Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This is my programme

Third Sunday of Lent Year B

Pope St. Pius X was asked after his election, what would be the programme of his pontificate. He pointed to a crucifix and said, “This is my programme.” As the Lord began to instruct His disciples on the purpose and goal of His mission, it became increasingly clear that the cross lay at the very heart of His programme. In a similar vein, when we speak of Lent, we too can point at the crucifix and say with the same conviction, “This is my programme.” Today’s gospel leads our Lord closer to the very goal of His programme. Each trial which He faced and overcame, each revelation of His personal identity and mission, each action which resulted in the escalation of conflict with the powers-that-be, led Him one step closer to the goal of His programme – the Crucifix that awaited Him on Mount Calvary.

Of all four evangelists, the Fourth Evangelist alone records our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple at the beginning, not the end, of His ministry, during Passover. The scene the evangelists describes as taking place in the temple area is a common one. Merchants are actually conducting business in the Court of the Gentiles (the outer most courtyard of the temple complex). Some are selling animals for sacrifice (as a convenience for those traveling long distances and needing an animal for sacrifice upon their arrival). Others are moneychangers, there to exchange profane currency for the religious one so that the half-shekel temple tax can be paid (profane coinage have portraits on them believed by the Jews to be idolatrous and therefore are not allowed in the temple). All of the goods and services being provided are for the temple rites. The hustle and bustle of market life is compounded by the editorial note that this event took place during the Feast of the Passover, one of the three great pilgrimage festivals, which could witness the crowds swelling to phenomenal proportions. Imagine the chaos that must have descended upon the city when those crowds all hit the temple market. 

What exactly did our Lord find objectionable, since those selling cattle, sheep, and doves as well as the money changers were providing a legitimate service for pilgrims to the Temple? There was a stated purpose to the outer court or the Court of the Gentiles and a veritable marketplace was not it. As its name indicates, the Court of the Gentiles was a space that everyone could enter regardless of culture, language, or religious profession. In a highly complex system that discriminated against those who risk contaminating the Temple worship, having a section of the complex dedicated to the Gentiles is fascinating and quite telling. Already, there is subtle hint that the Jewish religion was meant not just exclusively for the Jewish nation but for all nations. This space was where the rabbis and the teachers of the law gathered, ready to listen to people’s questions and to respond to these questions. It was a place for teaching and evangelisation, for stirring the embers that lay dormant in stone cold hearts and igniting the flames of faith, for drawing the crowds in to worship the One True God. But its intended purpose was vitiated, corrupted even by the market.

What was Jesus’ response to this scenario? The gospel tells us that making a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with all the animals. And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And He told those who sold the pigeons, “Take all this out of here and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.” The word translated “market” is the Greek “emporion,” from which we get our English word, “emporium.” The marketplace, rather than facilitating true worship in the Temple, had blurred its primary purpose – man’s primary purpose – to worship the One True God and anything that detracts or distracts from this, is neither worthy of God, nor of divine worship.

The prophetic and radical action of Jesus in today’s gospel invites us to an honest and careful examination of our own Christian worship. What brings us here?  Hopefully we are here to adore the living God who shares His life with us, and to deepen our life in Christ through our prayerful dialogue with Him, expressed through the living word, through sacred hymns and canticles, through receiving His true body and blood and through ancient rites expressive of the beauty of holiness. We are here to participate in the harmonious song of salvation. Hopefully, we have come here because we have a zeal for our Father’s house that makes us want to be here, not because we have to, but because we want to!

But the fact is that this is not always the case. Our culture of worship seems to have been so overtaken by the secular culture of irreverence. Today, irreverence is understood as something that is humorous or entertaining, which is the standard for acceptability, particularly when the irreverent defies any standards of decency or conventional mores. Holiness, on the other hand, is often viewed as a neurotic disorder. We can witness the invasion of the “market”, the “emporium” into the “house of prayer,” in the form of the loss of the sense of the sacred, both in how we pray the liturgy and the way we act or present ourselves within the church, in the clothes we wear, the music we sing, the casualness of our behaviour. We have forgotten that our fundamental vocation is to worship God. Whenever we play to the crowd and seek to be popular, progressive and even fashionable, we risk transforming the Temple once again into the emporium. It is as if we are auctioning God to the highest bidder. We risk peddling the Word of God, whenever we attempt to manipulate it to fit historical, political or ideological circumstances, for the purpose of pleasing men and acquiring a reputation of being avant-garde.

