Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Contemplation - Seeing through the eyes of Love

Feast of Presentation of the Lord

It is truly providential that we should begin our novena in preparation for our Patronal feast day on this Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Today’s feast commemorates the event of the holy family paying a visit to the Jerusalem Temple, 40 days after the birth of Jesus to perform two rituals: the first is that of the presentation of a first born son who is to be redeemed from God and the second is the purification of the mother since child birth had rendered her ritually unclean. It is a day that brings together many themes. In the East, today’s feast was traditionally called ‘Hypapante’: the feast of meeting, it commemorates the event where Simeon and Anna met Jesus in the Temple and recognized in him the Messiah so awaited. For the Eastern Christians, these two individuals represent the whole of humanity that meets its Lord in the Church. In the West, the feast took on a different focus which gave emphasis to the symbol of light, and so for centuries, the feast was known as “Candlemas”- where the candles blessed and lit during the liturgy came to symbolize Christ, the light to the nations. A third theme arose during the pontificate of Venerable John Paul II, when he chose to celebrate the Day of Consecrated Life on this feast day as many parallels could be made between those who lived a consecrated religious life in the Church and the presentation of the Lord.

These three themes may seem unconnected with the theme which we have chosen to preach today, that of Love. But it will soon become apparent that as one contemplates and enters into the very experience of Mary at the scene of the Presentation, as one gazes into her immaculate heart, which does not only represent the heart of a mother but indeed of the whole Church, we will soon recognize a deep pedagogy of love. To contemplate the pierced and wounded heart of Mary, as Simeon prophesied in today’s gospel, means entering the school of love. To enter in the School of Mary, Venerable John Paul II tells us, is “to put ourselves in living communion with Jesus . . . through the heart of his Mother” (John Paul II, RVM, 2).
Today, much of the love that we know and encounter is external. Love is seen demonstrated by the expensive and opulent gifts which we heap on each other. This kind of love depends constantly on strong emotions and passions. This is a love that only appreciates external beauty. But Mary teaches us that much of true love lies hidden and mysterious. Even though the fire of passion cools, the beauty of youth fade, the happiness bought by wealth disappears, love remains. It takes prayerful contemplation to recognize what seems invisible to the eye. Simeon and Anna, both physically blinded by age and by the dim light in the Temple’s interior, were able to recognize the Christ Child where others could not. They saw through the eyes of faith, the contemplative eyes of love. The Blessed Mother teaches us the art of love which is contemplation. To contemplate is to look with the heart, to look with love. It is only if we contemplate with love can we discover the greatness of God’s love. This is the reason why we need to contemplate with the Heart of Mary: to read, understand and penetrate the mysteries of Jesus with the love of Her Heart. She is our model and our teacher of contemplation.

So what does Mary teach us of love through contemplation?

The first fruit of contemplative love which Mary reveals in today’s gospel is this ‘Love means letting go.’ Mary and Joseph followed the ancient Jewish custom of presenting their first born son to God at the Temple and provided the requisite fee, a poor man’s portion, to redeem him from the Lord’s hands. But more than just blindly following a tradition and custom, Mary understood the truth of her actions. This child does not belong to her. This child belongs to God. The irony of this episode is that her child, destined to be Redeemer of the World, is in no need of redemption. Mary understood from the very moment the angel announced his conception in her womb, she would not be able to force or manipulate the direction of his fate. This child comes from God, he will live a life in accordance with the will of God and when his earthly mission is accomplished, he will return to God. Unlike other parents who often behave in a manner which indicates possession of their children, controlling their future, their career and even their love life, Mary’s love would provide space for her Son to fulfill his mission, even though this would mean breaking her heart at the end. Letting go doesn't mean we don't care or that we’ve given up. Letting go means we stop trying to force outcomes and make people behave. It means we stop trying to do the impossible--controlling that which we cannot--and instead, focus on what is possible for God. And we do this in gentleness, kindness, and love, as much as possible. As the Buddha wisely taught, “In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you love? How deeply did you learn to let go?”

