Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Concordia Apostolorum

Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul

People who know me would know that I have an obsession with what seems to be Catholic trivia – small tiny details with regards to Catholic architecture, art, music and history all excite me, to say the least. One of the most exciting things which I have discovered over the years is this little publicised or known fact about the major basilicas in Rome dedicated to the two great apostolic princes, patron saints of Rome, we fete today. Now, you may have heard me mention that churches were traditionally built with a certain orientation, facing East, the position of the rising sun and the direction Christ ascended to heaven and is expected to return. Interestingly, the word “orientation” comes from the Latin “Orient,” which means “East”.

The two basilicas, the Basilica of St Peter in Vatican City and the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, however, were not built with the above orientation in mind. Their architects, or at least those responsible for the rebuilding, enlargement of these two great churches, built them with a deliberate intention of making them face each other – both stood on opposite banks of the River Tiber facing the direction of the river which divides the city of Rome into East and West (or north and south), standing as emblems and guardians of Rome – one to its north and the other to its south. The symbolism of this configuration witnesses to the fraternal camaraderie of these two great apostles. It was St Augustine who spoke of their twinning in this fashion: “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; And even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles' blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labours, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”

According to early Christian traditions, Peter and Paul met one last time in Rome under the persecution of Nero.  They were imprisoned together in the Tullianum, Rome’s oldest prison reserved for the greatest enemies of the state.  For nine months, Peter and Paul “pray, preach, and prepare” for their birth into eternal life.  Little is known about this period of their lives but it must have been a time of grace for the friends to spend so much time together discussing the things of God.  Artists have rightfully been captivated by the final embrace between the Christian brothers as each goes off to give the ultimate testimony of their earthly life.  Peter was crucified upside down on the western side of the Tiber River and Paul was beheaded on the eastern side, perhaps in God’s Providence so that from both sides of the river, the whole city, might be sanctified by their blood. And finally, the two basilicas, which stand as living testimonies of their martyrdom, mark the spots where their remains were said to be buried.

Both in art as well as in architecture (the orientation of the two basilicas facing and reaching out to each other), Saint Peter and Saint Paul, once rivals, are now depicted as embracing each other in symmetric unity with their arms intertwined, a form of image known as the Concordia Apostolorum - “The Apostolic Harmony.”  Two men, from such different backgrounds, made brothers in Christ and apostles to the whole world.  It is hard for us to imagine the love that they had and now have for one another, the depth of their friendship brought about through their shared faith in Jesus Christ. 

The early Fathers saw the harmony of these two apostles as a historical allusion that recalls the legend of the founding of the city of Rome by the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, both sons of a wolf mother.  Their city matured into an Empire that was one of the most powerful civilisations in human history.  Yet over 800 years from the founding of the city of Rome, another set of brothers, Peter and Paul, not natural brothers, but united by the bonds of the Spirit in Christ, laid a foundation of a new civilisation which would outlast and outshine the Roman Empire.

The contrast between these two sets of “brothers” is remarkable.  According to the ancient Roman myth, Rome was violently established when Romulus killed his brother as they laid the city’s walls.  In comparison, Peter and Paul built up the civilisation of love found in the Church with brotherly affection by tearing down the walls between nations and tribes.  The Roman Empire, would rule the world through fear and violence under the shroud of the pax romana.  Peter and Paul would set the example for the Church to serve the world through faith and charity under the mantle of the pax Christi.  The spiritual kingdom of the Church would far surpass the boundaries of time and space to which the Roman Empire had aspired. 

As noted by Pope St. Leo the Great, the Roman Empire which was the great teacher of error became the disciple of Truth under the guidance of the two great apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Through preaching truth in word and practicing charity in deed, Saint Peter and Saint Paul re-founded the city of Rome for Christ. Even though Peter and Paul were to continue in their mission to preach the good news to both Jews and Gentiles, Paul was confirmed in his special mission to the Gentiles as Peter was confirmed in his preaching to the Jews. 

Since the first Rome was founded on fratricide, Rome needed to be re-founded as a Christian city in fraternal love.  The blood of the brothers united in Christ serves as the seed of the Church which will grow in time.  We sing their praises together, according to Tertullian, because they “poured forth all their teaching along with their blood.”  Their witness in teaching and their blood is what truly makes Rome the urbs sacra and urbs aeterna, the Holy and Eternal City.  It was their martyrdom in Rome that at last led to the unending reunion between Peter and Paul in the true Holy and Eternal City, the Heavenly Jerusalem.  For eternity, they are united with one another and with their Redeemer who called them both to the great mission of bringing the gospel to the entire world.