As a public figure, I often labour under various pressures to act as a spokesman for this or that cause. There are times, I have been told, that I do not say enough about politics, or about the economic and financial crisis of our times. There are other times, I have been accused of being a quietist, in not speaking up on the many issues of injustice and corruption that plague our country and society. Perhaps, the reason why I do not seem to provide commentaries about these things, is certainly not because they lack importance, but is because I’m reminded of the words of the holy and humble Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, Cardinal Sarah, who said, “The economy is important, politics are important, many things are important, but if we lose God we are like a tree without roots: it dies.” Without God, the cardinal said, “we are nothing. Without God man doesn't know where he is, where he is going and therefore it's a testimony of faith. Without God we are lost.” Very wisely, Cardinal Sarah warns us that “without God, man builds his hell on earth. Amusements and pleasures can become a true scourge for the soul when it sinks into pornography, drugs, violence, and all sorts of perversions.”

The church must therefore be that singular place in our society where the focus can be kept on what is most important – God. It is our duty to preach the centrality of God and to call people back to His true worship. It’s high time we return the Temple to its rightful purpose and cease to bend and reshape it to the market forces of society. It’s time to restore God’s primacy in the hearts of men and of societies, to restore “the eclipse of God” in contemporary society. “To preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), this is and should always be our programme.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Cross awaits us everywhere

Second Sunday of Lent Year B

Today, the Church wishes to take us on another journey with Christ but provides us with a radical change of scenery. From last week’s dreary oppressively harsh conditions of the desert of Temptation to this week’s stunningly beautiful mountain of the Transfiguration. I don’t think any one of us can read this unusual account without his mind being flooded with questions. What is this strange glory that shown on the face and the garments of Christ on the mountain top? And why did Moses and Elijah from the Old Testament appear with him on the mountain? And why did this voice come suddenly from heaven in the brightness of a cloud? And why was it that Peter and James and John alone of the disciples were chosen to view this event and why were they there?

Our first question is: What is this glory that appeared on the face of Christ on the mountain top? All three of the evangelists Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke — record this account, each with minor differences. But all of them agree that Jesus selected these three disciples and led them apart unto a high mountain. Why were they there? St Mark in his signature abbreviated style provides no clue but St Luke tells us that the Lord had gone up the mountain to pray. And as the disciples were watching him, “there in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleachers could make them.” St Mark’s mention of earthly bleachers emphasises the unusual nature of this manifestation, a shining forth of supernatural light that could not be caused by any natural phenomena. They were witnessing the uncreated glory of His deity shining through His humanity.

But in the gospel of St Mark, the Transfiguration is certainly meant to point also to the Parousia, Christ’s return in glory at the end of time. In Chapter 9:1, just before the Transfiguration, St Mark has our Lord make this prediction, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” St Mark puts the account of the prediction and the Transfiguration right together and he shows us that the Transfiguration is a fulfillment of what Jesus said, what he meant when he said, there are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the kingdom of God come with power. And that’s our first clue as to the meaning of this strange event. For it obviously then is a picture of the coming kingdom. A little foretaste granted to these three disciples by which they leaped over the intervening centuries and were, as it were, present at the coming of Christ in his second return to earth. The transfiguration looks forward to the hour of His return.

Here’s our next question: Of all the significant figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, why was it Moses and Elijah in particular that showed up here with Jesus? Why not Abraham? Or David? Or some of the other worthies of the Old Testament. Well, Moses was believed to have single handedly written the Law; Elijah represented all the Prophets. So, when God’s voice from heaven said about Jesus “Listen to Him!” that indicated that the Law and the Prophets must now give way to Jesus who will replace the old way with the new way. He is the completion of the Law and the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament. The Law and the Prophets are swallowed up in him. That all they have to say to mankind, is included, and added to, in the expression in the life of the Lord Jesus, in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, one last question. Why is that Peter and James and John are the disciples chosen to see this and to learn this lesson? Why them? And the answer very briefly is this. These are the only three men among the disciples who before this had openly and vocally avoided the principle of the Cross. Our Lord had foretold many times that He would have to suffer and die but His disciples never wanted to hear about it.  Peter so belligerently denied that He undergo such suffering that Jesus had to rebuke him on the spot, identifying his mentality with Satan. And therefore Peter was included in this group because he’d rejected the Cross. How about James and John? In Chapter 10, we see how they shamelessly tried to wrangle out of our Lord, seats of honour on His right and His left. They were certainly not thinking about the cross but perhaps, thought of the Lord ascending His throne of glory. Again, our Lord had to introduce a corrective. The seats of honour are for the Father to assign but every disciple is called to drink from the cup of the Passion, every disciple must be prepared to take up his or her cross and follow the Lord on the road that leads to Calvary.