Mary also shows that ‘Love risks wounding.’ Simeon’s contemplative gaze penetrates the inner depth of Mary’s heart and prophetically foretells the pain which she will have to endure for her son. By doing so, the story links the love of Mary with the passion of Christ right from the very beginning. There are times we wish to shield our hearts from injury and wounding. We enclose ourselves in a cocoon hoping and desiring that our hearts will not be broken. We often extend this protective veil over our loved ones, our family members, our children, our friends. But as much as we try to shield them and ourselves from pain and suffering, wounds are inevitable when one takes the risk of loving. In his book, ‘The Four Loves’, C.S. Lewis beautifully speaks of the intimate relationship between love and pain, as he himself tries to make sense of the loss he experienced as a result of the death of his beloved wife. He writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

The third fruit of contemplating Mary’s love is that Love purifies or to be more accurate, it sanctifies. We had encountered the first ironical point of the story when we noted that Jesus, who was presented at the temple, was actually not in need of redemption. The second irony is found in the ritual which Mary would have to undergo at this juncture, purification, because the Jews considered a woman ritually unclean and not fit for temple worship or social interaction after child birth. What is ironic here is that Mary also is in no need of such purification because she is the Immaculate Conception, the true Ark of the Covenant unsullied by original sin, the bearer and temple of the Lord, her son Jesus. Her holiness finds its source in the love of God that had consumed her from the moment of conception. St Augustine tells us that Mary’s love first conceived in her heart and then in her womb. So what is the single most important sign of sanctity? It is love. Scriptures constantly remind us that the beginning of love does not lie with the individual man or woman trying to be more altruistic or caring. The beginning of love always begins with God’s love for his people even though they remained sinners. The love of God divinizes the beloved and thereafter the beloved transforms the world and sanctifies it through this same love which he had received.

Thus, let us rejoice together with Mary as we begin this novena in preparation for our feast day. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will fill our hearts with this contemplative love, a love that is always ready to let go and not seek to posses; a love that risks wounding and is always ready to share in the passion of Christ; and finally, a love that purifies, sanctifies so that our mortality may be exchanged with the immortality of the one who is Love incarnate, the Son of Mary, the Son of God.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Freedom and Authority

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

A few years ago, a prayer group consisting of young people had their weekly meetings in one of the rooms at the back of the sacristy in the Church of the Assumption, PJ. One of the highlights of the meeting, the group being Charismatic in nature, was the deliverance session. Now, you may be thinking that this would only involve one or two of those young persons. But no, the deliverance session was opened to all and sundry. In other words, everyone got a good dose of deliverance. As you may expect, there was always lots of writhing, crying, screaming, and rolling on the floor as the symphony of tongues-speaking teenagers riddled with angst, anxiety and stress reached its apex. One day, my former Parish Priest, Fr Andre Volle, a big French man with a big heart and wry sense of humour was walking past the room. Those of you who know Fr Volle personally would remember that he is hard of hearing and yet his hearing aid seems to miraculously pick up the weirdest sounds, pitches and tones which are inaudible to most ears. On that eventful day, as he walked pass the room, his hearing aid picked up and magnified the sounds that was coming from the room. He opened the door and saw the scene before him, more than half of the participants were on the floor crying out for deliverance. Fr Volle instinctively shouted, “Leave the Devil Alone”, and slammed shut the door. All the young people immediately got up from the floor and recovered their senses. It was as if the devil had actually been chased out of them. Now, that’s authority for you!

We can often get lost in today’s gospel story by paying undue attention to the exorcism performed by Jesus. I’m not going to go into an explanation or catechesis of demonic possession and the dynamics of exorcisms as I do not claim to be an authority in this area. What I can firmly say is that evil is more than the personification of an abstract concept and that the devil and his minions are real and sometimes do have influence on individuals who have decided to parlay with the dark forces.

Let’s, however, move away from the dramatic elements of this encounter between good and evil to consider two concepts or themes which are being highlighted in the readings – they are ‘authority and freedom.’ A possessed man is freed from the clutches of the devil. Another man exercises authority. What is the relationship between the two? Or to be more precise, what is the relationship between authority and freedom?

"Authority" is a word that makes most people think of law and order, direction and restraint, command and control, dominance and submission, respect and obedience. We look upon authority too often and focus over and over again as if there is something wrong with authority. We see only the oppressive side of authority. One tragedy of our time is that, having these associations, "authority" has become almost a dirty word in our post modern society, while opposition to authority in schools, families, society and the church generally is cheerfully accepted as something that is at least harmless and perhaps rather fine. Maybe it comes out of our history and our background.

Since the Protestant Reformation, we have witnessed an ever increasing revolt against authority, first in the forms in which it was manifested and then against the principal itself. None of its important forms has been immune from assault. The assault was first directed against dominant institutions of Church and State. But the control exercised by Church and State in combination had entered into all phases and aspects of life, in belief and conduct alike. Hence attack upon ecclesiastical and political institutions spread to science and art, to standards and ideals of economic and domestic life.

