Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Made in the image of the Trinity

Most Holy Trinity

John Donne, famous Anglican preacher and poet penned these unforgettable words, “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” Certainly, no man is an island, entire of itself; because God made man for more than fellowship with Himself. To be complete, to be satisfied, to be fully realised as a creature made in God’s image, man needed to be in relationship with others.

This is part of what it means to be made in God’s image. Through Jesus Christ, God has revealed something astonishing about His inner life: that He is not a solitary individual, but a community, a community of three distinct persons who are equal and yet one through love. This unique revelation implies many things. God’s inner life is full of activity, the Father is turned towards the Son, the Son turned towards the Father, and the Love between them being another person known as the Spirit. The Father is outgoing, the Son is outgoing, the Spirit too is outgoing; reaching out in love everywhere and always.

For man to image this kind of God, he must be in a position of constant turning to the other. An isolated individual is a distortion of this image. Because we are made in God’s image, God is the model for humanity. The Holy Trinity thus becomes the model for all relationships, especially for every community, every family, every BEC, every parish and the Church. Thus, God who is enough, created us in a deliberate manner so that He is not enough. Of course, God is absolutely sufficient – only He alone can provide us with all that we need and it is He who ultimately completes man. But God imprinted His Divine Image on man. In is through this imprint, it is through his mirroring of the Three Divine Persons in the One God, that we can now speak of people needing other people to be complete. We were made for each other.

Thus, the pessimistic dictum of existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people,” is exactly the reverse. Hell is the absence, not the presence, of other people. In fact, in hell, the wicked will be utterly alone, eternally alienated and any relationship including the one which God wishes to enter into with them is utterly despised. We must reject the lie that other people stifle our freedom or get in the way of our self-actualisation. Rather, it is precisely in community that we are free to find and be our true selves. We are not self-made, but made for God and others. Heaven and the new creation are precisely what Sartre dreaded, but in a form he could not imagine. Heaven is other people, it is the perfected society of love. It is not the absence of other people, but precisely their presence that makes heaven so heavenly. The redeemed community is marked out even in the present by this mutual love. Our love for one another shows that the power of God’s new creation is already at work in the world. This love will be perfected in the resurrection.

The gospel, then, is irreducibly social. Liberation theologians often use the label “social gospel” to refer to their programme. They substituted salvation from poverty and ignorance through state-mandated welfare and educational programs for salvation from sin and damnation through Christ’s death and resurrection. One theologian characterised the social gospel of liberation as a God without wrath, bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment though a Christ without a cross. The goal is a man-made Utopia created by men and firmly established on earth. Obviously, that is a total distortion of scriptures. But in another sense, we could benefit from restoring and redeeming the label “social gospel.” The gospel is social through and through. There is a Latin dictum, extra ecclesia nulla salus, that claims that outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. That is to say, salvation and incorporation into Christ’s body go hand in hand. Salvation includes a new status and a new community.

Of course the challenge to live in community is difficult especially with the rise of individualism. Community means you give up some privacy, some of your rights. It means you sometimes have to accommodate yourself to things you wish could be done differently. You have to learn to listen to others rather than to insist you are listened to. It means we have to learn that life together involves becoming vulnerable at times, admitting weaknesses and needs. Communal life means we are willing to submit to authority, especially the legitimate authority of the Church.

The Trinity emphasises that solitariness is hell and that individualistic selfishness is a curse, unbecoming of any human being. We are born to foster relationships. We are to grow in this relationship, reaching out beyond our extended family. We are to establish relationships with all people, castes, races and nations – which should lead to fellowship, understanding, mutual help and well-being. No man is an island, and we all belong to the family of man, and to the family of God. The Son became man that we might become divine. This is both a gift and a challenge that the Holy Trinity places before us – be like God, become divine! Becoming divine is an invitation to love, sharing, self-communication and joy in giving and receiving. Becoming divine is to live and be in communion. Anything less would be hell.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Not Latin again?

Pentecost 2015

Occasionally, I’m confronted by some upset parishioners who complain about the amount of Latin and (to those who are able to discern and make the distinction,) Greek used during our masses here in the parish. Sometimes, it’s an over exaggeration, “everything’s in Latin.” Honestly, a sampling of Latin in the ordinaries used on the First Sunday of every month, which make up less than 5% of the Mass, could hardly be considered as “everything.”

