Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sacred Body and Sacred Bodies



Corpus Christi Year C


You may have heard this story.

A 70 year old woman looks at her own reflection in the mirror. Her husband is lying on the bed, reading a magazine. Woman says,
“Look at me, 70 years old and not getting any younger! I’ve got wrinkles all over my face and creases stretching over the whole length of my body. My love handles look like sagging water balloons. I’ve lost most of my real teeth. Thank God for these dentures. And my hair just keeps thinning and I’ll be bald most probably in another 5 years. I feel so miserable about the way I look. For heaven’s sake, can you please pay me a compliment to make me feel better!” The husband lowers his magazine and ponders for a minute, then replies, “Look on the bright side honey, you still have good eyesight!”

Deny as we may want, we live in a body conscious culture. Young slim women and muscular men boasting six pack albs adorn the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Millions of dollars are spent developing products to make us look better, whilst less is spent to solve issue of poverty and to find cures to presently incurable diseases like HIV, cancer, etc. We have used our innovative genius to create and develop products to clean up, paint up, and fix up. We spend more time worrying about our physical shape rather than on the state of well-being of our soul. People spend thousands on dietary supplements, gym equipment, personal trainers whilst governments make fiscal cuts to subsidies for essential goods and amenities. Longevity and prolonging the appearance of youth seem to be greater concerns than eternal salvation. Deny as we may try, we do live in a body conscious world.

Despite this glorification of the external appearance of the body and all the rhetoric to the contrary, the ironic reality is that we have rendered the human body cheap, it has been rendered valueless by our culture and by society. We waste it: institutionally, clinically and deliberately. Death rows and abortion clinics pay no attention to the fact the object of their killing is a human body, and not just a ‘thing.’ We wipe out millions of unborn in one year alone. We place millions of others in homes and institutions because we consider their bodies functionally useless and unable to perform the productive tasks which society expects from them. We tolerate small sweat shop factories in Third World countries that engage child labour and near slave conditions for migrant workforce, so that we may enjoy cheap products from the shelves of our hypermarkets. We pursue wars that kill thousands and millions, often writing off body counts as collateral damage or mere statistics, signs that we are winning the war. Bodies of naked women and men and even children flood our television and computer screens, bodies available sometimes for free or just for a few dollars. The starving of millions scarcely merits a shrug. We do live in a body conscious world, but we survive with the contradiction that bodies come cheap.

But there is an alternative vision to the human body, a vision that resists degrading the flesh. Human bodies are not just meant to be beautiful. Human bodies do not come cheap nor are they valueless. On the contrary, human bodies are precious or more importantly, sacred. Many would vehemently reject this accolade – how could this body of mine, one which I sometimes loath and detest, the one which seems to cause me affliction and pain, the well spring of temptations of the flesh be seen as sacred? We resist this association between the sacred and what we consider to be profane because we feel that the corporeality of our bodies would stain the pure nature of the divine.

This new vision of the body comes from our sacramental sensibility. Our Catholic faith is not just spiritual but also physical. We express it in a sacramental way, which means in a sensible, tangible and corporeal way. It is both transcendent and incarnate. Our deepest communal impulse is to celebrate feasts of conceptions, births, deaths and martyrdoms. Our most treasured devotions and feasts are corporeal – The Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the holy wounds and the Mystical Body. The pinnacle of our sacramental faith is the reality we commemorate and celebrate today. At the moment of consecration, we kneel before this divine mystery, a mystery that celebrates the Incarnation – the en-fleshing of the divine, a mystery that makes visible the invisible. We hear the priest say these powerful words: “This is my Body … This is my Blood…” We believe that it is not just him speaking, he is ‘alter Christus’, ‘another Christ’; he speaks ‘in persona Christi,’ in the ‘person of Christ.’ It is no mere symbol or metaphor – it is real, it is substantial, it is Christ, it is “truly, really, substantially” his Body and his Blood. At the instant of our most holy communion, we hear the words: ‘Corpus Christi’, the Body of Christ. If only we could fathom the enormity of this reality, then like St John Vianney, we will “throw (ourselves) at the foot of the Tabernacle like a dog at the foot of his Master."

