Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Not Latin again?

Pentecost 2015

Occasionally, I’m confronted by some upset parishioners who complain about the amount of Latin and (to those who are able to discern and make the distinction,) Greek used during our masses here in the parish. Sometimes, it’s an over exaggeration, “everything’s in Latin.” Honestly, a sampling of Latin in the ordinaries used on the First Sunday of every month, which make up less than 5% of the Mass, could hardly be considered as “everything.”

How can we understand this opposition? The main arguments would sound like this – “I don't understand Latin, and have difficulty making the responses. I would get more out of the Mass if it were spoken in English.” One could punch holes in the argument by merely pointing out that the Kyrie Eleison obviously refers to the “Lord have mercy” and Sanctus Sanctus to “Holy Holy,” since it occupies that same slot in the mass as the version in the vernacular. Interestingly, most of the complaints do not come from the young but from the older sector of the parish, a group that had a fair bit of exposure to the Tridentine Latin Mass in the past, with a few even acknowledging that they had been serving as altar servers at such masses and would thus be familiar with the Latin. So, is it a lack of comprehension or something else?

The value of the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy certainly cannot be discounted. Our Holy Father at the anniversary of the first mass celebrated by Venerable Pope Paul VI in the vernacular, said that “allowing priests to celebrate Mass in the language of the local congregation rather than in Latin allowed the faithful to understand and be encouraged by the word of God.” Mass in the vernacular rather than Latin would remind people that the house of God is meant to be a source of spiritual strength, where they can hear his word and feel “not like foreigners but as brothers and sisters.”

And yet, I believe our Holy Father did not mean a total obliteration of Latin in the liturgy. In most Papal masses, the ordinaries are sung in Latin. The Latin was meant to exist alongside the vernacular. Pope St John XXIII, the architect of Vatican II, a Council that is often cited as the reason for such a move to the vernacular, resisted all attempts to exile the Latin language to the dusty archives of the museums. Since the Latin language is not a living language used by any particular nation, it is language that belongs to ALL. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, No 36, it was decreed that the “use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”

The complaints about the Latin may be a symptom of a larger malaise – an ethnocentric obsession with the particular (or a rebellion against the universal). Language, instead of being a medium of communicating with God and fostering communion with His people, has now become a bone of contention, a golden calf worshipped in its own right. “My preferred language is English (or Tamil, or Bahasa Malaysia, or Mandarin) and I will not back down on my right to hear the entire mass in the language of my choice without it being adulterated by the insertion of any other foreign sounding languages.” The matter goes beyond the issue of comprehension. If that was the case, then we should all have settled for Bahasa Malaysia, our national language.  Mostly everyone hates the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mass, because my preferred language only enjoys limited air-time during the entire celebration. The truth is that I’m not willing to see an erosion of the space that I’ve carved out in this parish.

Due to the liturgical babelism we are witnessing in this day and age, the Eucharist, which is the supreme Sacrament of Unity, has now become a counter-sign of division within the Church. The insistence of the use of the vernacular, perhaps a mirror of our larger polarised Malaysian society, has resulted in dividing the parish artificially into various self-sufficient sub-parishes. The parish community, the Church, united by that first Pentecost experience which healed the division of Babel, is reduced once again into a highly segregated loose confederation of ghettoes. Today’s feast therefore challenges us to revisit the use of language in our worship and liturgy, and in the larger context to its role in uniting a diverse set of individuals and communities.

In the Book of Genesis, we see man’s pride in wanting to rival God’s creation and building a monument to the Cult of Man which was punished by the division of language and division amongst ourselves. Just like the story of the Golden Calf in the episode of the Exodus, the Tower of Babel is symbolic of the narcissistic self-sufficient cult of building altars to worship one self and one’s personal achievements. It resulted in the glorification of self. This over-reaching to heaven brings fatal consequences when proud people imagine they can, of themselves, construct the perfect life and surpass all previous attempts. This is a grave warning to us all and especially to modern man’s obsession with human culture without reference to its point of origin or destination. The Tower of Babel failed because it was built upon fear and pride. Without God there is no lynchpin to life and so collapse is inevitable.

According to the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, culture “in the general sense refers to all those things which go to the refining and developing of man’s diverse mental and physical endowments” (GS 53). And the culmination and perfection of these endowments must find its end and purpose in the greatest Good, in God. But when culture and language (a component of culture) no longer serves that greater Good, it is then twisted and subverted to a worship of man and his achievements. When this happens, language which is meant to facilitate communication (Latin “communicare” – to create communion) no longer serves to bring about communion, but rather becomes the cause for division.

