Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Conversi ad Dominum

Third Sunday of Easter Year A

The burning question on many people’s mind is “How do we explain the lack of recognition on the part of the two disciples who were making their way home to Emmaus?” Many would explain it in a pretty ordinary and psychological way. You know how an intense attention to a single object of focus can make a person oblivious to events around him or her. Many of us know what it means to blank out, when something troubles us. Grief certainly has this effect. And remember, these disciples were indeed grieving. They had lost their bearings and sense of spiritual direction. St Luke notes, “Their eyes were downcast.”  When the Lord died, they lost all hope. Perhaps, so absorbed in their own grief, they failed to recognise that it was the Lord who was walking beside them. They were also walking in the wrong direction – away from Jerusalem, away from the tomb, away from Christ.

Many theories have been advanced to explain their failure to recognise the Lord.  I found one of the most interesting suggestions being put forward by the renowned Anglican exegete, William Barclay. He suggests that the two disciples “were walking towards the sunset. It has been suggested that, that is the very reason why they did not recognise Jesus. Emmaus was west of Jerusalem. The sun was sinking, and the setting sun so dazzled them that they did not know their Lord.” “However that may be,” Barclay adds, “it is true that the Christian is a man who walks not towards the sunset but towards the sunrise… The Christian goes onwards, not to a night which falls, but to a dawn which breaks – and that is what, in their sorry state and their disappointments, the two on the Emmaus road had not realised.”

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. The disciples were walking westward when they should actually be heading East, in the direction of Jerusalem. The Latin word for the East is “Orient”, a word that has entered into our English vocabulary and the word ‘orientation’, a derivative, means direction. The East has been traditionally the direction to which Christians turn towards at every mass, thus explaining the term, “ad Orientem” or “facing East.” In the early Church and for centuries thereafter, churches were built in a manner where the main altar would face eastward. Why would such a “kiblat” or “orientation” be significant and necessary? The East points to Our Risen Lord and Saviour. When we say we face the East to pray, we are actually saying that we are facing Christ, the Morning Star, the Light of the World, the Rising and Unvanquished Sun.

To quote St. Augustine, “When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth..., but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God.” St. Augustine always refers to this turning to the East in prayer at the end of his homilies, using a set formula, Conversi ad Dominum (“turn to face the Lord”).

In a liturgical conference in the middle of last year, this liturgical direction of prayer became a topic of hot debate, following the call of Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, for priests to begin celebrating mass ad orientem. There were immediate reactions from several bishops and to assuage the growing mob of protestors, the Vatican Press Office had to clarify that there has been no change in liturgical law. Many who were opposed to this suggestion felt that this would be a betrayal of the reforms of Vatican II. I am not here to make a case for either position, be it turning to face the people or turning to the East, as any heated discussion often entails further divisions among the People of God in the current climate. Both options, eastward and toward the people, are permitted. One may have a preference and have good reasons why they hold that preference. However, when both options are permitted we should not seek to denigrate something that is less optimal to us. 

But what I would like to highlight is a point made by the good Cardinal in his proposal. It is about our interior orientation or as Pope Emeritus Benedict would point out, “the absolute priority of God in our worship.” Cardinal Sarah reminded all of us that the liturgy is not a celebration of our own achievements but God’s love and mercy. He said: “We do not come to the Church to celebrate what we have done or who we are. Rather, we come to celebrate and give thanks for all that Almighty God has done, and continues in His love and mercy to do, for us.” In other words, the liturgy cannot be a narcissistic self-absorption of the community or the individual. The point that would certainly not be disputed by those who disagree with his proposal is found in this simple but deeply profound statement in the Cardinal’s speech, “We must ensure that adoration is at the heart of our liturgical celebrations. The heart of our liturgy is the adoration of God.” It is not entertainment, it is not a performance, but simply, putting God back in the centre of our liturgy, it is a movement from “self-centredness to God-centredness.” When this is forgotten, it is not the liturgy which alone suffers but the Church too. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, “the deepest cause of the crisis that has subverted the Church is located in the effacing of the priority of God in the liturgy,”

Let us return to the story of the Journey to Emmaus. One can discern the very elements of the Mass in this passage: Scripture, homily, prayer, blessing and the breaking of bread, commissioning. Everything in the story leads us in this direction – the pinnacle of our Christian journey, the climax of our liturgy and the source of mission is the life-transforming encounter with the Lord. He is the goal, the heart and centre of our liturgy. At end of their journey, a journey that takes them from despondency to hope, grief to joy, self-centredness to God-centredness, the two disciples can finally recognise the Lord at the breaking of bread. Here, as they face their true East, Christ, the Risen One, the Sun of Righteousness, they recall how their experience of travelling with the stranger had rekindled the burning flame of faith in their hearts that had almost been extinguished by their self-absorbed grief.

