Saturday, May 26, 2012

Inspired Flash Mob

Pentecost Year B

Have you ever seen a flash mob? A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression. So you can see flash mobs in shopping centres, food courts, public parks, pedestrian walkways and just about any area which is open to the public. The venue is important both for the purposes of a ready audience as well as providing the actors or participants of the flash mob with an easy exit, as they blend in innocuously with the public before and after the item has been performed.

But the word ‘mob’ attached to the above phenomenon does not always possess such a neutral or even positively innocent connotation. More often than not mobs have been associated with less desirable activities. The word ‘mob’ is derived from the Latin phrase, “mobile vulgus” which literally translates as ‘fickle commoners.’ Thus, a mob refers to a crowd of people, a large and definable group of people usually associated with the lower classes or commoners. Since the crowd was considered unthinking and even fickle, their behaviour could oscillate from innocently harmless activities to one which could turn violent. The angry mob has come to be synonymous with destruction, violence, looting and anarchy. The recent BERSIH rally which was intended as a peaceful assembly pressing for electoral reforms was painted by the powers-that-be as dangerous mob rule.  

Given the ambivalence of the term and the nature of the mob, it is no wonder why many would choose to stay away. Malaysians have long been notoriously known for their political passivity. We were never known in the past to participate in mass demonstrations, street rallies, and public sit downs. These were things that happened in other countries but not here. It’s not that we lack political awareness. We are ever ready to discuss politics and even express dissent as long as these are done within the safety of our homes and private coffee shop discussions among known friends. The online world of the internet has also allowed us to participate in heavy political discussions as long as we are able to hide behind innocuous pseudonyms. The need for self-preservation and the fear of recriminations from the authority have led us to seek shelter behind the privacy and security of closed doors and upper rooms as in the case of the disciples in today’s first reading and gospel.  

Of course things have changed in recent years. Public rallies and demonstrations are not just confined to small groups of social activists. The recent BERSIH rally has proven that the common man and woman and even those from the middle and upper classes are prepared to emerge from the safety of their guarded communities to risk detention, and even face the force of riot police and their paraphernalia. But in spite of these changes, Christians or at least Catholic remain frighten in coming out to share their faith.

Today’s first reading account of the story of the Pentecost from the Acts of the Apostles, where the apostles suddenly emerge from their upper room and revealed themselves to the public would possibly appear similar to this mob phenomenon. But the similarity ends here. The power of the Holy Spirit would set the Pentecost event apart from any flash mob, public rally or demonstration. Here, we witness not the triumph of the human spirit but the victory of the divine. No force nor fear, no obstacle could suppress the power of the Holy Spirit which exploded from that upper room.
Both the first reading and the Gospel begin with the disciples gathered in prayer. They are enclosed in a room - probably the same upper room where they celebrated the Last Supper. The upper room and closed doors betray their fears. But while praying, the Holy Spirit comes upon them. When the Holy Spirit comes, a change occurs. They are "sent." They go out to preach publicly, to heal and to reconcile men with God. They have a mission. From men cowering in fear and hiding behind the security of the four walls of that room, they now reach forth, inspired, enthused to proclaim the good news of the Risen Lord.   

Unlike a flash mob or other rallies, where strangers emerge from oblivion and disappear into oblivion after having accomplished the purpose for which they had gathered, the Pentecost Christians could no longer slip back into anonymity, they could no longer hide behind the indistinguishable nameless crowd. The Pentecost experience had now sealed its participants with a new relationship, a new covenant, so binding that it transformed them not just individually but also corporately. They were now linked by the gift of the Spirit and the faith they professed in the Risen Christ. And this link though reflecting an inner reality, the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, must always find public expression. Christians are not those who hide from the limelight. No one lights a lamp and places it beneath a basket. Christians on fire with the Spirit are called to public witness and continue telling the story of Jesus to everyone.

What does the power of the Spirit produce in this group of disparate strangers? Where there are divisions and estrangement he creates unity and understanding. The Spirit triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family; persons, often reduced to individuals in competition or in conflict with each other, reached by the Spirit of Christ, open themselves to the experience of communion, can involve them to such an extent as to make of them a new organism, a new subject: the Church. This is the effect of God’s work: unity; thus unity is the sign of recognition, or as Pope Benedict has written, the “business card” of the Church in the course of her universal history. From the very beginning, from the day of Pentecost, she speaks the Gospel of Christ in all languages.

Thus the miracle of tongues was not just the manifestation of glossolalia, the language of angels. It was targeted not at angels but to mortals. Its purpose was to build bridges between cultures and to heal the rift that had torn humanity into warring nations, competing communities, hostile enemies. The curse of the Tower of Babel would now be removed with the blessing of Pentecost. The unity of the Spirit is now manifested in the plurality of understanding. Differences in language, culture and background would no longer be an excuse for division. The Church cuts across all barriers and differences, drawing all into its communion, whilst respecting the diversity of its parts.

We celebrate this Feast every year, so that we can be reminded of our communal identity as Church. The Church owes its success not to the works of men but the Work of God. Without the Spirit, our human endeavours and projects risk failure. Without the Spirit, we constantly have to contend with the spectre and shadow of crippling fear which lurks closely often tempting us to withdraw into the false security of our closed doors and upper rooms. Without the Spirit, the work of building unity within our families, our BECs, our parishes, our dioceses and in the universal Church would be futile. Without the Spirit, our voices would be lost and drowned by the cacophony of noises from the world and the prevalent culture of our times. Without the Spirit, we will condemned to silence and the fire of Pentecost would be snuffed out.

The success and failure of a flash mob or a public rally often depends on various factors: planning, effective communication, good coordination, team work, courage and the audacity to stand out publicly to make a statement. The success and failure of the Spirit driven Church born on Pentecost day, on the other hand, depends on prayer and our fidelity to the mission that has been entrusted to us. On this Pentecost day, we remember the two things that are essential for the life of the Church: prayer and mission. At the heart of the Church is prayer, a prayer which does not close us in but opens us to the world. Prayer is the beginning of mission because it is through the power of prayer that we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the life giving force of Christians and the Church. Christians today must remember that by virtue of our baptism, by virtue of the Pentecost event, we are all called to be members of a flash mob, not just to perform some fleeting unusual and pointless activity, but to be witnesses of the gospel of Christ to the world. We have been set on fire so that we may set the world on fire. There is no ambivalence in this, only certainty of our faith!

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