Pentecost, with its gift of understanding in different tongues was a sign that the breach with God was repaired and that the breach among ourselves was also to be healed. The miracle witnessed at the First Pentecost wasn’t a miracle of glossolalia, the gift of tongues, but a miracle of communion that transcended cultural barriers and linguistic affiliations.

The point of this whole homily is not just merely making a case for the wider use of Latin in the mass, the expulsion of the vernacular, or an argument that seeks to turn back the clock. It is rather a call to greater self-examination by all, whether advocates of Latin or its opponents, proponents of the Traditional Latin Mass, and those who wish to suppress it, that this liturgical war fought for the last few decades must cease. There is an inherent renewal that must take place as part of the initiative of the Holy Spirit, rather than that of man, but there must also be a recognition of the continuity of this evolution because it is the same Spirit poured down on the First Pentecost, that continues to work in the Church across the centuries; and the Spirit cannot contradict Himself. The use of Latin alongside the vernacular serves to ensure this continuity.

The Mass, was given to us to undo the curse of Babel and confessed a bond that held Christians together that transcended language, race, class, and culture. It cannot and should not be the cause for our division today. If indeed it has become the reason for our division, we risk constructing another shaky Tower of Babel that would rival the first. And in this light, the use of Latin, the mother tongue of Church, cannot be regarded as the cause of division, outlawed and shunned like a leper, but must certainly be used alongside the vernacular with the hope that it can truly restore, augment and solidify the unity of the Church which feeds on the One Bread, the One Body, the One Lord of All.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Prayer, the Heart of the Church

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year B

The followers of Christ through the first centuries of the Church conceived of themselves, from the very beginning as a community of prayer. The New Testament, especially the Gospels and the Pauline epistles, are teeming with references to prayer and exhortations for Christians to follow suit.  Perhaps, the Gospel that best exemplifies this attitude of the prayer is that of the Gospel of St Luke. It is here that Jesus tells his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. A few chapters later, Jesus exhorts his followers: “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations… and stand before the Son of Man.” In the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospel of St Luke, we find the fulfillment and realisation of these instructions to keep vigilance in prayer, as we had read in today’s first reading.

At the beginning of St Luke’s second volume, i.e. the Acts of the Apostles, he records the story of the Ascension of the Lord. The Lord delivered to the disciples the program of their existence devoted to the mission and evangelisation. But till the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Lord makes it clear that they must wait in Jerusalem – not just any idle waiting, or a waiting filled with frenzied activity, but a prayerful vigilance. Therefore, it is in Jerusalem, the Apostles are gathered in the house to pray, and the reward for their prayerful vigilance is the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This Sunday reminds us of that illuminating truth, a truth that is often neglected or forgotten, that at the heart of the Church lies prayer.

In this context of waiting, between Ascension and Pentecost, St. Luke mentions Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for the last time. In a way, St Luke wishes to parallel the narrative in his gospel. He dedicated the beginning of his Gospel to Mary, the announcement of the angel of the birth and infancy of the Son of God made man. And here at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the birth and the beginning of the mission of the Church, Mary stands not only as witness but as a model for prayerful recollection. Of course, the Church sees in Mary more than the historical and biological association with Jesus. The Church sees in her an icon, an image and mirror of herself. Mary symbolises this important truth, that prayer lies at the very heart of the Church.

Thus, this unassuming record of the presence of the mother of Jesus amidst the Apostles gathered in prayer, is a fitting summary of her life and ministry. Throughout the Gospel of St Luke, she is the exemplary model of prayer, from the theologically articulate Magnificat to the contemplative reading of the events in her Son’s life. Mary was a witness to the historical unfolding of the saving events, which culminated in the Redeemer's Death and Resurrection, and she kept “all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19) She was not merely present as an observer, nor did she merely follow the events as a doting mother, but sought to grasp their deeper meaning, adhering with all her soul to what was being mysteriously accomplished in them. And now in the Upper Room, after the ascent of her Son to heaven, and in the quiet atmosphere of listening and prayer, she is present once again. After this, she disappears like her Son. Where Scripture remains silent, the Tradition found among our Eastern brethren is that Mary retreated into prayer and contemplation for the rest of her life.  Her mission on earth has ended. Her intercessory mission in heaven has only begun.

This poignant scene of the first Christian community with Mary in their midst, consumed in prayer provides two points of reflection.
The first is a correction to a common myth, that prayer can only be accomplished in the midst an environment free from distraction and trouble. On the contrary, this first novena of the Church, demonstrates that prayer can take place even in the midst of confusion, anxiety and chaos. This is beautifully articulated in a pictorial manner by the traditional festal icon of the Ascension. It depicts of the scene of Ascension and the gathered apostles on the Mount of Olives. But the icon does more than show the historical event of Christ’s ascension; it also symbolically depicts the Church.  Of course, the primary figure is that of the ascending Christ in the upper portion of this icon. But our reflection today draws our attention to the lower half of the icon, where the Apostles flank and surround Mary.