Since their bond and mission was based on Truth and Love, it should not be surprising that it should also be marked by fraternal correction for fraternal correction flows from love. Saint Paul publicly admonishes Peter for his actions in backtracking in an earlier decision (cf. Gal 2:11).  Often this scene is over emphasised by those pitting Peter and Paul against one another.  Rather, it should be read as a passage demonstrating true fraternal correction, the fruit of fraternal love.  Because of the bonds of friendship forged in the love of Christ, Paul objects to Peter’s actions.  Paul is concerned with Peter’s deeds not his doctrine. An admonishment like this could rupture any friendship but not for these two.  In fact, it led to its growth between these two men.

Today as we contemplate these two pillars of the Church, our prayer should be to re-commit ourselves to the Church’s unity and mission in all aspects of our lives. It is a mission not just to confirm and encourage our brothers and sisters, but a mission which also demands fraternal correction. For without Truth, love would be a lie. With the grace that comes through that prayer, together we can all be the sign of unity in Christ that God intends for the healing of our often fragmented Church and disordered world.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Raising the Bar

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Often enough, the height of a pole bar presents a challenge for most of us. However, it depends on whether you’re doing one of two very different activities: a limbo dance or a pole vault! For the limbo dancer, its’ “how low can you go” – the lower the better. But in the case of a pole vault, its “how high can you jump” – the higher the better. So, do you lower the bar or raise it? This is the question that often troubles many priests and church leaders and gets them into uneasy situations with parishioners. Do you “raise the bar” or seek to “lower” it?  Well, it would seem that though standards in all aspects of life seem to be rising – sports, education, job opportunities, choice of spouse, technology, to name a few - people tend to lower the bar on all things related to the Christian faith, as a result, they tend to minimise the significance of it or blow it off entirely.

Here’s our fear: if we raise our standards and enforce them, we will lose people. And, no doubt, that is true. That’s often the basic argument; to lower the bar in Church. But did we really ever “have” these people to begin with? I don’t think so. People who leave even at the slightest offence or inconvenience demanded of them, are already demonstrating a lack of commitment. But the people you do “have” who are open to the challenge will begin to take the challenge of Christ more seriously. And they should. The Church is the hope of the world; being popular is not. Yet we treat popularity as if it is the most important thing whilst treating the Church like some recreation. We are quick to abandon her once it gets too tough or boring.

Today’s readings have to do with the demands of discipleship and let me assure you from the very start – we are not talking about “lowering the bar” when it comes to this. In the first reading, we see a radical model from the Old Testament where Elijah appoints Elisha as his successor. Elijah allows Elisha to bid farewell to his parents but Elisha wishes to demonstrates his whole-hearted surrender to this new mission by slaughtering two of his twenty four plough oxen and giving the meat to his servants to eat. It is a generous act, a marvelous example of obedience, one that can even be described as radical and foolish. But note, Elisha still left 11 pairs of oxen for his father’s use. Prudent son. But demands of our Lord in today’s gospel would far surpass the sacrifice made by Elisha.

Our Lord’s requirements exceed those of the Old Testament. Three men present Him with their wish to follow Him. In response to the first, our Lord points to His own example and fate – He has no place to call home. By using an analogy, He describes His condition as worse off than the animals: He lives in utter insecurity. He owns nothing but His mission. And the destination of His mission is revealed at the opening of the gospel passage: “as the time drew near for Him to be taken up to heaven.” He was committed “resolutely” to this mission, a mission that will eventually end not only in the rejection by the Samaritans or even the Jews but also by the whole world as it climaxes with His death on the cross.  We are not sure whether such a reality check would have dampened the enthusiastic spirit of this man but it is clear that Christians are not meant to naively commit themselves to this way of life unless they knowingly and freely are able to commit themselves to the cross. Freedom is premised on such knowledge. Discipleship must always be deliberate and intentional. There are no accidental disciples.