The fact that the Lord initially vanishes from the sight of these two disciples, teaches us that He is no longer seen by the eyes of the flesh, but by the eyes of faith and the eyes of the heart. So, though He is gone from our earthly, fleshly, carnal sight, He is now to be seen in the Sacrament of the Altar, and experienced in the liturgy and other sacraments. And just like the two disciples who spoke of how the flame of faith within them were rekindled by the Lord, may our faith too be rekindled at every mass. Let us always hunger for this act of worship, for we were made to worship God in this way – right there, front and centre. Let us not be so absorbed with our own worries, concerns and personal agenda to risk not recognising the Lord in the Eucharist. We are likely to miss seeing Him when we become too preoccupied with our dashed hopes and frustrated plans or even our insatiable need to be entertained.

As we all make this interior turn to the East, to Christ, let us heed these wise words of Cardinal Sarah given at another interview. “The liturgy is the door to our union with God. If the Eucharistic celebrations are transformed into human self-celebrations, the peril is immense, because God disappears. One must begin by replacing God at the centre of the liturgy. If man is at the centre, the Church becomes a purely human society, a simple nonprofit organisation, like Pope Francis has said. If, on the contrary, God is at the heart of the liturgy, then the Church recovers its vigour and sap!” Conversi ad Dominum – Let us turn to face the Lord.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

We will recognise Him by His wounds

Second Sunday of Easter Year A

There is a story told, a legend perhaps, about St. Teresa of Avila. One day the devil appeared to her, disguised as Christ. Theresa wasn’t fooled for even a second. She immediately dismissed him. Before leaving, however, the devil asked her: “How did you know? How could you be so sure I wasn’t Christ?” Her answer: “You didn’t have any wounds! Christ has wounds.”

Because of His Wounds, because His Sacred, Precious Blood was spilt, you have the opportunity to see the Face of God. As our Holy Father poignantly wrote at the start of his bull of indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” That’s Christianity in a nutshell!  It is something that every Christian knows, but too few truly ponder enough. Today, a week after Easter Sunday, the Church invites us to gaze upon and meditate on the wounds the Lord bore for us. He returns to His disciples in His bodily form without having disguised the wounds of His passion. He returns a battle scarred hero, displaying His wounds to us for our scrutiny, inviting us to touch and even enter into these very wounds, so that our faith may be restored, our own personal wounds healed, and our sins forgiven.

I believe that you are all too familiar with the famous demand of Thomas in today’s gospel, “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in His hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into His side, I refuse to believe.” This condition laid down by Thomas is, of course, the reason he has come to be called “the doubter.” However, does this description deal fairly with Thomas? Did he say that he doubted the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the ten who saw the Lord in bodily form? Well, I believe that we are jumping to a conclusion that one necessarily means the other. Thomas is not insisting on seeing Jesus with his own eyes, to see what the others claimed to have seen. That is not what he requested. He asked for something quite different, something quite specific and odd. He says, “I want to see the wounds of Jesus. I want to touch those wounds.”

It is only in the Gospel of John, in this particular passage, that we come to realise that Jesus was affixed to the cross by nails and it is only in the Fourth Gospel, do we have the story of the piercing of His side with a lance. The other gospels have not one single word about piercing nails or thrusting spear or even physical and visible wounds on the body of the resurrected Lord.

But isn’t it odd that the resurrected body of the Lord should have wounds? Isn’t the resurrection by definition a glorification, a transfiguration, a perfection, a total healing? Shouldn’t the resurrection remove every trace of old weakness, every hint of prior vulnerability? Why would the Fourth Evangelist deliberately take note of this seemingly trivial and yet scandalous point?

To add further intrigue to the story, Our Lord offers Thomas precisely what he desires, without any rebuke. At that point, Thomas utters his confession, “My Lord and my God.” Pay special attention to this high point, perhaps the climax of the entire gospel; that it comes not immediately after the incident of the empty tomb, nor at Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the resurrected Christ, and not even on the lips of the ten who witnessed that very same resurrected body walk through closed doors. No, these words that mark the “High Christology” of St John, where he surpasses the other evangelists in the honours, titles and privileges heaped upon Jesus, is found on the lips of the one who demanded to see the wounds of Christ. The wounds of Christ would be the very reason for this confession of faith. Thomas sees the wounds and he sees God.