Here on the Mount of Olives, we see how the icon captures two movements - it contains both confusion and peace: the former is borne of worldly reasoning, whilst the latter comes from a humble submission to the heavenly order. The distinction between heavenly peace and worldly confusion is most apparent in the distinction made between Mary and the Apostles. The Apostles look up in a combination of fear and wonder.  Two angels exhort the men to cease their gazing into heaven and return to Jerusalem to receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. At the centre stands Mary the Mother of God, hands raised in prayer, not staring up, but peacefully toward us. Mary appears to understand the deep mysteries of her Son’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension, already hoping for Christ’s return. This hope brings her the divine peace. She, like Jesus and the angels, possesses a halo signifying the grace and glory of God, whereas the disordered Apostles do not. They are unenlightened.

The icon also highlights the second point that I wish to make. Mary is firmly anchored by prayer at the very centre, whereas the Apostles are struggling with the urge to depart, to leave that very place, to begin their urgent ministry of evangelisation. The icon exudes this tension between prayerful stillness and troubled activity. Often, many in the Church are tempted to abandon prayer in favour of activism, measuring success by what they do and can accomplish. It’s almost as if we are saying, “Jesus is gone, now it’s all up to us to save the world.” In the context of a world that is so obsessed with efficiency and productivity, one is quickly conquered by this dangerous temptation of activism, as though salvation depended upon us. The world of today is even more fascinated with activism that it has lost the sense of contemplation. Prayer is seen as a waste of time, a sign of escapism.

But prayer is the motor of mission. In fact, mission and evangelisation depends first of all upon prayer and the primary initiative of God who precedes our initiatives. All activities are empty without the necessary foundation of prayer. Mission begins in the Upper Room, the Cenacle, with prayer. Without prayer, which is the soul of all apostolate, evangelisation becomes proselytism, propaganda, or a publicity campaign. The peaceful image of the Mother God, prayerfully and peacefully entreating God, therefore invites us to do the same, and to abandon our desire to right every wrong, but rather to unite ourselves with Christ, who is the world’s true Saviour.

Venerating the Mother of Jesus in the Church, then, means to learn from her to be a community that prays. Mary invites us to turn to God not only in need but in a persevering and faithful way. Mary teaches us the necessity of prayer, the need to be centred in prayer, and shows us that only with a constant, intimate bond, full of love with her Son can we emerge from ourselves, with courage, to reach the ends of the world and proclaim everywhere the Lord Jesus, Saviour of the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Going leads to a Coming

Ascension of the Lord 2015

All of us have been in a situation where it is hard to say goodbye. At the end of three and a half years in this parish, I find myself in such a situation. Saying goodbye is hard to do when you know that it could be the last. Saying goodbye is hard to do when you have grown to love those whom you now have to bid farewell to. Saying goodbye is difficult because it implies change. When life is good we prefer the comfort of permanence rather than the uncertainty of change. Saying goodbye is hard as the future remains shrouded in uncertainty. But perhaps for many, saying goodbye is hard because of the gnawing pain of the absence after the separation. It’s no wonder that many of us are not very good at saying goodbye, many avoid it altogether. Or we try not to get close to people in the first place.

As difficult and as painful as it may be, goodbyes are inevitable. Life is like that, people come and they go. You make a friend and then either they move or you move. There are births and there are deaths, beginnings and endings. The pain in this kind of letting go is often excruciating, as parents know, but to refuse to do that is to truncate life. Yes, goodbyes are not only inevitable, they are necessary. Without goodbyes we will never be greeted with new hellos, endings may not lead to new beginnings, a going cannot become a coming. Without the Ascension, there will be no Pentecost. Therefore, the Ascension is both a going away and a coming. Even as he says goodbye, Jesus instructs his disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for another who is coming. In His going, came the promise of the Holy Spirit’s coming.

Therefore, the Ascension reminds us that an ending may actually be a new beginning. In fact, if Jesus did not return to the Father, the Spirit would not have come, the Church would not have been born, the disciples would not have been challenged to step out into the world and witness to the good news of the Kingdom and we would not have been here.

