Thursday, July 25, 2013

We Dare to Say

Seventeenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

In the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Lord's Prayer is introduced with the words, "At the Saviour's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say..." The prayer itself is so familiar to us and because of our penchant to recite it in a hurried mechanical way; we often forget that the prayer is made up of a bold list of radical demands. In fact, the prayer has the audacity of making the following demands of God: we demand intimacy and familiarity with God’s person and name that borders on the contemptuous and blasphemous, we demand the coming of the kingdom, we demand the terra-forming of our trouble ridden earth so that it may become more like a trouble free heaven, we demand daily sustenance from on high, we demand that our sins be forgiven, and finally we demand shelter from temptation and deliverance from evil. If the school of hard knocks has taught us anything, it would be this: never make unreasonable demands, don’t expect the impossible. Well, for man all these may seem impossible; but for God, everything’s possible!

The current introduction by the priest to the Lord’s Prayer found in the most recent translation of the Roman Missal replaces the four options that were available in the earlier translations. The option that comes closest to the original Latin and the present translation is “we have courage to say.” A superficial reading may treat ‘courage’ and ‘dare’ as interchangeable. However, ‘courage’ and ‘daring’ are potentially quite different in meaning. ‘Courage’ does not necessarily invoke a feeling of humility, whereas ‘we dare to say’ inherently recognises our insignificance before the Father. We use the word ‘courage’ to imply some talent or accomplishment on our part, for example, we can say that we have the courage to speak publicly. But when we use the words, ‘we dare to say’, we humbly admit that it has nothing to do with us, in fact, it admits that it not anything which we can ever hope to accomplish. The words convey a profound sense of unworthiness, we are in no position to make any claims or demands.

The whole phrase places the Lord’s Prayer in a different light – it is no longer to be seen as a cry of entitlement, a demand made on God to fulfill our petitions and wishes.  But rather, it is prayer of humility by someone truly unworthy to even stand before the august presence of God, the one ‘who art in heaven,’ what more to address Him with the all too familiar moniker of ‘Father’ and make a series of demands of him.  The catechism tells us that “Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?” It is by placing ourselves into the position of a child, calling God our Father, that we open ourselves to the grace by which we approach God with the humble boldness of a little child.

The adjective "Our" as used by us, does not express possession, but an entirely new relationship with God. God does not belong to us, rather we belong to him as his people, more importantly as his children. We are his and he is ours, for our sake. This new relationship is the gift of belonging to each other. We are a people bound together by the New Covenant that God has made with us through his Son in the Holy Spirit. While we are indeed individual persons, we are also persons in communion with each other because we have been baptised into communion with the Holy Trinity. It is reminder that unity of mankind is never a product of our machinations. It is wrought by God at the cost of the price paid by his Beloved Son. The "Our," however, excludes no one. We cannot pray 'our' without including every single person for whom Christ died. The Our Father erases all boundaries between us and them, between past and present. It calls us into the family circle, saints crossing elbows with sinners, rich with poor, criminal with law-abiding, powerful with victimised, living with dead. God's love has no bounds, neither should our prayer.

After the initial address, the Lord’s Prayer contains seven demands, or traditionally, seven petitions. The seven petitions can be found in both the Gospel of Matthew and our liturgical version of the prayer. It is interesting to note that the Gospel of Luke contains only five of those seven petitions. I’m not going to confuse you with a detailed exegesis of the differences between the Matthean and Lucan version of the prayer. Our consideration should encompass all seven petitions which we traditionally pray. The number ‘seven’ always symbolised perfection, thus the Lord’s Prayer perfectly summarises all that we need petition to the Lord in any form of prayer.  That is why St Thomas Aquinas calls it the ‘Perfect Prayer.’ Tertullian goes so far as to claim that the Lord’s Prayer is ‘summary of the whole gospel.’

