Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Throw Open Your Gates, Your King Comes

Palm Sunday 2015

One of the most commanding and breathtaking views of the old walled city of Jerusalem is from the Mount of Olives. As one looks across the Kidron Valley, the Valley of the Dead (a huge ancient cemetery littered with stone tombstones), one can take in the whole breath of this panoramic view, with the cupolas and domes of the major religious shrines rising above the whole Eastern wall of the City. There is one large gate that stands out on the Eastern wall. It was formerly known as the Golden Gate because it was covered in golden coloured bronze. The gold and the bronze had long disappeared. But what remains remarkable about this Gate is not only its formidable size but the fact that it is sealed up. Obviously, the reason is not to keep the inhabitants in the City locked up within its walls – there are other gates that provide easy entry and exit. A little thought on the matter will suggest that it may have been walled up to keep someone out. But who?

Let’s return to the story of the first Palm Sunday. No one can be positive about which gate Jesus came through, although it is likely it was the Golden Gate.  Jewish tradition had long declared that when the Messiah came, he would enter the Holy City from the East, the direction of the Mount of Olives, through the Golden Gate.   But many years later during the reign of the Ottomans, Suleyman the Magnificent made it impossible for anyone to go through the Golden Gate any longer.  He ordered that the two huge doorways be sealed, and piled rocks and dirt over the roadway up to the gate.  And to be certain the coming Messiah would not enter through that prophesied gate, they built a cemetery right in front.  Surely, the Messiah would not walk through a cemetery of graves and risk defiling himself. Thus they supposed they were thwarting two rival religions: Judaism, because their Messiah couldn’t enter Jerusalem by the traditional gateway whenever he might come, and Christianity, because their Christian Messiah in his Second Coming could not return to Jerusalem if the Golden Gate was sealed shut. Little did Suleyman realise that the Messiah had already entered through that gate on Palm Sunday, and certainly no human barrier is going to prevent him from entering when He comes again in glory.

But returning to that eventful day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, no gates nor walls, no followers or detractors, no individual or crowd could keep him out. The disciples tried to prevent him from entering Jerusalem to avoid fulfilling his own self-predicted death. The Elders and the High Priests, who were visibly threatened by his ministry and believed that he was here to usurp their sacred authority over the people, were plotting his arrest and assassination. The Romans were nervous that his return to the City would be the spark to trigger off rioting mobs and perhaps a larger full-scale rebellion. He was certainly unwelcomed by these last two groups and they had closed the doors of their hearts to this Pretender to the Throne of David. I believe that if they had a chance, they would have walled up the Gate long before the Muslims thought of it centuries later.

But then there were the peoples who lined the streets to welcome him - they were ecstatic.  They were hoping to see their liberator and the political messiah who will rally the Jewish forces behind him to overthrow the shackles of their Roman oppressors, restore the throne of David and establish God’s sovereign kingdom on earth. But when Jesus turned out to be a major disappointment, when he chose to reject the path of violence and political change, when the kingdom he came to announce was not of this world, the crowds too closed their hearts to him. What is more daunting than a sealed Gate, is the closed doors of the hearts of these various individuals and groups.  They thought they could keep him out.

But no door can keep the Lord out. Not even a big rock blocking the entrance of a cave tomb could pose an obstacle, what more a sealed Gate. Doors can be closed on Jesus unwittingly, unthinkingly, as the disciples and the crowds did. Doors could also be deliberately closed due to fear and insecurity like the Elders, the High Priests, the Romans and the Ottomans after them. The enemies of Jesus tried everything to discredit him, insult him, cast all kinds of false accusations and calumnies against him, hoping to shut him out for good. Yet, none could shut out Christ for good – He came back! The door may be shut to Jesus from our side, but Jesus can still get through. The Ottomans were sorely mistaken. No gate can keep him out. No barrier can obstruct his coming. They should have learnt that important lesson from the Romans and the High Priests and Elders, who had also tried to keep Jesus from returning to his city.

And so as we accompany Jesus into Jerusalem, as we follow Him to Golgotha and beyond, we are invited to throw open the doors of our hearts, because till now, the door of many hearts remain locked and barred, and bolted from the inside. We hear the refrain of that beautiful processional psalm of praise and jubilation that speaks of the entrance of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple of Jerusalem, Psalm 23 (24). God, the King of Glory will be led to His Temple. On reaching the Temple, the bearers of the ark, the priests and other worshippers would literally summon the gates of the Temple to “lift up (their) heads,” and beckon these “ancient doors” to “grow higher” to admit the King of Glory to his throne.

