Thursday, May 30, 2019

May They All be One

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C

As we continue our Novena to the Holy Spirit which began on Ascension Thursday and which will culminate on Pentecost Sunday, it is most appropriate that the Church should invite us to “raise our eyes to heaven” in imitation of our Lord in today’s gospel. On Ascension Thursday, our Lord instructed the Apostles not to leave Jerusalem, but “to wait there for what the Father had promised,” the gift of the Holy Spirit. They should not just wait idly but they should keep vigil in prayer. But what sort of prayer are we speaking about? What should they be praying for? What would be the ultimate fruit of their prayer? Well, the answer is found in the example given by St Stephen the Proto-martyr in the first reading and our Lord Himself in the gospel. And the fruit of their prayers would not just be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost but the union of Christ, the Divine Bridegroom, with His Bride, the Church.

Let us first turn to the prayer of our Lord in the gospel. Today’s gospel presents to us a part of the prayer of our Lord taken from Chapter 17 of the Fourth Gospel, a prayer made during the Last Supper, a prayer commonly known as the “High Priestly Prayer,” because our Lord appears in the priest’s role of intercessor and mediator. The prayer is divided into three basic sections: our Lord prays for the mutual glorification of the Father and Son to be revealed in Him (verses 1-8); then He prays for His present disciples, especially for their mission to the hostile world (verses 9-19); and lastly He prays that all His disciples, present and future, will be united with one another and God (verses 20-26). The last part is found in today’s gospel.

Here, Our Lord prays for the whole world, asking that the love with which the Father had lavished upon Him might also be ours, and that through us the Father’s love might be evident to the world. That is what He died for. This prayer is not just empty rhetoric. The prayer puts into words the very mission of Jesus, the project of Jesus. “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one.” The Lord’s death on the cross, the gift of Himself to us, was the embodiment of these intercessions; and His resurrection embodied the Father’s answer to that prayer.

And so the prayer of our great High Priest, that “all be one,” transcends time and space. This unity is not meant to be sustained by a long history of human endeavour. In fact, just like in the past, human endeavour to preserve unity had often proven inadequate and the weak members of the Body of Christ had been responsible for causing great divisions and injury to the unity intended by Christ. No, the bonds of unity among the disciples of Christ have to be built on a much stronger and studier foundation. The unity of God’s people can never be fabricated by man. It must be generated by the Spirit of God. Because this unity proceeds from grace, the life of God, it is therefore patterned after the life of God, a pattern of unity unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organisation, purpose, feeling, or affection. Neither is it a unity that comes from commonality in terms of interest, nationality, ethnicity, language or culture. Just as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, we are to be so united. Christians are drawn to one another because they are drawn to a common centre, Jesus Christ Himself. For that is the source of the power of that unity.

St Cyril of Alexandria describes the disciples’ union of love as an icon of God. “Christ wishes the disciples to be kept in a state of unity by maintaining a like-minded-ness and an identity of will, being mingled together as it were in soul and spirit and in the law of peace and love for one another. He wishes them to be bound together tightly with an unbreakable bond of love, that they may advance to such a degree of unity that their freely chosen association might even become an image of the natural unity that is conceived to exist between the Father and the Son.”

The participation in this divine communion that our Lord offers is not limited only to that first group of disciples but also extends to include all future disciples in later generations, including us in this present generation. He describes this later generation as “those also who through their words will believe in me.” This already suggests that the disciples’ mission to the world is not just the proclamation of the good news but, has as its goal, to bring people to know Jesus and the Father and to bring them into this mutual divine communion. The union of Christ’s followers with God and with one another makes them capable of and ready for their mission to the world. The Church’s unity is meant to be a prophetic witness to the unbelieving world, inviting them to believe in the truth revealed by Christ, and to enter into this perfect communion with Him and the Father. 

Human association, that is having a place where you feel you belong, is a universal experience. There is something utterly intoxicating about banding together with others and overcoming obstacles as a group, a community, a team to achieve something significant. And its intoxicating draw is no less so for the Church. But we must be weary of the danger of thinking that we can manufacture this unity merely through our own efforts. This is a false notion of unity. Just see how the people, who built the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis, had accomplished an uncommon oneness, a true sense of “team”; so much so that God made this observation about them: “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”  It is a powerful thing, this man-made unity. But don’t miss the vision upon which those people based this unity: “and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” What they wanted was to build a powerful community that would hold them together, but would condemn them to be cut off from the rest of the world.