We make seven demands in the Lord’s Prayer. The first three ‘draw us toward the glory of God’ and the last four ‘commend our wretchedness to his grace.’ The ‘more theological’ petitions, that God’s name be hallowed, that His kingdom come, and that His will be done, have already been answered in the person of Christ, but they also anticipate the coming of God’s glory at the end of time. The past, the present and the future, human history and time, collapses in this single prayer. The second series of supplications, that we be given our bread, that our debts be forgiven, that we be kept from temptation, and that we be protected from evil, concern our situation at this very moment in the world we live in. It reflects the situation of the Kingdom that is both ‘now’ as well as ‘not yet.’ The Kingdom has already been inaugurated in the person of Jesus Christ, but will only come to its perfection when he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. In the interim, we deal with the daily struggles of life: our economic, material, and spiritual daily sustenance; our relationships with our neighbour; our struggle with sin, temptation and evil.

The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer respect the priority of praise over petitions in our own behalf. We do not begin our prayer by making demands of him, our silly and sometimes trivial demands of him. Worship, adoration and praise must always take precedence. This is characteristic of love - to think first of the one whom we love. Take note that in none of the first three petitions do we mention ourselves. The first of the petitions of this prayer asks that the name of our God be hallowed, reverenced, held in awe by all who see him as our Creator and loving Father. It is name which we often misuse and abuse. It is name that often falls into disrepute by our sacrilegious and blasphemous behaviour and language. This first petition invites us to pause and reflect on the sanctity of the name, the sanctity of prayer. It is an invitation to revere the sacred, and thus it becomes an invitation to sanctification – as we proclaim the holiness of God and his name, we too grow in that same holiness.

The second petition calls the coming of God’s kingdom.  Here we are looking first to Christ’s return, but we are also praying for the growth of the Kingdom of God in our own lifetime. Pope Emeritus Benedict says of this petition of the Our Father that "these words establish an order of priorities for human action, for how we approach everyday life".   With this petition we acknowledge the primacy of God.  Where God is absent, nothing can be good.  Where God is not seen, humanity and the world fall to ruin. The coming of God's kingdom is not meant to bring us a utopian situation, a world free of suffering, pain or misery. What Jesus does is establish an absolutely decisive priority.  To pray for the coming of the kingdom means that we pray that his will is accepted as the criterion for all our actions. 

Thus the third petition flows from the second. To pray that the Father’s “will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” is to pray that our will be united to that of his Son so that we would fulfill his plan of salvation for the life of the world. The Kingdom is Jesus Christ in person. Jesus reminds us that those who ‘do the will of the Father’ are his mothers, his brothers and his sisters. When we pray this petition of the Our Father we pray that we may come closer and closer to Jesus, so that God's will can conquer the downward pull of our selfishness and make us capable of the lofty height to which we are called.

Thereafter we have the final four petitions where we present our wants to God. They go up from us in our present world: "give us...forgive us...lead us not...deliver us..." They are an offering up of our expectations which draws down the eyes of the Father of mercies. They ask that our lives be nourished and healed of sin. They concern our battle for the victory of life-that battle of prayer - that we may be made victorious in the struggle of good over evil.

Though we are asked to focus on the “one thing necessary” that is the Kingdom of God, Christ also acknowledges our earthly needs, thus we pray, ‘give us today our daily bread.’ This petition ultimately leads us to recognise God’s goodness who cares for our every need. This petition also presupposes that we have left behind the riches of the world for the sake of faith, and no longer ask for anything beyond what we need to live. Like the Israelites who left behind the security of their lives in Egypt and now depended solely on God’s providence to provide them with daily sustenance, we too are invited to depend entirely on God, to trust in his goodness and to commend our daily cares and concerns to his loving care. Ultimately, this ‘bread’ must mean more than material food which nourishes the body. St. Cyprian reminds us that the Eucharist is in a special sense "our" bread, the bread of disciples of Jesus. We pray according to Cyprian that our bread, Christ, be given to us every day so that we who remain and live in Christ may not depart from his healing power and from his body.