And so as we begin our Holy Week, we begin this liturgical climax of our Christian faith, we rejoice at the return of our King, our great and beloved prince, who would risk everything including sacrificing his own life in order to save his people. Shouldn’t this fill us with joyful ecstasy? Shouldn’t we be ready to throw the doors off the hinges of our hearts and remove every single barrier that will prevent our King from entering? Let’s not hold anything back, but open ourselves totally to accept the Lord as He comes. No sealed gate will stop Him.  No closed heart will keep Him away. Not even a sealed Golden Gate can keep Him from entering. We already see today the King of kings, the one who at the end of this week after having by death abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light; after spoiling the powers of darkness, and ruining all their schemes; see him return in triumph! He has already paved the way. He has begun his redemptive plan for all creation. He has carried us on that donkey’s colt but more importantly, the burden of our sins to the cross. And at our life journey’s end, he will carry us out of the tomb.

And so if someone were to ask us, “Who is this?” “Who is He the King of Glory?” And we join the multitudes in shouting the answer – “He the Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory. It is Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of God. Blessed is He that Comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Volumus Iesus Videre

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year B

Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we enter Holy Week. It is not surprising, therefore, that our gospel story brings us to the very threshold of the events which would culminate in the Great Paschal Mystery of our faith. It is the eve of Palm Sunday. It is a perfect prelude to our celebrations and provides us with the necessary lenses to understand what is going to take place next week. Our guides are a group of Greeks who approach the apostle Philip and put this question to him, “Volumus Iesus videre.” “Sir, we should like to see Jesus.” The Greeks point us in the right direction.  

Who were these men and what were they looking for? The gospel tells us that they had come to the festival for worship. They may have heard many reports about Jesus, including the recent news that he had raised Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. Or they may have been brought to Jerusalem by their natural thirst for God. On this occasion, however, this natural thirst was transformed into a burning desire for a personal encounter. Their search would provide the setting for Jesus’ to set the stage for Holy Week. For Jesus “the hour has come,” the hour of his glorification, the hour where he must pass through the crucible of his passion and death, in order that His mission may bear fruit in a rich harvest.  And you can almost hear the hour tolling in the background.

Why were these Greeks looking for Jesus? We know that, in the gospels, people looked for Him for many different reasons. The Scribes and the Pharisees looked for Him in order to trap him in their theological quarrels. The Elders and the Chief Priests were always looking for Him to kill Him. Herod the Tetrarch longed to see Him, perhaps out of curiosity. Zacchaeus wanted to see Him because he was looking for one who might understand him. The crowds looked for Him because they wanted some bread and more miracles. The sick looked for Him in search of healing and consolation. Mary Magdalene looked for Him in search of forgiveness and out of love. Are you also looking for Him?

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

Very often we fail to encounter Christ either because we do not seek Him or because we seek Him in the wrong places or for wrong reasons. If we are looking for Jesus for the wrong reasons, chances are that we will be gravely disappointed, because we may not find Him. It’s not as if Jesus has chosen to hide from us. On the contrary, God has indeed made it possible for us to find Him. Our inability to encounter him is due to our own limited vision - He simply does not fit into our expectations of him. The Jesus whom we are searching for is indeed the very image of the Compassionate and Loving God, but he is also the Law Giver of the New Covenant which raises the benchmark for discipleship, the Teacher who shows us the Way that is narrow, the Saviour who beckons us to follow him on the same path of renunciation to Calvary, the Judge who passes sentence on both the living and the dead. Thus, in order to encounter Christ, we must do so on his terms and not on ours.  And so there are, therefore, many reasons for which we may want to see Jesus. But let the main reason be because we realise that He is the way to the Father: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:6). And there is no other way of seeing him unless we are prepared to follow Him and become “like the wheat of grain which falls on the ground and dies,” and then we will “yield a rich harvest.”