God’s vision, as reflected in the prayer of our Lord and in the feast of the Pentecost which we will celebrate next week, exposes this false notion and its narrow purpose. Being dispersed over the face of the earth was God’s vision for them. This is the story of Pentecost. The unity which God hopes to build will be one that will compel us to cross boundaries and to reach out to the periphery, in fact to the ends of the earth, for how else can we proclaim the good news if we are merely confined to the four walls of our church. Pope Francis notes that “a Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms”. The Church’s mission is love, and love seeks to reach beyond itself in generosity. Therefore, for the sake of a confused and sinful world, Christians must not, isolate themselves from that world. No, the church exists in order to reach the world so that, in every area and at every level of society, all mankind are penetrated by the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that is why the Church and the Holy Spirit, in today’s second reading, issues this invitation to all, “Come!” It is an invitation to everyone to join their voices to the call, “Come!” “Let all who are thirsty come; all who want it may have the water of life, and have it free” “Come!” We await the approaching feast of Pentecost, but our waiting is already here in the Holy Spirit. We beg for Him, with His refining light and fire, so that together with Him we might all the more longingly call for the Bridegroom to come, the Bridegroom who continues to pray for us and all peoples of the world, “May they all be one.”

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Worship and Mission

Ascension of the Lord

If you were part of an organisation from the very beginning and present at the death or retirement of the person who began it all, undoubtedly you would pay very close attention to his final remarks since they would give you a clue as to his deepest hopes and aspirations for that group.  This was very much the situation with the Apostles as they witnessed the ascension of Our Lord.  Having walked with the Lord for three years and having shared in His joys and in His sorrows at the most profound level, they now heard Him take His leave of them and this earth – commissioning them to be His witnesses unto the very ends of the earth.

The most familiar parting words of our Lord in the gospels seem to have come at the end of the Gospel of St Matthew, which many Christians call, the Great Commission. The interesting thing about that passage, read during the Year A Cycle of Lectionary Readings, is that it makes no mention of the Ascension at all. The Ascension is merely implied due to its choice as the gospel reading for the feast day but also because of the immediate association of the Ascension with the end of our Lord’s earthly presence and ministry. But the most lucid description and presentation of this event comes from St Luke, in both the Acts of the Apostles, which we had just heard in the first reading, as well as in a more summary way, in his gospel.

For St Luke, the Ascension was a significant moment in the disciples’ personal transformation and in the advance of the gospel through the Church. The Ascension also marks a critical turning point, the passing of the Lord’s message and mission to His disciples. Luke emphasised the importance of this event by ending his Gospel with this event and beginning his second volume, Acts, with it. It is significant that St Luke tells the story of the ascension twice. Each narration brings out a different aspect of the truth but the theme of witnessing seems to bind both Lucan accounts. In the Acts account, just before He ascends, the Lord promises His Apostles, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.” Similarly in the gospel, having reiterated the kerygma, the kernel of the Christian faith, that “Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,” the Lord gives them this commission: “In His name repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.” In other words, when Christ ascended, He left with the intention that the Church takes up where He left off.

The Acts version of the event also paints a rather comical scene. The disciples are standing there, first looking at the Lord ascending and then continue staring at the clouds. They are then shaken out of their stupor by the question posed by two men in white, presumably angels: “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” The question could actually be paraphrased, “Do you not have something better to do than to stand here and gawk?”

And here lies one of the greatest challenges to Catholics – our inertia to engage in mission. We seem to be transfixed firmly in our churches but feel no need or urgency to reach out. We Catholics have been “indoctrinated” to attend mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. The Liturgy is supposed to be the “source and summit of the Christian life.” Yes, worship is our primary activity, as witnessed by the Apostles at the end of today’s gospel. But what about mission? Most Catholics think that mission is confined to religious and priests being sent off to foreign lands? Some Christians also think it boils down to a choice: worship or service, contemplation or engagement? Let’s be clear. This is a false dichotomy. It’s never a choice. Both worship and mission are part of the life of a Christian. They feed each other.