This attack on all forms of authority has a corollary – it is freedom. According the critics of authority, the sphere of authority encroaches on the sphere of freedom, thus instating oppression and tyranny. Freedom is always seen as involving rejection of authority! Authority is equated with fixed limits, freedom with cutting loose from all that. Ultimately, this tension has led to the demarcation of two separate spheres, one of authority and one of freedom.

Today, ‘freedom’ is often seen as a magical word that acts as the justification of all actions and values. Since WWII, when freedom fighters who fought against dictators began to define their aims in terms of Four Freedoms – freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and freedom of religion – freedom in one form or another has been a worldwide passion, encouraged and catered at every level. Playboy carries the torch for sexual freedom. Firearms or guns manufactures lobby the U.S. Congress for the right of every American to carry firearms. What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept or a license in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be.

What kind of authority are today’s readings referring to? Here, the readings stressed this point that ‘authority’ is a relational word which signifies the right to rule based on its source. Today, the people who witnessed the act of Jesus commanding the evil spirit to leave the possessed man recognized an authority which did not just come from years of studies as in the case of the scribes or Pharisees. It was not an authority that came from belonging to a class or category entrusted with official ministerial duties, as in the case of the priests and the levites. It was not an authority that emerge from associating with a long lineage of prominent rabbinical masters. Jesus’ authority flows from who he is and not what he has acquired or done. Jesus is the Son of God, and that is his source of authority. Authority is at the heart of his message, the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Authority is also based on an objective truth, the relationship between the one who exercises authority and the one who confers authority. The authority of the bishop, for example, comes from Christ through apostolic succession. It does not depend on his popularity, intelligence or how he is viewed by his flock. Today, the object has been supplanted by the dictatorship of the subject. What do I mean by this? Many people are prepared to submit to authority as long as authority concurs with them. In other words, I obey authority as long as it suits me, when I sense that the authority is being reasonable, when I feel that the authority has my best interest in mind, when authority does not intrude into my private sphere or demand changes from me. What has really taken place here is that the authority vested in the objective relationship between the one exercising authority and his source, is now transferred to the subject, the individual. Thus, we are an authority onto ourselves.

What then do the readings say about freedom? Freedom is often conceived as freedom from restraint and limitations and freedom to make decisions and to act. But the readings provide a definition of freedom that is very different. Although it speaks of freedom ‘from’, it also points to freedom ‘for.’ This definition starts with freedom from and freedom not to — in this case, freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and freedom not to be dominated by tyrannical self-will — but it centers on freedom for: freedom for God, freedom to love and serve one’s Maker and fellow-creatures, freedom for the joy, hope and contentment which God gives to sinners who believe in Christ. The man who was possessed was freed ‘from’ the power of evil, in order that he may be freed for the kingdom. His freedom was realized in his submission to the authority of Christ.

Thus freedom is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavor and relationship; not to abuse and exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the intimate link between human freedom and the authority of God when it teaches that “Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC 1731) “As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning.” (CCC 1732) From this we can clearly see the role of authority, which is to direct human freedom along the course for which it was created and given to humanity. Authority becomes the beacon or lighthouse along the whole horizon of possibilities. Authority is the set of lights that demarcate the runway for a safe landing. Authority is the anchor that continuously roots human freedom in the good and in God.

Thus, the readings remind us today the individualistic subjective philosophy of society was wrong in setting authority and freedom in opposition to one another. In the gospel, the authority of Christ is not merely lordship and power over all things, although this seems to be manifest throughout the gospels. However, the striking fact about Christ’s authority is that it also means freedom. Jesus taught with authority, not simply because he displayed lordship and power, but also because he brought liberation to the human soul. Thus, for Christians, there is no false dichotomy between freedom and authority. Freedom without authority will ultimately lead to enslavement to one form of addiction or another or to man’s own intrinsic tyranny. Authority, which does not facilitate freedom, will also lead to the abuse of power and external tyranny. Our faith requires attention to maintain the intimate and organic union these two things: of authority and freedom.