In the fifth petition we beg for God's mercy.  This is the one line that causes many to stumble praying the Lord's Prayer.  It ties God’s forgiveness of our sins to the extent of us forgiving those who have sinned against us. Why would Jesus make this association and link? St. John Chrysostom writes: “We cannot call God our Father in all sincerity if we harbour in ourselves a hardened heart.” But we must remember that the petition for forgiveness is more than a moral exhortation. It is a reminder to us of the God who allowed forgiveness to cost him descent into human hardship and death on a Cross. It calls us to thankfulness for that intervention, and then, with him to work through and suffer through evil by means of love. No matter how much we forgive, we can never match the generosity and love of God in loving us. Only though the example of the God of suffering on the Cross can we truly find grace to forgive those who trespass against us. If you have trouble forgiving, just think of how much you have been forgiven by God, and the price which He paid for you on the cross.

The sixth petition affirms our belief that God does not lead anyone into temptation. Perhaps the greatest temptation that underlies all temptations, is to trust in our own devices and resources rather than in God’s grace and strength. It is the temptation to build our own kingdoms rather than to promote the establishment of God’s. What we are saying when we ask “lead us not into temptation” is that God will not overestimate our strength to resist temptation, that he will be close to us with his protecting hand when temptation becomes too much for us. St Paul has assured us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond you strength…”

The last petition asking for deliverance from evil is not just a mini exorcism; it summarises what this whole prayer is about – the victory of the Kingdom of God over the Kingdom of Evil. It is a battle of cosmic proportions that already has a clear victor – God, and not Satan. But the battle continues to rage in the hearts of many men and women of this world, and cruelly expresses itself in the signs of injustice, suffering wrought by sinfulness, the culture of death, addictions, violence and oppression that we witness taking place around us. But whenever we pray this prayer, we realise, that this is not a battle where we are capable of winning on our own. This last petition reminds us that our lot is not one of despair. We are not defeated. God fights for us and more importantly he has already won the victory for us. What we see is not the ascendance of evil, but rather its death throes. In this petition we ask that we not be robbed of our faith which enables us to see God and binds us to Christ.

There is a Latin maxim that addresses the centrality and priority of prayer in the life, identity and mission of the Church; “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi”, the law of prayer reflects the law of faith which determines the law of life. How we worship and pray not only reveals and guards what we believe but guides us in how we live our Christian faith and fulfill our Christian mission in the world. As much as we are sometimes taken up with the spontaneity of the praying style of our Protestant brethren, and many of us too are tempted to venture into some innovative and creative explorations on our own, we must always remember that the best prayer, or as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, the most Perfect Prayer, is still the prayer not formulated by any human poet or creative genius but by Christ, the Son of God himself. In way, God provides us the words to speak to Him.

Thus, our ability to pray in this way can only come to us by the grace of God - it is only because our Saviour has commanded it and because we have been formed by divine teaching, that ‘we dare to say.’ There is no audacity in the tone of our voice or the content of our prayer. We take no credit for this prayer. All glory goes to God and to his Christ, Jesus our Lord. We are not the natural sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father. We have no right to address him by this familiar name. All our words seem banal and fall empty in the light of the pre-existent Word. But because of Jesus through baptism I have become an adopted child. The Father is revealed to us by his Son and we can approach him only through the Son. Because of Jesus, my prayer now derives an amazing and miraculous efficacy. For that reason we dare to call God “Our Father.” Through this prayer, the unapproachable God becomes approachable. The unknown God is made known. The Strange and unfamiliar God becomes familiar and a friend. The prayer unspoken has already been answered!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Opus Dei or Opus Humani

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Most people who have never experienced the Traditional Latin Mass would imagine this happening: a priest, with the signature affront of having his back facing the people whilst seemingly being punished to stand against the wall like a juvenile miscreant, droning away the archaic Latin prayers with zero comprehension or participation on the part of the congregation, thus reducing them to passive spectators. Little do they realise that perhaps, the biggest surprise  or ‘culture shock’ that awaits first timers at such a mass would be the ‘deafening’ pin-drop silence that defines the whole celebration – to the unenlightened, a kind of soundless mime, punctuated with the ringing of bells, but with a difference: the performer faces the wall instead of the people. Not sure whether they will prefer the Latin to the silence.