The Ascension reminds us that the Church is an institution defined by mission. Today all institutions have a statement of mission; but to say the Church is defined by mission is to say something more. The church is not an institution with a mission, but a mission with an institution. The church exists for mission. To be sent, is the church's raison d'ĂȘtre, so when it ceases to be sent, it ceases to be the Church. When the Church is removed from its mission, she ends up becoming a fortress or a museum. She keeps things safe and predictable and there is a need for this – we need to be protected from the dangers of the world and from sin. But if her role is merely “protective” she leaves many within her fold feeling stranded in a no man's land between an institution that seems out of touch and a complex world they feel called to understand and influence.

On the other hand, the Church cannot only be defined by her mission alone, but also by her call to worship the One who has sent her on this mission. If this was not the case, she would be no better than a NGO. But the Church of the Ascension is simultaneously drawn upward in worship, and pushed outward in mission. These are not opposing movements and the Ascension forbids such a dichotomy. The Church does not have to choose whether it will be defined by the depth of its liturgy or prayer life, or its faithfulness and fervor in mission. Both acts flow from the single reality of Ascension. Both have integrity only in that they are connected to one another. At the end of every mass, the priest dismisses the faithful with one of these formulas, “Go forth, the Mass is ended!” “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord!” etc. Mission is at the core of each of these formulas. The Sacrifice of the Mass is directed and geared towards this purpose – the continuation of the mission of Christ. The Eucharistic Lord invites us, He commands us, to share in His mission, and to preach the gospel everywhere. The Eucharist is a reminder that the Ascension does not mean that Jesus is gone. Rather, it means He is now present to each and every person who turns to Him and surrenders his or her life to His mission.

If worship is the beginning of mission, then mission too must find its ultimate conclusion in worship – for the liturgy is the “source and summit of the Christian life” as taught by the Second Vatican Council. Worship must be at the heart and the soul of mission. This is beautifully depicted in the Novgorod school's icon of the Ascension. The apostles are excited and ready to carry out the mission entrusted to them by the two angels at the scene of the Ascension. And yet, the Blessed Virgin Mother stands serenely in the middle of this icon, with her hands raised in the traditional gesture of prayer (orans). She seems to be the sturdy anchor that holds them rooted to the Ascension event, reminding them that their mission must always be anchored in Christ through prayer. So, the more authentically missional a church becomes, the more profound will be its life of worship since mission always ends in worship. Together, the church's life of mission and worship, enact and bear witness on earth, to what is already true in heaven.

Those first Apostles took seriously our Lord’s command that they preach the Gospel to all nations, and the fact that we are Christians here today centuries later and thousands of miles away from the birth of Christianity is positive proof of how seriously they heeded His command.  From its very origins, then, the Church has had an outward, missionary thrust.  The work Christ began here on earth, He has now transferred to us to continue.  If we have truly caught on to the message of the risen and ascended Christ, we should not just stand here looking up into the skies waiting for an answer. We are called to get going and do the job our Lord has given us to do, never forgetting that we must be connected to Him through our worship and prayer.  With the help of the promised Holy Spirit, you will be His faithful witnesses “not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

I need a Church to tell me I'm wrong where I think I'm right

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C

The recently published article by Pope Emeritus Benedict raised more than eye-brows. It drew the ire of many left leaning and progressive commentators, who took offence with the former pope’s diagnosis of the clergy sexual abuse situation. They launched a vitriolic ad-hominem attack on Benedict without really addressing substantively the claims the latter made in his article. I would not want to go into the contents of the article but suffice to say that Pope Emeritus Benedict made an interesting and insightful link between doctrinal and moral dissent and clerical wickedness. Clergy abuse did not just fall from the sky. It arose from a situation within the Church that had been brooding for decades since the 1960s, a moral liberalisation that took its cue from the sexual revolution, rather than from the teachings of the Church. It is obvious that the harshest critics, of this article and of the former Pope for having the audacity to make these claims, come from the very groups and individuals who were blatantly or tacitly promoting dissent from Church teachings. As the Malays so wisely put it, “siapa makan cili, dia yang rasa pedas” (whoever eats chili will suffer its spiciness).

One of the most controversial points when discussing the Catholic Church in today’s world would be the Church’s claim that it is able to teach and govern authoritatively; in fact it teaches, governs and sanctifies with the authority of Christ Himself. While most experts can claim some form of authority from training and experience, only the Catholic Church, or the Magisterium, which is the teaching authority of the Church, can claim authority from the Holy Spirit. The Magisterium speaks with the authority of Christ, guided and empowered by the Spirit. But why would He do that? If Christ wanted to ensure that His teachings would have the efficacy of leading humanity to salvation, He would have taken the necessary measures to ensure the same teaching would have this purpose, rather than become a cause for confusion and destruction. This is why Christ promised to protect the teachings of the Church by conferring this very authority of interpretation on to the Church’s Magisterium: "He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me" (Luke 10. 16).