The notion that Jesus, by ascending into heaven, has gone away and is now somehow distant from mankind, needs to be corrected. The ascension did not translate into his perpetual absence until his return in glory, but rather it is an event which allowed him to be present to his disciples and to all of us in profound way that goes beyond our experience of time and space. Jesus did not ascend into the presence of the Father to “get away” or to be silent, but so he can give himself continually and in perfect love to his bride, the Church. “Ascension does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather,” observed Pope Emeritus Benedict, “the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”

The Ascension, therefore, names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, absence can lead to a deeper and more intense and profound presence. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. But in the case of Christ’s ascension, it does so much more. Hence the feast of the Ascension is not to commemorate a departure but the celebration of the living and lasting presence of Jesus in the church.  He the Lord, the living head of his Body, the Church, remains always with us as he promised, but now in a new way. His “old” presence was limited by time and space.  But now with the Ascension this gives way to a new presence that will reach the whole world in every age.  

The ascent to heaven is therefore necessary. In ascending to heaven, Jesus has now taken us up into God’s very being, participating in God’s powerful presence in this universe. In conquering death through his resurrection he has conquered fear of all the terrible consequences we imagine unfolding if we don't get life quite right. Freedom from this fear amounts to freedom from temporal ultimatums—that is, the belief that salvation can happen within the world. The great temptation in our contemporary world is to believe that we can truly solve the world's problems—perhaps with the next great invention, or the next great economic structure, or the next great medical discovery. Those things are great, and relieving human suffering is no small matter. But Jesus' ascension into heaven without solving the world's problems is a reminder that only God can truly save the world. Jesus does not commission the disciples to spread democracy, or distribute income more equally, or lobby for human rights: he ascends to heaven and tells them simply to witness to the reality that the portals of heaven are now opened. There lies the answer and the solution to all life’s problems.

And just in case we may make that common mistake in assuming that “heaven” is a physical space above the clouds, or a different dimension above the visible universe, Pope Benedict springs this delightful and beautiful surprise on us. He writes, “Heaven: the word does not indicate a place above the stars but something far more daring and sublime: it indicates Christ himself, the divine Person who welcomes humanity fully and forever, the One in whom God and man are inseparably united forever. The human’s being in God – this is heaven.”

We live on the far side of Pentecost. We’ve already heard the commission and tasted the presence of the Spirit. But the message of Ascension Thursday is a good reminder, that we always live in the presence of Christ who has not abandoned us or left us orphaned. In this sense, we are never alone. His presence remains as we keep company with the Holy Spirit. His presence is real in the Blessed Sacrament, in the sacrifice of his body and blood at every mass. His presence is continuing in the action and ministry of the Church. No, Christ has not abandoned us or left us orphaned. No, Christ is not absent. More than ever he is present beyond the limitations of time and space.

Between Pentecost and the Parousia, Christ’s triumphant return in glory, Ascension Thursday serves to remind us that we are constantly living in an age of transition. Although, we continually face the temptation to rest in the past or to cling on to the present, the future beckons us. It’s easy to pine for the “good old days,” to correct the wrongs in both society and in the world, to be tempted to dream and construct a false Utopia in the here and now. But as tempting as these might be, that is not where our future lies. In fact, to truly live entails saying goodbye to all these things. Our future lies with Heaven, where the Head has gone, surely the Body must follow. But till then, we live in the age of the Spirit, a Spirit who will guide us and support us. We live in the age of the Church, she who nourishes with the Sacraments, with the Body and Blood of Christ Himself, the medicine for immortality, the antidote to death and the life giving food for the journey. We live in the age beyond Pentecost, as we engage in the mission that God has set before us. So, “why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there?” No time for grieving, no time for reminiscing, no time for procrastinating. Let’s move on!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Remain in Him

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year B

In this week’s gospel, we continue with the Farewell Discourse of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel which stretches from the 14th Chapter to the 17th. Taking place just after the Last Supper, it represents a sort of last will and testament.This Discourse, like many of the discourses in St John’s Gospel proves enigmatic, as it attempts to express the mysteries of the Father by the One who alone can claim to have intimate knowledge of such mysteries, in language that is both symbolic and poetic. The whole discourse interweaves themes that readily lend to abstraction. Many of the verses are repeated several times and the discourse is rather circular. Though placed in a contextual setting that takes place before Good Friday and Easter, the discourse envisions a horizon that extends beyond Easter to life in the community of faith after Jesus is no longer visibly present with his followers.

The placement of these passages during the Easter season can seem odd. If Easter is supposed to be a time of celebration, the passages from this farewell discourse makes no apology that life after Easter is not all blissful. The risen Jesus has come to give life, yet death remains. The risen Jesus promises life with God, yet that can seem distant. The good news is not that Christians, the Easter People, will now be spared from pain and problems and therefore be able to live trouble free lives. Rather, it is the gospel that challenges the forces that threaten despair. The gift of life is given despite the presence of death. Relationship with Christ remains real despite the fact that his followers see him no longer.