When the Church and its leaders exercises authority today, it does so as a prophetic act and not because they are trapped in the distant past of despotic undemocratic monarchs. When the Church and its leaders continue to teach, to sanctify and to govern with authority, they choose to bring about the union of the People of God who are called to be one as Christ and the Father are one. When they act with authority, they make present the voice of Christ who continues to proclaim the timeless gospel message: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is hand. Repent and Believe in the good news.” What we should fear is when our leaders abdicate such authority in the name of democracy and allow the truths which they promise to defend and protect be bartered for socially acceptable mores. By doing so, they fail not only to silence their own voice or that of the Church. They silence the voice of Christ – a Christ who has no more authority to teach, to sanctify and govern his people.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

It's Who You are, Not What you Do

Homily for First Mass of Fr David Arulunatham

A new priest after his ordination was getting all nervous for his first mass. He was convinced that he would just clam up when it came to the time to deliver his first homily. He then went to consult the senior parish priest and asked for some good advice on how to overcome his fears. The senior priest replied, "When I am worried about getting nervous on the pulpit, I put a glass of vodka next to the water glass. If I start to get nervous, I take a sip."

So next Sunday he took the senior priest’s advice. At the beginning of the sermon, he got nervous and took a drink. Correction – he took several drinks. He then miraculously proceeded to talk up a storm. Quite happy with his own accomplishment and hoping to get some good reviews from parishioners and his senior, the new priest returned to his office only to find a note from the senior priest posted on his office door. It read.

1. Sip the Vodka, don't gulp.
2. There are 10 commandments, not 12.
3. There are 12 disciples, not 10.
4. Jesus was consecrated, not constipated.
5. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not referred to as Daddy, Junior and the Spook.
6. When Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper he said, "Take this and eat it of it for this is my body." He did not say "Eat me."
Yours sincerely,
Revd Fr Michael

The reason why I’m up here at the ambo and not our newly ordained priest, Fr David, is not because he had a little too much to drink. It has nothing to do with alcohol but everything to do with the inspiration of the Spirit. Fr David has asked me to preach at his first mass because this is an ancient treasured custom of the church for a senior priest, which I do not claim to be, preaches at the first mass celebrated by the newly ordained.

Something has changed since last Monday, the day Fr David was ordained to the priesthood. For all purposes, Fr David still looks the same. We do not expect any drastic physical transformation where he will suddenly transform into a one ton lorry or a small mini miner. He still speaks in the same way as many of you had known him before. Fr David’s passion for cooking and flower arrangements has not changed. His strong commanding voice still soothes the wounded soul and send shivers down the spine of those who are up to no good.

So, what are some of the changes that we see today? His clothing would be most apparent to the discerning eye. He has exchanged his deacon’s dalmatic, the uniform of a servant or waiter, for a chasuble, which symbolizes putting on Christ. His name has also changed. He is no longer Mr David Arulanatham or Br David or Deacon David. We now address him as Fr David. He has taken his rightful place at the sedile, or the presidential chair, denoting that he now acts in the person of Christ the King, Christ who is head of his body – in persona capitis Christi. Today, we will witness him consecrating bread and wine and not just merely assisting at the altar.

But there is a far more profound change that has taken place in Fr David. A change which is invisible to the eye but can be recognized by faith. The extrinsic changes that we see, changes to his clothing, roles, functions, and duties, are founded on the intrinsic change which we cannot see with the naked eye. Fr David has undergone an ontological change, a change of his whole being. The priesthood is more than just a profession or a function, it is a new identity, a new calling, a new creation. As St Paul beautifully explains the experience of such change in Gal 2:20, “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.”

Thus, the priesthood and baptism are both intimately link. Both sacraments do not only confer grace but effect an ontological change in the person who receives it. The Church’s catechism speaks of this as leaving an indelible mark, quite similar to the indelible ink that we are speaking of using in the next general elections. But this indelible mark left by the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders can never be erased. It represents the undying fidelity of God to his promises and his graces, promises that will never be broken and graces that will never be withdrawn even in the face of man’s infidelity.

In baptism, we are made children of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart for the worship of God. In baptism, we become a new creation. The old has been put to death on the cross. We experience a regeneration or a rebirth to everlasting life. In Holy Orders, the priest who is taken from the lay faithful who have been baptized, experiences another ontological change. The priest is configured to Christ at his ordination in a way calling for a permanent and lasting commitment, through a share in Christ’s eternal priesthood. The priest does not just emulate Christ. He is not just a substitute or a stand-in for Christ. Through ordination, the priest becomes Christ.

This last statement may sound excessive. But this pales in comparison to writings of St John Marie Vianney, the Cure de Ars, the patron saint of Parish Priests and diocesans. The Cure of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: "A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy". He spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human creature: "O, how great is the priest! ... If he realized what he is, he would die. ... God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host".

