Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Be Warned

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

No retail outlet would put a huge poster on its store front window with the caption, “Be warned! Items on SALE are very costly,” unless they were planning their own financial ruin or business demise. That may be true of any business, but not Christianity. Christians display their crosses proudly on their churches, as if issuing the following invitation to all onlookers, “Be warned! This is the fate of all who enter,” but would then add, “This is also the quickest way to heaven!”

Nowhere is the sheer honesty of Our Lord Jesus more vividly displayed than here in today’s gospel. Here He sets the Christian demand at its most demanding and at its most uncompromising position.  He tells His men exactly what they may expect, if they accept the commission to be messengers of the King - they must be prepared to undergo great sacrifices, even death itself, if called on to do so for the sake of Christ. The way of Jesus becomes the way of those who would be His disciples. Those who in faith and service continue Jesus’ work will also share His death and ultimately His glory. If you think that the renunciations demanded by the Lord are incredibly radical, He repeats three times that those unwilling to take up these demands are “not worthy of me!” Even though they had only a very vague idea then of what He meant, when the time came, they remembered His words and gladly suffered imprisonment, hardships, and finally martyrdom for Christ.

Three points are made in today’s short gospel: (a) that discipleship is a bond that supersedes all other bonds, (b) that true discipleship will inevitably lead to the cross, (c) that discipleship also has its rewards. While the first two points deal with the proper attitude of disciples, the third deals with the proper attitude toward those who are disciples.

Let’s begin with the first point. The Lord offers every potential follower the ultimate choice. Choose Me or nothing! Just a few verses before today’s passage, the Lord already tells His disciples that He has come not to bring peace, but a sword. He offers them warfare, a Christian form of ‘jihad,’ not that they are asked to commit acts of violence in the name of religion but that acts of violence would be committed against them. In this warfare, it will often be true that a man’s foes will be those of his own household. Our Lord’s words may be troubling to us today, as it was to His disciples then, but they were not unfamiliar. The Jews believed that one of the signs of the in-breaking of God into human history, the so-called Day of the Lord, would result in division of families. Rabbinical tradition spoke of this, “In the period when the Son of David shall come, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. The son despises his father, the daughter rebels against the mother” etc.  Sounds familiar?

To be confronted with Jesus is necessarily to be confronted with the choice of whether to accept Him or to reject Him; and the world is always divided into those two categories. The bitterest thing about this warfare was that a man’s foes would be those of his own household. Jesus’ invitation to follow Him caused a radical disruption of the status quo and breaches in even the closest relationships because Christianity demanded an absolute and unique commitment. So, when offered a choice, a man has to choose between the closest ties on earth or loyalty to the call of Jesus Christ. St Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Romans, written in captivity and while he was being led to his execution, wrote, “Our task is not one of producing persuasive propaganda; Christianity shows its greatness when it is hated by the world.”

Secondly, the Lord offers a cross. Many Christians have literally been martyred by the cross and others through ingenious devices of torture and execution developed by the Romans and other anti-Christian regimes, through the course of human history. In recent history, the cross as a means of execution has reappeared in a horrifying graphic way, in the manner by which ISIS executes Christians, other minority groups and detractors. But the cross also appears to each one of us too. A Christian may have to sacrifice his personal ambitions, the ease and the comfort of life that he might have enjoyed, or the career that he might have achieved; he may have to lay aside his dreams, to realise that shining baubles of which he has caught a glimpse of, are not for him. He will certainly have to sacrifice his will, for no Christian can ever again do what he likes; he must do what Christ likes. In Christianity, there is always some cross, for it is the religion of the Cross.

If a person were only offered the above two options, no one, on his or her own volition, would actually walk into Church and embrace the Christian faith!  Why would they? You have to be crazy.  But then, the deal isn’t done yet. There is a third offer. It is a promise. “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes Me; and those who welcome Me, welcomes the one who sent Me.” Yes, there would be those who reject and curse Christians because of their faith in Our Lord, but there are those who would welcome us and therefore, welcome the blessing that accompanies us. We will become a mutual source of blessing for others and they for us. We are transformed into Christ emissaries.  Alongside you, behind you, following you into every room, invisibly but truly, is Christ. You bring Christ with you. You are yourself, but you stand for more than yourself.

