Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Tremendous Yearning

Solemnity of All Saints

It would seem totally unfair to single out one single saint when our feast calls for us to contemplate the whole plethora of them – the entire sanctoral pantheon of heaven. But, the reason for this special mention would soon become obvious. I would like to introduce you to one of my personal favourites, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century abbot and reformer, a pastor and Doctor of the Church celebrated for centuries as a man of great intellect and greater holiness. Though largely unknown to our present generation of Catholics, he has left us a legacy of writings and homilies and one single Marian prayer that continues to be part of our treasure trove of Catholic prayers – the Memorare.

He deserves special mention today because I would like to begin with the blunt and perhaps unexpected question he asked in a homily given on the occasion of Solemnity of All Saints. “Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honours when their heavenly Father honours them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them.’’ St. Bernard provides this beautiful answer to his list of rhetorical questions, “when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.”

What is this ‘tremendous yearning’ which he speaks of? St Bernard explains that this ‘tremendous yearning’ is twofold in nature. With regards to the first level of yearning: “Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints …”

But when we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: “that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory… When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendor with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head.” St Bernard reminds us that we do not simply honour the saints from a distance like dotting fans. No, that would not be enough. By contemplating the saints, we ‘yearn’, we long, and we aspire to be with them, to be in their company, but most importantly to be united with Christ who is head of this glorified body. If Beauty is the compelling power of Truth, then the Beauty of the Saints draws us to not to themselves but into the presence of Divine Truth himself.

When we pause to consider the lives of the saints, it inspires us to long for holiness in our own lives, and the path of holiness. But the path of holiness isn’t something sterile and saccharine. As Pope Benedict and Pope Francis has always reminded us, the path of holiness always passes through the Way of the Cross. Today, on this Solemn Feast of All Saints, we are standing with John the Seer and seeing what he saw, the huge number impossible to count, of people from every nation. We are seeing all those believers who have gone before us and have arrived at the heavenly goal we’re still travelling to. And then the question comes, “Do you know who these people are?” This question isn’t really concerned about naming each and everyone of those saints arrayed in the presence of God. The question is rather, “Do we know what a saint is?” “Do we know what it means to stand before God in everlasting life?”

And here’s the answer, “These are the people who...have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). It’s worth trying to understand. What does it mean? Let’s say this: the robe is our humanity, the blood of the Lamb is the power of Christ’s passion, his suffering and death, and white is the colour of closeness to God. So a saint is someone whose humanity, whose life, has been brought to God, been made god-like, by the power of the Cross, by the power of the self-offering Christ the Lamb made on the Cross. There, on the Cross, the naked Christ gave us back our robe and covered our nakedness wrought by sin. On the Cross, he showed us our truest and deepest vocation as human beings.

But apart from showing us the Cross, the saints also remind us of things that are changeless, timeless.  Things we need to remember and hold onto right now.  Things like Courage, Sacrifice, Holiness, and Hope. For all the trials and hardships that the world has known, through the centuries ordinary people have stepped forward to live out those ideals.  Now, many of you may protest that most Christians will never get the privilege of becoming a ‘red’ martyr, one who gives his life for his faith. But then all are called to be ‘white’ martyrs, martyrs in their own right in living faithfully the vocation of holiness in their own respective circumstances. Daily life, the demands of family and work, marriage and parenthood, tending to others’ needs, dealing with the things that go wrong: it’s through all that, most usually, Christ’s love is to be lived. We can either chose mediocrity or we can choose the same path by living it with heroic acts of faith, humility and fidelity. That too is the path of holiness.

We hear the rallying cry of St Bernard on this great solemnity, “Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Humility and Liturgy

Thirtieth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Here’s another twist to the parable. A bishop, the rector of the parish and the sacristan were praying fervently in church. All three supplicants were protesting their unworthiness.
The bishop, in a subdued voice, was overheard repeating the following mantra, “Lord, I am a great sinner… Lord, I am a great sinner!”
The rector, who was kneeling next to his bishop, did not want to be outdone in his humble protestations, as he repeated “Lord, I am truly a sinner … Lord, I am truly a sinner!”
Kneeling behind the two was the old sacristan of the Church, whose prayer was filled with tears and sobs and with little else, who cried out: “Lord, I have sin! Lord I have sin!”
Both bishop and the rector had to stop praying when it became obvious that their efforts were being drowned out by the escalating sobs and cries of the third man. The bishop turned to the rector with indignation and complained, “Look at who’s trying to be a sinner!”