The Incarnation, the Birth, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, make our celebration not just an empty ritual, an exercise in futility. To deny the real presence means more than just a rejection of sacramentality. It would mean denying the Incarnation and the Resurrection, because both these mysteries point to corporeal character of our salvation. The Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery has made all human flesh precious and bodies sacred. The eternal Creator looks at the least human person and now not only numbers the hairs of our head – but sanctifies every single cell in our body, every drop of blood in our veins. God looks at the least and sees the eternal Child of God, the Word made flesh and blood. We are saved in him. And when we consume the Body of Christ, we partake of the flesh of Christ, the flesh of God: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him." In his Easter Sermon, 227, St. Augustine exhorts: “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.”  And in receiving Christ, we become one body in Him, and through Him, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Through receiving the Eucharist, we enter into a unique and personal relationship with the Trinity and with one another, the Body of Christ.   In Christ, our bodies truly, really, ‘substantially’ become sacred, they are made inviolable and consecrated to the service of God.

After the Incarnation, and the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, our bodies, no matter what the blind violence of sinful men and women may indicate, is never again to be seen as something dirty or cheap. Our body is sacred and precious, so precious that God would die for it. Our bodies would never again be our shame or fear. We don’t have to paint it or fix it. Rather, our bodies have become the sign of God’s covenantal love for us and unbreakable promise of eternal. This is the conviction behind the Christian challenge to a world so violent and so indifferent to human dignity that one might be tempted to think that humans have nothing precious about them at all. All the cosmetic surgeries, all the body tattoos and piercings, all the savoir-faire fashion in the world, will not be able to disguise or hide or enhance the natural beauty that already comes from us being ‘in God's image. We are beautiful and holy from the inside out because God created us that way. Our beauty and our holiness have little to do with our outward appearance or how others view us.

We can’t view all of these in any ordinary glass mirror. We can only see a true reflection of ourselves when we gaze upon the cross of Christ, the sacrifice of love which is represented in every Eucharist. At every mass, we are reminded of our true worth. That value can never be bought by any human price. It is a gift from God. You have been bought with the price of Christ’s own body and blood. “This is my Body … broken for you.” “This is my Blood … poured out for you and for the salvation of many.”

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Trinity keeps a place at the Table



Trinity Sunday Year C

After 40 days of austerity and fasting during the penitential season of Lent, three climatic days of celebrating the central mystery of our faith during the Easter Triduum, and 50 gloriously festive days of Eastertide concluding with a commemoration of the birth of the Church at Pentecost, one would have expected a more sedated Ordinary Time allowing us to return to our daily, ordinary and sometimes mundane routine. We are in Ordinary Time, but there is hardly anything ordinary about this time. The next few weeks remained littered with celebrations, a series of three Solemnities of the Lord, beginning with the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, which we celebrate today, followed by the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) next Sunday and finally, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Friday following Corpus Christi.

Celebrating the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity after Pentecost makes perfect sense because today’s feast sums up God’s revelation which was brought about through the Paschal Mysteries: Christ’s death and Resurrection, his Ascension to the right hand of the Father and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It may be a little more difficult to see the connection between this Sunday’s Solemnity and the feast which we will celebrate next week. We can’t imagine how the Church can draw the line of trajectory that links a contemplation of the lofty intangible mystery of the Holy Trinity to that of contemplating the sensually tangible substantial and real presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine.

Perhaps, the first clue to understanding the link between the Trinity and the Eucharist comes from this paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – “The Trinity is a mystery of faith in the strict sense, one of the mysteries that are hidden in God, which can never be known unless they are revealed by God.” (CCC n. 237) Similarly, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is also “a mystery of faith in the strict sense”, one which can only be known through the revelation of Jesus, when he told his disciples whilst showing them the bread, “this is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19) and when he clarified that his “flesh is real food” and his “blood real drink” (John 6:55). In other words, we can only come to know of the Truth behind these two mysteries, because God had allowed us to eavesdrop.

