Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Zacchaeus Come Down

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Recent surveys have shown that Islam has overtaken Catholicism as the religion with the largest number of adherents on the face of the earth. A sobering thought for us and indeed a wake-up call for all Catholics that we should not be contented with our present ranking in third place and instead we should double our efforts to witness and share the gospel with others. But perhaps what isn’t listed in this survey findings are the ideologies and personal philosophies that govern our world view and shape our values. Religion is certainly one large component but there are other more influential factors. I have no statistics to back up my claim, but given the massive popularity of social media and reality shows, I can safely conjecture that the most popular “religion”, if one could term it as such, is the cult of self or “narcissism.” The increase in the use of social media and the growing popularity of reality TV shows and talent competitions are indicative of the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture. As some social commentators have noted, narcissism has reached epidemic levels. We’re on constant display.

The term ‘narcissism’ comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. These advances eventually led Narcissus to be cursed, by being made to fall in love with his own reflexion in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus lay gazing enraptured into the pool, hour after hour, and finally changed into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus. A poignant lesson to be learnt - despite its alluring promises, the truth is that narcissism kills.

Narcissism distorts our vision of humanity. We have been made in the image and likeness of God in order that we may come to know Him, love Him, serve Him and be with Him in beatific union for eternity. Yet, narcissism has caused us to fall in love with our own image, a false idol.   Wrapping ourselves in a cocoon of inwardness, we feel cosy in our own personal cult of self-worship. Ultimately, we suffer from an addiction to ourselves. 

A good analogy for our present narcissistic culture is the purpose of mountain-climbing. In the past, someone would climb a mountain in order to see the world. But now, people would climb the mountain in order for the world to see them – literally screaming for attention: ‘Look at me!’ Today, we are presented not with a story of a man climbing a mountain but a story of one who climbs a sycamore tree. Perched in its branches we find our man, Zacchaeus. So why was Zacchaeus up the tree? You can say that Zacchaeus was old school. He was not up the tree as a sort of personal announcement to the large crowds gathered there (an ancient form of social media, I guess), ‘Look at me!’ He was there because he was curious. Curiosity had drawn him to the crowd and ultimately led him to climb that tree. Our Lord was passing through Jericho that day, and many people were crowded around Him as he walked through the city.

The curiosity of Zacchaeus, his thirst and desire to see Jesus reveals a powerful truth - God cannot be found by looking within yourself, your heart, your feelings and your experiences.  His Word is not the same as some inner voice.  His presence is not some warm fuzzy feeling in the depths of your heart or the fluttering of butterflies in your belly.  Our God is a God who hides Himself where He may be found with certainty.  He hides Himself in the mystery of the Incarnation – in the person of Jesus Christ. So, the lesson of this story really isn’t about Zacchaeus nearly as much as it is about Jesus. And one finds Jesus not by climbing a sycamore tree but by climbing a different one, the tree of the cross. That tree, the tree of the cross, is where Our Lord came to save a sinner. It is from that tree that our Lord offers the hospitality of salvation in exchange for Zacchaeus’ meagre hospitality of repentance.

We too are invited to climb that tree of the cross if we wish to see Jesus, for the cross is the tree of life. And it is at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that we encounter once again our Lord who climbed the tree of the cross for our sake. As the cross is the means of our salvation, our liturgy too saves us from ourselves – Good liturgy puts the brakes on narcissism. Notice that we are bombarded throughout the week with secular ‘liturgies’ (social media, rituals of affirmation we receive at home, at work or in school) that guide our loves and desires towards ‘me, me, me’, rather than God. It’s a self-focused kingdom: a kingdom that loves me and only me. But liturgy protects us from simply making worship into a self-pleasing act. Church then, is meant to be the place away from it all. The home away from self-display. It’s meant to be the place where the liturgy guides us towards a desire to worship God and not ourselves. And that is why applauding during the mass should be discouraged. It’s not because I’m a fuddy-duddy grumpy old priest who frowns on laughter and fun. It is because our applause takes away our focus from what is most significant. Pope Benedict XVI said: “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”

We must be taught again that the Mass is not a human rite which can and should be manipulated, so as to express human desires or to promote human goods. The Mass is not another tool to serve a ‘function.’  Rather, the Mass is the prayer of self-offering of Jesus Christ to His Father for the remission of sins. Our usual complaints often betray our misconceived idea of the liturgy – music must be louder and more ‘happening’, seating and kneelers must be softer, church must be cooler, homilies must be funnier, and services must be shorter. The perduring idea that the liturgy should correspond to my likes and dislikes perpetuates individualism within the liturgy.