Pride often poses as humility. It strategises to be honoured while looking all humble. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference because pride resides within the heart and not on the face.  Our outward appearances stripped down, no frills, flaunting bare simplicity (or simplistic), a humble façade, can often veil our pride.  Pride can pose itself in a dumb down crowd pleasing form of religion or a Spartan white washed minimalist form of liturgy. Pride is a seasoned player at disguising itself as virtue.  Pride began in the Garden, when Adam wanted to “be like God”. Seen in this light, we now recognise the true face of pride – it is narcissism – the worship of self, the enthronement of man over God.

Humility, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word humus, which means “ground” or “soil”. It reminds us of the second creation account (see Gen 2:7) in which God forms the first human beings from the dust of the ground and breathes life into them. It is an admission of our own vileness in comparison to the infinite greatness of God. Thus bowing, prostrating, and genuflecting, gestures that physically moves the body closer to the ‘ground’, gestures that suggest submission, respect, humility, reverence and obedience, comes naturally to the humble supplicant. Humility considers Christ and His glory.  It does not feel the need to hide the glory of God. St Paul in the second reading speaks of all the blessings that he has received from God and gives Him glory. False humility, on the other hand, conceals the glory of God, and in doing so pushes oneself to the fore. 

The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in today’s gospel stands out in bold relief and presents two paradigms of prayer or worship. Here we see by sharp contrast the utter worthlessness of self-righteousness, self-exaltation, and self-praise in praying. The Pharisee seemed to be rigorously schooled in prayer, by training and by habit, but he prays not. Words are uttered by him, but words are not prayer. Pride, self-righteousness, and narcissism have entirely poisoned his supplications. His entire praying has been impregnated with self-praise, self-congratulation, and self-exaltation. God is not glorified; man, however, is elevated.

On the other hand, the tax collector, smitten with a deep sense of his sins and his inward sinfulness, realising how poor in spirit he is, how utterly devoid of anything like righteousness, goodness, or any quality which would commend him to God, falls down with humiliation and despair before God, while he utters a sharp cry for mercy for his sins and his guilt. A sense of sin and a realisation of utter unworthiness have fixed the roots of humility deep down in his soul. The tax collector stood at a distance and would not even look up toward heaven. His posture reflected his deep reverence for the transcendence of God. This is the picture of humility against pride in praying.

The tax collector thus provides us a not just a model of humility or contrition, but presents to us the condition sine qua non of worship. Celebrating good liturgy requires a good dose of humility. Liturgy, in fact, best articulates the real meaning of humility – the glorification of God rather than of man. Blessed John Paul II reminds us that “the celebration of the Liturgy … must be characterised by a profound sense of the sacred. Both the individual and the community must be aware that, in a special way, through the Liturgy they come into the presence of Him who is thrice holy and transcendent. Consequently, the disposition required of them is one that can only flow from that reverence and awe deriving from an awareness of being in the presence of the majesty of Almighty God.” It is unfortunate that many see such emphasis of reverence and transcendence as a barrier to popular worship.

Many a Catholic resent what they call “pomp and pomposity” in the celebration of the Eucharist. It appears to them as though this is contrary to the spirit of poverty which Christ displayed throughout His life, from His birth in a stable to His death on the Cross outside of the city of Jerusalem. This simplistic analysis, completely overlooks a crucial event in His life however, which is directly connected to the Eucharist, namely the anointing at Bethany. Christ had no problem, and even delighted in the “pomp and pomposity” with which Mary, the sister of Lazarus, poured a costly ointment on His sacred feet. It was Judas who protested. That’s ‘humility’ for you!

Ever since the election of Pope Francis, there has been heightened discussions on how Pope Francis personifies the ideal of a simplified, humbled, version of liturgy free of ostentatious trappings of his predecessor. Certainly, there seems to be a preference for less elaborately ornate liturgical vestments. But this does not make Pope Francis the poster boy for what passes as ‘humble’ liturgy. In fact, there is nothing humble about liturgy that is shorn of beauty, mystery, awe, and grandeur which is ultimately due to God, and never for man. This is certainly far from the intention of Pope Francis himself. One can easily discern his solemn disposition during every celebration of the Mass – his outer and inner vision is directed only to God. The problem is that many wrongly read into this an overt effort to remove the symbols of power and office and to put in place poverty and humility. The detractors of liturgical finery just don’t get it – that there is no conflict or contradiction between humble and sublime liturgies. Great humility and great beauty are not mutually exclusive.