How can we understand this opposition? The main arguments would sound like this – “I don't understand Latin, and have difficulty making the responses. I would get more out of the Mass if it were spoken in English.” One could punch holes in the argument by merely pointing out that the Kyrie Eleison obviously refers to the “Lord have mercy” and Sanctus Sanctus to “Holy Holy,” since it occupies that same slot in the mass as the version in the vernacular. Interestingly, most of the complaints do not come from the young but from the older sector of the parish, a group that had a fair bit of exposure to the Tridentine Latin Mass in the past, with a few even acknowledging that they had been serving as altar servers at such masses and would thus be familiar with the Latin. So, is it a lack of comprehension or something else?

The value of the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy certainly cannot be discounted. Our Holy Father at the anniversary of the first mass celebrated by Venerable Pope Paul VI in the vernacular, said that “allowing priests to celebrate Mass in the language of the local congregation rather than in Latin allowed the faithful to understand and be encouraged by the word of God.” Mass in the vernacular rather than Latin would remind people that the house of God is meant to be a source of spiritual strength, where they can hear his word and feel “not like foreigners but as brothers and sisters.”

And yet, I believe our Holy Father did not mean a total obliteration of Latin in the liturgy. In most Papal masses, the ordinaries are sung in Latin. The Latin was meant to exist alongside the vernacular. Pope St John XXIII, the architect of Vatican II, a Council that is often cited as the reason for such a move to the vernacular, resisted all attempts to exile the Latin language to the dusty archives of the museums. Since the Latin language is not a living language used by any particular nation, it is language that belongs to ALL. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, No 36, it was decreed that the “use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”

The complaints about the Latin may be a symptom of a larger malaise – an ethnocentric obsession with the particular (or a rebellion against the universal). Language, instead of being a medium of communicating with God and fostering communion with His people, has now become a bone of contention, a golden calf worshipped in its own right. “My preferred language is English (or Tamil, or Bahasa Malaysia, or Mandarin) and I will not back down on my right to hear the entire mass in the language of my choice without it being adulterated by the insertion of any other foreign sounding languages.” The matter goes beyond the issue of comprehension. If that was the case, then we should all have settled for Bahasa Malaysia, our national language.  Mostly everyone hates the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mass, because my preferred language only enjoys limited air-time during the entire celebration. The truth is that I’m not willing to see an erosion of the space that I’ve carved out in this parish.

Due to the liturgical babelism we are witnessing in this day and age, the Eucharist, which is the supreme Sacrament of Unity, has now become a counter-sign of division within the Church. The insistence of the use of the vernacular, perhaps a mirror of our larger polarised Malaysian society, has resulted in dividing the parish artificially into various self-sufficient sub-parishes. The parish community, the Church, united by that first Pentecost experience which healed the division of Babel, is reduced once again into a highly segregated loose confederation of ghettoes. Today’s feast therefore challenges us to revisit the use of language in our worship and liturgy, and in the larger context to its role in uniting a diverse set of individuals and communities.

In the Book of Genesis, we see man’s pride in wanting to rival God’s creation and building a monument to the Cult of Man which was punished by the division of language and division amongst ourselves. Just like the story of the Golden Calf in the episode of the Exodus, the Tower of Babel is symbolic of the narcissistic self-sufficient cult of building altars to worship one self and one’s personal achievements. It resulted in the glorification of self. This over-reaching to heaven brings fatal consequences when proud people imagine they can, of themselves, construct the perfect life and surpass all previous attempts. This is a grave warning to us all and especially to modern man’s obsession with human culture without reference to its point of origin or destination. The Tower of Babel failed because it was built upon fear and pride. Without God there is no lynchpin to life and so collapse is inevitable.

According to the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, culture “in the general sense refers to all those things which go to the refining and developing of man’s diverse mental and physical endowments” (GS 53). And the culmination and perfection of these endowments must find its end and purpose in the greatest Good, in God. But when culture and language (a component of culture) no longer serves that greater Good, it is then twisted and subverted to a worship of man and his achievements. When this happens, language which is meant to facilitate communication (Latin “communicare” – to create communion) no longer serves to bring about communion, but rather becomes the cause for division.

