Thursday, June 22, 2017

His eye is on the Sparrow

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Over the years, I’ve become quite an expert of all sorts at self-pity. Some of you may know the feeling, “No one cares about me.” “No one understands me.” “No one really bothers about my well-being.” To help me ascertain the intensity of the feeling, I’ve come up with an index of three degrees. Starting at the lowest level, there is, “NBC” – “Nobody’s child.” Followed by the next level of intensity, “NBLM” “Nobody loves me.” “Ouch!” But the one that tops the barometer of self-loathing is “EHM” “Everybody hates me.” This may have more to do with the fear of not being loved than the fear of being insulted or rejected. Perhaps, this index may come in useful when you have to negotiate the hills and valleys of community life. It’s not hard to feel misunderstood, alienated, estranged and wronged when you are in the company of strangers, minus the family members, friends and acquaintances. But on second thought, better watch out for them too!  Often enough, the nastiest sting often comes from those who are the closest. In a tight space, we often end up rubbing more than shoulders and elbows, rather we seem to successfully rub each other’s ego in the wrong way.

I guess that’s what a little leaven of self-doubt and poor self-esteem does to us. Our Lord had warned us of the leaven of the Pharisees, the putrid, demoralising, bitter negativity that usually begins in small ways and that are often dismissed as too minor for our attention. But it is this leaven, when allowed to fester and breed, that will infect our entire outlook of things. It often begins with the way we view ourselves – as insignificant, not worthy of love or attention, and then it is projected unto others who are blamed as the catalyst and cause of our woes. Rather than expecting and watching out for the insults and mud that will be flung at us by others, we should honestly acknowledge that we are capable of doing greater damage to ourselves than we realise.

Perhaps, the reason why we see so little value in ourselves is because we fail to see how much value we have in the eyes of God. This is at the heart of what Jesus conveys in today’s gospel. Out of all the things He could have chosen, Jesus chose the sparrow; a bird so common, it was practically worthless. Sparrows do not draw attention to themselves. Sparrows are not majestic like eagles. Bird watchers, who seem to have a fascination for all sorts of feathered friends, don’t go sparrow-watching.  No, sparrows are in-descript as you see them momentarily flutter by. During the time of Jesus, a person could buy two sparrows at the price of one cent. If one were to pay two cents, a free bird was thrown in. This must have been one of the earliest recorded super value deals. We may not esteem the tiny sparrow, but the Lord tells us that not one sparrow is forgotten before God. He uses this buy-four-get-one-free practice to illustrate how much God values every single life. If God is concerned about the tiny sparrow, how much greater must His concern be for man! If God notices, values, and cares about a tiny sparrow, then how much more must God notice, value, and care about us.

While it is a great encouragement to know that God values the seemingly insignificant sparrow, it is even more encouraging that He values us so much that He takes an interest in every possible detail about us. The Lord revealed the extent of God’s interest by stating that “every hair on your head has been counted.” There is no place we can go, no word we can say, no act too small for God’s notice. If God can give so much value to the tiny worthless sparrow and the insignificant strain of hair, what more, the entire person. As one rotund comedian often commented about her size, “There is so much more of me to Love.”

There are many, many things in this world that argue well as to the worthlessness of man.  What is a man to the world?  That is one soul among billions that inhabit this third planet from the sun.  All the world itself, I suppose, is so put together that a man might have reason to think that whether he lives or dies- what is it?  Like a pebble on a beach or just like one other star in the sky?  Who are we on the earth, and what is our earth in its universe? When I stare into the skies, the eternal silence of the infinite terrifies me.  When they tell us of the light years and billions of light years that separate the earth from other planets, the stars and the galaxies in this universe, in this great cosmic creation; and when they tell us our galaxy is one of the smallest of all, and our earth is one of the smallest planets around the sun –– when you read those astronomical figures, what is a man on the earth?  What is your life, or mine?
That is the reason science, with all its promise of a better future, often ends in defeatism and despair.  That is the reason infidelity is dead and cold.  That is the reason why it is so essential that you and I have to embrace the promise of Christ.  That is the reason why the Lord assures us that even if it came to the seemingly insignificant extra sparrow which no one pays attention to, thrown in for nothing – but, God saw it when it fell to the ground.  It is the old and neglected, the poor and the homeless, the one who has lost his way or his faith, the one who suffers loneliness and depression, or the newly formed embryo in a mother’s womb, the one who no one sees, but God sees them all. God knows, God understands, because each single person is truly precious and valuable in His eyes, even when the person doesn’t seem to be worthy or deserving of it. Not a single one falls that God didn’t see it.