Pope Emeritus Benedict noted in a homily that “this power of teaching frightens many people in in and outside the Church. They wonder whether freedom of conscience is threatened or whether it is a presumption opposed to freedom of thought.” But then the erudite pontiff noted, “It is not like this. The power of Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith.” This authority of the Church, as the Lord has reminded all His disciples, is not one which seeks ‘to lord it over others’ but ultimately one of service. The Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God. Instead, the Magisterium is clearly under its authority–it is the servant of the Word. Its role is not to add to God’s revelation or to subtract from it. Only to faithfully interpret and apply it (CCC 85-86).

We see an excellent example of the exercise of the Church’s Magisterium in today’s first reading. The issue of whether pagan converts to Christianity would have to submit to circumcision and other Jewish observances had become a major issue that threatened to split the leaders of the Church and the Church itself. During the Council, Peter strongly defended the position that the Gentiles, who were not circumcised, were accepted by God. The apostle James then delivered his judgment that the Gentile converts would not need to be circumcised but laid down certain guidelines that would allow Jewish and Gentile converts to live in harmony. So, finally the apostles and elders adopted the position proposed by James and chose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. In the letter, they wrote, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves ...” The apostles and elders who had gathered at the Council of Jerusalem were conscious that their decision was no mere human decision. They believed that it was the Holy Spirit who guided their decision, and so, ultimately it is God who has decided on the matter.

Unlike what many dissenters often claim, the Holy Spirit is not the source or muse for innovation. “We have to let the Spirit lead”. Unfortunately, this is often a euphemism for excusing oneself from following the Church’s teachings and disciplines. The Spirit does not provoke us to disobedience. In fact the Lord Himself tells us in today’s gospel, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” Likewise, the Holy Spirit is not a spirit of confusion. Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit to guide His Church into ALL Truth. He promised His disciples and us that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit “will teach (the Church) everything and remind (her) of all” He had first taught His apostles (cf. Jn. 14:26).  Our Lord did not leave His people vulnerable to the doctrinal whims of competing leaders. Rather, He built the Church on the solid foundation of the apostles. He gave the Church His Holy Spirit, the Advocate (Parakletos), to enable her to be “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Despite the cultural winds that have blown through the ages, the faithful have always had a visible, easily identifiable magisterial “rock” on which they could safely stand on in all seasons.

Throughout the centuries, the Church has also experienced many crises that threatened to shake its very foundation and unity. In the early centuries, many Church leaders were divided as to the issue of Christ’s divinity. In later centuries, there were also disagreement about many church teachings and practices. In modern times, the most contentious issues revolve around sexual mores.  Throughout its histories, the Church had to contend with schisms (splits) and heresies (erroneous teachings) but remain steadfast on its course, the course set by her Lord and Master. And yet in spite of these many centuries of crises and trials, the Church has continued to survive and grow, only because of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s guidance ensures that in spite of all our personal opinions and ways of thinking, and despite the wickedness and failings of her shepherds, we can be sure of a certain authoritative position that reflects the will of God. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of unity within the Church. Without the Holy Spirit, the Church and unity would not be possible.

As noted in Pope Benedict’s recent article, the crisis that has afflicted the Catholic Church since the 1960s has been a crisis of both faith and morals, that is, a crisis that has made many Catholics to no longer know, what to believe or what kind of conduct God expects of us. What is needed as a remedy for this is a firm standard, a reliable guide or teacher who can tell us both what we must believe and what we must do. We need a Church who can ensure that the light of Christ’s saving Gospel will shine on every generation. We need a Church that does not only provide us with good ideas and opinions but who teaches authoritatively, who is able to give us great light & clarity in a world that seems often enveloped in the darkness of sin; in a world enamoured and confused by the fallacious philosophy of relativism which provides so many competing false lights. We need a Church and successors of the Apostles who will “discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine” (Vatican I, Constitution on the Church of Christ). And as G.K. Chesterton once said, “I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I already know that I’m wrong; I need a Church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.”