As His representatives, Christians now carry an identity beyond their own. When they travel, preach, teach and heal, it is Christ whose work will be done by their hands. The world will meet Jesus through them: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes Me; and those who welcome Me, welcomes the one who sent Me.” Thus, Christians enjoy both the privilege and the responsibility to make Christ visible. Hospitality is indeed the new evangelisation. Christ is made visible in the act of welcoming, in giving and receiving hospitality. That is why it is incumbent on us to meet others beyond the circle of our family and Church friends. If we never encounter strangers, Jesus has no opportunity to be made manifest in the welcome.

Here lies the four links in the chain of salvation. There is God, out of whose love the whole process of salvation began. There is Jesus who brought that message to men. Then there is the messenger, the prophet who speaks, the good man who is an example, the martyr who gives witness, the disciple who follows, who in turn, all pass on to others the good news which they themselves have received. And finally, there is the hearer.  It is he who welcomes God’s message, His ambassadors and believes, and who thus finds eternal life for his soul.

The conditions of discipleship outlined in Matthew’s Gospel may appear harsh. There is no place for a policy of safety first in the Christian life. Yet they underline for us a truth—choosing anything with one’s whole heart has consequences. Choosing life with Christ means that every relationship we have, must be understood from a new perspective. The man who seeks first ease and comfort and security and the fulfilment of personal ambition may well get all these things – but he will not be a happy man; for he has been called to a higher purpose. A man can hoard life, if he wishes to do so. But that way, he will lose all that makes life valuable to others and worth living for himself. The way to serve others, the way to fulfil God’s purpose for us, the way to true happiness is to spend life selflessly, for only thus will we find life, here and hereafter. Yes, be warned! The cross is the fate of all who enter this Church, but it is also the quickest and the surest way to heaven!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

His eye is on the Sparrow

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Over the years, I’ve become quite an expert of all sorts at self-pity. Some of you may know the feeling, “No one cares about me.” “No one understands me.” “No one really bothers about my well-being.” To help me ascertain the intensity of the feeling, I’ve come up with an index of three degrees. Starting at the lowest level, there is, “NBC” – “Nobody’s child.” Followed by the next level of intensity, “NBLM” “Nobody loves me.” “Ouch!” But the one that tops the barometer of self-loathing is “EHM” “Everybody hates me.” This may have more to do with the fear of not being loved than the fear of being insulted or rejected. Perhaps, this index may come in useful when you have to negotiate the hills and valleys of community life. It’s not hard to feel misunderstood, alienated, estranged and wronged when you are in the company of strangers, minus the family members, friends and acquaintances. But on second thought, better watch out for them too!  Often enough, the nastiest sting often comes from those who are the closest. In a tight space, we often end up rubbing more than shoulders and elbows, rather we seem to successfully rub each other’s ego in the wrong way.

I guess that’s what a little leaven of self-doubt and poor self-esteem does to us. Our Lord had warned us of the leaven of the Pharisees, the putrid, demoralising, bitter negativity that usually begins in small ways and that are often dismissed as too minor for our attention. But it is this leaven, when allowed to fester and breed, that will infect our entire outlook of things. It often begins with the way we view ourselves – as insignificant, not worthy of love or attention, and then it is projected unto others who are blamed as the catalyst and cause of our woes. Rather than expecting and watching out for the insults and mud that will be flung at us by others, we should honestly acknowledge that we are capable of doing greater damage to ourselves than we realise.

Perhaps, the reason why we see so little value in ourselves is because we fail to see how much value we have in the eyes of God. This is at the heart of what Jesus conveys in today’s gospel. Out of all the things He could have chosen, Jesus chose the sparrow; a bird so common, it was practically worthless. Sparrows do not draw attention to themselves. Sparrows are not majestic like eagles. Bird watchers, who seem to have a fascination for all sorts of feathered friends, don’t go sparrow-watching.  No, sparrows are in-descript as you see them momentarily flutter by. During the time of Jesus, a person could buy two sparrows at the price of one cent. If one were to pay two cents, a free bird was thrown in. This must have been one of the earliest recorded super value deals. We may not esteem the tiny sparrow, but the Lord tells us that not one sparrow is forgotten before God. He uses this buy-four-get-one-free practice to illustrate how much God values every single life. If God is concerned about the tiny sparrow, how much greater must His concern be for man! If God notices, values, and cares about a tiny sparrow, then how much more must God notice, value, and care about us.

While it is a great encouragement to know that God values the seemingly insignificant sparrow, it is even more encouraging that He values us so much that He takes an interest in every possible detail about us. The Lord revealed the extent of God’s interest by stating that “every hair on your head has been counted.” There is no place we can go, no word we can say, no act too small for God’s notice. If God can give so much value to the tiny worthless sparrow and the insignificant strain of hair, what more, the entire person. As one rotund comedian often commented about her size, “There is so much more of me to Love.”