He who rejects beauty in the mass forgets that the liturgy, as pointed out by St John Chrysostom, the Great Doctor of the East who was also a lover of the poor, is a foretaste of ‘heaven on earth.’ Therefore, one who thinks he is stripping the liturgy of unnecessary accoutrements that would hinder accessibility of the poor to the liturgy, actually ends up denying them the beauty and treasures of heaven. Denying the beauty of the mass to the masses is sort of like denying food to the hungry. The poor normally have no access to the grandeur or opulence of the king’s palace, but within the liturgy, they are transported into the most magnificent palace of the King of Kings. To deny them this right would be patronising and condescending, and in fact discriminates against the poor – it is saying that the poor are unworthy of beauty, unworthy of beatitude. There is nothing humble about this. In fact, it reeks of hubris. Humility is about forgetting self, not forgetting beauty which serves to honour God and give him glory.

Have you noticed how we have regressed to performing mere perfunctory head bows (often with great reluctance) from the days when we used to genuflect whenever we came before the presence of Christ in the Eucharist? This seems to suggest an so absorbed in our own self-importance that we bow to no one, not even to God. Abba Appolo, a desert father of the Church reminds us that "the devil has no knees; he cannot kneel; he cannot adore; he cannot pray; he can only look down his nose in contempt. Being unwilling to bend the knee at the name of Jesus is the essence of evil." Our thrust for democratisation now threatens to reduce God to the level of humanity – He’s just one of the guys who does not deserve our bowing and genuflections. But when a good man, a humble man, a man who recognises his own unworthiness, is in the presence of greatness, he knows how to abase himself whether it be in posture or expression.  The humble man does not presume familiarity in the presence of greatness for that would certainly be contemptuous.

Today, instead of abasing ourselves humbly before our awesome and mysterious God during the reenactment of the Sacrifice of Calvary at every Holy Mass, we delude ourselves into thinking we are being humble when we strip the liturgy of its majesty and beauty, when we abolish our kneeling and profound bows, and substitute our sacred hymns that sing of the majesty of God for folksy ditties that speak about ourselves. True humility, can never be subjecting God to the humiliation we are simply witnessing in the impoverished and lackadaisical celebrations of our liturgy. True humility, as the parable and St Paul teach us, leads to exaltation - not of ourselves but of the God who created us, saves us, and loves us. Pope Benedict has reminded us that it is in the liturgy that the renewal and reform of the Church begins. And it is here that we must begin our lesson in true humility.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Faithfulness in Prayer

Twenty Ninth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Have you noticed how the existence of God either becomes apparent or is questioned during time of crises? Some people, who are practically atheists for most part of their lives, begin to mutter invocations and offer prayers that they would otherwise not do on an average day. Desperation can drive you to faith, albeit shallow. On the other hand, many good persons of faith may begin questioning the existence of God when bad things happened. “Where is God when bad things or injustice happen to innocent God-fearing people?” The question actually betrays their anger and frustration – they blame God either for being the author of suffering and injustices or failing to take corrective action. The vast majority of prayers, by believers and unbelievers alike, are often requests that injustice would be replaced by justice - that God would make wrong things right. What happens to my faith when the thing I prayed to be made right remains wrong? The so-called good God that we believe in cannot exist and allow such terrible things to happen, unless he wasn’t all that good to start with!

All of these may be boiled down to a single question: Is God just? Why does God, if he is a God of justice and a God who hate sins permit injustice in the world?  Many Christians wind up with these standard pat answers: God is disciplining us, or God is punishing us, or God is teaching us a lesson, or God’s ways are mysterious. Usually, the atheist remains unconvinced. The upshot to simplistic theology, however, is that while we expect to be punished for our misdeeds, we also expect to be rewarded for our good works. Consequently, our expectation can quickly become inflated. When we aren’t immediately showered with blessings we are often quick to complain. When believers face hard times, when their prayers go unanswered, the logic fails. Those who remain fixated on the privilege of being faithful may grow resentful, even accusatory towards their Maker. And so when bad things happen to good people many sometimes shake our fists at God and ask, “Is this how you treat your servants?”

But the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge in today’s gospel turns this whole issue on its head. Rather than becoming fixated on why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people, perhaps we should refocus our thoughts on something far more important. When we are constantly dwelling on how God doesn’t seem to meet up to our expectations, we often fail to pay attention to what is expected of us. God is not the one who is on trial. It is ‘we’ who are being called to account for our response, our attitude and our actions. The million dollar question isn’t ‘Why does God permit bad things to happen to us?’ but, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?”