During moments of self-doubt, during times of home-sickness, during days of loneliness and disaffection, when we are tempted to think, “No one cares for me” or “No one loves me”, as we plod along with heavy hearts and sore feet, let us always remember the truth of what the Lord says at the very end of today’s gospel. Not even the tiny sparrows escape the notice of God. “Every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.”  

Some of you may remember this gospel song popularised by the movie Sister Act, “The Eye of the Sparrow,” written by Mrs Civilla Martin at the turn of the 20th century.  In 1904, Mrs. Martin, went to visit a bedridden friend in New York. She asked the woman if she ever got discouraged because of her physical condition. Her friend quickly responded: “Mrs. Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow and I know He loves and cares for me?” On her journey back home, Mrs. Martin completed the writing of her new text, which has since been a source of much encouragement to many.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely and long for Heaven and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me...
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, and resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears; though by the path He leadeth but one step I may see: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me...
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, when songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies, I draw the closer to Him; from care He sets me free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me...
Let’s face it: It is hard to remember, hard to live without fear, hard to live with the assurance of God’s profuse care of even us. But our perspective changes when we remember, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true

Corpus Christi 2017

One of the most famous and, for me, indisputably the most beautiful of Eucharistic Hymns is the Adoro te Devote, popularly but inadequately rendered in English as “Humbly we adore Thee.” The writer of this hymn is St Thomas Aquinas, whose whole life is worth reading, but for me, this one episode really stands out. Towards the end of his life, when at Salerno, he was labouring over the third part of his great treatise, Against the Pagans (Summa Contra Gentiles), dealing with Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, a sacristan saw him late one night kneeling before the altar and heard a voice, coming, it seemed, from the crucifix, which said, “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wouldst thou have?” To which Thomas replied, “Nothing but Thyself, Lord.”

A brief homily could never do justice to the monumental Eucharist theology of this Great Doctor of the Church. One can pour over his treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, or one can figuratively sit at the feet of St Thomas by reading his magisterial Commentary on the Sixth Chapter of St John’s Gospel, the “Bread of Life” discourse. However, even for St Thomas, theological explanations, in the end, have to give way to poetry, to hymnody, as in the great Eucharistic hymns he composed for the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, Adoro te Devote, being among them.

One would soon come to realise that this hymn is born of years of contemplation on St Thomas’ part, of countless Masses he celebrated fervently, of hours spent sitting before the Tabernacle; they are born of a heart caught up in love and wonder. Here are the first two verses of my favourite translation of the original Latin by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at your service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God you are.

And in the second verse, we are given the basis, the foundation for our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

The profound words of St Thomas are most fitting for us today as we listen to the words of John 6 at this Mass. When we encounter Christ in the Eucharist, we are faced with a choice; it is not just to eat or not to eat, but rather to believe or not to believe.  There is no middle ground. We can’t 'sort of believe' the Eucharist is Jesus’ Body and Blood. And this can put many of us at a quandary, we are either blown away by God’s inconceivable love for us in this Sacrament, or we struggle to understand how this works … and thus, struggle to believe.

St Thomas, a man of sharp intellect and impeccable reason, came to understand the Mass not in just a dry intellectual way, but he let himself be drawn into the very depths of this mystery of encounter with Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. For him, to believe in Christ’s presence, body and blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist wasn’t unreasonable, it simply exceeds the capacity of our reason. The last phrase of the second paragraph gives us a peek into why St Thomas believes:
“What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.”

Yes, truth exists and is knowable through reason. But here’s the trouble: we are not big enough to grasp the entirety of truth through reason alone.  Why?  Because we have limited minds, as we have all found out one time or another.  So why should I need someone to tell me what truth is?  Because I’m not big enough to come to it myself!  Who is?  Who can fully comprehend truth?  Who can speak with utmost reliability on the fullness of truth?  Well, Truth himself.  And our name for Truth is Christ. “Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.”

It is not that we figure out Jesus and His ways, but simply that Jesus is the witness par excellence worth believing. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Even if we don’t fully understand all there is to know about the Eucharist, we can fully believe in the Eucharist because Jesus is credible, “Truth Himself speaks truly.” And this is what Truth Incarnate tells us: “I am the Bread of Life.” “This is My Body; this is My Blood.” And “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you do not have life within you.” And “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” And you and I have faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist precisely because Jesus told us so. St. Cyril confirms this by saying: ‘Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Saviour in faith, for since He is the truth, He cannot lie.’ “Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.” If He’s not worth believing then there is nothing worth believing.

