Wednesday, November 30, 2016

No Utopia but there is the Kingdom

Second Sunday of Advent Year A

Have you ever longed for a place where peace and human harmony is not just a dream? A place where people worked together, shared together and genuinely cared for one another? A place where conflict, rivalry, violence is absent or abolished entirely? Despite best intentions and best efforts, the lesson we learn from the neo-socialists, communists, democratic governments is that mankind is unable to engineer the perfect society. Why have countless other humanly devised utopian concepts of social and government order been so unsuccessful? The answer can be found in the very name given to these ventures. It’s the word “utopia.” The word taken from Greek literally means “no place.” The reality is that there never has been a place on earth where human beings created a perfect peaceful community.

Yet so many people continue to yearn for Utopia, where all is peace and all is harmony and where there is no fear but only love and care for one another. Can we ever achieve a community of peace? I don’t think any government or political leader can save us or bring about a perfect world. No one political party has all the answers or will automatically make this world a better place. The world is broken – God’s kingdom is not on earth as it is in heaven. And often it has been the very people who claim to create an earthly Paradise that have caused the brokenness.The good news is that the Scripture shows us how peace and perfection will arrive on earth.

In the first reading, the Prophet Isaiah, our principal prophet for this season of Advent, shares with us a prophetic dream of a future society, a perfect paradise. All hatreds and hostilities have disappeared, those who hated and killed and their victims are now sitting side by side, the lion and the leopard lie down with the lamb and the gazelle, the child plays with the poisonous snake. Nobody is doing any harm, the poor and the weak are no longer oppressed by injustice, all seems lovey dovey. It is Paradise restored. Sounds like Utopia, right? Problem is that this ‘paradise’, this ‘utopia,’ exists in no place. But will this ever take place? Well, the Prophet Isaiah provides the clue – he points to the shoot that will spring from the stump of Jesse.   

The stock or the stump of Jesse actually refers to another failed project, the broken line of the dynasty of David. The dynasty of King David had been cut down like a tree by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. when the city of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah was devastated and the ruling class led into exile. The people were shocked to realise that the dynasty was not really eternal. But had not God assured David: “your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever” (2 Sam 7:16). Isaiah knew that God must always be true to his word; hence the dynasty in some way will revive. The spirit of the Lord will rest upon the stump and the roots of Jesse, and the people of God will bloom again. New life can emerge from what is perceived as a dead tree. But the solution would not be a human one. It is through God’s direct intervention that the dead tree stump would spring to life again. We need a Saviour. Christ would be the answer.

The second reading also presents us with a similarly utopian vision, now of the Church. But the realities that plagued the Church during the time of St Paul’s writings were in fact dystopian. There was building tension between two group of Christians within the community. The smaller group, described as the “weak,” liked very much a traditional form of religion, prayed a lot and mortified themselves, and observed a lot of prescriptions. The other group, named the “strong,” did not pay attention to such “small” things, which they considered trivial, and held that one did not have to follow a legal practice like the old law; the only necessary thing was to be faithful to Christ. The two groups abused each other: the weak “passed judgment” on the strong ones, calling them unfaithful and these, in their turn “had contempt” for the weak ones, classifying them as traditionalists and without understanding. Sounds familiar?

St Paul recommends to all to be charitable, to show love and reciprocal respect. He takes the example from the Lord who did not seek to please himself but placed himself at the service of others. Harmony in the community could only be assured by the member’s commitment to Christ. St Paul challenged the “strong” as well as the “weak” to “treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated” them. Rather than engage in mutual criticism that would only engender hostility, they should learn “to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus, so that united in mind and voice (they) may give glory to God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christ makes all the difference!

Finally, we come to the gospel and discover the key to Peace. It is to be found in repentance. In today’s gospel, we hear the story of how St John the Baptist preached this message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” His ministry and message resonates with the call of the Prophet Isaiah, “Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” Unfortunately, John’s call to repentance to prepare the way of the Lord was not received by all.

What does the word Repentance mean? In Hebrew, the word for conversion (shubh) indicates that one has taken a wrong path, and once he has become aware of his detour, the individual returns to the right path in order to return to God. So too the Greek word, metanoia involves not just a static remorse but a dynamic and determined about-face, a positive commitment to a new way of life. Significantly, conversion is not a purely human decision or endeavour. Rather, conversion is a human response to the prior initiative of God.

