve the bigger picture and paying attention to them will bring far greater rewards. Whereas, “the devil is in the details” seems to suggest that failure to pay attention to the final details will have a detrimental effect on the bigger picture. The two phrases could be considered opposites and yet could be considered the same. There is nothing paradoxical about this. Taken together, they basically say that until you dig into the details, you really don't know what you've got.

It is good to remember that “God is in the details” when we contemplate the central doctrine of our faith – the Most Holy Trinity. The foundational reality underlying everything is God Himself, a Triune Unity. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of our Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in Himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” Yet, strangely, it’s one of those topics that most priests, religious and catechists would avoid. In fact, most Catholics would just dismiss the finer details of the explanation and resort to just committing to memory the most basic formula, “One God, Three Persons.” If anyone were to brave enough to ask or probe further, they would most likely get a rap on the knuckles and a quick reprimand for questioning the very nature of God.

You may not take me seriously when I venture to claim that this is actually a simple doctrine. That’s hard to believe, right? But it is true. It is simple because God can be described as the supreme simplicity, and the Trinity is the Church’s most basic description of who God actually is – and who He needs to be in order to save us. To speak of, or pray to, God as Trinity is to use a kind of ancient abbreviation. It is a made-up word unique to the Christian faith, a shorthand way of affirming three statements:
1.      There is only one God.
2.      The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is each God.
3.      The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not the same.
Though it is a made-up word to speak of all these realities at once, it is not a made-up doctrine, an invention of theologians. The doctrine of the Trinity did not arise out of speculation about God, out of an attempt of philosophical thinking to explain to itself what the fount of all being was like. The reason why Christians talk about God as Trinity is because God revealed Himself to them as Trinity; in their own lives, in the collective life of the Church, and through the Old and New Testament. The goal of revelation is not to confuse man. The goal of revelation is that we may enter into a deeper communion with Him, with the real Him, and not just an imaginary Him.

Nevertheless, one of the most popular arguments that is used to reject theological fineries would be that we should leave dogma, doctrine and the study of the truths of Faith to the more intellectually minded. Doctrine is considered to be dry, abstract and arid. It is said that doctrine, the truths of Faith stated in propositional form, cannot compete with the personal lived experience of God. Venerable Cardinal Neumann best describes this phenomena. “People urge that salvation consists, not in believing the propositions that there is a God, that there is a Saviour, that our Lord is God, that there is a Trinity, but in believing in God, in a Saviour, in a Sanctifier; and they object that such propositions are but a formal and human medium destroying all true reception of the Gospel, and making religion a matter of words or of logic, instead of its having its seat in the heart.”

Is this objection justified? Hardly. What many people fail to see is that there is no opposition between the propositional presentation of faith and the personal experience of faith. Faith is both propositional and personal. Neumann reminds us that, “knowledge must ever precede the exercise of the affections. We feel gratitude and love, we feel indignation and dislike, when we have the informations actually put before us which are to kindle those several emotions. We love our parents, as our parents, when we know them to be our parents; we must know concerning God, before we can feel love, fear, hope, or trust towards Him. Devotion must have its objects; those objects, as being supernatural, when not represented to our senses by material symbols, must be set before the mind in propositions. The formula, which embodies a dogma for the theologian, readily suggests an object for the worshipper.”

Doctrinal formulas, rather than detaching us from God, are absolutely necessary for attaching us to Him. We cannot love God if we know nothing about Him. The more penetrating our knowledge of God, the deeper the love.  It is no wonder that God chooses to reveal Himself as Trinity. He would rather risk confusion and ridicule than to perpetuate a shallow understand of His true nature. The details are necessary to avoid the confusion based on loose speculations, guess work and the human predilection to make God in our image and likeness.

So, if you have never really taken the trouble to read up more about the Most Holy Trinity, it’s time to remedy that. It’s never just an intellectual project but rather one which is motivated by love and devotion. It is because I wish to know more about the One whom I love and through that knowledge come to love Him more. It is good to remember that when we abdicate the responsibility to know more about God and rely merely on rudimentary knowledge at best and pure sentiments at worst, we risk falling into heresy. The great majority of Catholics do not want to be heretics, whether wittingly or unwittingly. But one become an unwitting heretic when one chooses to hold on to or even promote one’s own preference, opinion or decision over that which is revealed by God and taught by the Church. Over the centuries, we have many such views, which includes describing the Trinity as different modalities (one reality in three shapes or forms like water, ice or steam), three different Gods (like the Mormons), or three different beings of varying rank and status (like the Jehovah Witnesses who describe Jesus as a superhuman divine being but less than God). We risk heresy whenever we are contented with broad generalisations and ambiguity.