In his farewell discourse as recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives his disciples the last, and the most important, instruction of his earthly ministry: “love one another as I love you.” For Jesus, this love took the form of the incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection. Jesus recognises the enormity of what he asks us to do and that is why he gives us the beautiful metaphor of the vine and branches that we heard in last week’s gospel. “As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.” In other words, we must stay connected to the very source of love—God—in order for us to be able to live out the command to love as God loves.

In last week’s gospel, the parable of the vine and the branches beautifully expresses the relationship between him and his disciples in terms of a living, vital and fruitful organism. Jesus reminds us, “cut off from me you can do nothing.” Set within the context of this metaphor, Jesus now clarifies in this week’s passage both the privileges and responsibilities of being branches on the Vine. The benefits of joy, love, and friendship must be answered by a return of love, as well as fruitfulness and fidelity.

But there is an important proviso: disciples must “remain” in Jesus. The life of a branch and its relationship to the Vine is best expressed by the Greek word “meno”, which is translated either "abide" or "remain." It's used many times in both last week’s passage as well as this week’s. “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” And a little further, “if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will …” This week we hear the same refrain but in a more intensified way, “Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in His love.” In other words, the mutual indwelling of the Vine and the Branches, Christ and his disciples, is made possible because of the Son’s indwelling in the Father and that of the Father indwelling and remaining in the Son.  Within the idea of “remaining” is the commitment to stay with something over the long haul, to be faithful, to endure in the face of challenges and adversity, and to press on. “Remaining” becomes the ultimate criterion for us to observe this radically new commandment to love as Christ did.

What does it mean to “remain”? One remains in Christ by means of love. We are invited to contemplate the depth of this great mystery, the gift of love offered by God to us. We are called to remain in love, in the love of Christ, in being loved and in loving the Lord. It describes a mystical union that is a way of life rather than an experience of a few key moments. It is now in this relationship of mutual indwelling that Jesus reveals his greatest commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And in case we were to mistake the nature of that love, and fail to recognise its revelation on the cross, he adds, “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Yes, love is the way in which God is known as well as the ultimate empowering principle. And yet, we should sugarcoat or sanitise that love by making it something warm and fuzzy, sentimental and robbed of its edge. In fact the love of God has nothing to do with these things; rather it is about complete sacrifice. How has the Father loved Jesus? He loved him by sending him into a harsh world where painful suffering awaits and the sins of the ages will be piled on his shoulders. How then has Jesus loved the disciples? He has gathered them into a band of followers and now sends them out into that same world though they also will be rejected by many, meeting painful persecution as they spread the gospel. This is how much he loves them – he destines them toward their own cross. There can be no other way for those who count themselves as the friends of Christ. The cost of loving, the cost of being a friend of Christ lies in this profound claim, “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus did it and now invites us to do likewise.

What a profound and inspiring statement that is! This statement, and those who embody it, contradicts the pessimistic ideologies that claim life is nothing more than a quest for self-preservation. For us Christians, life is an invitation to love, and ultimately to make the sacrifice of love. Every day brings its new opportunity to “lay down our lives.” And yet when we choose to observe that criterion of remaining in Christ, observing his commandments, we will find a renewal of our strength when our own personal resources are drained. As long as we remain in Christ, as long we continue to unite ourselves to the ultimate source of our life and strength, we will bear fruit, not just any kind of fruit, but “fruit that will last.”

What is this “fruit that will last”? Pope Emeritus Benedict gives us a clue. “This is the dynamism that lives in Christ's love. To go forth, namely, not to remain in myself and for myself, to look to my perfection, to guarantee eternal happiness for myself, but to forget myself, to go forth as Christ did, to go forth like God went forth from his majesty towards our poverty, in order to find fruit, to help us and give us the possibility of bearing the true fruit of love. The more we are filled with the joy of having discovered the face of God, the more the enthusiasm of love will be real in us and bear fruit.”

Jesus then ends where he began, talking about the command to love. No one can tell us exactly what a specific act of love will look like in the varied circumstances of our lives. It can be expressed in a multitude of ways. That is a list for another homily. But we can see what a person looks like who embodies love in life and death. We can see that in the person of Jesus Christ, who loved us and chose us first, and asks us to remain in his love. That is also the best way to love each other. Let us thank God for the greatness of his love, let us pray that he may help us to grow in his love, and truly remain in his love.