Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Catholic, Truly Christian"

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C

It would be no exaggeration to say that the catchy “Malaysia Truly Asia” tagline has become embedded in the public’s consciousness and proven to be our country’s most important tool in its tourism marketing campaign. Maybe it’s because of the frequency of the highly stylised commercials, or because it just rhymes so well, or the susceptibility of the mind to retain banal stuff, but whenever I hear the word “Malaysia” I feel like following up with “…truly Asia” right away. I was shocked to discover that it had even reached the shores of Israel, a country isolated from the rest of the world, a country which Malaysia still deems an enemy state. This is what appears on the home page of Tourism Malaysia: “There is only one place where all the colours, flavours, sounds and sights of Asia come together – Malaysia... Nowhere is there such exciting diversity of cultures, festivals, traditions and customs, offering myriad experiences. No other county is "Truly Asia" as Malaysia.”

The above review certainly conjures images of a tropical multicultural paradise, the crystallisation of the Utopian ideal. Of course, the average Malaysian would find this amusing. By swinging slogans such as “Malaysia, Truly Asia”, we seem to be declaring that we have successfully embraced our multicultural demographics. The smiling faces of the multi-ethnic models on our public service ads, however, are unable to conceal the deep wounds that form impassable chasms that separate one community from the other. Yes, we do live in a multicultural society, but it takes more than a juxtaposition of different culture. We are nowhere near celebrating it. Today, the so-called truly Asian melting pot of cultures is more divided than it could ever be. What we often do is to pay empty lip service. Just because different cultures live together does not mean that they multicultural.

Uniting people from different nations, tribes, peoples and languages is a formidable task. Some would admit from the outset that it is impossible. Others attempt to do so by denying differences, by insisting on assimilating everyone into a single culture and language. We have seen how such human experiments have failed with disastrous consequences. Both Yugoslavia and Iraq have descended into violent sectarian conflicts and fragmentation of society in the aftermath of the fall of the dictator that had kept its people ‘united’ solely by force. Maoist China attempted a Cultural revolution to stamp out any trace of cultural individuality so as to create an entirely new culture based on the ideals of the Red Book. Others, like Canada, have chosen the path of territorial and legal segregation, and divided its territories between the English-speaking and Franco-phone communities. Still others, like many cities in the United States, have managed the ‘problem’ through ‘red-lining’ neighbourhoods, where people naturally choose to reside in self-made ghettoes.

Many seem resigned to accepting sociologists’ pessimistic conclusion that multi-cultural societies are inevitably characterised by conflict and rivalry. So, what we had just heard in the second reading may seem to be an unattainable Utopian ideal, a dream conjured by the hopeless to fool themselves. St John the Seer in the second reading, taken from Chapter 7 of the Book of the Apocalypse, paints a spectacularly vivid picture of what we can anticipate at the very End. He sees a multitude from “every nation, race, people, and tongue” worshipping God. They will not experience hunger nor thirst, nor will they be plagued by the heat of the sun. This is no mere rhetoric or just some fancy marketing.

The vision of the New Jerusalem from the Book of the Apocalypse was inherited from Isaiah 65:17-25. It represents the longing of all humans since the beginning of time: when there will be no more tears and suffering, but only abundance and joy. To most people it seems just an impossible dream or something that we can only experience in heaven after death. For the early Christians it was a description of the world after being renewed and transformed by God. The New Jerusalem was something that many Christians expected in their own lifetimes — the frightening and violent world that they knew simply could not continue any longer.

How could this be possible? How could this materialise as concrete reality where other ideologies and ideologues have failed? The answer lies in knowing who stands at the very centre of this scene. It is the Lamb who has shed his blood for the multitudes, the Lamb who now shepherds them and leads them to springs of life-giving water.  

Each time when we reflect on Church unity and communal integrity, we ask this simple question, ‘What must we do to be build communion and unity?’ A whole array of answers is advanced in answer to this problem. Today, being Good Shepherd Sunday, we are reminded of the answer – an answer so simple, it often eludes us (it’s ironic how we often miss the simplest and most fundamental answers to faith by being distracted by innovation and creativity). The answer is that Christ must be at the centre. Jesus is the centre of our whole universe. He is the centre of our world. We date all the events of world history in terms of the day that he was born. More important to us, he is the centre of our lives. He is the centre of everything that matters. We obviously know that he is the centre, for as Christians we wear his name and wear it proudly.
Obviously we believe in Christ as the centre of our lives. Even though we consider Christ as central in our lives I wonder if perhaps sometimes, even in religious activities in which we engage, we do not crowd Christ into the background of our thinking. We think so often in terms of our personal space, rights. We make demands of the Church and of each other. We often place our own individual concerns and ideas over everything else. We think so often in terms of groupings which distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them.’ In other words, it’s either ‘I’ or the ‘world’ which is at the centre, not Christ. In the midst of all the details we forget that the Church is not our own construction. No one can possibly claim that they were responsible for building Church. That would be audacious. The Church belongs to Christ. It is founded on Christ. It is his Body. Thus, undeniably it him who must be at the centre.

Thus the vision of St John in the Book of the Apocalypse is a reality that can only be attained in one manner – conversion. Conversion means learning to listen to the voice of the Shepherd rather than to the many other voices which try to crowd out his presence. Conversion means that we must ultimately be prepared to die to our selfishness, and perhaps even shed blood, so that we may be washed clean and pure by the blood of the Lamb who shed his blood for us.

The Apocalypse assures us that there will be a time when Christians will be able to celebrate authentic multiculturalism or in the language of the Church, or ‘Catholicity’. The Lord Jesus Christ is building a Kingdom from every tongue, tribe, and nation of the world, and those distinctions will continue and be perfected in heaven. So where is the New Jerusalem? We see it already in the Church, the Body of Christ. But the eschatological dimension of the Church maintains that it is both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ the New Jerusalem. The path that links the two is the path of conversion and sanctification. Whenever someone is baptised and becomes a Christian, he sheds his past identity. We receive a new one defined only by Christ who is now at the centre of his life. We become ‘Catholics, Truly Christians.” But Christ has not ceased his work at baptism: he continues to work in us renewing us. That is the key: when we truly live in Christ we begin to experience the newness of the world to come. Jesus begins the transformative work in us that will be completely fulfilled at the end of time.

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