There are many, many things in this world that argue well as to the worthlessness of man.  What is a man to the world?  That is one soul among billions that inhabit this third planet from the sun.  All the world itself, I suppose, is so put together that a man might have reason to think that whether he lives or dies- what is it?  Like a pebble on a beach or just like one other star in the sky?  Who are we on the earth, and what is our earth in its universe? When I stare into the skies, the eternal silence of the infinite terrifies me.  When they tell us of the light years and billions of light years that separate the earth from other planets, the stars and the galaxies in this universe, in this great cosmic creation; and when they tell us our galaxy is one of the smallest of all, and our earth is one of the smallest planets around the sun –– when you read those astronomical figures, what is a man on the earth?  What is your life, or mine?
That is the reason science, with all its promise of a better future, often ends in defeatism and despair.  That is the reason infidelity is dead and cold.  That is the reason why it is so essential that you and I have to embrace the promise of Christ.  That is the reason why the Lord assures us that even if it came to the seemingly insignificant extra sparrow which no one pays attention to, thrown in for nothing – but, God saw it when it fell to the ground.  It is the old and neglected, the poor and the homeless, the one who has lost his way or his faith, the one who suffers loneliness and depression, or the newly formed embryo in a mother’s womb, the one who no one sees, but God sees them all. God knows, God understands, because each single person is truly precious and valuable in His eyes, even when the person doesn’t seem to be worthy or deserving of it. Not a single one falls that God didn’t see it.

During moments of self-doubt, during times of home-sickness, during days of loneliness and disaffection, when we are tempted to think, “No one cares for me” or “No one loves me”, as we plod along with heavy hearts and sore feet, let us always remember the truth of what the Lord says at the very end of today’s gospel. Not even the tiny sparrows escape the notice of God. “Every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.”  

Some of you may remember this gospel song popularised by the movie Sister Act, “The Eye of the Sparrow,” written by Mrs Civilla Martin at the turn of the 20th century.  In 1904, Mrs. Martin, went to visit a bedridden friend in New York. She asked the woman if she ever got discouraged because of her physical condition. Her friend quickly responded: “Mrs. Martin, how can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow and I know He loves and cares for me?” On her journey back home, Mrs. Martin completed the writing of her new text, which has since been a source of much encouragement to many.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely and long for Heaven and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me...
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, and resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears; though by the path He leadeth but one step I may see: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me...
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, when songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies, I draw the closer to Him; from care He sets me free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me...
Let’s face it: It is hard to remember, hard to live without fear, hard to live with the assurance of God’s profuse care of even us. But our perspective changes when we remember, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true

Corpus Christi 2017

One of the most famous and, for me, indisputably the most beautiful of Eucharistic Hymns is the Adoro te Devote, popularly but inadequately rendered in English as “Humbly we adore Thee.” The writer of this hymn is St Thomas Aquinas, whose whole life is worth reading, but for me, this one episode really stands out. Towards the end of his life, when at Salerno, he was labouring over the third part of his great treatise, Against the Pagans (Summa Contra Gentiles), dealing with Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, a sacristan saw him late one night kneeling before the altar and heard a voice, coming, it seemed, from the crucifix, which said, “Thou hast written well of Me, Thomas; what reward wouldst thou have?” To which Thomas replied, “Nothing but Thyself, Lord.”

A brief homily could never do justice to the monumental Eucharist theology of this Great Doctor of the Church. One can pour over his treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, or one can figuratively sit at the feet of St Thomas by reading his magisterial Commentary on the Sixth Chapter of St John’s Gospel, the “Bread of Life” discourse. However, even for St Thomas, theological explanations, in the end, have to give way to poetry, to hymnody, as in the great Eucharistic hymns he composed for the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, Adoro te Devote, being among them.

One would soon come to realise that this hymn is born of years of contemplation on St Thomas’ part, of countless Masses he celebrated fervently, of hours spent sitting before the Tabernacle; they are born of a heart caught up in love and wonder. Here are the first two verses of my favourite translation of the original Latin by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at your service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God you are.

And in the second verse, we are given the basis, the foundation for our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

The profound words of St Thomas are most fitting for us today as we listen to the words of John 6 at this Mass. When we encounter Christ in the Eucharist, we are faced with a choice; it is not just to eat or not to eat, but rather to believe or not to believe.  There is no middle ground. We can’t 'sort of believe' the Eucharist is Jesus’ Body and Blood. And this can put many of us at a quandary, we are either blown away by God’s inconceivable love for us in this Sacrament, or we struggle to understand how this works … and thus, struggle to believe.