Every time when we make regular acts of faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist by genuflecting reverently before the Sacramental Presence on our altars, spend Holy Hours in the presence of Our Eucharistic Lord exposed for our adoration, point to the Tabernacle and instruct our young children that, “Jesus is there,” and whenever, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, we once again reaffirm our faith, the faith of the Church, in professing and believing that the whole Christ is “truly, really, substantially present,” body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine. Our faith in the reality of Christ’s presence is based on objective reality, and not on the manner by which the Eucharist affects us subjectively. In other words, we say we believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist despite how we may feel or think about it. The objective reality of Christ’s presence is based on the truth of His words which we hear at every Mass: “This is my Body … This is my Blood.” For this Truth Himself speaking truly “or there’s nothing true.”

In an age where we can no longer trust the ability of our senses to abstract reality, where man no longer trusts in his ingenuity and in his ability to find solutions to the global problems, where we have lost trust in our institutions and structures, the Church holds up the Body and Blood of Christ as that beacon of stability, of objective reality, of objective Truth. The Truth of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not just a philosophical concept among the many philosophies that propose ways of examining knowledge and reality. When we gaze upon the Blessed Sacrament, we see God’s endearing love, His fidelity to the promise that He will always be with us till the end of time. When we look upon the Blessed Sacrament, we see the Incarnate Son of God, who gave up His life on the Cross for our redemption. When our eyes pierce the sacramental veil of this Great Mystery, we see our salvation. And all this is true -not just a product of our minds, a figment of our imagination, or a fevered delusion. It is True, “or there is nothing true.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “the Church and the world have a great need for Eucharistic worship. Jesus awaits us in this sacrament of love. Let us not refuse the time to go to meet Him in adoration, in contemplation full of faith, and open to making amends for the serious offenses and crimes of the world. Let our adoration never cease.” (CCC #1380)  

And I pray and hope, that if the Lord were to ask us that very same question He asked St Thomas, “What reward would you have of me?” Our only answer would be, “Nothing, but Thyself, Lord! Nothing but Thyself.” Yes, everything in this world will come to an end — except the presence of Christ. As Ronald Knox describes it:
“All the din and clatter of the streets, all the great factories which dominate our landscape are only echoes and shadows if you think of them for a moment in the light of eternity; the reality is in here, is there above the altar, is that part of it which our eyes cannot see and our senses cannot distinguish. . . . When death brings us into another world, the experience will not be that of one who falls asleep and dreams, but that of one who wakes from a dream into the full light of day. Here, we are so surrounded by the things of sense that we take them for the full reality. Only sometimes we have a glimpse which corrects that wrong perspective. And above all when we see the Blessed Sacrament enthroned, we should look up towards that white disc which shines in the monstrance as towards a chink through which, just for a moment, the light of the other world shines through”.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

We must forget how to count

Most Holy Trinity 2017

Once a year we dust off the Holy Trinity, have a look at it and then put it back on the shelf. Perhaps, we even tell ourselves. “Okay, next year, if I have the time, I will try to give it a closer look.” The mental gymnastics of trying to make three, square with one is just too demanding and off-putting. But asking, why three persons and not just one, may tantamount to asking “why is the sky so high”? Notice that we Christians have four gospels, not just one. One might have thought that we could have stopped with one, saying to ourselves, “Let’s just go with Matthew (for example).” But no, an effusive, ubiquitous and overflowing-with-love God requires at least four gospels to talk about God and Christ. So, merely speaking of God in a one-dimensional way would certainly be presenting an impoverished idea of God.

One of the church fathers said, “When we talk about the Trinity, we must forget how to count.” He was simply recognising that, at first glance, the Trinity is a mathematical impossibility. After all, how can one equal three? We must throw away our math, not because the Trinity is a logical muddle, but because we need a different kind of logic. It took St Augustine, fifteen books to try to think about it, because God is God and we are not. Because God comes to us with a complexity and effusiveness, an ubiquity and a plenitude that boggle our modest minds; it is no wonder that we have trouble thinking about God. No wonder the Trinity boggles our imaginations too.  I am sure that is probably the right way to put it. The problem with the Trinity is not that this is a bunch of nonsense, but that God is God, and in God’s particularly glorious, mysterious and effusive way, we the creatures and the recipients of a love so deep, cannot find words to describe it. When we think about the Trinity, we must forget how to count.