In spite of the fact that many of these statements may sound audacious and even narcissistic, St John Marie Vianney’s words of wisdom are a reminder to priests that their ministry is founded not merely on function, talents, personality and abilities. Too often, a priest confuses his function with his identity which ultimately leads to a disavowal of his calling. When priests try so hard to be like the ordinary Joe or just one of the guys, he substitutes Christ whom he represents for the man whom he tries to be for the people. When the image of Christ is erased, what is left is the pure personality of the man. A priest’s worth then depends on his popularity, his abilities and his effectiveness. On the other hand, when priests are able to own and live up to their vocation as holy ministers of God, governing, sanctifying and teaching his flock, then their people will learn to live up to their own respective vocations to sanctify the world through their lay calling.

Now does this mean that you would see a very different Fr David. A Fr David incapable of making mistakes. A Fr David who will always be patient, kind, gentle, holy, compassionate, understanding, loving, and forgiving. In other words, are we expecting to see a new Fr David who is perfect and without sin? Let us not confuse the process of ordination with Canonization! Priests like everyone else remain sinners. But just like everyone else, he is called to holiness and through the sacrament of holy orders, he is called especially to configure himself to Christ who is Priest, Prophet and King. Ordination means that the hands of the sinner priest can be transformed by the Holy Spirit into the hands of Christ when celebrating the Eucharist, or anointing the dying, or absolving the penitent sinner, or offering blessing. God continues to use this unworthy and sometimes broken instrument to be his channel of grace of the world. By the grace of God, the priest offers his priesthood at all times in the name and person of Jesus. The weakness and sinfulness of a priest does not take away the efficacy of God’s grace but rather accentuates the truth that all is graced and that nothing can be accomplished without the grace and power of God.

Finally, dear Fr David, I would like to share with you a beautiful reflection by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily at the concluding mass for the Year of the Priest that summarises what I have clumsily been trying to share with you:
“The priest is not a mere office-holder, like those which every society needs in order to carry out certain functions. Instead, he does something which no human being can do of his own power: in Christ’s name he speaks the words which absolve us of our sins and in this way he changes, starting with God, our entire life. Over the offerings of bread and wine he speaks Christ’s words of thanksgiving, which are words of transubstantiation – words which make Christ himself present, the Risen One, his Body and Blood – words which thus transform the elements of the world, which open the world to God and unite it to him. The priesthood, then, is not simply “office” but sacrament: God makes use of us poor men in order to be, through us, present to all men and women, and to act on their behalf. This audacity of God who entrusts himself to human beings – who, conscious of our weaknesses, nonetheless considers men capable of acting and being present in his stead – this audacity of God is the true grandeur concealed in the word “priesthood”

Repent and Believe

Third Ordinary Sunday Year B

It is interesting to note how statistics can often serve as a device to soften the harsh blows of reality. Numbers tend to provide us with false consolation that these realities reflected by the statistics are kept at bay and will not touch us. One of the statistics that would trigger the interest of many would be that concerning human mortality or rather causes of death. Did you know - That the largest killer which is medically certified is Ischaemic heart disease which stands at 12.9%, followed by pneumonia at 7%, cerebrovascular disease at 6.6%, septicaemia at 6.0% and transport accidents at 5.8%. It’s funny how we often have to find a reason for death. When the doctors can’t determine the reason, they would then label it as ‘unknown causes.’ This seems to imply that if someone did not suffer from a heart attack or cancer, or a stroke or a car accident or something else, the person would not die. That’s ridiculous, right? Let me give you some real statistics. The reality is this, all of us will die, that’s 100%!

Is doesn’t matter when we die - We may die at 90 years old or we may die at 10. It doesn’t matter how we may die – we may die of old age, or we may die of sickness, or we may die as a result of an accident. The fact of the matter is – we all die. No matter how long you may live, no matter how healthy you may be, death comes surely to each and every one of us. Life is short. It is only at death that all will be revealed – what is of value and what is of little value.

Why all this talk about the inevitability of death? Does it stem from some sick morbid sense of humour on my part? Well, all this discussion about the inevitability of mortality is what the readings are trying to remind us today. The people whom the readings were being addressed to were all living comfortable and anxious-free lives. They were marrying and having children, carrying on their businesses, going to school and getting an education. They were trying to achieve their ambitions – becoming richer, more powerful, more comfortable lifestyles, and generally trying to be happier. The readings, however, were God’s attempt at reminding them that all these things which they regard as so important in this life will come to naught at death. Death makes us wiser if we are prepared to listen to it. It teaches us that nothing that we have accumulated in this life – our riches, power, possessions, popularity – none of these things can be brought over to the next life.