Therefore, these three men all shared something in common. They all had a skewed idea of glory, an idea which had no place for the cross. In fact, all three had turned their backs to the Cross. And as such, they were rejecting the very thing that would have ensured them eternal glory. All three would have longed for redemption but failed to see that redemption taking place through the cross. The full realisation of the redemption of the bodies will be in the resurrection of the body, not merely in a transfiguration. And there can be no resurrection without the cross. That was why the Lord brought these three up the mountain. Through the experience of the transfiguration, Peter, James and John were given a glimpse of heaven in order to strengthen them for the terrible struggles and suffering that was yet to come. Peter, James, and John needed the glory of Tabor before enduring the horror of Golgotha. The Transfiguration of Christ is preparation for the Cross. His Disciples are in need of this strengthening, in order to face the Cross of their Teacher, as well as their own crosses.

There’s a mistaken idea about Christianity today that because Jesus went to the Cross, we’ll never have to. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each of us has a cross to carry. As Thomas a' Kempis reminds us, “The cross, therefore, is always ready; it awaits you everywhere. No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go you take yourself with you and shall always find yourself.”  The great spiritual master then adds this wise piece of advice, “If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering, but here there shall be. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one” (The Imitation of Christ, Book II, chapter 12).

How do we know this to be true? Well, our Lord has shown us in the example of His own life, His death and His resurrection. He went to the Cross in order that we might go with him there. And on through that Cross to the Resurrection beyond. The transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor tells us that the glory of the resurrection will only take place through the sufferings of Good Friday. The transfiguration teaches us that the experience of the cross is necessary in order for Easter to take place. You can’t have the glory of a Resurrection morn without the darkness of a crucifixion. And so as we accept the death of our own plans, our own agendas, our own need to be in control, then beyond lies the power and the glory of what we can only glimpse as a shadow in the transfiguration — a restored humanity which we’ll share with him in glory when He returns in all His splendour, power and glory.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Lead us not into temptation

First Sunday of Lent Year B

Recently, during an hour long interview with Pope Francis on Italian television, he was asked about a new French translation of the Lord’s Prayer for use in the liturgy. Basically, the Church in France had changed the line that in English reads “and lead us not into temptation” to one that means “do not let us fall into temptation.” Commenting on the change, the Pope said, “It's me who falls. It's not Him who pushes me into temptation, as if I fell. A father doesn't do that. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who leads into temptation is Satan.”  That’s true and St James would agree with him, “When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” But all three Synoptic gospels also indicate that Jesus was “driven” or “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. What do we make of this?

Today’s story of the temptation of our Lord, taken from the Gospel of St Mark, is unique. St Matthew and St Luke add details of the temptation that have become the centre of many homilies, talks and retreats. But Mark’s version is notable both for its brevity, its harshness, and its reference to ‘wild animals.’

Unlike St Matthew and St Luke, which speaks of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, St Mark the Evangelist uses a much stronger Greek verb, “ekballo,” translated as “drove” in our English text. The word suggests violent expulsion. This same word is used 17 times in the gospel of St Mark.  It is used 11 times for casting out demons.  It is used for “tearing out one’s eye and throwing it away” (9:47), and used in the cleansing of the temple when Jesus drove out the merchants in the temple (11:15), and when the evil tenants threw the heir out of the vineyard (12:8). It is as though the Holy Spirit grabbed Jesus by the scruff of His neck and threw Him into this strange encounter.  The Holy One of God who alone can drive out Satan and his minions, is Himself, driven out, literally ‘exorcised’ by none other than the Holy Spirit. Certainly Jesus was no reluctant participant. He was no mere puppet of the Holy Spirit.