The silence and the orientation are indeed baffling to our modern senses, where we are taught to establish and maintain eye contact when communicating as a sign of respect; where every waking moment is compulsively filled with activity and noise. In the fast pace world of modern living, with its glut of timesaving gadgets providing instant information and establishing instant communication, a world of silence seems altogether alien, and in fact alienating. But the priest’s demeanour, silence and gesture should not be interpreted as a lack of inter-personal skills or a refusal to communicate. On the contrary, he is engaged, in fact, he is absorbed in the deepest form and level of conversation and activity ever open to man – he is communicating with God; he is communing with God. In the midst of that profound silence, as he closes his senses to the noise of the world, turns away from mundane social exchanges, the priest immerses his soul in the same mystery he celebrates, and raises his heart above the cacophony of worldly concerns, into the awesome majesty of God.  

I cite the example of the Traditional Latin Mass not because we are going to return to this as the general norm of our Eucharistic celebrations in our parish. Many of you can sigh with relief that there is a limit to my seemingly anachronistic reforms. I cite it because understanding the immense value of silence and contemplation becomes the basis for appreciating what Mary does at the feet of Jesus. Most people would immediately empathise and side with Martha, who slavishly labours in the kitchen, but ends up with a painful rebuke from Jesus while her sister, the hopeless dreamer, gets a word of approval for lazing at his feet. This certainly does come across to us as a serious form of injustice. It is not hard to come to a positive assessment of Martha’s contribution set against the negative evaluation we often give to her sister’s perceived passivity, especially when we recognise that we are a culture that values noise above silence, action over contemplation, our effort over God’s.

Contemplation and silence is not easy and for many, seemingly impossible. We are so wired by our culture to work more and pray less. We have a sense that if we want something done, we're better off just trying to get it done ourselves. Activists often see contemplation, taking time off for retreat and prayer, as a luxury. We should be busy solving the problems in the world rather than wasting our time in pointless and fruitless prayer. Prayer is often seen as a cop-out, an excuse to shirk one’s responsibilities, and ultimately perceived to be a sign of weakness. The tragedy is that this attitude is not merely confined to the secular unbelieving world. Many good people within Church often buy into this ideology. Thus, Mary’s posture at the feet of Jesus is often mistaken for irresponsible passivity.

But as we reconsider this story once again in the light of the paradox of the gospel, Mary’s position at the feet of Jesus becomes a powerful testimony of the power of prayer. Mary is immersed in prayer, in adoration, in contemplation. She is captivated by the beauty of the one whom she beholds and deeply loves. She is indeed a figure, a type of the Church. Borrowing the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when speaking of the Church and her espousal to Christ, “she recognizes Christ as the fairest of men, the grace poured upon his lips points to the inner beauty of his words, the glory of his proclamation. So it is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer's appearance that is glorified: rather, the beauty of Truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself and, at the same time captures us with the wound of Love, the holy passion ("eros"), that enables us to go forth together, with and in the Church his Bride, to meet the Love who calls us.”

Mary’s posture should never be interpreted as passive inactivity or a sign of weakness. Rather, her actions reveals real strength that comes only with learning to sit at the feet of Jesus and coming to recognise that the greater work is the work that must be done by God – the ‘Opus Dei’ (God’s work) – rather than something which needs to be accomplished by man. As one popular author noted: “There is power in prayer. When men work, they work. But when men pray, God works.” As St Benedict once wrote in his Rule for fellow monks, "Let nothing be preferred to the work of God”. By speaking of the ‘work of God’ or ‘Opus Dei’, St Benedict was referring to the ‘work’ of praying, especially in praying the Divine Office, the official Prayer of the Church. This reflects the constant conviction of the Church that prayer is to be a primary responsibility of the Church, a responsibility that is often denigrated when the vitality of the Church is often measured against a benchmark of the number of activities organised. We often forget that our primary ministry is not so much in doing but praying, not strategising, but prostrating before God seeking His will, not clever strategies for manipulating people and events but trusting in God who moves in the hearts of even His most implacable enemies. Yes, we are called to ‘work’ but our main work is to pray!