The second clue comes from Eastern Iconography, in particular a 15th century icon which I deeply treasure, Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity. This marvelous icon beautifully illustrates the association between the greatest of Sacraments and the mystery of the One God in three persons. In this icon the Three Divine Persons are depicted as three angelic beings gathered around a table. Why are angels chosen to represent the three divine persons? At one level, the icon tells the story of the three men or angels who visited Abraham at the oak of Mamre (Gen 18:1-5). The Fathers of the Church saw these three angels as a prefiguration of God in Three persons. Another reason why angels are chosen as visual representations of the Three divine persons is because according to Eastern Tradition, only Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity can be represented in art because he alone of the Three Divine Persons, took on flesh in the Incarnation. It is a perennial challenge to visually depict all three persons of the Trinity together, especially when both the Father and the Holy Spirit are wholly spiritual beings. The only logical solution would be to choose a spiritual being whom we can visualise to represent another spiritual being that we cannot visualise.

As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation, an irrepressible pull to participate in or ‘eavesdrop’ on the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table. What strikes us about the three distinct figures of the angels is not only the exceptional harmony of the composition, but also their inherent unity. A circle can easily be discerned. As the figures gaze at each other, we imagine a circular movement, a kind of a dance, where each is drawn to the other, each is focused on the other, each expresses love for the other. We literally imagine their love, which is an extension of their very being, weaving in and out of each other in a blissful, dynamic circle. The Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son. We seem to hear the words, “This is my Son, listen to him…” The hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. “I will send you a Advocate …” In this simple array we see the movement of life towards us, the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit. Life and love flow clockwise around the circle. But it remains incomplete until we complete the circle.

Our eyes naturally fall at a particular spot on the icon which beckons us to enter and take our place at the table. The fourth side of the table, the one closest to the viewer, has been deliberately left bare, an empty seat, a vacant space. All points to this space, this mystery: within it, everything about God is summed up and expressed, his power, his glory, and above all his love. And it is expressed in such a way that we can reach it. For the space at this table is on our side. We are invited to complete the circle, to join the dance, to complete the movements of God in the world by our own response. We are lifted and drawn into this circle of unending love, to eavesdrop on the divine conversation, and to share the communal meal of hospitality with our divine hosts. The vacant space helps us to remember that when we contemplate both the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist, there is no room for bystanders or spectators, only for those who are prepared to sit down and share the meal.

What sort of meal is this? It is no ordinary meal. It is placed on the table or altar which lies at the centre of the picture. It is at once the place of Abraham's hospitality to the angels, and God's place of hospitality to us. That ambiguity lies at the heart of communion, at the heart of worship. As soon as we open a sacred place for God to enter, for God to be welcomed and adored, it becomes his place. It is we who are welcomed, it is we who must 'take off our shoes' because of the holiness of the ground. Contained in the centre of the circle is a chalice with a sacrificed lamb. Firstly it is the symbol of the Incarnation. In Christ, the whole of humanity is incorporated into the divine Trinitarian life. By becoming incarnate, the second person of the Trinity takes our humanity into his own relations with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In Christ, space is made for us on the vacant side of the table.

But it is obvious to us that the chalice which sits at the centre of the table signifies the Eucharist too, the great Sacrament of communion and unity. It is here that we come to understand the magnitude of what it means to receive communion and be in communion. Every time we receive communion, we not only receive the Body of Christ, we are received into the communion of the Three Divine Persons. This leads us to the conclusion, that while the Eucharist is the greatest of sacraments, it leads to something even greater: to eternal life, by which we share in the very life and loving exchanges of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Participation in the Eucharist is participation in the divine life itself.

We finally come to realise what the three persons are talking about. Our eavesdropping bears fruit. The subject of God’s eternal colloquy is the divine economy, the divine mission – humanity’s redemption. They have been talking about us all along. The meal had been prepared and the table set for us, we are to be God’s guest of honour. The subject of this homily too must find its ultimate conclusion here – to know the Trinity, to understand the Eucharist, is to be one with Christ and with Christ, to be one with the Father and the Spirit.