The juxtaposition of the work of the Spirit and that of Satan is both intentional and ironic. These temptations didn’t just happen by accident. Our Lord did not just happened to be in the desert by chance. It was the Holy Spirit himself who propelled Jesus into the wilderness.  This was God’s doing. There is something deliberate here. If that seems scandalous and disturbing, that is, the thought that God who had found favour with His Son, would lead Him down this path of being tempted, it would be good but still not comforting to know that confrontation with evil is an essential part of the Son’s mission. Why would God do this?

Perhaps God wants His Son to take the offensive against temptation, and not just be on the defence. Our Lord, the Anointed One of God is being sent to be God’s challenger of evil, as was Job. But God is not sending His Son into the lion’s den without any aid. The movement and presence of the Spirit reassures the Lord that He is not alone in facing this trial and all the future trials He must experience in order to complete His mission. The Holy Spirit is with Him to help Him resist the temptations. It is also important to note that though the Holy Spirit drove Our Lord into the wilderness, He did not lead Him into temptation. The Holy Spirit does not do the testing.  He leaves that to another. 

The evangelist also seeks to draw a profound parallel between the present and the past, thus highlighting the significance and effects of Christ’s mission. Genesis 3:24 in the Septuagint (The Greek version of the Old Testament) reads, God “drove out the man from the Garden of Eden” into wilderness.  They were cast out. We now see the beginnings of the grand reversal.  In the gospel scene, the Spirit “drove” or cast Jesus into the wilderness to face the temptations wherein Adam and Eve failed, to begin the journey of turning the wilderness into a garden again.  By facing and overcoming these temptations, our Lord is regaining Paradise lost. But our comparison with the Eden and the First Adam is not done. The “wild beasts” occur only in St Mark’s version of the story of temptation.  Some scholars see in this an allusion to the sufferings the early Christians had to endure. Just like the early Christian martyrs who were being thrown into the Roman amphitheatres to be killed by ferocious wild beast, Our Lord shares their predicament. But here there is a difference, the angels accompany Him as they will accompany the Christian martyrs even in this final moment of testing.

But there is another and perhaps preferable explanation – it is Jesus the Second Adam taking His place as the Lord over His creation. Adam sinned and nature was cursed. The garden was exchanged for a wilderness. In Jesus the restoration has begun with the animals of the wilderness being part of the new Eden.  Mark’s text reads, Jesus was “with” the wild animals.  This is the language of intimacy. The original harmony of creation, injured and marred by the Fall, is now being restored.

The fact that the Lord is tempted yet did not sin tells us that there is a distinction to be made between temptation and sin. Too often the very experience of temptation makes us feel sinful, as if we have already sinned, but that is not necessarily the case. Our Lord, who never sinned, experienced temptation. Therefore, experiencing temptation is not to be equated with sin. Sin occurs only when we choose to yield to the temptation. The lyrics of an old Negro spiritual highlights this point and also the value of facing our temptations and overcoming them, “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win.”  

So God does not do the tempting – He does not push us to make us fall nor does He put evil desires in our hearts. But He does bring us into the presence of many tests and temptations. In fact, every step we take is a step into the presence of temptation. There is no moment of your life that is not a moment of temptation, and we should not labour under the illusion that we will not be tempted. That’s a given. In fact, that’s what life is: endless choices between belief and unbelief, pride and humility, obedience and disobedience, selfishness and generosity. Temptation is a test of a person’s ability to choose good (virtue) instead of evil (vice or sin). Such moments of testing purifies and there is growth in virtue when we choose, by the grace of God, not to yield to them.

Lent is upon us. This is the time when we train to battle with the perennial wilderness, the Devil and the temptations he throws at us at every turn. Adam was expelled from the earthly paradise, the symbol of communion with God. Now, in order to return to that communion and thus to eternal life we must pass through the wilderness not just of Lent but of life. We must pass through the test of faith. Not alone but with Jesus who proceeds, not just with us but ahead of us, and who has already conquered in the fight against the spirit of evil. This liturgical time invites us to renew our decision to follow Christ on the path of humility in order to participate in His victory over sin and death. In Him we now live our lives. Let us welcome Lent by embracing its way of voluntary sacrifice, of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. In so doing, we will receive the much needed grace it offers and be made ready to celebrate in greater freedom the Victory Feast of the Resurrection.