In today’s gospel, Jesus begins his good news with these words: “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.” When Jesus spoke of time here, he wasn’t talking about looking at your watch or at the time of the day or the month or the year. The word ‘time’ is a translation of the word ‘kairos.’ The Greeks have two words for time – ‘kronos’ and ‘kairos.’ ‘Kronos’, as the English derivative ‘chronology’ would suggest, speaks about measured time, that is time according to the clock, the calendar etc. Kairos, on the other hand, speaks of an opportune time, a time to act, a time to make a decision. Let me give you an example. Now it is 8.30 in the morning. That’s kronos. But its also time to decide whether I should come to church for mass or go to the mall for some shopping or perhaps spend a little more time in bed. That’s kairos.

Therefore, this is a paraphrase of Jesus’ message. “Now is the time for decision. It is a time to repent, in order words, to turn your back on everything which seems so important for the moment but would not bring you any closer to salvation. A Time to believe, to turn towards God. A time to follow Jesus and become his disciple. In this sense, the first disciples of Jesus lived out this call to repent and believe by leaving their professions and family in order to follow Jesus in this new way of life. Now is the time for conversion. Ultimately, conversion is needed when we wish to unseat the Ego, the self, from the throne of our hearts and instead make way for God, to become its rightful king. It is a time to put God first above all else. Thus, to repent and believe the Good news does not only mean feeling sorry for your past sins or taking time to study your catechism. To repent and believe is a conscious decision to turn your back on the life where self, the world, possessions, ambition, greed, selfishness, pride are reigning sovereigns in order that God may truly be Lord of our lives.” The decision has to be made now – not tomorrow, not next month or at the end of the year, or even next year. We are called to repentance “Now” because we will never know whether today will be our last.

Maybe it may seem strange to some of you that we mention death and repentance at the beginning of the year (or with Chinese New Year, just round the corner). It seems strange because our minds are filled with plans for the whole year – some project that we are working on at the moment, plans to get married, plans to have a child, plans to move into a new house, making plans to celebrate Chinese New Year next week. But have you ever really stopped to wonder that if death comes knocking at your door tonight or as soon as you step out of the church, what will become of your plans? All that we consider important now becomes unimportant at the point of death. The only thing that matters is the Kingdom of God – our relationship with God. Is God master of our lives? Have I placed him first above all else? If your answer to all these questions is “No,” its time now to Repent and Believe the Good News!

In today’s mass, let us pray that we will learn from the example given to us by the Ninevites in the first reading, pagans and unbelievers, but so ready to repent when they heard the message of the Lord delivered by Jonah. Let us also pray that we will be able to live out our identity as Christians, as followers of Christ, just like the first apostles who were called by Jesus in today’s gospel. Are we prepared to leave “our nets and follow him”? Are we prepared to let go of all our false securities and place our entire trust in God, the Lord of life and death?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What do you want?

Second Ordinary Sunday Year B

Christmas is just over. Christmas presents would have long been opened, the boxes and wrappings discarded. Some people would have been overjoyed whilst others disappointed with the gifts they had received. It seems ironic at times that our benefactors would often ask us the question: What do you want? It would be ironic because many would actually not get what they wanted. Our requests would often be out of the budgetary reach of the giver. That’s obvious – because if the object was really cheap, we would have gotten it ourselves! But the gift is received with a polite smile albeit veiling a secret wish that next year, we would get lucky and finally receive what we really wanted.

What do you want? This is the question which Jesus asked his first set of disciples in today’s gospel reading. Although this is one of the most frequently asked questions, many of us have a hard time answering it. We might know what we want in the grand scheme of things—perhaps some version of health, happiness, and prosperity. But what do we want right now, in this moment?

Before we ask this pertinent question or make a request of another, though, we may want to take some time for reflection. For when we consider the question, “What do I want?” our first answer may be to ask for something that may just momentarily satisfy a thirst or desire. Having received what we had asked for, we may then have to live with regret for the rest of our lives for our folly and lack of far-sightedness. What we seem to want now may not really be what we want for the rest of our lives.