Pentecost, with its gift of understanding in different tongues was a sign that the breach with God was repaired and that the breach among ourselves was also to be healed. The miracle witnessed at the First Pentecost wasn’t a miracle of glossolalia, the gift of tongues, but a miracle of communion that transcended cultural barriers and linguistic affiliations.

The point of this whole homily is not just merely making a case for the wider use of Latin in the mass, the expulsion of the vernacular, or an argument that seeks to turn back the clock. It is rather a call to greater self-examination by all, whether advocates of Latin or its opponents, proponents of the Traditional Latin Mass, and those who wish to suppress it, that this liturgical war fought for the last few decades must cease. There is an inherent renewal that must take place as part of the initiative of the Holy Spirit, rather than that of man, but there must also be a recognition of the continuity of this evolution because it is the same Spirit poured down on the First Pentecost, that continues to work in the Church across the centuries; and the Spirit cannot contradict Himself. The use of Latin alongside the vernacular serves to ensure this continuity.

The Mass, was given to us to undo the curse of Babel and confessed a bond that held Christians together that transcended language, race, class, and culture. It cannot and should not be the cause for our division today. If indeed it has become the reason for our division, we risk constructing another shaky Tower of Babel that would rival the first. And in this light, the use of Latin, the mother tongue of Church, cannot be regarded as the cause of division, outlawed and shunned like a leper, but must certainly be used alongside the vernacular with the hope that it can truly restore, augment and solidify the unity of the Church which feeds on the One Bread, the One Body, the One Lord of All.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Prayer, the Heart of the Church

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year B

The followers of Christ through the first centuries of the Church conceived of themselves, from the very beginning as a community of prayer. The New Testament, especially the Gospels and the Pauline epistles, are teeming with references to prayer and exhortations for Christians to follow suit.  Perhaps, the Gospel that best exemplifies this attitude of the prayer is that of the Gospel of St Luke. It is here that Jesus tells his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. A few chapters later, Jesus exhorts his followers: “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations… and stand before the Son of Man.” In the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to the Gospel of St Luke, we find the fulfillment and realisation of these instructions to keep vigilance in prayer, as we had read in today’s first reading.

At the beginning of St Luke’s second volume, i.e. the Acts of the Apostles, he records the story of the Ascension of the Lord. The Lord delivered to the disciples the program of their existence devoted to the mission and evangelisation. But till the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Lord makes it clear that they must wait in Jerusalem – not just any idle waiting, or a waiting filled with frenzied activity, but a prayerful vigilance. Therefore, it is in Jerusalem, the Apostles are gathered in the house to pray, and the reward for their prayerful vigilance is the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This Sunday reminds us of that illuminating truth, a truth that is often neglected or forgotten, that at the heart of the Church lies prayer.

In this context of waiting, between Ascension and Pentecost, St. Luke mentions Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for the last time. In a way, St Luke wishes to parallel the narrative in his gospel. He dedicated the beginning of his Gospel to Mary, the announcement of the angel of the birth and infancy of the Son of God made man. And here at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the birth and the beginning of the mission of the Church, Mary stands not only as witness but as a model for prayerful recollection. Of course, the Church sees in Mary more than the historical and biological association with Jesus. The Church sees in her an icon, an image and mirror of herself. Mary symbolises this important truth, that prayer lies at the very heart of the Church.

Thus, this unassuming record of the presence of the mother of Jesus amidst the Apostles gathered in prayer, is a fitting summary of her life and ministry. Throughout the Gospel of St Luke, she is the exemplary model of prayer, from the theologically articulate Magnificat to the contemplative reading of the events in her Son’s life. Mary was a witness to the historical unfolding of the saving events, which culminated in the Redeemer's Death and Resurrection, and she kept “all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19) She was not merely present as an observer, nor did she merely follow the events as a doting mother, but sought to grasp their deeper meaning, adhering with all her soul to what was being mysteriously accomplished in them. And now in the Upper Room, after the ascent of her Son to heaven, and in the quiet atmosphere of listening and prayer, she is present once again. After this, she disappears like her Son. Where Scripture remains silent, the Tradition found among our Eastern brethren is that Mary retreated into prayer and contemplation for the rest of her life.  Her mission on earth has ended. Her intercessory mission in heaven has only begun.