Repentance means turning to Christ. It means putting God in the first place in our lives and making sure that everything else finds its rightful places in our lives under God. Repentance means letting go of our own will, in order to follow the things that God wills for us. It means turning away from sin and all rebellion against God, in order to be obedient to God and to follow him in all that he wants from us. Repentance means owning up to our sin, our human frailties, our fears, our inner hurts and entrusting all these to God’s mercy and compassion. Repentance means knowing our need of God. In turning our lives around, we come to recognise that our self-sufficiency is inadequate and that we need to cooperate with God in our own salvation. Repentance therefore is not a one-time thing. It is a process that goes on for a lifetime. Little by little we orientate ourselves ever more perfectly in God’s love.

So as we continue our journey to Christmas, we need to repent of our comfortableness with sin. This is the only way our society and the Church can be transformed. Various utopian experiments that have sought to improve mankind and create a peaceable environment have failed. Lasting peace would not be found in any peace treaty or socio-political or economic reform. This is because, if God is not part of the equation, Utopia would remain a dream. But God’s effort to bring peace will not fail. It will succeed—through Jesus Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. That is why we need to come out into the wilderness where God reforms and transforms His People – on His terms and not our own. Avail yourself to the very reason Jesus came as a Child to Bethlehem: he come down to be among sinners. Yes, but he came to call us into the Kingdom of Light. So prepare the Way of the Lord!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Christians don't need disguises

First Sunday of Advent Year A

Why is it that no one realises that Clark Kent is actually Superman? It's the oldest joke in the world, isn't it? The most powerful superhero of all time, Superman, has arguably the worst disguise of all time! A sleek application of hair gel and a pair of dowdy glasses successfully turn the Man of Steel, the statuesque saviour of humanity, into Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet. It’s a façade that even a toddler should be able to see through, yet no one does. Why not? Well, there are various theories, but I’ll go with the one - 'the clothes maketh the man'. I should know. When I walk around in regular clothes without my signature priestly garb, I become invisible. In at least half the encounters with parishioners, I can pass by without any recognition from them. In most cases, a second prolonged look is needed for the connexion to be made.

All of this talk about Superman and costumes remind us that whatever storyline associated with the most powerful superhero cannot be any less than one which involves a world that is threatened by cataclysmic destruction. Though today, the First Sunday, is deemed to be the first Sunday in our Liturgical Calendar, we begin our year by talking about the End. Not just the end of the calendar year, but rather the end of the world, the end of time, the end of the universe as we know it. The Church wishes to give us a little look at the final chapter of the great mystery of salvation. Knowing how the story will turn out is very important to us.

The gospel, by using a series of three parables, the days of Noah before the Deluge, two men working in the fields and two women grinding at the millstones, and finally the story of a burglar, stresses the suddenness and unexpectedness of this moment. The fundamental message here is the need to be ready at all times. Thieves do not telephone ahead to announce their “visit,” nor will the Son of Man give warning. Therefore, you must always be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. We should always be living with this keen awareness that the End may just be a breath or a heartbeat away.

But, for most people, including Catholics, it really doesn’t feel this way. The End doesn’t seem to be a big deal at all. Many Catholics have lost the sense of expectancy or urgency, obscured by the tyranny of the ‘now’ – a culture which feeds our need for instant gratification and which is a stranger to the virtues of waiting, patience and silent endurance. It is a world which thinks it is wide awake when it is really sound asleep.

How would I ever be sure that I’ll be ready for the end? St Paul provides the answer in the second reading and interestingly, he uses the metaphor of clothing to stress the fundamental duty of every Christian, who is called to live in accordance with their dignity as children of God. Our primary duty is to ensure that we are properly ‘dressed’ in Christ – or ‘putting on the armour of Christ’ or being ‘clothed in Christ.’

The clothing metaphor symbolises the identity and character of its wearer. To put on the Lord Jesus Christ means that the Christian is to be cloaked, clothed, garmented with the character, the disposition, the attitude, the habits and the virtues of Jesus Christ. That is why we are called ‘Christians’ – a Christian is a ‘little Christ’ or ‘Christ-like.’  To put on Christ means throwing off the putrid and tattered garments of sin and darkness, in order that one may adorn oneself with the sturdy armour of light. It’s putting to the death the old self and putting on the new man that is continually being renewed in knowledge. Therefore, the most important duty as the Day of the Lord draws near is to live as children of the light, beautifully adorned in the robes of Christ, who dispels the darkness of sin and death. Unlike Superman who can choose to hide his identity behind the mundane life of Clark Kent, Christians do not have the same option. They cannot live their lives in any way they like except as Christians. We are always in character.