When the Greeks wanted to see Jesus, it was more than just his face, it was the man inside. It is what any of us wants of another, to reveal something of the true self, the inner being for which the face is only the exterior. But the desire to see the face of Jesus points to a far greater aspiration – being able to see God face to face. Of course, the Old Testament has the declared the impossibility of such an encounter. In the book of Exodus (33:20), God himself declares that “No man can see Me and live!” St Paul in his first letter to Timothy (6:16) further declares that God “alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” As long as we are tainted by sin, we cannot see God. Only in heaven, since we will be free from sin, will we be able to see God's glory unveiled in its fullness. God is therefore inaccessible to mortal man on a face-to-face basis. This is what made Christ's incarnation so wonderful: although no man has ever seen God at any time, to see the Son would now be to see the Father. God makes it possible for man to find Him and See Him in the person of Jesus Christ. What a breathtaking reality!

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

Our desire to see Jesus is heightened today by the veiling of the crosses and statues; our senses undergo a fasting. However, this desire may be felt in different degrees. In some, it is so ardent that it becomes a conscious daily longing. In others, it is so faint that it is hardly noticeable, because it has been suffocated by other worldly substitutes. The consoling thing is that Jesus also wants to see us too. That is why He came into the world. As we seek to encounter Him, He also seeks to encounter us. And so, we pray, we plead, we beg the Lord for this one request, “we would like to see Jesus.” And so we will. If not with our eyes, at least with our hearts. Indeed we will come to see Him in the following week. We will follow Jesus into the city, to shout “Hosanna!” with those who welcomed him, to sit with him at table and hear that one of us will betray him, to follow him to the garden that night and then to the trial and on to the cross, and at last to the tomb, where he rise again and appear to us again, not as a stranger, but as a friend who breaks bread and offers himself to us at every meal and re-enactment of that great sacrifice of salvation. Yes, if you want to see Jesus, come to the table of the Word and the Eucharist, and you will find him there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Unspeakable Love

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B

Love is a big word. But do we use the word “love” lightly and casually in our daily lives? Perhaps we bandy it around so carelessly that its meaning has become diluted? Truth be told, the idea of “love” has become very common in today’s modern vernacular. We might hear someone say, “I loved that movie” or “I loved that restaurant” or “I love my dog.” In many ways, our everyday use of the word “love” has trivialised its meaning. The culture of triviality downsizes everything. Nothing really matters anymore. Until now you have probably only experienced conditional love. We grow up thinking and believing that love needs to be earned. Such conditional love is based upon what you do. Perform well on the job, on the team, or in the relationship, and you are “loved.”

Today’s readings remind us how big, how weighty, how profound, is true love, especially the love which the Father expresses for us. “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” That’s super mega BIG love. This is the greatest expression of God’s love! And this is the ultimate benchmark of all kinds of love. Who can fathom the depth and breadth of this love?

No words can describe it. There is no word in our human language that could ever convey to the human intelligence the immensity of it. We may try to encompass that gift with words, and call it great, ineffable, wonderful, incomparable, boundless, perfect, but none will do. Overwhelmed by the character of this love, St John tells us in one brief sentence that it defies definition, baffles all description, that it is inexpressible, unspeakable. “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son.” The gift of His Son would have to be the proof and measure of God's love. We may consider it, but never comprehend it; we may know it, but it surpasses all knowledge; we may speak of it, but it is unspeakable; we may search the breadth, length, depth and height of it, but all dimensions and magnitudes fail to supply plummet or compass by which we may tell the extent of it. His gift is unspeakable.

This is God’s love. Not some warm fuzzy kind of emotion or sentiment. It is profoundly deep and complex. The Incarnation and the Cross; the suffering the Son had to endure; His sorrows, the suffering and shame of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the darkness, the woe, His death and shedding of his blood taken together is the answer to the question of the extent of God’s love. We see in these events, in the life, the passion, the death and resurrection of Jesus himself the voice of God to all men, speaking with growing intensity; it was God's utterance of an unutterable love; His love declared by His unspeakable gift.

I’m reminded of a Jewish midrash. According to this Jewish legend, at the creation of mankind, God consulted the heavenly hosts, the angels. The Midrash states, “When the Holy One… came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some them saying, ‘Let him be created,’ while others urged, ‘Let him not be created.’ The Angel of Truth argued, “Do not create man for he will be full of falsehood and deceitfulness.” The Angel of Righteousness added, “Do not create mankind he will be impure in heart and dishonour the name of God.” Which direction do you think God went? At the end of the deliberation, given what we know about God and the fact that we are here, I can just imagine him saying, “Let us create man in our image and when he sins and turns from the path of true righteousness, from truth and a hunger for holiness, I will gather him from out of the world and tenderly through love bring him back unto Myself.”