One last thing to be said about Rublev’s icon: there are three signs behind each of the divine angels – a hill, a tree and a house. We need to follow the Holy Spirit up the hill of prayer that leads us to find shade under the tree, the cross of sacrifice of the Lamb but now transformed into the tree of life. Having rested beneath its shade, it is time to continue our journey home, to the house of your Father. This is the goal of our journey. It is the beginning and end of our lives. Its roof is golden. It’s door is always open for the traveler. It has a tower providing a wide vantage to the Father who incessantly scans the roads and the horizon for a glimpse of a returning prodigal. There we shall find a meal, not just in Sacramental form, but truly a heavenly feast fit for kings and saints.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

In the Holy Spirit there is Church



Pentecost Sunday – Year C

The past few weeks have been hectic. On a personal side, I’ve just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I’m quite sure you’ve heard this before: whenever you go on a long holiday, be prepared to take another long holiday to recover from the former. However, I did not have the luxury of a second break. I guess it’s true what they say, ‘there’s no rest for the wicked.’ On a another level, we had just come out from a period of frenzied electoral campaigning, everyone had caught the election fever – we were literally ‘discussing election’, ‘eating election’, ‘watching election’, ‘facebooking election’, ‘arguing over the election’, and ‘sleeping election’. The dust has not settled, and many are predicting another maelstrom not too far off in the horizon. In the midst of such busy-ness, I guess many would have missed or at least had been distracted from the most important part of our lives as Christians.

We have just passed through a great period of feasts, in fact, the most important feasts in the Church’s calendar. But our liturgical celebrations seem to have taken a backseat in the midst of seemingly more pressing worldly concerns. With the bad taste of the elections still lingering in our mouths, we can often forget that the season of Easter is full of thanksgivings. For many, the dark clouds of despair arising from the political scene seem to have eclipsed or blurred our vision of the dawning light of the resurrection. Thus our liturgical celebrations provide us with the renewed lenses of faith and hope to penetrate the gloom. They do not just commemorate past events but vividly bring to life what these events mean to us in this age and in all ages to come. The Church experiences again what those early Christians felt like when they realised that their Master was not dead but alive. And we have followed all that with the great celebration of the Ascension, and now the joys of Pentecost. If we had been paying attention, we will ultimately come to realise: What a time it has been!

Since Easter the first readings have been taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Those responsible for the arrangement and the content of our lectionary must have been truly inspired. We have been recalling the early days of the Church, its staggering growth, juxtaposed against a multitude of sufferings. All this was seen by St. Luke, the author of this remarkable book, as a direct result of that memorable day of Pentecost. We are told that the early Christians were ordered by Christ to do nothing until they had received the power of the Holy Spirit. So in the Acts we read of the fruit of that reception. All they did and said was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The secret of their resilience was not found in the noble human spirit, it sprang from the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Acts of the Apostles makes great reading, but it is not meant to be nostalgic and sentimental. Rather the stories of conversions, preachings, missionary journeys and rapid church growth are there to inspire us — for we too have received the same Holy Spirit. Our Holy Father Pope Francis, in a recent homily underlined the importance of the Holy Spirit in our lives by saying that without this presence, our Christian lives cannot be understood.

In 1968 Patriarch Ignatius, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Latakia, gave an address at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches. In it he spoke of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church in a striking and memorable way:

Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organisation,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evolution,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating science,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.

Therefore, the Church without the Holy Spirit is not the Church. In the Holy Spirit the Church "lives and moves and has its being". It is sad, however, that so many individual believers live as if the Holy Spirit had never come. There is often a great temptation to be in the grips of two extremes that confuses the relationship between the Spirit and the Church. On the one hand, we have a humanism that excludes the activity of the Spirit from the Church, and on the other hand, we have a pietism that reduces the activity of the Spirit to some form of emotionalism.

In a world that has grown accustomed to defining every issue according the human categories, the members of the Church are tempted to follow suit with little discernment between being "in the Holy Spirit" and being "without the Holy Spirit". What we often do as a Church is often governed by principles of utility, expediency, efficiency, suitability, and marketability, rather than just being faithful to the voice of the Holy Spirit who continues to communicate the will of the Father through the revelation of the Son. In fact, anyone caught discussing the role of the Holy Spirit in the decision-making process risk being accused of over-simplification. On the other end of the spectrum, with the rise of Pentecostalism and its influence on mainline churches and ecclesial communities, the presence of Spirit is often mistaken for emotional hype. Here, reason is subjected to suspicion and those who caution prudence often find themselves accused of being faithless. We fail to remember and recognise that there is no opposition between faith and reason and that the presence of the Holy Spirit is discerned from the power of love, the strength of faith, and the experience of joy in the midst of hardship and persecution.