Though St Paul obviously intended his clothing metaphor to have a spiritual meaning rather than be seen as a commentary of Christian-compliant dress code, this discussion on clothing oneself with Christ inevitably leads to the discussion of proper dressing for mass. Many often resort to the usual not too Biblical maxim that ‘God judges our hearts, not our appearances’ as an argument to legitimise sloppy and bad dressing during liturgical services. We rant over the self-righteous Pharisees and anachronistic fashionistas who object to our choice or style of dressing. We claim that it boils down to humility and simplicity. Of course, let’s start with the last argument – I believe that we can understand and accept that humility is not something we flaunt and wear on our sleeves like a badge. Similarly, the question of appropriate dressing is never about prudishness and fashion styles. It has everything to do with our clothing being a reflection of our identity; our clothing as sacramental.

Remember the age-old definition of a Sacrament, “Outward sign of inward grace.” The external is always seen as a reflection of the internal. So poor, sloppy dressing merely reflects one’s inner attitude towards the Eucharist – it is one which is impoverished, lazy, contemptuously familiar with the sacred, more self-oriented than God-oriented. It’s about our convenience and comfort rather than providing due respect and honour to the One who allowed Himself to be stripped of all honour so that He may adorn us with the glory and beauty of God.

And, this is finally what is expected of us Christians at all times. Our constant orientation to the sacred, to the Kingdom of God amidst the mundane activities of human life and relationship. The difference between Noah and his neighbours was not that Noah and his family refrained from eating and drinking and marrying. Presumably, Noah and his family were doing all those things as well. Even more telling, the difference between the two farmers and the two millers is not the farming or the milling. In each case, both people were doing the exact same thing. The difference lies not in the activity but in its orientation. Are the eating and drinking, the marrying, the work of tilling a field or grinding grain, all there is to life? Are these tasks and relationships, important and vital as they are, the very reason we have been created and given life? The answer of St Paul, the answer of the gospel of Matthew, the answer of the incarnated Christ whom we celebrate in Advent, is an unequivocal “NO.” It’s not enough to live, but it is most necessary to live for Christ.

Advent is a good time to remember our ultimate orientation. We are made for God and everything that we do, every little decision that we make, every attitude that we possess, either leads us closer to that goal or away from it. Today, the Church reminds us that the Lord is coming, that “the night is almost over, it will be daylight soon,” so she invites us to cast behind all those things pertaining to the flesh, the world and the devil, and to “live decently as people do in the daytime,” so that our “armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is no room for disguises or alter-egos. I am a Christian 24/7. Let us therefore dress and behave in a manner that unabashedly proclaims, “I make no apology for being a Christian. I cannot be anything else but a Christian!”  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Our King will not be defeated

Christ the King 2016

We mark the last Sunday of this liturgical year with this magnificent feast, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It may be difficult for many of us to make such an association – Christ and Kingship. The idea makes many moderns cringe. For those who value the ideals of democracy, the monarchy is distastefully viewed as a vestige of a bygone era, an unpopular system of government, a financial strain on tax payers, an expensive and unnecessary symbol of pomp and pageantry. Perhaps, the greatest objection to such a feast is that it sounds too triumphalistic for our pluralistic age. In an age where relativism reigns supreme, all religions and their founders are placed on a level playing field. When Christians proclaim Christ as King, it suggests an arrogant superiority over other contenders.

The most recent example of the world’s disdain for such notions can be found in the damning Wikileaks exposé of email exchanges between campaign supporters and staffers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the U.S. presidency, leaks that may have cost her the presidency. In one email, the following was written, “There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church.” Without stating the obvious, such a ‘Catholic Spring,’ more likely a Catholic Winter, can only take place if Christ’s authority is usurped by ideologues who believe that they have a better grasp of reality and truth than God Himself.

When it comes to declaring Jesus as King, the Church doesn’t flinch nor hesitate. This is because what the Church proclaims through its doctrine and liturgy is irrevocably affirmed in Scripture. In the first few years of Jesus’ life, King Herod went through great lengths to rid himself of a possible political rival. He dispatches thugs to slaughter innocent children in Bethlehem but the baby King and His family, under God’s guidance, outmanoeuvred the insidious King of Judea by fleeing to Egypt. Jesus our King will not be trapped.