The gospel of today thus affirms the joyous and splendid good news of God’s immense love for us. It also provides us an opportunity to revise our understanding of the Justice of God. God’s love is in no sense in conflict with His holiness, His righteousness, or His justice. We see in the gospel that the decisive point is that whoever scorns God’s love condemns himself. God is not at all eager to condemn men. He is nothing but Love, Love that goes as far as the Father sacrificing his Son out of love for the world. There is nothing more for him to give us. The whole question now is whether we accept God’s unconditional love so that it can prove efficacious and fruitful in our lives, or whether we choose to continue to cower in our darkness in order to evade the illuminating love of his grace. If we choose the latter, then the description in the gospel fits us – we are those who “hate the light,” we hate true love, and we affirm our egoism in any form whatsoever, often mistaking such egoism for love. When that happens, as Jesus reminds us, we are “condemned already,” but by ourselves, not by God.

St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes the extent of God’s love in reference to our unworthiness. It is unconditional. It is unmerited. It is undeserved. “God love us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved.” Thus our salvation is not something that we have achieved or could ever achieve by ourselves. St Paul emphasises that “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.

An unspeakable gift must produce unspeakable joy. Every earthly pleasure is speakable because it is temporary and conditional. But God's unspeakable gift of Love carries us beyond the confines of this realm, beyond the limits of time and space, and thus thrills us with divine joy, unspeakable in human speech. It is the joy of faith, the joy of love, not natural but divine. And strange though it may seem, this unspeakable joy goes along with the heaviness of the Cross. If we can understand this we should not be so afraid of trials and tests, indeed we should find joy in tribulation. On earth, trials and sorrow will be our inevitable lot, a light affliction nonetheless; but in heaven, we can only experience a far more exceeding weight of glory. All that is imperfect, and belongs to our present state of mortality, will be swept away by the power of immortality. And that which is humanly unspeakable will now be spoken because and heaven's language will become our familiar tongue.

So, we rejoice today; the Church joyfully raises her voice today; indeed the whole of humanity rejoices at the wonder of God’s love today. It is a love like no other love that you may have experienced. It is unconditional. It is unmerited and undeserving. No words can describe it except this - It is a love demonstrated by the greatest act of sacrifice – a Father who gives up a Son and a Son who give up his life. The secular world, who can never understand this offers us instead inferior copies and false imitations – a love that makes no demands, a love that does understand sacrifice, a cheap sort of love.  When it comes to love, humanity’s version is but a pale shadow compared to the truth of God’s love.  “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son.” This is God’s love and it is this type of love that God would have us show to others.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Temple and the Market

Third Sunday of Lent Year B

The gospel story is a familiar tale. We follow Jesus into the temple where he discovers in this august place of worship, the sacred axis of the Jewish faith, what looks like a mini zoo or money changer’s office. The outward reason for this set up was probably that the law required sacrifices of these animals, and many worshippers would not have brought their sacrifice with them. So this made the animals readily available for purchase. It was convenient. What about the money lenders? Well, they too provided a necessary service. Roman currency was considered profane and even sacrilegious since it depicted the profile picture of Caesar. Thus the moneychangers were not there to extort money from the poor pilgrims but were providing a necessary service to exchange a pilgrim’s money into the right currency, not only to make a purchase of the holocaust animals but to pay the Temple tax. Worship could never be so convenient.

What was Jesus’ response to this scenario? The gospel tells us that making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with all the animals. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take all this out of here and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.” Jesus obviously did not approve of what he saw. Why not? What was the problem? Let’s examine the words of Jesus once more.  “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

The word translated "market" is the Greek “emporion,” from which we get our English word, "emporium." The temple was sacred; the market was secular. The laws of God governed the Temple, the laws of supply and demand governed the market. The sacred belong wholly to God. There is a Latin maxim that describes the realm of the sacred, our experience of God, as “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” Most simply, God is the unfathomable Mystery before whom we are awestruck and stand trembling, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn into relationship, attracted and fascinated in ways we cannot fully explain. The secular, on the other hand, is the profane world of man where he seeks to master and control. But here in the Temple, the lines were being blurred. “The Father’s house” had been turning “into a market.” Indeed the secular, the profane had gradually invaded the sacred leading to its destruction.