Many have often accused the Catholic Church of being indifferent or at least pays little attention to the Third Person of the Trinity. They would be surprised to learn that the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a central place for the Holy Spirit in relation to the Church. The Catechism, unequivocally teaches that: “The Church, a communion living in the faith of the apostles which she transmits, is the place where we know the Holy Spirit (CCC 668):
- in the Scriptures he inspired;
- in the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses;
- in the Church's Magisterium, which he assists;
- in the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, in which the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ;
- in prayer, wherein he intercedes for us;
- in the charisms and ministries by which the Church is built up;
- in the signs of apostolic and missionary life;
- in the witness of saints through whom he manifests his holiness and continues the work of salvation.

Since he assumed his office, Pope Francis has preached - by word and deed - a dynamic Catholic faith and a Church that must be passionate with the mission of evangelisation. This is a Pope who believes that the Church is driven by the Holy Spirit and God's love, not by bureaucrats or militants. He calls us to remember this simple truth, a truth that is often forgotten when we place so much trust in our own cleverness and devices, that the power of the Holy Spirit is available today for all believers just as it was in the early Church. It is the same Holy Spirit who always calls the Church to authentic renewal. The Pope adds, that at times, 'the Holy Spirit upsets us because it moves us, it makes us walk, it pushes the Church forward.' But the problem is, according to him, we want to 'calm down the Holy Spirit, we want to tame it and this is wrong, because the Holy Spirit is the strength of God, it's what gives us the strength to go forward'.  Rather, our first reaction is never to resist the pull of the Holy Spirit but to 'submit to the Holy Spirit, which comes from within us and makes go forward along the path of holiness.'

Like the apostles who were gathered in continuous prayer together with Mary the Mother of the Lord and with the other disciples, we confidently hope and pray that we too will experience a new Pentecost, a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and then we, like Peter and the first apostles, will be able to go out and share the gift of our faith and our hope with a world that needs to be reminded that God has not abandoned them, that he continues guide them, protect them, and strengthen them through the power of the Spirit. As the Rule of St Benedict reminds us, ‘let the mind and spirit be in harmony with the voice,” with one voice and heart, let us pray:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May They All Be One



Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C

 
 Common Malaysians are still reeling from the shock of communally divisive campaigning, probably the worst in Malaysian history, leading up to the recent elections. Sentiments were fanned to intentionally pit one community against another. Ethnic and religious stereotypes were reinforced to instill fear among the various communities. We are still suffering the fallout a week after the elections and the damage is hardly mitigated with the on-going blame game. In fact, the damage is aggravated with both factions blaming the other side for fanning racial discord. The invisible elephant in the room has finally emerged, as the chorus sings “Racism is in the air!” Although the beast has been named and there is a general agreement (if only lip service) that we need to move forward, no one seems to have any concrete blueprint for change beyond the clich├ęd exclamation that we are 1 Malaysia.

What happened to the ideals of 1 Malaysia, the ideals of authentic national integration and inter-ethnic harmony? Many have grown skeptical. Today’s gospel reading is certainly a welcome breath of fresh air. At last! Someone is truly serious about the issue of reconciliation and unity. It’s none other than Jesus himself.  The gospel is an excerpt of a longer prayer of Jesus found in Chapter 17 of the Gospel of John, which is traditionally called the “High Priestly Prayer”. Its name is derived from the action and words of Jesus who now intercedes with the Father in Heaven, as a High Priest, on behalf of his friends on earth. Although, it is composed of simple words, this is a potent prayer and Jesus meant every single word of it. It is not a declaration of what is, not a blueprint for oneness, but intercession for what shall be.

Jesus here prays for the whole world, asking that the love with which the Father had lavished upon him might also be ours, and that through us the Father’s love might be evident to the world. That is what Jesus died for. This prayer is not just empty rhetoric. The prayer puts into words the very mission of Jesus, the project of Jesus. “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one.” Jesus prayed these words in the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal, knowing that crucifixion would follow with the coming sunrise. The words are part of his final words, and final words have a history of being intense, focused and passionate. So it was with Jesus. Never before had the disciples heard him pray like this. You could say that Jesus’ giving himself to die for us was the embodiment of these intercessions; and his resurrection embodied the Father’s answer to that prayer.