But here’s the truth: the liturgy is not meant to feed the addiction to self and be another outlet for narcissistic expressions. The liturgy is not meant to please the crowd and be another avenue of entertainment. The liturgy is the Source and Summit of our lives – it is the Father's gift of Himself in Christ to us and, through Christ, our offering of Christ and, with Him, of ourselves – our minds and hearts, our daily lives – to the Father.

St Augustine tells us, “Climb the tree on which Jesus hung for you, and you will see Jesus.” Today, we are invited to ascend the ‘Tree’, not the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed – the sycamore tree is just a reminder of something far more important. The sycamore tree reminds us of  the Tree of Life, once denied to Adam and Eve when they fell into sin of self-idolatry, narcissism in its most ancient form; the very Tree which now awaits us in the gardens of Paradise. It is the Tree on which our Saviour hung, the Cross, once barren and wintry but now burgeoning with new life, announcing a new springtime of the resurrection. Our Lord climbed this tree, to open to us the way to return to the Father. The cross reveals that we are not so much called to look at ourselves but to look at Jesus, as to see all things in Him, with Him and through Him. He is the light of the world, and in His light we see light.

So climb the tree, see Jesus in the light of faith, and begin to see how the world is not the empty impersonal echo of blind forces, but a place of encounter between lovers, a place where I can truly see the Lord in all His radiant glory and splendorous love, and where we discover that all along, we have been seen and known and loved beyond measure.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Memento Mori

Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

On my recent trip to France, I had the opportunity of visiting one of the most wondrous places on earth – an abbey-fortress built on a tiny island – Mont St Michel. At high tide, the sea surrounds Mont St-Michel, making it an impenetrable fortress surrounded by a natural moat, and at low tide this same water recedes as much as 11 miles from the Abbey. There are so many wonders that I can tell you about this beautiful Romanesque structure but one detail in particular caught my attention. Our guide pointed to what remained of a 13th century fresco that once covered the entire wall of the infirmary – the place where sick monks came to be healed and where they died. What remains are three solemn and macabre figures – knights in various stages of aging and dying with the last a skeletal figure. The guide told us that what would have been painted on the other side of the wall were three other knights displaying youth, vigour and good health. Both sets of figures would be depicted as having a conversation. The one on the right (the deathly figures) reminding the other group (the healthy robust ones), that one day, the latter too will have to join the ranks of the former. It then occurred to me that this fresco was a “memento mori,” a memorial of death, that not all who pass through the doors of the infirmary will return the same way. Not all will recover. Death eventually comes to all.

Death is an amazing corrective to our disordered world, a world marred by the unfairness of discrimination, injustice, a growing and widening disparity between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the privileged and the disenfranchised. But then death comes to all, young and old, rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. Death does not discriminate. It has this sign hung above its main gate, “INGREDIMVR CVNCTI, DIVES CVM PAVPERE MIXTVS”, “All Enter, the Rich and Poor Alike.” In the face of the delusion that our safety, sense of peace and stability is finally secured, comes the important reminder that hits us whenever we face death, “memento Mori,” “remember death”, and then everything is put into perspective once again.

Today’s liturgy is such a day – a day to remember the dead, a day to remember death. I honestly believe that nothing can be more graphic than the Spanish name used by the Mexicans, “Dia de los Muertos”, the Day of the Dead. Our traditional “All Souls Day” and the current, “the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed”, seems muted in comparison. Perhaps, this is due to our Anglophone preoccupation with substituting hard words and concepts with euphemisms. But by whatever name it is known, today is a day to remember the dead, a day to remember death. Think about it - this entire day is a “memento mori” for the living. The dead may have departed this world of ours, but they still stand as silent reminders of the path and door which we all must pass one day. They issue this warning, “Remember us, for one day you too will join our ranks.”