This is at the very heart of our Easter faith. A Jesus without wounds is a Jesus without a cross and a Jesus without a cross would never be adequate to meet the deepest needs of mankind. Too many modern Christians have clasped to their bosoms a powerful but cross-less Christ. That kind of Christology will always have at its corollary a cross-less discipleship. A cross-less Christ, a God insulated from pain and suffering, will produce followers who believe they should enjoy the benefits of a special relationship with this lite-version of Christ. They become touchy ‘Christians’, ‘Christians’ who get offended easily. Every small little demand made of them would seem impossibly heavy. These ‘Christians’ will look to their false image of Christ for “blessings” of success and privilege, and these become evidence, that they enjoy divine approval. But to worship such a Christ would be to worship a false Christ – an anti-Christ.

Through the Thomas story, however, St John the Evangelist wishes us to see a resurrected Christ who bears forever the marks of nails and spear. Those wounds will never go away. They can’t be window-dressed. The exalted Christ has not passed a sublime existence immune to suffering. Even after Good Friday and Easter, God continues to turn to the world through the wounded Christ. To believe in this Christ means to take Him, wounds and all, into our lives. To believe means to participate in Christ’s own suffering on behalf of the true life of the world. The living but wounded Jesus is the Revealer of God. Therefore when the Fourth Gospel declares the oneness of the Father and the Son, it is proclaiming that the wounds of Christ are integral to the identity of the mystery we call “God.” What the pages of the gospel proclaim is not so much that “Jesus is like God” but rather, “God is like this Jesus with His wounds.”

This is why the suffering and death of the Son of God is unique in the world’s religions because in it we see the ultimate answer to suffering. God does not give us a ten-point explanation on suffering. He does not set out a systematic answer to the pain of the world. God does not stand aloof, watching, as the world suffers. In the Lord Jesus Christ, God enters the world and experiences suffering with us and for us. The death of Christ was not a myth. It was a physical and an experienced reality. This was the God-man, Jesus Christ, being wounded, scarred and beaten; being maimed, marred and murdered for us.  God can look us in the eye and honestly say, ‘I know what you are going through because I have gone through it too.’

This is the incredible reality of the Christian faith. We do not worship a God who gives us life lessons on how to be happy or a God who sets out a strategy for how to avoid sorrow. We do not worship a God who remains aloof, untouched by our pains and sorrows. We worship a God who has chosen to, as the Malay expression goes, “turun padang,” go down to the grassroots of unwashed humanity. Yes, we worship a God who has experienced the most profound sorrow of suffering. He suffered for us and He suffers with us. And He has the scars to show for it.

When Thomas sees Jesus and believes, he sees the wounds. He looks at the wounds. He does not see the evidence of man’s depraved cruelty but rather, he sees beauty, the beauty of the self-sacrificial love of the One who willingly chose to die for us. He sees the face of God’s mercy. We too need to see them to believe. We must let it sink in and remember that Christ did this for us. The wounds that mar Christ are the wounds that mar us all, transferred from us to him. In His death, every needless death is absorbed. Every drop of blood ever shed is seen in His death. Every sorrow is seen in His sorrow. Every tear of mourning and loss is understood by Him. God attends every funeral and whispers, ‘I know how this feels’ to everyone who will listen to His quiet voice. Our wounded God has redeemed every wound. Our murdered God has redeemed death. Our broken God has redeemed brokenness. Our bereft God has redeemed mourning. And, we will recognise Him by his wounds.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat

Easter Sunday 2017

In the middle of St Peter’s square in Rome, there stands a great obelisk. You definitely can’t miss this imposing structure. It is the oldest manmade structure that predates the present basilica and its predecessors. It is about four and a half thousand years old and it originally stood in the temple of the sun in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis. However, it was brought to Rome by the dreadful Emperor Caligula and it was set right in the middle of Circus of Nero, equally dreadful that, that was on the Vatican hill. It was in that Circus that St Peter was martyred and the obelisk may have well been the last thing on this Earth that Peter saw. One could add that it may be the sole existing object that stood witness to the martyrdom of St Peter, a relic of pagan origin.