Although love must necessarily express itself in action, one must constantly be aware of the danger of falling into activism – mistaking the love of work for the work of love. Work, activity and noise, instead of bridging the gap between persons eventually become outlets to escape from intimacy. And the paradox of this mystery can only be understood when we recognise that gazing at our neighbour does not mean turning our gaze away from Christ. Rather, the gaze of love given to our neighbour is only possible, if our gaze remains firmly fixed on Christ. Christians can fall into the error of believing that the love of neighbour is sufficient, whilst forgetting that everything proceeds from the ultimate love which is owed to God alone. Thus Pope Emeritus Benedict in an interview gave this wise caution, “Do not become utterly absorbed in activism! There would be so much to do that one could be working on it constantly. And that is precisely the wrong thing. Not becoming totally absorbed in activism means maintaining consideratio — discretion, deeper examination, contemplation, time for interior pondering, vision, and dealing with things, remaining with God and meditating about God.”

Mary’s posture sets the stage and mood for our celebration of masses. Too often our celebrations take on the character of the noisy, smelly, busy environment of Martha’s kitchen. We have lost a sense of the sacred which is evident in various ways: the predilection for ‘happy clappy’ theologically shallow songs that often speak more about ourselves rather than about God; the aversion of protracted periods of silence; the dissonance of over-casual behaviour and clothing that speaks nothing of reverence for the sacred. At the celebration of every mass, we need to learn to treasure the alternating rhythms of silence and song; speaking to God and then gently listening for His voice. We need to understand that ‘active participation’ calls for ‘interior participation’ of all the powers of the soul in the mystery of Christ's sacrificial love. Participation, in the first place, is something interior; it means that your mind and heart are awake, alert and engaged. Active participation certainly does not mean making a ruckus or engaged in frenzied activity. At every mass, we enter a sort of “sacred time” — an almost transcendental experience that feels as though it’s more of an eternal moment than a passage of minutes or hours. If the liturgy is a glimpse of heaven, then it should somehow communicate the same experience of eternity rather temporality. So, if one prefers quick painless noisily entertaining liturgies that finish within the hour over solemn unhurried celebrations that take no cognizance of time, perhaps this would indeed be a foretaste of what to expect at the end of our earthly pilgrimage. I often jokingly add, “In heaven, there are no clocks. But the walls of hell are covered with them.”

At every Mass, we encounter a place apart from the world, a place to meet to God, and just like Martha, a place to sit at the feet of Christ. It is a privileged opportunity to approach the awesome presence of God, the Real Presence of Christ in the Tabernacle. To do this, silence is essential. We need silence to focus fully on God and our presence before Him. This is hard work. But this hard work bears great fruit. In this silence we can achieve as never before a deeper understanding of the mass, a greater appreciation of the Real Presence, a more solemn reverence of the sacred. In its fullness silence itself is participation in God’s being. In silence we come to realise the smallness of our greatest achievement in the face of God’s great and marvellous work of salvation, and at the end it is God’s work that matters most of all.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Christ the Good Samaritan

Fifteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

If someone were to do a Pew survey on which is the all time favourite parable, I guess you would have a tie between the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. If the Prodigal Son is most commonly associated with the themes of repentance and forgiveness, the story of the Good Samaritan would most frequently be cited as a perfect illustration of love, especially the love of one’s neighbour. It is not difficult to come to this conclusion because the question which the lawyer, the expert of Jewish religious law posed to Jesus that led to the telling of this story, is ‘who is my neighbour?’ Thus, we are often exhorted to follow the example of the Good Samaritan to show neighbourly love and concern for the downtrodden, for those in need. And because we are all in serious need, this parable speaks deeply to every human soul.