In our pursuit of theological precision, we must also remember that our flawed and fragile thoughts and words are never up to the job of giving a full, wholly sufficient description of the Most High. God is indeed “more than words,” as St Thomas realised. But the truth of the Triune God should not be lessened by the inadequacy of language and human intelligence. At the end of day, we come to accept what God has said about Himself even though we may not fully understand every aspect of that revelation. The truth of the revelation will always be simple. Our comprehension is another matter. But we should never cease to be motivated to delve deeper. For God, and not the devil, is to be found in the details.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Church without the Holy Spirit is not the Church

Pentecost Sunday

Since Easter the first readings have been taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Those responsible for the arrangement and the content of our lectionary must have been truly inspired. We have been recalling the early days of the Church, its staggering growth, juxtaposed against a multitude of sufferings. All this was seen by St. Luke, the author of this remarkable book, as a direct result of that memorable day of Pentecost. The secret of their resilience was not found in the noble human spirit, it sprang from the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Acts of the Apostles makes great reading, but it is not meant to be nostalgic and sentimental. Rather the stories of conversions, preachings, missionary journeys and rapid church growth are there to inspire us — for we too have received the same Holy Spirit.

In 1968 Patriarch Ignatius, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Latakia, gave an amazing address at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches. In it he spoke of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church in a striking and memorable way:

Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organisation,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evolution,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating science,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.

Therefore, the Church without the Holy Spirit is not the Church. In the Holy Spirit the Church “lives and moves and has its being”. It is sad that so many individual believers live as if the Holy Spirit had never come, to treat the Church as a purely human institution that either needs to be reinvented to bring it into the twenty first century or has to be safeguarded as if it has fallen into unredeemable heresy. There is also a great temptation to be in the grips of two extremes that confuses the relationship between the Spirit and the Church. On the one hand, we have a humanism that excludes the activity of the Spirit from the Church, and on the other hand, we have a pietism that reduces the activity of the Spirit to some form of emotionalism.

In a world that has grown accustomed to defining every issue according the human categories, the members of the Church are tempted to follow suit with little discernment between being "in the Holy Spirit" and being "without the Holy Spirit". What we often do as a Church is often governed by principles of utility, expediency, efficiency, suitability, and marketability, rather than just being faithful to the voice of the Holy Spirit who continues to communicate the will of the Father through the revelation of the Son. In fact, anyone caught discussing the role of the Holy Spirit in the decision-making process risk being accused of over-simplification. On the other end of the spectrum, with the rise of Pentecostalism and its influence on Catholic Culture and ecclesial communities, the presence of Spirit is often mistaken for emotional hype. Here, reason is subjected to suspicion and those who caution prudence often find themselves accused of being faithless. We fail to remember and recognise that there is no opposition between faith and reason and that the presence of the Holy Spirit is discerned from the power of love, the strength of faith, and the experience of joy in the midst of hardship and persecution.

Many have often accused the Catholic Church of being indifferent or at least pays little attention to the Third Person of the Trinity. They would be surprised to learn that the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a central place for the Holy Spirit in relation to the Church. The Catechism, unequivocally teaches that: “The Church, a communion living in the faith of the apostles which she transmits, is the place where we know the Holy Spirit (CCC 668):
- in the Scriptures He inspired;
- in the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses;
- in the Church's Magisterium, which He assists;
- in the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, in which the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ;
- in prayer, wherein He intercedes for us;
- in the charisms and ministries by which the Church is built up;
- in the signs of apostolic and missionary life;
- in the witness of saints through whom He manifests his holiness and continues the work of salvation.

Since he assumed his office, Pope Francis has preached - by word and deed - a dynamic Catholic faith and a Church that must be passionate with the mission of evangelisation. This is a Pope who believes that the Church is driven by the Holy Spirit and God's love, not by bureaucrats or militants. He calls us to remember this simple truth, a truth that is often forgotten when we place so much trust in our own cleverness and devices, that the power of the Holy Spirit is available today for all believers just as it was in the early Church. It is the same Holy Spirit who always calls the Church to authentic renewal. The Pope adds, that at times, “the Holy Spirit upsets us because it moves us, it makes us walk, it pushes the Church forward.” But the problem is, according to him, we want to “calm down the Holy Spirit, we want to tame it and this is wrong, because the Holy Spirit is the strength of God, it's what gives us the strength to go forward.”  Our first reaction is never to resist the pull of the Holy Spirit but to submit.

Like the apostles who were gathered in continuous prayer together with Mary the Mother of the Lord and with the other disciples, we confidently hope and pray that we too will experience a new Pentecost, a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and then we, like Peter and the first apostles, will be able to go out and share the gift of our faith and our hope with a world that needs to be reminded that God has not abandoned them, that he continues guide them, protect them, and strengthen them through the power of the Spirit.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.