This poignant scene of the first Christian community with Mary in their midst, consumed in prayer provides two points of reflection.
The first is a correction to a common myth, that prayer can only be accomplished in the midst an environment free from distraction and trouble. On the contrary, this first novena of the Church, demonstrates that prayer can take place even in the midst of confusion, anxiety and chaos. This is beautifully articulated in a pictorial manner by the traditional festal icon of the Ascension. It depicts of the scene of Ascension and the gathered apostles on the Mount of Olives. But the icon does more than show the historical event of Christ’s ascension; it also symbolically depicts the Church.  Of course, the primary figure is that of the ascending Christ in the upper portion of this icon. But our reflection today draws our attention to the lower half of the icon, where the Apostles flank and surround Mary.

Here on the Mount of Olives, we see how the icon captures two movements - it contains both confusion and peace: the former is borne of worldly reasoning, whilst the latter comes from a humble submission to the heavenly order. The distinction between heavenly peace and worldly confusion is most apparent in the distinction made between Mary and the Apostles. The Apostles look up in a combination of fear and wonder.  Two angels exhort the men to cease their gazing into heaven and return to Jerusalem to receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. At the centre stands Mary the Mother of God, hands raised in prayer, not staring up, but peacefully toward us. Mary appears to understand the deep mysteries of her Son’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension, already hoping for Christ’s return. This hope brings her the divine peace. She, like Jesus and the angels, possesses a halo signifying the grace and glory of God, whereas the disordered Apostles do not. They are unenlightened.

The icon also highlights the second point that I wish to make. Mary is firmly anchored by prayer at the very centre, whereas the Apostles are struggling with the urge to depart, to leave that very place, to begin their urgent ministry of evangelisation. The icon exudes this tension between prayerful stillness and troubled activity. Often, many in the Church are tempted to abandon prayer in favour of activism, measuring success by what they do and can accomplish. It’s almost as if we are saying, “Jesus is gone, now it’s all up to us to save the world.” In the context of a world that is so obsessed with efficiency and productivity, one is quickly conquered by this dangerous temptation of activism, as though salvation depended upon us. The world of today is even more fascinated with activism that it has lost the sense of contemplation. Prayer is seen as a waste of time, a sign of escapism.

But prayer is the motor of mission. In fact, mission and evangelisation depends first of all upon prayer and the primary initiative of God who precedes our initiatives. All activities are empty without the necessary foundation of prayer. Mission begins in the Upper Room, the Cenacle, with prayer. Without prayer, which is the soul of all apostolate, evangelisation becomes proselytism, propaganda, or a publicity campaign. The peaceful image of the Mother God, prayerfully and peacefully entreating God, therefore invites us to do the same, and to abandon our desire to right every wrong, but rather to unite ourselves with Christ, who is the world’s true Saviour.

Venerating the Mother of Jesus in the Church, then, means to learn from her to be a community that prays. Mary invites us to turn to God not only in need but in a persevering and faithful way. Mary teaches us the necessity of prayer, the need to be centred in prayer, and shows us that only with a constant, intimate bond, full of love with her Son can we emerge from ourselves, with courage, to reach the ends of the world and proclaim everywhere the Lord Jesus, Saviour of the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Going leads to a Coming

Ascension of the Lord 2015

All of us have been in a situation where it is hard to say goodbye. At the end of three and a half years in this parish, I find myself in such a situation. Saying goodbye is hard to do when you know that it could be the last. Saying goodbye is hard to do when you have grown to love those whom you now have to bid farewell to. Saying goodbye is difficult because it implies change. When life is good we prefer the comfort of permanence rather than the uncertainty of change. Saying goodbye is hard as the future remains shrouded in uncertainty. But perhaps for many, saying goodbye is hard because of the gnawing pain of the absence after the separation. It’s no wonder that many of us are not very good at saying goodbye, many avoid it altogether. Or we try not to get close to people in the first place.

As difficult and as painful as it may be, goodbyes are inevitable. Life is like that, people come and they go. You make a friend and then either they move or you move. There are births and there are deaths, beginnings and endings. The pain in this kind of letting go is often excruciating, as parents know, but to refuse to do that is to truncate life. Yes, goodbyes are not only inevitable, they are necessary. Without goodbyes we will never be greeted with new hellos, endings may not lead to new beginnings, a going cannot become a coming. Without the Ascension, there will be no Pentecost. Therefore, the Ascension is both a going away and a coming. Even as he says goodbye, Jesus instructs his disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for another who is coming. In His going, came the promise of the Holy Spirit’s coming.