Sadly, in our own times the banal and vulgar have invaded our sanctuaries. Modern-day culture threatens once again to change the sacred into the secular when it begins to view the Vhurch, marriage, the liturgy and other holy things through purely utilitarian and functional lenses. Economic and management models may be useful when they are used to analyse secular things; however, when they are used to analyse sacred things, they tend to make those things less than what God intended them to be. When we confuse the Temple with the market, we also confuse the two kingdoms, the City of God and the City of Man.  We must not lose sight of the fact that the Church is not a purely human association or organisation, but the Mystical Body of Christ, the Universal Sacrament of Salvation and the People of God. As a People of God, the Church belongs ultimately to God rather than to man, and thus is not subject to the whims and fancies, personal likes and dislikes, styles and fashion of men.

The prophetic and radical action of Jesus in today’s gospel invites us to an honest and careful examination of our worship of God especially during this Lent. One of the pressing questions of today is whether our culture of worship has been so overtaken by the secular culture of irreverence. Today, irreverence is understood as something that is humorous or entertaining, which is the standard for acceptability, particularly when the irreverent defies any standards of decency or conventional mores. Holiness, on the other hand, is often viewed as a neurotic disorder. We can witness the invasion of the “market”, the “emporium” into the “house of prayer,” in the form of the loss of the sense of the sacred, both in how we pray the liturgy and the way we act or present ourselves within the church. Genuflection is one of the first aspects of worship to fall victim to this culture of irreverence. I guess it would eventually lead to the demise of the bow, which is often performed reluctantly, if at all. Then there is the descent into banality of our hymns that attempt to imitate contemporary styles of secular music. Sadly, because we are so immersed in an irreverent culture, the profane has been embraced by many of our members, who defend it as perfectly acceptable and normal. If it is good for the “market”, it should equally be good for the “Temple.”

With the excessive emphasis in many parishes on the horizontal to the exclusion of the vertical, churches and liturgy have become just another social gathering. If we only gather in church to socialise with our neighbour, then prayer and sanctity are not a priority, and the Church is perceived as being no different than other social organisations. Yet the Church and the Sacred Liturgy are about God and the Salvation He won for us in Christ. Everything we do should be ordered to that end.

Jesus Christ has chosen the Church for His Bride. The wedding feast of the Lamb described in the Book of Revelation describes the sacred liturgy of the Church. In the climax of her heavenly worship, the Bride reflects the image of the Bridegroom, who is Beauty Incarnate. But today, the world perceives beauty as purely subjective – “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For the Bride of Christ, however, beauty is a concrete and objective reality that stems from the Incarnation. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the twentieth century’s most notable writer on the theology of beauty, wrote, “We can be sure that whoever sneers at Beauty’s name . . . can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” Therefore, in order celebrate the sacred liturgy with due reverence and beauty, the Church must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, the Father’s house and the market.  

If we are to be evangelists in today’s world, we can start by revering, honouring and living the sacred in our lives. Let’s begin with the Church, but let’s not stop here. Beyond a shadow of doubt, the reversal of this situation will necessarily come through the family, which is the domestic church. When there is a loss in the sense of the sacred, it is the family that suffers the most. Vatican II reminded everyone of the universal call to holiness, that is, to living the Sacred at all times and cultivating that holiness in the world around us. When we learn to treat the Temple as the Temple, we would also know how to gradually transform the “market” into the Temple, into the realm of the sacred. Thus, our homes, our workplace, our schools, can become places where we can encounter the sacred and the Divine.

Each of us can be a witness to Beauty by expressing the sense of the sacred by how we act, dress, and present ourselves before the Lord and one another. In a world in which the irreverent and profane have become the norm, someone who enters the church should be able to step out of that culture and experience that which is truly countercultural, that is, the sacred. The church must be that singular place in our society where the focus can be kept on what is most important – God.  And those who remain focused on Christ grow into the sacred while those who turn from Christ grow into the profane. Yes the time of the Old Temple is no more. But the age of the New Temple, the Body of Christ, the Church is upon us. And as Church we must be a sacramental sign of the kingdom of reconciliation and love which, in communion with Christ, is established beyond any boundary.