At the mid-point of His teaching and healing career, the Pharisees come to warn Jesus that a despot (again) named Herod, a spawn of the old man who shared the same name, is after him to kill him. Jesus doesn’t back down from His mission. He famously says:  “Go tell that fox”…I can do whatever I want to do today…tomorrow…and I’ll finish my agenda on the third day.
Jesus our King will not be intimidated.

During His trial, Pontius Pilate would pose this rhetorical question to Him:  “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus responded, “You say I am a king.  For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  But Pilate was not interested in the truth. It is a question that our contemporary age of relativism has adopted for itself in its own attempt to bleach out God from society.
Jesus our King will not compromise the Truth.

At the end of His life, Jesus is killed as a blasphemer, a political rabble-rouser, a failed pretender. The sign on His cross read “The King of the Jews”. In hindsight, from the government’s point of view, it was a mistake to display that sign; it was a Roman government gaffe which famously told the truth: He really is the King, but so much more than what it claimed.  And, as an undisputed testimony that He was right and the world was wrong, He rose from the dead. Jesus our King will not be defeated.

The Gospel of St Luke reminds us that Jesus our King reigns from the Cross at Golgotha. The Cross, the Tree of Life and Immortality, is the Throne of our God. The cross would be the greatest testimony of His love. Jesus offered nothing but love when those around Him gave Him nothing but hate. The cross shows us that the only victory in life is to love, with loyalty to God through all of life’s ups and downs, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Jesus showed us His commitment to us through death on the cross. He demonstrated His unswerving loyalty. Contrast this with our society’s lack of loyalty and commitment. Half of all marriages fail. Even in today's job market, many people are still changing jobs almost as often as they change their socks. People change their “spiritual path” as and when it suits their whims, choosing whatever agrees with them as the truth at that particular time. Truth in our culture is relative and arbitrary.

In this marketplace of opinions, ideologies, fads and fashion, what do we Christians have to say about Truth? The cross says it all. When we approach this king on this throne, our eyes are opened instead of being blinded. We see before us, clearly, the true price of our salvation, the true effects of our sins, and the unlimited mercy and love of our everlasting King. And when we approach this king on this throne, we are not dazzled by diamonds and pearls, but by the love, forgiveness, courage, and humility of our Lord and our King. And from the cross today, instead of distancing Himself from His people, our king draws ever closer to us, and He draws us ever closer to him.

Pope Francis observes that it is precisely on the Cross that the kingship of Jesus shines forth in divine fashion: “His royal throne is the wood of the Cross!”  It is upon this throne of wood that “Jesus takes upon Himself the evil, the filth, the sin of the world, including the sin of all of us, and He cleanses it, He cleanses it with His blood, with the mercy and the love of God…. Jesus on the Cross feels the whole weight of the evil, and with the force of God’s love, He conquers it, He defeats it with His resurrection. This is the good that Jesus does for us on the throne of the Cross. Christ’s Cross embraced with love never leads to sadness, but to joy, to the joy of having been saved and of doing a little of what He did on the day of His death.”

It is the scandal and the paradox of the Cross that reveals the kingdom, just as making the sign of the cross reveals those who love and worship the king. The cross is a sign of contradiction; it separates those who sneer, jeer, and revile Jesus from those who behold, embrace, and adore Him. The cross divides mankind because it demands a choice, a judgment about the person of Jesus Christ. But having chosen the cross, the division ends and we are brought into union with the King and His divine life; we receive communion, partaking of His body and blood, broken for us on the cross. The cross thus unites mankind, and the inner nature of the kingdom is revealed. The two criminals crucified with Christ personify the two options available to everyone. Both are sinners; both are able to look directly upon the King.  One, however, sees only a fellow criminal—a target for angry, despairing mockery. But, the other sees an innocent man; even more, he sees a King: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

The true meaning of Christ’s kingship, states the Catechism, “is revealed only when He is raised high on the cross” (par. 440). Yes, today we celebrate the Christ is our True King. For His is “an eternal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” (Preface for the Feast) Many will reject the King, enthroning themselves as rulers of their passing lives. Let us rather give ourselves completely to the King who never does any injury, but instead delivers us from the power of darkness and transfers us into His eternal kingdom; the only One who can honestly say to us, “Indeed I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.”