While the above may be true, the occasion for the telling of the parable may also lie elsewhere. If you had been paying attention, you would have realised that the lawyer had actually asked two questions, the first, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and then after Jesus’ response the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbour?” The first question is vertical, it has to do with the lawyer’s own relationship with God, his justification. The second question moves it to the horizontal plain, and thus begins to examine the answer in the light of one’s relationship with fellow men. So, was Jesus answering the first question or the second or in fact, both? The common interpretation usually sees the parable as a response to the second question.  But a careful reading will reveal that the parable of the Good Samaritan does not really provide a direct answer to the lawyer’s second question of defining one’s neighbour. If Jesus had been asked, “How should we treat our neighbours?” and had responded with this story, perhaps “Be like the Good Samaritan” would be an acceptable interpretation. But if the story is told in answer to the first question on eternal life, this does seem to shift the whole emphasis from a mere call to display altruistic behaviour to one’s neighbour to a more vital question of how have we come to salvation.

According the Fathers of the Church, this tale teaches more than a lesson about helping those in need. In fact, they see it as an impressive allegory of the fall and redemption of all mankind. The early Christian understanding of this allegorical interpretation of the Good Samaritan is clearly depicted in the famous 12th-century cathedral in Chartres, France. One of its beautiful stained-glass windows depicts the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden at the top of the window and, at the bottom of the window, the parable of the Good Samaritan; therefore, the narrative of the creation and fall of man is juxtaposed with that of the Good Samaritan. What does the parable of the Good Samaritan have to do with the Fall of Adam and Eve? Where did this association originate?

The roots of this allegorical interpretation reach deeply into the earliest Christian Tradition. Various Fathers of the Church saw Jesus himself in the Good Samaritan; and in the man who fell among thieves they saw Adam, our very humanity wounded and disoriented on account of its sins. For example, Origen employed the following allegory: Jerusalem represents heaven; Jericho, the world; the robbers, the devil and his minions; the Priest represents the Law, and the Levite the Prophets; the Good Samaritan, Christ; the ass, Christ’s body carrying fallen man to the inn which becomes the Church. Even the Samaritan’s promise to return translates into Christ’s triumphant return at the Parousia.

Understanding this parable allegorically adds an eternal perspective and value to its message. It certainly takes it beyond the cliché, ‘Be a Good Samaritan’ rhetoric. This profoundly Christological reading positions deeds of neighbourly kindness within an expansive awareness of where we have come from, how we have fallen into our present plight, and how Christ has come to save us, the Sacraments of grace continue to sanctify us and the Church continues to nurture and heal us. In other words, this Christological interpretation shifts the focus from man to God: from ‘justification’, how do we work out our salvation, to sanctification, how does Christ save us and continue to sanctify us. It moves us away from the humanistic mode of being saviours of the world to a more humble recognition that we are indeed in need of salvation ourselves.

In a rich irony, we move from being identified with the priest and the Levite who were solely concerned over their personal salvation but never perfectly love others “as ourselves,” much less our enemies, to being identified with the traveler in desperate need of salvation. Jesus intends the parable itself to leave us beaten and bloodied, lying in a ditch, like the man in the story. We are the needy, unable to do anything to help ourselves. We are the broken people, beaten up by life, robbed of hope. But then Jesus comes. Unlike the Priest and Levite, He doesn’t avoid us. He crosses the street—from heaven to earth—comes into our mess, gets his hands dirty. At great cost to himself on the cross, he heals our wounds, covers our nakedness, and loves us with a no-strings-attached love. He carries us personally to the shelter of the Church where we find rest, where our wounds are tended and healed. He brings us to the Father and promises that his “help” is not simply a ‘one-time’ gift—rather, it’s a gift that will forever cover “the charges” we incur.