We need to note here that Jesus asked God to give us unity as a request. That means that unity is given and not achieved. The unity of God’s people can never be fabricated by man. It must be generated by the Spirit of God. Because this unity proceeds from grace, the life of God, it is therefore patterned after the life of God, a pattern of unity unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organisation, purpose, feeling, or affection. Neither is it a unity that comes from commonality in terms of interest, nationality, ethnicity, language or culture. Just as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, we are to be so united. Christians are drawn to one another because they are drawn to a common center, Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus prayed that "may they be one in us." For that is the source of the power of that unity. How glorious it is to contemplate that we have been invited into that perfect unity that exists with the Father and the Son.

Where are we now as we hear the prayer of Jesus? What steps must we take for this to become a reality? Pondering these questions, it becomes clear that we must begin by becoming one within ourselves. The prayer of Jesus challenges us to look deep into ourselves. We must allow Jesus to restore the inner unity of our very soul, which so often has succumbed to sin. Our society is divided because our souls are splinted. It is easy for us to accuse others of being racist, but it takes great courage and self-honesty to recognise our own penchant for stereotyping, prejudice, ethnocentricism, and racism. No one readily acknowledges himself as a racist. But we see the tentacles of this evil spectre in the form of our preoccupation with our own self-interest and selfishness. Martin Luther King, perhaps the most socially transformative preacher of our time, once wrote that the redemption of a society trapped in racism “can come only through a humble acknowledgement of guilt and an honest knowledge of self”. Becoming at one within ourselves prepares us for the greater blessing of becoming one with God and Christ.

After having looked within ourselves, we must begin to look outwards, outside our petty little world. Too often we are tempted to allow our Christian lives to remain in air-tight compartments, limited only to Christian friends, in a sort of Christian hot-house, from the womb to the tomb. Our Beloved Pope Francis, who strongly champions a Church who is more evangelistic in its outlook, notes that “a Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms”. If we confine our discussion of unity within the ranks of the Church or just among Christians, we may suffer from the self-referentiality which the Pope condemns. Self-referentiality is unacceptable for the Church because its mission is love, and love seeks to reach beyond itself in generosity. Therefore, for the sake of a confused and sinful world which is facing enormously complex problems, Christians must not, dare not, isolate themselves from that world. No, the church exists in order to reach the world. The church is here to be God's instrument by which human life in every area and at every level is penetrated by the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ, that men may see that in Jesus Christ there is the authentic voice of God to men; that in him is the ultimate issue of human destiny, and in him we come face to face with all that is important in human affairs.

Finally, as we come to the end of the Easter season, the readings that the Church gives us directs our gaze upward. If our view is only confined to ourselves and others, we will most certainly find the drudgery of life unbearable. Our looking inwards and outwards only prepares us for this final viewing. The model that Christ gives us on the eve of his own death, as reflected in his priestly prayer at the Last Supper, shows us a man serene, charitable and intimately united to his Father. Union with the divine gives him the serenity and peace to face the suffering of the cross. In our first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about the martyrdom of St. Stephen, and we hear that he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand”.  It is the same union with the divine that gave St Stephen the same serenity as Jesus possessed. Those of the world "covered their ears" at the mention of the Gospel message, but those of us who listen to Christ will find solace. St John, in concluding the Book of the Apocalypse, invites us to look up at Christ who is the morning star and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  And in today’s Gospel reading, as he finishes the Last Supper, Jesus begins his prayer by “raised his eyes to heaven.” As we look up to heaven, what do we see? We see an embrace, a clasp of deepest friendship, a union of hearts and minds greater than the most satisfying earthly relationship could ever be. 

The prayer of Jesus that “may they all be one” still haunts as well as inspires. It is wearisome, deadly wearisome, to endure the tension, the conflicts, the hate speech and demonising that continues to plague our society. The blight of triumphalism, of power games, and the obsession with always being right still throw up huge, offensive roadblocks against Jesus’ prayer. Such sin drags us back to the Upper Room, to dull disciples among whom we now sit, to the grief of our Lord over our tearing apart the seamless robe of unifying love in which he would wrap us. Yet he comes to us with Easter’s treasure. Despite the sins which continue to splinter, to separate, and to divide, we are comforted to know that there is One who is not only praying for our unity, but who assures us that he is protecting “not only these, but also those”, and he does so in the Father’s name. The outcome of the prayer, “May the all be one”, will never be just left to us. It will always be in his strong hands. Thank God for that!