Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Prelude to the Incarnation

The Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

Birthdays are wonderful opportunities for gatherings, parties, great meals and celebrations. One could also find a Christian reason for celebrating your birthday – giving thanks to God for the gift of life. But did you know that it’s a pre-Christian practice? Such celebrations were meant to ward off the evil spirits the pagans believed lurked around the person on the anniversary of his birth. In fact, historically, many Christians in earlier times didn’t celebrate birthdays because of that link to paganism. Ironically, it was on the occasion of Herod Antipas’ birthday, that the daughter of Herodias, his brother’s wife whom he had illicitly married, requested for the head of St John the Baptist. The birthday of a secular political ruler became the occasion of the martyrdom of a saint.

But today, we take a little departure from the temporal cycle, the cycle of seasons, our Sunday liturgy in ordinary time and venture into a celebration of the sanctoral cycle of the liturgical calendar – a feast of a saint, a birthday no less. There has been a long established custom since the early Christian centuries of commemorating each martyr annually on the date of his or her death, or birth into heaven, a date therefore referred to in Latin as the martyr's dies natalis (“day of birth”). So, it’s not that the earthly birthday of a saint is not important, but the Church chooses to celebrate the death day of the saint to mark his or her entrance into heaven. What could be greater than a long, fruitful, and happy life? The answer simply is Eternal Life! The reason for this is when the Church celebrates the feasts of saints, it celebrates the victory of the Paschal event, that is, the eternal life that has been won by these men and women by virtue of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To this rule there are two notable exceptions, the birthdays of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of St. John the Baptist, not counting the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas.

Why the exception? Well, in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception provides the answer. She received the gift of salvation not at the moment of her death, but she among all women and the whole human race, was singularly privileged to be freed from original sin from the first moment of her existence in her mother’s womb. Thus the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a far more important feast than the Memorial Feast of her nativity. What about St John? Well, for St John the day of his birth, the day on which he began this mortal life is likewise sacred. The reason for this, is that it comes from the traditional belief that John was freed from original sin at the moment when his mother met the Blessed Virgin in the event of the Visitation. Saint Augustine mentioned this belief as a general tradition in the ancient Church. In any case, it is certain that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb” (Luke 1, 15) and, therefore, born without original sin.

How did we determine this date? More trivia but bear with me. Though scripture does not provide us with the dates, it does provide us with the length of months between one event and the other. The gospel of St Luke tells us that the birth of St John the Baptist comes three months after the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel told Our Lady that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. So that leaves us with a six months difference in age. Accordingly, the Church celebrates his natural birth by a festival of his “nativity,” assigned exactly six months before the nativity of Christ, since John was six months older than the Lord. The purpose of these Feasts is not to celebrate the exact dates of these events, but simply to commemorate them in an interlinking way.

The birth of Jesus celebrated at Christmas coincides with an astronomical phenomenon, the Winter Solstice, as the Sun begins to “increase” in day light and the day lights grow longer each day. The birthday of St John the Baptist, on the other hand, coincides with the Summer Solstice, as the Sun begins to “decrease” in day light and day lights become shorter. Summer Solstice has the longest day light and Winter Solstice has the shortest day light. These two great feasts fall on two days of great astronomical significance in regards to the movement of the sun, which affects the lamination and darkness of the earth. Thus, what St. John the Baptist says of his mission – is even reflected in nature – days become shorter after the feast of John the Baptist and days become longer after Christ’s birth – “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Except for Jesus, there is no other person that we get to know so intimately—from conception to death, and even what he wore and ate. No other saint in the New Testament is described so richly. The Baptist becomes like a member of the family because we witness very personal snapshots of his life. There is no Gospel that begins the story of Jesus' public ministry without first telling the reader about the life and mission of John the Baptist. The announcement of his birth and the event itself in the gospel of St Luke both made prominently parallel to the same occurrences in the life of Jesus. The reason for this parallel is because the Nativity of John the Baptist is the first joy sent down by God to the human race, the beginning of its deliverance from the power of the devil, sin and eternal death. In other words, today's feast anticipates the feast of Christmas. In a sense, then, we are celebrating the glorious prelude to Christ's incarnation today.

Our Lord called St John, the greatest of all those who had preceded him: “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John….” But St John would have agreed completely with what Jesus added: “yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). The “least in the Kingdom” was obviously a reference to Himself – Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who chose to empty Himself of His divine stature, to assume the role of a lowly slave, is the “least in the Kingdom.”

John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and of the human condition, and that way is Christ Jesus himself. As we celebrate this Solemnity, our testimonies too must join that of the Baptist, who points to Christ and away from himself.  Christ ‘must increase and I must decrease’ must be a constant life commitment!  In a culture that idolises the subjective self, where man has enthroned himself at the centre of his universe, the prophetic witness of John the Baptist reminds us once again that even the greatest among us must fall on our knees to acknowledge the One who is greater. Christ must increase and I must decrease.