The second would-be follower first wants to bury his father. But just like so many of us, this may just be another excuse to get out of this commitment. Here, the Lord of Life answers, “Leave the dead to bury their dead.” The dead are the mortals who bury each other. But our Lord is above life and death, He dies and rises again “in order to be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9). This is not the job of His disciples. They have a far more important and urgent mission: “your duty is to go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God.” The demands of proclaiming the Kingdom of God take precedence.

The third potential disciple wants to say good-bye to his family. We immediately recall the request of the prophet Elisha in the first reading. But here our Lord exceeds Elijah. For the person radically called, there can be no compromise between family and the decision for the Kingdom. Relationships with family and other men are governed by the norm provided by that decision. But to be fair to Elisha, we see in him an example of resoluteness in decision making. The act of slaughtering the oxen (though only a pair out of twelve pairs was sacrificed) and burning the plough expresses Elisha’s decision to pursue wholeheartedly his new vocation as a prophet. He is burning his bridges. There is no turning back.

Most people who misunderstand this text would believe that the demands of our Lord are unreasonable. This is when Christianity is perceived as a religion which lays unnecessary and even unnatural burdens on a human person. Today’s world has canonised sin, mediocrity and unfettered freedom as the perennial human condition; thus the demands of Christ and of His Church are regarded as inhumane and a form of enslavement. The Church is constantly being pushed to lower the standards, to make it easier, lighter and certainly more convenient. Just because something is easier or lighter, does not necessarily make it any freer. On the contrary, freedom can only be offered together with the gift of Truth – the truth will set us free.

And this is the Truth, Christ is the Truth and only Christ can set us free. St Paul tells us in the second reading, that “when Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” What the world fails to recognise is that our Lord, through His cross and resurrection, had come to free us from the tyranny of sin and the power of death. The demands of the Lord may seem harsh here, but He is only asking of His disciples what He asks of Himself. Jesus' unconditional commitment to God's saving work will demand of Him his life. Christian freedom therefore is far from an abstract philosophical ideal. It is impossible to be free when we choose to do evil and commit sin. We see how sin often has a stranglehold on us through addictions. Rather, freedom is the victorious death of Jesus.  The freedom ultimately becomes ours when we deliberately and freely choose His way of life, and His way of life is simply to do the will of the Father.

I’ve often heard people use this rhetorical question as an attack against the demands made by the Church, “What would Jesus do?” Well, in today’s readings, you have the answer. He came to “raise the bar” not to “lower” it. What the Lord wants of us today, as He has been asking from the very beginning, is total commitment. The goal and mission of the Church is not to accommodate, to make things easier, more convenient or more palatable to public opinion. The goal and mission of the Church is to challenge and point us to the stars. We are here to win the race, not just get a consolation prize for participation by sitting on the bench. From the very beginning of Christianity - as we read in scriptures, in the history of the Church, we have seen in the living and dying testimonies of so many Christians who have heard Christ's call to renounce normal ties of family and country, and to keep before their eyes the goal of total discipleship. They understood that there are no half measures, no turning back, not just an ideal to be contemplated, but a call to follow Christ to the very end.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

O Saving Sacrifice

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

As visitors enter our Church for the first time, they would most likely be captivated or dazzled by the size and prominence given to the two geometric shapes that form the backdrop of the sanctuary - the chalice where the Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is contained, and the host-like medallion perched above it, a symbol of the Blessed Sacrament, the Precious Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. But now with the recent renovations to our sanctuary, that very same medallion now boasts of a beautiful and colourful mosaic. Most people can discern that this is a figure of a lamb sitting on some sort of dais. Well, it isn’t a dias. It’s actually the Book (or scroll) with seven seals mentioned in Chapter 5 of the Book of the Apocalypse.

St John’s vision in the Book of the Apocalypse introduces us to this scene of the scroll with seven seals. Everyone in the court of God is extremely concerned to the point of despair, in knowing that no one is worthy to break those seals. But then finally One emerges, the only one who can open the seals and read the scroll. It is not a powerful, ravening predator with dripping claws and fangs but a weak, vulnerable prey animal that has been mortally wounded – a Lamb. Who is the Lamb? I believe you already know the answer. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Lion of Judah, the King of the new and heavenly Jerusalem, and the firstborn is that unblemished lamb, who offers a perpetual, timeless, everlasting sacrifice of praise of Himself to the Father. Christ’s sacrifice has ended all ineffective, repetitive, bloody animal sacrifice that never did any good anyway.  He is the perfect holocaust or victim. In fact, the word “host” which we use to refer to the communion bread, is derived from “hostia” which means “victim” or “sacrifice.”