The point made by the parable in today’s gospel is that the persistent prayer for justice is chosen by Jesus as the evidence of faith that he will look for when he returns. This seems a far cry from the kinds of things we usually assume Jesus looks for; things like a set of rules, activism, piety or a decision we once made to follow Jesus long ago. In this case, if Jesus wants evidence of faith, the question he will ask is 'did you consistently bring your requests to God in the face of the injustices of this world?'

Jesus has told a parable of persistence, of a widow -- weak in the world's estimation -- who has won a victory because she didn't give up hope, she doesn't give up her plea, and finally wins the day. But what about you and me? We sometimes become so worn down and discouraged by our lives that we stop praying, stop hoping, stop expecting God to intervene. Will we be religious, church-going unbelievers who have given up expecting an answer, whose prayers are just going through the motions? Jesus wonders. "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

One of the hardest things we face as human beings is ongoing injustice. This is especially true when that injustice is directed toward us. Why do you think justice or injustice have such a great impact on us? Why do we get incensed when we see injustice being committed? It’s in our DNA. We are made in the image and likeness of a God of justice. Yet tens of thousands face injustice, hardship, brutality, and persecution each year. When believers face these hard times, it is hard to believe that God is indeed just. It is especially disturbing when wicked people are not brought to justice. However, Jesus reminds us that the issue isn't injustice but faithfulness. God will settle accounts and bring justice. Don’t cry foul or protest God’s seeming inaction as the ‘jury is still out’ and the trial isn’t over. The real question is whether or not we'll stick in there and not give up under fire. Hang in! Pray for the Father to hear you! Don't give up, for God will not only bring justice, but he will also bring salvation and victory. The real issue is when He comes, will he find any faith on earth? Will he find any remaining faithful to their vocation to wait in trust and persevere in prayer?

We are provided profound guidance in today’s gospel as we are invited to ponder the mystery of unanswered prayer. We see in the words and action of Jesus an acknowledgement of injustice - the problems of this world are not a surprise to God. God sees our suffering, he hears our cries and he understands our pain. God is not blind to the troubles of this earth. He has not abandoned us. I see a firm promise from a faithful God in response to that injustice. And I see a call to faith expressed through prayer in response to that promise.

Patience and perseverance is necessary for our prayer life. They are the handmaidens of faith. We must continue praying even when we have become tired of waiting for an answer from God. The reason for this is simple: without prayer, giving up will be easiest option. Prayer sustains our faith and faith brings hope. I guess many of us are often tempted and feel like giving up. Like Moses in the first reading, some of you may be experiencing heaviness and weariness holding your hands up in prayer – persevering in prayer – and you feel that you have no strength to continue. Some of you may be experiencing a string of tribulations for so long that you feel that praying is useless and does not make any difference in your life. But the message of the gospel for you today is: Be patient! Wait for the Lord, for the Lord will come indeed! The battle isn’t over until you’ve exhausted the highest court in the universe (and mind you it isn’t the Federal Court of this land!). You may not be able to see or predict what’s going to happen in the future. Tomorrow may appear to be the same as today. But your patience and perseverance will be rewarded. God will surely answer us, but in his own time and in his own way. Remember, however, the real question before is this: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?”

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gratitude Saves

Twenty Eighth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Found this little treasure on the net. It proposes to answer the needling question: Why only one leper returned to give thanks? The following are nine suggested reasons why the nine did not return:
One waited to see if the cure was real.
One waited to see if it would last.
One said he would see Jesus later.
One decided that he had never had leprosy.
One said he would have gotten well anyway.
One gave the glory to the priests.
One said, “O, well, Jesus didn’t really do anything.”
One said, “Any rabbi could have done it.”
One said, “I was already much improved.”
(Charles L. Brown, Content the Newsletter Newsletter, June, 1990, p. 3)

To be fair, all ten lepers stepped out in faith and cried out to Jesus for help; they were obedient to Jesus’ counsel to show themselves to the priests, and as a consequence they were healed of their disease. Yet of the ten men that were healed, only one distinguished himself – he was the only one who returned to Jesus to praise him and thank him for what he did. And to add irony to this story, this person was a Samaritan, despised by the Jews. The story illustrates two points. The first point is one which our present Pope is painstakingly trying to make in his homilies, in his interviews, in his catecheses - Pope Francis wants to present to the world a tender, loving and compassionate God who cast His nets wide – He extends His grace to all people. Jesus' love and mercy, his healing touch extends to both Jews and Samaritans alike, the insider and the outcast, believers and unbelievers, to both the grateful and the ungrateful. No one is excluded from the love of God.
But the gospel pays greater attention to the second point - a lesson in gratitude as displayed by the former Samaritan leper.
When we were little children, learning our manners, one of the first habits our parents drilled into our heads was the habit of saying “please” and “thank you.” And then there were the constant reminders by the adults, “Did you say thank you?” which taught you an additional lesson – it’s not enough to whisper a silent prayer of thanksgiving, gratitude has to be audible and visible. Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone. It’s strange how we lose sight of these important habits when we grow old.