As we pay heed to the voice of the Baptist, we are reminded to also heed the voice of Mother Church who points us in the same direction, to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote: “We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, ‘because it is only the voice of a man.’ And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is ‘not worthy to untie the shoelaces of its Lord who goes on before it.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Humble Beginnings, Surprise Endings

Eleventh Ordinary Sunday Year B

If you’ve been in ministry or worked hard to build up your BEC, or even tried to grow in your own spiritual and prayer life, what I’m going to say would most likely resonate with you. It always seems that whenever we are able to take one step forward, we end up taking two steps backwards. It is one of the severest trials of our faith, to go on day after day in the same struggle against sin and self; experiencing failure and setbacks with every project we undertake, facing opposition, indifference and hostility from others who do not seem to share our passion. There doesn’t seem to be any growth or progress and we begin to doubt whether any progress has been made; and, what further compounds all these obstacles is that we do not see any striking proof of God’s presence or work.  But is He?

The parables today allow us to have a glimpse of how God works, often imperceptibly and in ways that are most humbling. The Lord, of course, is giving us a lesson on the kingdom and not one in horticulture. The Kingdom of God, just like the tiny mustard seed has humble and small beginnings but will eventually end up with great mega results. The growth of the Kingdom, just like the parable of the man who scatters in the dark of the night whilst everyone is asleep, will remain largely hidden and mysterious. The scale of its expanse and magnitude would only be apparent when one examines the final result. 

These parables present several important lessons that we should take to heart.

The first lesson is that we should never despise nor overlook the significance of small things. The beginning of the Kingdom of God can be traced to humble beginnings. We are often tempted to believe that our ventures must be preceded by a great deal of groundwork and planning, massive promotions and advertisements, big rallies and spectacular shows. The Gospel Story did not begin in such manner. Our Lord was born in a humble manger among stable animals, with poor shepherds as His court retinue. His birth was not marked by dramatic accounts of the Son of God, being born in the most opulent palace of the wealthiest and most powerful monarch of the world. Great empires have crumbled, civilisations have become extinct but the Christian faith planted by the life, death and resurrection of this humble carpenter from an obscure part of the world would survive the test of time. Small and humble beginnings place the entire catalyst and mover of the narrative in the hands of God and not in the devices of man.

The parables are stark reminders that the Work of God is often unobservable or incomprehensible. Just because we are unable to detect or perceive God working silently in the background, it does not mean that He is inactive or insensitive to our plight. We are often tempted to look for major signs and portents, immediate results and easy answers to our questions and prayers. When these are not forthcoming, we descend into frustration and anger, especially directed against God. But the Lord wants us to know that what is observable on the surface may not be an accurate measure of the final outcome. The story of the seed reminds us of the inner dynamism of the Kingdom, a God who is constantly and faithfully at work even when man ceases to work, even when we have chosen to give up, even when everyone else has chosen to abandon this enterprise.

The third lesson is an important reminder that Christian life is ultimately eschatological. All things will become apparent at the end. The humble beginnings, the awkward and unplanned detours, the obstacles and setbacks, the disappointments and failures, the temporal success and victories do not mark the end of the story. What is definitive are the final fruits of the Kingdom which is not just a wild bet but a factual certainty – the harvest will come and the mustard seed will eventually grow into that large shady tree that will host all the array of heaven. This eschatological dimension reminds Christians that we must always live in hope despite our present difficulties. We may be tempted to give up and call it quits as all the odds seemed to be stacked against us. But then, there is the other reality – the hidden reality, the reality with humble beginnings but a cosmic-scaled ending. It is the reality of the Kingdom of God established by Christ's first coming and fully completed and realised at His Second.

The themes contained in today’s parable are best illustrated in the beautiful prayer popularly attributed to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero.  The real truth behind this prayer is that it was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled "The mystery of the Romero Prayer." The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him. Here I conclude with this prayer, which best summarises the parables we’ve just heard.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Sin by any other name would still be sin

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

One of William Shakespeare’s most memorable lines is this one “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, act 2, sc.2, l.43). To paraphrase the great bard. . . What’s in a name? That which we call sin, by any other name would still be sin!

There appears to be a tendency in contemporary society to disregard or minimise sin or to call it by another name. Similarly, there is a tendency to ignore evil and to behave as if the reality of evil had faded into the junkyard of obsolete ideas. Although sin was once a strong word, the word, along with the notion of sin has all but disappeared. The reality of sin, however, has not disappeared; it has simply been renamed. Sin may masquerade under several aliases, but it remains, nonetheless what it is!  Soldiers, who have systematically gang-raped and slaughtered hapless women have claimed justification for their actions by labelling them as collateral damage. Other heinous sins have been dismissed by excusing their perpetrators on grounds of temporary insanity, or a troubled youth, or emotional instability. Some sins have been paraded under the guise of freedom of choice or ignorance. Sexual sins like fornication, adultery, and sodomy are merely packaged as alternative lifestyles that are perfectly acceptable between consenting adults. Abortion today is seen as a fundamental right of liberty and ironically presented as compassion for women. How could the killing of an innocent unborn child be termed compassionate? Well, think of the logic of Thanos in the recent Avengers movie – you have to kill off half the population in order to save the other half.