But there is more to the Lamb who takes on the role of a “saving sacrifice” (O Salutaris Hostia). Placed here in the Book of the Apocalypse, He acts as Judge of both the living and the dead. Thus the opening of the seals releases God’s judgment and wrath, in order to clean the earth of evil in preparation for the Messianic Age. But this vision in the Book of the Apocalypse is not meant to be a pronouncement of what “must” come about – a future written in stone. Rather, it is meant to be a warning – a warning of what “might” come about, if we fail to heed the stern warnings of the vision. That is why every time we approach the Eucharist, we must remember that we are coming before the glory of the Lamb that was slain for our redemption, the King of the new and heavenly Jerusalem, the Judge of both the living and the dead. At every mass, we are rehearsing that Final Day of Judgment.

How then is the Eucharist connected to judgment? In the second reading taken from Chapter 11 of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are introduced to the words of institution, the words of consecration which the priests, for centuries thereafter until the present time, use at every mass. Omitted in the text are the following words by St Paul: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” (vv. 27-32)

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”  Now that language is actually like civil judicial language. Somebody who's practically guilty of murder or causing physical harm to some person’s body or desecrating a corpse is guilty of the body and blood. For St. Paul, the Eucharist being Christ and thus God himself, communion is not only an opportunity to eat and drink salvation, but also an opportunity to eat and drink judgment on oneself.

And for St Paul these dangers are not just theoretical, just as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not merely symbolic. To receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin is playing with fire of the worst sort. That is why St. Paul teaches that examining oneself is a prerequisite for worthy reception of the Eucharist. If that is violated, Holy Communion has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than bringing the blessing of union with our Lord, it brings condemnation. Rather than offering an antidote to death and an elixir of immortality, the Eucharist can prove to be fatally poisonous to a person whose spiritual immunity has been compromised by the infestation of sin. Therefore, we are required to abstain from Holy Communion when there is mortal sin and should only come forward to receive Holy Communion after we’ve made a sacramental confession.

The Didache, written sometime between 90 and 110 A.D, provides us with an early understanding that the Eucharist was not merely a table fellowship with sinners but rather a sacral meal that presupposed grace and communion with the Church. “If anyone is holy, let him approach; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. … But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptised into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 10, 9). In this text, we see a tradition that is scriptural, ancient, and clear: the Eucharist is a sacred meal that requires of us something more than just “showing up.”

It is here that we discover the Scriptural roots of the theology and practice of fencing the altar, of excommunication, of withholding communion, of refraining from partaking in Holy Communion when one is not in a state of grace. And that theology and practice is in turn rooted in the thoroughly biblical idea that there are different sorts of sins, some minor, some major, some venial, some mortal. Neither Paul nor the Church after him is being legalistic or unmerciful or mean in exercising Eucharistic discipline. Ultimately, if encountering God directly in the Eucharist is dangerous, even deadly, withholding it should be seen as an act of charity, an act of love. It is not an act of love to give someone something that may kill them.

In our present day where notions of inclusivity and unity seem paramount, love has been reduced to simply giving people what they want. To a large degree, such unity is a contrived unity, one that overlooks the truth necessary for honest, real, substantive unity. Such a notion of communion is shallow at best, and a lie at worst. For St Paul, truth requires conversion and repentance. Communion is a matter of doctrine (faith and morals) and not just hospitality; it is a matter of life and death. But no one is forever barred from this life-giving food. Reconciliation and conversion opens the door to Holy Communion. A worthy reception of the Sacrament of Confession cleanses, purifies, enlightens and sanctifies the soul to receive the Eucharist with a better and more fervent disposition. As Pope Emeritus Benedict so wisely puts it: “The Eucharist is not itself the sacrament of reconciliation, but in fact it presupposes that sacrament. It is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family.” The Lamb of the Book of the Apocalypse stands as a sign, a warning to those who are in need of repentance and a sign of hope to those who are committed to the path of repentance and conversion. For the latter, the Lamb will no longer be seen as a stern judge, but He will be their “lighted torch”, illuminating the heavenly city that would no longer “need the sun or the moon for light” (Rev 11:22).