Gratitude is not about "looking at the bright side" or denying the realities of life. It’s not saying, ‘Thank God, it could be worse!’ Gratitude goes much deeper than that. The leper’s action reveals the heart of gratitude – it is treasuring Christ more greatly and savouring his power more sweetly, the power which heals, which liberates and finally, the power which saves. In the first reading, in the story of the foreign general Naaman, we recognise that gratitude has the power to heal. But this is only part of the mystery of God’s grace. In the second reading, St Paul reminds us that gratitude also liberates. But it is in the gospel that we discover climatic apex of this godly virtue – gratitude saves.

Notice that although the nine lepers were ‘cleansed’, only one earned the accolade of being ‘saved.’ Jesus tells him at the end of the story, “Your faith has saved you.” In Luke’s context, he is making a polemical point: Only the foreigner is grateful for the grace received and that is his salvation. The others think solely of the benefits received, physical healing and social acceptance; but neglected to pursue the path of well-ness right to its very end – salvation. This is certainly descriptive of most of us who search for a cure to our disease, longevity to life, a solution to life’s problems; but ultimately lose sight of the greatest gift of all, the reason for the Father having to send his Son – our salvation

No work of God's is more worthy of gratitude than salvation. But it often doesn’t feel that way, right? Selective forgetfulness is to be blamed for this. We have forgotten that before coming to know Christ, each of us lived in a self-imposed prison of guilt, spiritual blindness and sin. But Christ not only rescued us from the power and penalty of our sins, He also lifted us to the realm of grace. He delivered us from punishment and brought glory. He defeated death and won for us eternal life. He took away the threat of hell and gave us the hope of heaven. Gratitude is therefore keenly linked with memory – memory of the grace of salvation we have received from God and who continues to complete and perfect the work which He has begun in us. Gratitude should make us sing of salvation, talk of salvation. Thanking God for saving us should be the unceasing occupation of our lips.

When we are giving thanks always for all things to God the Father, then we recognise his power and his glory. And when we recognise the power and the glory of God, we can understand our own position as His servants. We begin to approach the menial tasks that are all a part of our jobs and responsibilities with a sense of contentment rather than a sense of obligation. Imagine a Church or a parish that follows the example of grateful former leper. Imagine serving in a culture of gratitude—not a culture of obligation, or guilt, or arrogance, or exclusion, or pride.

Gratitude isn't something that should pass from our minds with the passing of a season. It's an attitude, a God-centred response to circumstances that should pervade every season of our lives. Perhaps the most difficult time to be thankful is when we're in the midst of a setback, a challenge, or a trial. When the storm comes, giving thanks is rarely our first reaction. Being thankful for adversity is never easy, but it is always right. Our faith reminds us that the difficult times are the ones in which God seems to be most at work in our lives, strengthening our weak spots, comforting our hurts, and drawing us to greater dependence. A person cannot be complaining and thankful at the same time, nor can they worry about money or health or anything while being thankful. With gratitude comes joy, hope, peace and love.

The story of the ten lepers is a wonderful story of the infinite grace and mercy of our Lord and Saviour, one who gives us good gifts, even if we have ungrateful hearts. It is also a story which challenges us to place our trust in God, to follow his commands, and to see the wonderful rewards this brings us. In the few moments we will come to the table of Christ together to celebrate the Eucharist. The word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek word, “eucharistia,” (εχαριστία) meaning to give thanks (for the good graces we have received).  And so we give thanks not just because God has healed us, he has liberated us from sin, fear and anxiety. We give thanks because of Sacrifice of the Cross re-enacted at every Eucharist has saved us and continues to make us whole – completing, bringing together and finishing the grand work of salvation which God has begun us. And I don’t know about you, but the prospect of being made whole, being healed, being liberated and being saved is enough to make me turn around, rush back again to Jesus, and say thank you, Jesus.  Thank you so much.