St Thomas, a man of sharp intellect and impeccable reason, came to understand the Mass not in just a dry intellectual way, but he let himself be drawn into the very depths of this mystery of encounter with Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. For him, to believe in Christ’s presence, body and blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist wasn’t unreasonable, it simply exceeds the capacity of our reason. The last phrase of the second paragraph gives us a peek into why St Thomas believes:
“What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.”

Yes, truth exists and is knowable through reason. But here’s the trouble: we are not big enough to grasp the entirety of truth through reason alone.  Why?  Because we have limited minds, as we have all found out one time or another.  So why should I need someone to tell me what truth is?  Because I’m not big enough to come to it myself!  Who is?  Who can fully comprehend truth?  Who can speak with utmost reliability on the fullness of truth?  Well, Truth himself.  And our name for Truth is Christ. “Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.”

It is not that we figure out Jesus and His ways, but simply that Jesus is the witness par excellence worth believing. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Even if we don’t fully understand all there is to know about the Eucharist, we can fully believe in the Eucharist because Jesus is credible, “Truth Himself speaks truly.” And this is what Truth Incarnate tells us: “I am the Bread of Life.” “This is My Body; this is My Blood.” And “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you do not have life within you.” And “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” And you and I have faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist precisely because Jesus told us so. St. Cyril confirms this by saying: ‘Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Saviour in faith, for since He is the truth, He cannot lie.’ “Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.” If He’s not worth believing then there is nothing worth believing.

Every time when we make regular acts of faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist by genuflecting reverently before the Sacramental Presence on our altars, spend Holy Hours in the presence of Our Eucharistic Lord exposed for our adoration, point to the Tabernacle and instruct our young children that, “Jesus is there,” and whenever, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, we once again reaffirm our faith, the faith of the Church, in professing and believing that the whole Christ is “truly, really, substantially present,” body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine. Our faith in the reality of Christ’s presence is based on objective reality, and not on the manner by which the Eucharist affects us subjectively. In other words, we say we believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist despite how we may feel or think about it. The objective reality of Christ’s presence is based on the truth of His words which we hear at every Mass: “This is my Body … This is my Blood.” For this Truth Himself speaking truly “or there’s nothing true.”

In an age where we can no longer trust the ability of our senses to abstract reality, where man no longer trusts in his ingenuity and in his ability to find solutions to the global problems, where we have lost trust in our institutions and structures, the Church holds up the Body and Blood of Christ as that beacon of stability, of objective reality, of objective Truth. The Truth of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not just a philosophical concept among the many philosophies that propose ways of examining knowledge and reality. When we gaze upon the Blessed Sacrament, we see God’s endearing love, His fidelity to the promise that He will always be with us till the end of time. When we look upon the Blessed Sacrament, we see the Incarnate Son of God, who gave up His life on the Cross for our redemption. When our eyes pierce the sacramental veil of this Great Mystery, we see our salvation. And all this is true -not just a product of our minds, a figment of our imagination, or a fevered delusion. It is True, “or there is nothing true.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “the Church and the world have a great need for Eucharistic worship. Jesus awaits us in this sacrament of love. Let us not refuse the time to go to meet Him in adoration, in contemplation full of faith, and open to making amends for the serious offenses and crimes of the world. Let our adoration never cease.” (CCC #1380)  

And I pray and hope, that if the Lord were to ask us that very same question He asked St Thomas, “What reward would you have of me?” Our only answer would be, “Nothing, but Thyself, Lord! Nothing but Thyself.” Yes, everything in this world will come to an end — except the presence of Christ. As Ronald Knox describes it:
“All the din and clatter of the streets, all the great factories which dominate our landscape are only echoes and shadows if you think of them for a moment in the light of eternity; the reality is in here, is there above the altar, is that part of it which our eyes cannot see and our senses cannot distinguish. . . . When death brings us into another world, the experience will not be that of one who falls asleep and dreams, but that of one who wakes from a dream into the full light of day. Here, we are so surrounded by the things of sense that we take them for the full reality. Only sometimes we have a glimpse which corrects that wrong perspective. And above all when we see the Blessed Sacrament enthroned, we should look up towards that white disc which shines in the monstrance as towards a chink through which, just for a moment, the light of the other world shines through”.