Therefore, the Ascension reminds us that an ending may actually be a new beginning. In fact, if Jesus did not return to the Father, the Spirit would not have come, the Church would not have been born, the disciples would not have been challenged to step out into the world and witness to the good news of the Kingdom and we would not have been here.

The notion that Jesus, by ascending into heaven, has gone away and is now somehow distant from mankind, needs to be corrected. The ascension did not translate into his perpetual absence until his return in glory, but rather it is an event which allowed him to be present to his disciples and to all of us in profound way that goes beyond our experience of time and space. Jesus did not ascend into the presence of the Father to “get away” or to be silent, but so he can give himself continually and in perfect love to his bride, the Church. “Ascension does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather,” observed Pope Emeritus Benedict, “the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”

The Ascension, therefore, names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, absence can lead to a deeper and more intense and profound presence. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. But in the case of Christ’s ascension, it does so much more. Hence the feast of the Ascension is not to commemorate a departure but the celebration of the living and lasting presence of Jesus in the church.  He the Lord, the living head of his Body, the Church, remains always with us as he promised, but now in a new way. His “old” presence was limited by time and space.  But now with the Ascension this gives way to a new presence that will reach the whole world in every age.  

The ascent to heaven is therefore necessary. In ascending to heaven, Jesus has now taken us up into God’s very being, participating in God’s powerful presence in this universe. In conquering death through his resurrection he has conquered fear of all the terrible consequences we imagine unfolding if we don't get life quite right. Freedom from this fear amounts to freedom from temporal ultimatums—that is, the belief that salvation can happen within the world. The great temptation in our contemporary world is to believe that we can truly solve the world's problems—perhaps with the next great invention, or the next great economic structure, or the next great medical discovery. Those things are great, and relieving human suffering is no small matter. But Jesus' ascension into heaven without solving the world's problems is a reminder that only God can truly save the world. Jesus does not commission the disciples to spread democracy, or distribute income more equally, or lobby for human rights: he ascends to heaven and tells them simply to witness to the reality that the portals of heaven are now opened. There lies the answer and the solution to all life’s problems.

And just in case we may make that common mistake in assuming that “heaven” is a physical space above the clouds, or a different dimension above the visible universe, Pope Benedict springs this delightful and beautiful surprise on us. He writes, “Heaven: the word does not indicate a place above the stars but something far more daring and sublime: it indicates Christ himself, the divine Person who welcomes humanity fully and forever, the One in whom God and man are inseparably united forever. The human’s being in God – this is heaven.”

We live on the far side of Pentecost. We’ve already heard the commission and tasted the presence of the Spirit. But the message of Ascension Thursday is a good reminder, that we always live in the presence of Christ who has not abandoned us or left us orphaned. In this sense, we are never alone. His presence remains as we keep company with the Holy Spirit. His presence is real in the Blessed Sacrament, in the sacrifice of his body and blood at every mass. His presence is continuing in the action and ministry of the Church. No, Christ has not abandoned us or left us orphaned. No, Christ is not absent. More than ever he is present beyond the limitations of time and space.

Between Pentecost and the Parousia, Christ’s triumphant return in glory, Ascension Thursday serves to remind us that we are constantly living in an age of transition. Although, we continually face the temptation to rest in the past or to cling on to the present, the future beckons us. It’s easy to pine for the “good old days,” to correct the wrongs in both society and in the world, to be tempted to dream and construct a false Utopia in the here and now. But as tempting as these might be, that is not where our future lies. In fact, to truly live entails saying goodbye to all these things. Our future lies with Heaven, where the Head has gone, surely the Body must follow. But till then, we live in the age of the Spirit, a Spirit who will guide us and support us. We live in the age of the Church, she who nourishes with the Sacraments, with the Body and Blood of Christ Himself, the medicine for immortality, the antidote to death and the life giving food for the journey. We live in the age beyond Pentecost, as we engage in the mission that God has set before us. So, “why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there?” No time for grieving, no time for reminiscing, no time for procrastinating. Let’s move on!