The readings for today’s liturgy invite us to take a hard look at sin, to call it by name and to take back our responsibility for it. Similarly, we are challenged to look evil in the eye and, without blinking, own it for the reality that it is.

In the first reading, we have the scene after the Fall. Immediately after Eve, Adam succumbed to the lies of the serpent and they both took the bait; they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. The effects of sin are immediate. Our first parents in shame and in guilt hid from the sight of their Creator, but who can hide from the All-seeing and the All-knowing? Eventually, God gets to the crux of the matter - God now points out what the sin was – Adam has eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He is now able to recognise that they have done evil and have lost grace. The man, instead of acknowledging his sinfulness, that he has disobeyed God, tries to shift the blame and in doing so blames God Himself: If God hadn’t given him the woman, this never would have happened. How convenient that the man should blame the woman. In today’s context, women would most likely blame the men too. So they’re even.

The story could have turned out differently but it had to play out in the manner that scripture has been written. When caught, Adam was given the golden opportunity of confessing his sins but instead he blamed his wife and refused to take responsibility. There was no remorse, there was no repentance. As a result of that, there could be no forgiveness or reconciliation, not at this stage. Sin doesn’t have to be a dead end, but when we choose to deny it, when we refuse to acknowledge it, it could be the ending that we dread the most.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is accused of being in collusion with Satan or, at the very least, of being out of His mind. This is equivalently an accusation of demonic possession, which explains the accusations of the scribes that follow. How interesting? Today, most cases of mental illnesses go undetected because people would rather believe that the symptoms are due to some demonic possession or the effects of a curse than to accept the truth about their own mental health or that of a loved one. Likewise, many real demonic cases are mistakenly misdiagnosed as psychiatric affliction.

Our Lord takes the accusations of His enemies and uses them as an opportunity not only to explain the workings of Evil but in contrast, the workings of the Kingdom of God too. Finally, after putting forward arguments in His own defense, He counters their attacks with an accusation of His own. He warns them against the eternal sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the very sin that can never be forgiven.

The unforgivable sin is a scary thing. It is so scary that in the Summa Theologiae St Thomas Aquinas devoted a special question with four articles to this form of blasphemy alone. But before we deal with this, it is good and consoling to note that our Lord also said, “all men’s sins will be forgiven,” save this one. There are some pretty atrocious sins out there, but, without exception, they're all forgivable. No sin is beyond God's forgiveness and, by recognising our utter dependence upon Him, we are invited to always present our sins before our Merciful Lord and to become reconciled with Him. Scripture continually reminds us that all we need do, is throw our decrepit selves onto Him and He will forgive us.

But then our Lord also speaks of the “eternal sin” that is unpardonable – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. How do we understand this? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: ““Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss” (CCC 1864). In other words, this sin is the deliberate and knowing refusal to accept God's mercy. It is a refusal to repent of sin just like Adam and Eve. God does not bring anyone into His kingdom against his will. We have the freedom to reject God’s mercy and refuse forgiveness of sins. Literally, we are saying to God, “I don’t need your forgiveness or pity. You can go to hell for all I care,” which is exactly where we will be going without that very mercy and forgiveness to save us.

Six species of this sin against the Holy Spirit have been identified over time as (1) Despair, that is to lose hope in our salvation (“what’s the point of repenting, since I’m going to do it again”); (2) Presumption, that is to take God’s mercy for granted and erroneously believing that there will be no accounting for our sins; (3) Impenitence or a firm determination not to repent; (4) Obstinacy, which is lacking the humility to admit that we have sinned and we continue to persist in that sin; (5) Resisting divine truth known to be such; and finally (6) Envy of another’s spiritual welfare (which was the sin of Satan, Adam and the scribes in today’s gospel passage).

It's a particular comfort to Christians to know that, via the Sacrament of Penance, we're allowed a great number of second chances for the mistakes we’ve done, a great number of u-turns from the wrong turnings in life ―that is, if we take advantage of them and don't presume upon God's generosity in regards to our lackadaisicalness and lack of commitment. To be forgiven, we must first recognise that we are sinful. We must then be desirous of His forgiveness. We must agree to try our hardest to avoid sinning, and in fact, the near occasion of sin and especially any instance or situation that would otherwise weigh us down, in the future. But, first and foremost, we must never give up on God, who never gives up on us.