Our parents, our peers, and our culture have taught us that it is selfish to ask for what we want. Indeed, cultivating equanimity strengthens us when done as a spiritual pursuit. But if our “equanimity” is tinged with resentment or fear, then we are fooling ourselves. We would benefit ourselves and others by acknowledging the full range of our experience, and asking for what we want.

Whenever we ask this question, we may mean one of several things. First, we may be asking: “What do you want to have?” This is a question concerning possessions and things. Very often, God seems to be a big Santa Claus. We often think that God exist in order to meet our every needs. We often pray for this or for that? When we don’t get what we want, we often complain and blame God for our predicament. This question turns on the functionality of our relationship with God. God is as good as he delivers. God is a big vending machine who is expected to dispense his goodies when we press the right button.

Second, the question could mean “What do you want to do?” We often think that Christianity is about doing this or that. That is partially true but not entirely. Christianity refers primarily to who we are – to our identity. It is precisely because of our identity as Christians that we must do good and avoid evil. Therefore, our doing, our action flows from our identity – who we are. And this is who we are: “we are temples of the Holy Spirit.” We belong to God or as St. Paul writes in the second reading: “You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for.”

Therefore, very likely Jesus wasn’t asking his disciples what they would like to have in terms of possession. Neither was he telling them what to do. Rather, Jesus was asking his disciples and each of us today: “What do you want to become?” The very essence of our Christian identity is relationship. Christians are called Christians because of their relationship to Christ and to God. They are disciples of Christ and sons and daughters of God.

Many of us do not really know what we want to become. We often think that it has to do with personal ambition. ‘I want to be rich.’ ‘I want to be successful.’ ‘I want to be doctor.’ ‘I want to be an engineer.’ Is this what Jesus meant? Certainly not. Jesus was trying to challenge these first disciples to take a deeper look into the foundation of their identity – he was challenging them to ask the most basic questions in life: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What does God want me to become? What is my fundamental relationship to Christ and to God?

The problem is that many people do not ask these questions. Many have not thought of it while others choose not to think about it for one reason or another. Perhaps, we fear the changes that must take place in our lives if we try to find answers to those questions. We would certainly not be aware of these questions when our lives are cluttered by so many other noises and voices and other questions. What course should I take for my college education? Which house should I buy? Which man or woman shall I marry? What steps must I take to be more successful? The temptations of the world, power, riches, popularity, if we allow them to do so, sometimes drown out the voice of God.

We must learn to listen to the voice of God in prayer. We must learn to discern his voice and distinguish this voice from those of others. We must learn to listen as Samuel listened and say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” When we are strangers to prayer, silence and reflection, we would allow ourselves to be consumed by our worldly ambitions and plans, define ourselves by work but fail miserably in preparing the most important thing which we all need – salvation of our souls.

In order to become the persons God intended us to become, in order to live out our dignity as God’s children, we must be followers of Jesus. We must learn to live and walk with Jesus. Jesus invites us each day to “Come and See” – to journey with him, to discover his plan for us, and to learn from him.

As we have begun a new year, we are presented with a whole range of possibilities, adventures and new opportunities. If asked this same question, many people would certainly ask for wealth, health, peace and success. But as Christians, when asked this question, we are reminded of the same question posed to our parents at our baptism. The answer is certainly none of the above but simply, eternal life. To the question ‘What do you want?’ which is asked by the priest, our answer should always be – “Eternal Life”, that is to know God, to love Him, to serve Him and be with Him in Paradise forever.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Always begin with the star

Epiphany Year B

‘Always begin with the star!’ That would be the annoying piece of advice my brother had to offer me whenever we came to that time of the year when the Christmas tree had to be put up. I felt that he took great condescending pleasure in saying this to me because he knew that only he was tall enough to place the first bulb of the string of Christmas lights on the crown of the tree, just right behind the star. Since, I was vertically challenged during my growing years, I was given the task (what I presumed to be the less important task, menial in fact) to look into the decorations in the lower part of the tree. What compounded my frustration was that the Christmas lights which always had to begin at the top was never long enough to cover the whole height and breath of our tree. The lights would always stop three quarters down the tree, leaving ‘my section’ in apparent darkness. Due to the lack of light in the lower regions, my decorations, baubles and tinsels were all shielded in the shadows and my efforts appeared to be in vain.

I endured the humiliation and waited for the opportunity to finally assume the responsibility of deciding how to place the Christmas lights on the tree. If I had my way, I would start from the bottom. The time finally arrived when my brother left for his studies overseas. It then fell on me to set up the entire Christmas tree on my own. I was ecstatic at the realization that I would finally be able to put up the Christmas lights on my own and according to my own plans and not having to listen to the dictates of my brother.