On top of the obelisk, there now stands a cross. In ancient times there was a gold ball representing, of course, the sun. Now, there is a cross, the cross of Christ!  On the pedestal of the obelisk there are two inscriptions. The first in Latin, “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat”, which translates as, “Christ has conquered, Christ now rules, Christ now reigns supreme.” The other inscription draws inspiration from the Old Testament, “The Lion of Judah has conquered”. So here we have the language of victory. A symbol of pagan Roman imperialism and triumphalism has become the symbol of Christ’s triumph. Christianity has triumphed by the power of the cross, and triumphed, even over the greatest power that the ancient world had known, the Roman Empire, and here in the middle of St Peter’s square stands the obelisk baring those triumphant inscriptions.

Today, each of us stands as a monument to this seemingly impossible truth: Christ has triumphed over death! Christ has risen from the dead! And because He lives, we who know Him shall also live. In the resurrection, Our Lord conquered sin and death, and is alive forevermore. All over the world, churches are filled with worshipers because there is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.

We worship a risen, living Saviour, who has promised to give immortality to all who believe in His name. No longer do men and women need to stumble in the fog and the darkness of hopelessness. A Light shines brighter than the noonday sun, offering hope to everyone who has been born again. That is the reason why the cross has replaced the golden globe at the pinnacle of the obelisk. It is a reminder of what the Lord promised, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

But in spite of this monument of death having been defeated, death continues to carry with it a certain dread. From the day that Abel was killed, people have dreaded death. It has been the enemy, the great mystery, that makes people quake with fear. We expect death, but we always have a glimmer of hope that medical science will discover something that will keep us alive a little longer. We have found a cure to almost every known disease. But as much as mythology often speaks of the fountain of youth and the elixir of immortality, we have failed to find a cure for death. Death stalks the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated. Death is no respecter of race, colour or creed. Its shadow haunts us day and night. We never know when the moment of death will come for us.

Is there any hope? Is there a possibility of immortality? Well, today, the Church announces to the world, “We have found the answer! We have found the cure!” “Christ has conquered, Christ now rules, Christ now reigns supreme!” We travel back to the empty tomb on that first Easter morning and hear the voice of the angel speak to us as he did to Peter, the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene, “He is not here; for He is risen” (Matthew 28:6).

The greatest news that the mortal ear has ever heard is the news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead as He promised! The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the chief proof of the Christian faith. It is the truth that lies at the very foundation of the Gospel. Other doctrines of the Christian faith are important, but the resurrection is essential. Without a belief in the resurrection there can be no personal salvation. Without the death and resurrection of Christ, we would have no hope for the future. As St. Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, our faith is in vain.”  (I Corinthians 15:13&19)

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have found the answer to the great question of the ages placed on the lips of Job: “If mortals die, can they live again?” (Job 14:14) All humans die.  However, there is hope for those who rest in Christ.  Just as Christ was raised from death to life, we too shall be raised! The greatest truth that you can ever hear is that, Jesus Christ died but rose again, and that you, too, will die but can rise again into newness of life. Scripture teaches the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not a spiritual resurrection, as some would have us believe. The Lord’s very body was raised by God from the dead, and someday we will see Him.

Christ awakening from the tomb is also our awakening. His resurrection from the tomb is our resurrection from sin and its consequences. The resurrected Christ also lives today in another very real sense: in the heart of every true believer. Though He is in His glorified body in Heaven, yet through the Holy Spirit He dwells in the heart of every Christian. The Scripture says, “Christ lives in you, and this is your assurance that you will share in His glory” (Cf. Colossians 1:27). So that now, our faces become the faces in which the resurrected Christ shows forth His beauty and His glory. Our eyes become the eyes of the resurrected Christ, to exhibit His sympathy and His tenderness. Our lips become the lips of the resurrected Christ, to speak His messages. Our ears become the ears of the resurrected Christ, hearing the plaintive cry of the world’s needs.

Yes, today, we remember the stone that was rolled away from the door, not only to permit Christ to come out, but to enable the faithful to go in. To people who faced the grave as the end of everything, death as the final barrier to all human hopes, was now broken. To people who were never sure that their prayers really reached God, the way to the Father, was now reopened. Because of Easter, every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of the resurrection. We shall see one another again, for death is no longer the final answer. He has risen!

Easter reminds us that every Good Friday in our lives will have an Easter Sunday and that Jesus will let us share the power of His Resurrection. In short, the message of Easter is that nothing can destroy us – not pain, sin, rejection nor death – because Christ has conquered all these, and we too can conquer them if we put our faith in Him.
Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat”, “Christ has conquered, Christ now rules, Christ now reigns supreme.” Alleluia!