The context puts Jesus’ final exhortation to “go and do the same yourself” in perspective. It puts every work of charity, gesture of kindness, expression of hospitality on our part within the greater picture of the wonderful story of salvation. To inherit eternal life, you must keep God’s law perfectly, you must love Him with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and all your being, and this necessarily includes loving your neighbour as yourself. That may certainly give the false impression that it all boils down to us and our efforts. But the great commandment of love isn’t about some altruistic humanistic project – us saving the world. Reaching out to others, especially to those who labour under the heavy load of toil and suffering, is not just an act of goodness. It is a participation in the economy of God’s salvation – God saving the world through us and in spite of us. We can love only because we have been loved. We can only heal because we have been healed and continue to be healed by the Good Samaritan himself, Jesus Christ. We come to understand that just as the vertical dimension of our spiritual lives must always encompass the horizontal dimension of loving our neighbour, we must never forget that the horizontal is never possible without the vertical.

The great commandment of love proceeds from the great love of the Good Samaritan himself, Jesus Christ, who has descended to our pitiable level to pick us up from the ditch. To understand what it means to love, does not mean attempting to be a ‘Good Samaritan.’ To understand what it means to love, we need to gaze upon Jesus Christ, he is the ‘Good Samaritan.’ In his message on the World Day of Prayer for the Sick this year, Pope Emeritus Benedict beautifully paints the picture of the Good Samaritan for our contemplation: “Jesus is the Son of God, the one who makes present the Father’s love, a love which is faithful, eternal and without boundaries. But Jesus is also the one who sheds the garment of his divinity, who leaves his divine condition to assume the likeness of men (cf. Phil 2:6-8), drawing near to human suffering, even to the point of descending into hell, as we recite in the Creed, in order to bring hope and light. He does not jealously guard his equality with God (cf. Phil 2:6) but, filled with compassion, he looks into the abyss of human suffering so as to pour out the oil of consolation and the wine of hope.”

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Your names are written in Heaven

Fourteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

The readings for the last two consecutive Sunday have been a potent reminder of the radical demands made of those who wish to follow Christ. We’ve been hearing the constant refrain that Christians must carry their cross, burn the bridges behind them and follow Jesus unto death; such is our fate. Perhaps, by modern standards, this would be the worst marketing campaign imaginable if you are planning to recruit new members. Today, we continue with the same theme. Some may protest that this is overkill, but the closing of today’s gospel provides the necessary incentive. There is the glorious promise of success, seventy of the disciples sent out have now returned to joyfully report their triumphant achievements. So, indeed it was worth all the sweat, pain, hardship and toil. However, I’m quite sure that the disciples didn’t see it that way from the beginning. We are no different.

The pain threshold of our present generation has dropped to abysmal levels. We are facing a society and culture that cannot tolerate pain, or even suffer inconvenience, hardship, disappointment, and setbacks. It’s a generation that constantly longs for all forms of panacea: constant affirmations, repeated motivations, and entertaining distractions. It’s no wonder why marriages break up so easily; people find the smallest excuse to leave their faith or church; this explains the high rate of unemployment among Malaysians who will not settle for anything less than a 9-5 white collar undemanding job with a fat salary. I guess one can say that we are generally conforming to the laws of physics – taking the path of least resistance.

What has happened with modern living is that we have substituted pleasure for the ‘good’. For many people, ‘good’ is really about “feelings” as in “it feels good”. Thus, love is not as much a matter of willing to sacrifice and give oneself to the other as it is a feeling of well-being, ‘feeling good’. It is a narcissistic answer because “I feel good” and “I am good” are worlds apart. Prayer is no longer a matter of worshipping and communing with God as it is a feeling that I felt moved and was touched by the experience. No wonder, testimonies at the end of children’s catechetical camps and youth rallies often sound like the assessment you would give after a day’s outing at Disneyland – ‘It was fun.’ Thus ‘fun’ or ‘feeling good’ often becomes the real benchmark and not only just any benchmark, but the goal and purpose of every activity, including that of life itself. So, ultimately, we are a generation that have grown weary of our lives, a generation that has a low pain threshold, a generation that cannot accept disappointment and setbacks, a generation that wants quick and easy results, precisely because the very purpose of our lives is no longer just the good, it is simply pleasure.