And so I began with the first bulb at the bottom of the tree. I began twirling the lights around the tree, already imagining what a splendid looking final product awaited me at the end. But in my excitement and, of course, in my pride I had forgotten that the lights were not long enough. I started to stretch, rearrange, reposition the lights but despite my best efforts, those lights resisted all attempts to reach the top. As I stood back in exasperation, and to add further injury to my wounded pride, my mom popped out of the kitchen and took a single look at my handiwork and remarked: “You should have begun with the star. Have you already forgotten what your brother always tell you, “Always begin with the star!”

Today’s gospel provides us with the same universal and eternal wisdom – Always begin with the star. Unfortunately, not many were willing to take the advice. King Herod failed miserably in this area. He was too consumed with his own self-importance, to the extent that he self styled himself as Herod the Great, though he was an insignificant puppet ruler under the vast Roman empire. Herod, like so many of us, which to claim his stardom. He ruled out all others who will pose rivalry to his power and influence, even one who would be the saviour of his people. His insecurity blinded him to recognize the light of the star.

And then we had the scribes, Pharisees, priests and wise men whom Herod consulted. They knew of the predictions contained in scriptures. They were learned men who could read the signs and interpret its significance but because they were beholden to their royal patron and were unwilling to accept the changes that would be inaugurated by the coming King, they chose to cooperate with King Herod to frustrate God’s plans for salvation. Perhaps, the Jews have been so used to thinking about their religion in fixed ways. God is to be found on sacred mountains, in the Temple and in holy places. The Messiah being such a great figure in the prophecies must definitely be a powerful personage that has to be born into wealth and power. They were not prepared to accept the fact that God may choose to be born in a stable.

There were also the many hundreds and thousands of astrologers and scholars who would also have witnessed the sudden appearance of this strange star. They may even have divined its meaning. But what would have prevented them to taking steps to follow the star to its source. Perhaps, it was the risk of losing everything. The cost to be paid for making such a long perilous journey, fraught with uncertainties and all kinds of dangers, was just too high.

And finally, we have the wise men of today’s feast. They are popularly known as the three wise kings. Take note that nowhere in the gospel is the number or the royal lineage of these men mentioned. The number three corresponds with the three types of gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. The idea of kings emerged later during the medieval period when the three kings came to represent the three great continents known to men at that time – Europe, Asia and Africa. But all of this is the stuff of legends. These wise men were probably astronomers or astrologers who divine people’s fate by looking at the stars.

What difference did the wise men bring to the story of Christmas? What set them apart from the other characters in the story? First, the wise men were not concerned with self-preservation. They were not so insecure to believe that their positions and status would be usurped by a new king. Second, the wise men were able to think outside the box. They were not confined by the restrictions of past experiences and fixed ways of thinking. Third, these wise men were prepared to pay the price. They left their homelands in search for the source of the star. They brought princely gifts that would have cost them a fortune if not their own lifelihood. They did this because they understood the true value of this encounter. They were going to meet the reason and cause of their salvation. They were going to meet their Lord.

The wise men, more than anyone else, could recognize that the real star of that story was Jesus. The star in the sky merely pointed the way for them to find the real star which had been born in Bethlehem.

Today, the gospels challenge us to recognize the Star – just like the star that led the wise men to Jesus. Our God is a God of surprises. If we are stuck to certain ways of thinking about God, God then becomes predictable – he ceases to be God. We must allow God to be God. This means that we must allow him to choose the way in which he wants to reveal himself. God can choose to reveal himself in the ordinary things of life. God can choose to come to us in a quiet and peaceful way and does not need to put on a big show of miracles. We must allow him to do things according to his plans and not according to our own will. Whenever we follow a star – whenever we follow a sign from God – a new idea – a new pastoral plan – a new direction – we may never know where it will lead us. We are merely asked to walk by faith. But if we are faithful and open to God’s will and direction, cast aside self interest, allow ourselves to be surprised by new experiences and willing to pay the heavy cost, then we will find Jesus and God at the end of our journey. He is waiting for us to find our way to him.

Let us pray that we will not get lost along the way. There will be times that we feel like giving up. There will be times other distractions draw our attentions. But if we ever get lost, there is always the star to remind us of our direction and destination. Always remember, it doesn’t begin with us, or with our plans, or with our self interests. It always begins with the Star.