I guess we can move pass the mental block of talking about so lofty an idea as the Trinity by not starting to think of the Trinity as some incomprehensible doctrine of the Church, though the mystery of God would always be beyond our comprehension. Think of the Trinity as our earnest, though somehow groping, attempt to put into words what has been revealed to us of the overflowing love of God. Christians are not those who believe in some amorphous, vague and abstract concept of God. Christians believe in a highly personal, interactive God who has chosen to reveal Himself to us as the Trinity. Christians are those who believe that God is best addressed as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, all three are One, and we do so not because of mere speculation, but because this very God had intentionally revealed Himself to us in this manner. Christians don’t have to keep going back to the drawing table to come up with a new version of a deity that fits his personal taste. Any such deity would not truly be God, but an abstraction of our minds, made in our image and likeness. No! Christianity does not present a speculative idea of God but a God who has fully revealed Himself and now expects us to relate to Him and worship Him as Three Persons in One.

It is true that when God came to us in the flesh, in the person of the Son, the Incarnate Word, God did not say, “Call me by my proper name, ‘Trinity.’” You don’t have to be challenged by skeptics to survey the Bible to come to the conclusion that the word “Trinity” can be found nowhere in the pages therein. Coming from someone who has read the Bible, many times, I can only say that they are right! The word “Trinity” does not appear at all. The reason is simple. God didn’t have to. We did. That is, on the basis of our experience of God as complex, ubiquitous and overflowing with love as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all three attested to in many verses in the Bible, we just naturally started speaking of God as Trinity. The Bible didn’t have to use the word “Trinity” but the Bible certainly spoke of God as three persons.

Early on in his massive treatise on the Most Holy Trinity, St Augustine, the great Doctor of the West, had seven statements about God that could summarise his entire work. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. The Son is not the Father. The Father is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Son. And then, after these six statements, he adds one more: There is only one God.

In other words, Christians are not tritheists, we do not believe in three Gods as the Mormons do. Neither do Christians subscribe to some form of modalism – One God who appears in different forms, assumes different avatars, or wear different hats. The oneness of God is crucial to our faith. Not just as a concept but because it points to the way in which we are called to live. We are called to be one as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one. Each has their own distinct role in the godhead. So within the unity we also see diversity. As Christians who worship one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are called to reflect their life to the world. So the divisions in the church are not just a sin, they are a sin against the nature of God.

The Trinity lives in a perfect community of love and we are called to grow together in love. Thus, the call to live in community is the call to reflect the love of God in whose image we are made. Love cannot be just an abstraction or a word. Love must always have its object. There must always be something or someone to love. It was not enough for the Trinity to exist alone as a community of love, sufficient unto itself. So it was out of love that the world was created in all its wonder and diversity. And it was love that called man out of nothingness and placed him as the crown of creation, granting him the very spark of divinity, the ability to freely choose whether to accept that love or to reject it. Love is part of our DNA.

God the Holy Trinity didn’t create the world like a wind up clock and set it on its way, whilst watching from a distance. God continues to love and to involve Himself in creation, with and sometimes despite our help. God is constantly reaching out to the world, drawing it to Himself. This was the mission of Christ and continues to be the mission of the Church. A Church that doesn’t reach out, that does not draw in, is not a church formed by the effusive Trinity. Likewise, a Christian who doesn’t want, in love, to go out and tell somebody is not one who is formed by the relentlessly reaching out and drawing in that is the Trinity. Each of us too, as members of that Church, have a fundamental duty, which is in our very nature, our very DNA, to reach out to others and draw them into the communion with Christ, and through Christ, into communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This is mission of evangelisation.

Thank God that our relationship with God is not dependent upon us taking the initiative. The Trinity refuses to leave it all up to us. In Jesus Christ, through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, in the wonder of creation that bears the permanent imprint of the Father Creator, the Trinity keeps reaching toward us, keeps leaving hints for us, indications that we live every moment of our lives upheld by a living, resourceful and ever out-reaching God. If we are to be true to our calling as Christians we also need to learn more about the Trinity. Not just once a year on Trinity Sunday, but in a way that infuses the whole of our faith; so that our lives reflect the life of the Trinity, so that it affects the way we live as Christians. The Fathers of the Church were right when they told us to stop counting. Yes, when we think about the Trinity, we must forget how to count – we must remember to start loving.