If hedonism is pandemic and generally descriptive of our generation and culture, then many would wish to see the Christian life as the gateway to all sorts of pleasures and rewards. The Christian life to them spells popularity, success, prosperity, fun and the absence of suffering. Following Christ is the way to the “good life” or rather the “feel good” life.  If you expect that Christian discipleship is like an exciting adventure in a theme park, if you expect everything to be served to you on a platter, if you are expecting an easy life free from troubles, if you have a weak stomach for hardship and opposition, if you are the sort who takes off the moment you get the hint of adversity or smell the sour stench of difficulty, then you are bound to be disappointed by the warnings and travel advisory given by Jesus to his disciples in today’s gospel. This instead would the lot of his disciples:
  •  “The harvest is rich but he labourers are few”, in other words, the task ahead will be enormous but your fellow workers will be few – it’s going to be a demanding job, a heavy job, an unpopular job!
  • You will be sent out like “lambs among wolves” – there will be danger, there will be risk. In fact, your life too may be at risk. St John Chrysostom reminds us that “as long as we remain sheep, we overcome. Even though we are surrounded by a thousand wolves, we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves, we are beaten; for then we lose the support of the Shepherd, who feeds not wolves but only sheep.”
  • You are ask to take no extra provisions, discipleship means travelling light. A heavy baggage implies a lack of trust in God’s providence. You are asked to depend on God’s providential care rather than rely on your own devices, efforts and resources.
  • You can’t fuss about the conditions you would be working under, you have to accept whatever hospitality you receive, “taking what food and drink they have to offer”, whatever conditions that you may encounter – beggars can’t be choosy.
  • And finally, you will be facing rejection and even opposition. Even if your message is one of peace, be prepared to face violence at the hands of the enemies of peace, and there will be many because peace comes with a cost. But then, just “wipe off dust under your feet” and move on. There will be no room for self-pity, complain or dwelling on the setbacks you’ll encounter.

I believe that the apprehensions which the seventy must have had have much to do with the enthusiasm they reveal on their return. They come back jubilant. Their experience far surpassed their expectations. They acclaimed, “Even the devils submit to us when we use your name.”  For them, this was the epitome of success. For this moment, they were invincible, indestructible. This was the ultimate trophy as a disciple, or at least they thought so. Jesus’ response to the enthusiasm and joy of the seventy is most interesting. Jesus seeks to re-focus their joy, He first informed them that their ability to cast out demons was evidence of even greater issues than they had imagined. They saw their success only in terms of their having authority over the demons, but Jesus saw Satan as being defeated, and his power and authority as being overthrown. Jesus told His disciples that rather than to rejoice in their power over the demons, they should rejoice in their salvation. They should rejoice in that their names were written in heaven. Joy at the prospect of the termination of Satan’s opposition is nothing when compared to the certainty of an eternal relationship with God.

Thus we finally come to realise the ‘good’, in fact the ‘greatest good’ which man can hope to attain; the purpose for which he was created is his salvation. The old penny catechism reminds us that this is the reason for which God chose to create us: “to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him and be with Him in paradise forever.” St Ignatius provides a similar opening meditation to his Spiritual Exercises, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” So far as men are concerned, there is nothing more important than this. Salvation is an urgent matter, a matter of the highest priority, a matter of the greatest import and value that far exceeds any other ‘goods’, which includes the alleviation of suffering, hardship and even poverty. In Christ, freedom does not mean escape from these conditions. Christians cannot be insulated from the troubles of the world. We have to wade in deep, into the muck and dirt that comes with following Christ. It means standing deep in faith. In Christ, freedom means having a purpose, a goal, a direction – it is Jesus himself who alone can restore us to this eternal relationship with God.

A Jesuit friend of mine once shared with me this piece of timeless wisdom, “The saints laugh not because life is good or pleasurable. Despite life being grim, they laugh because they know that whatever the outcome of this life, they have found their purpose, they have a direction, they have a destination: Jesus Christ.” They rejoice because they know that their “names are written in heaven”!