The whole business of memento mori is said to have begun as a part of the ritual of welcome given to Roman military leaders upon their return from victory in battle. Amid the cheers of adoring crowds, a slave was designated to approach the great general and intone: “Respice post te, hominem te memento” (“Look around! Remember you’re only a man!”). Mortal like the rest of us. Our achievements, our trophies, our monuments will one day all be reduced to dust. What remains is the immortal soul, therefore we should pay due attention to its health, to our spiritual and moral health, rather than just be concerned with our physical and material needs.

We have a bit of this, of course, every Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The reminder is a good one, and sometimes an impetus to head to Confession, because, as our Lord reminds us, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” A certain amount of procrastination in life is okay, but not in this regard. We should never put off any opportunity to repent, to amend our ways, because “we know neither the day nor the hour.” It’s a reminder that the art of living well ought necessarily become the art of dying well.

We’re familiar with Christ’s admonition to be “in the world but not of it,” but we are also aware that too frequently, we seem to be lost to this world and all its allures. We delay any preparation for that final moment, sometimes even denying it, perhaps, living under the illusion (or delusion) that we and our works, our accomplishments, our trophies, are dipped in the waters of the River Styx, our invincibility secured. But it is this blindness that has become the Achilles’ heel of so many. In failing to face death, in choosing to forget that we are merely mortals, many have lost that opportunity to turn the story around.

Yes, immortality is within our reach. But its answer is not to be found in denial or other false substitutes. The secret of immortality is to be found in Christ alone, the One who died but who rose again, the One who conquered death through His loving self-sacrifice on the cross. Repentance, turning to our Lord, is what makes this elixir accessible to all, even to the most hardened sinner. So, today, is not just a day to remember the dead and to remember death. It is crucially important to remember Christ too.

Yes, today as the Church commemorates the death of all the faithful departed, today as we remember our loved ones who have passed, it is time to remember - “memento Mori.” It is a reminder that life is always a joust with Death, a spar with our mortality. It is an unfair match. Death is so much more powerful than the most powerful on this earth, even those who command armies and empires will finally have to bend their knee and acknowledge defeat at the end of their battle. But if one has died in Christ, if one has chosen to continue dying to himself in order that he may be configured more to Christ, then the tide can be turned, the outcome can be rewritten, the victory can be secured. With Christ by our side, we have no more fear of death, for we know that we will come out not as losers or the defeated, but as victors! Oblivion or perdition need not be the destiny of every mortal. The Church Triumphant, the company of all saints which we celebrated yesterday, awaits us.

Our loved ones, our friends, our brothers and sisters have died. Each has finished his or her respective race. Their battle with death has concluded. What is the outcome, we do not know with certainty but we can only hope and pray that it ends in victory, the victory which Christ promised to those who listen to His words and adhere to them. We cannot know the exact moment of our dying, but we can live in recognition of that moment, in readiness. If you wish to remember your loved ones and all the faithful departed today, first remember death.

Climb every mountain

Solemnity of All Saints

As many of you are aware, I have just returned from a pilgrimage to France. It concluded with a visit to the Alpine shrine dedicated to Our Lady of La Sallete. The beautiful, serene, cloud enshrouded mountaintops, provide every visitor with a breathtaking panorama. Despite the sanctity of this shrine and the grandeur of the scenery, the crowd was relatively small. My fellow chaplain commented, “Meet the poor cousin of Lourdes.” In terms of popularity, this shrine is a pale shadow of the other Marian shrine. Perhaps, the reason for this could be that this mountainous sanctuary is not easily accessible. The path ascending to the top was narrow and winding, the journey long and strenuous. I cannot even imagine how the early pilgrims would have made the track up the hill on their feet, and here we are complaining about our moderately turbulent bus ride.

When I first caught sight of the mountainous scenery, I almost burst into the first verse of that theme song from the 1965 film, The Sound of Music.
Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.

Do you remember when the young Maria came into view over the hills with the mountains framing the background and the meadow abundant with spring flowers? As she ran forward effortlessly, filled with life and freshness, singing with a full voice and without laboured breathing, none of the debilitating effects of high altitude, mountain climbing looked like an easy goal. But we know better! I was already panting when I had to walk a few steps. Mountain climbing is hard work.

The path to sainthood, which is our pilgrimage of life, can be compared to climbing a mountain. The final goal is to reach the summit and to get there one must choose a path. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once taught, “The goal of every pilgrimage is the city of ‘solid foundations’, whose architect and builder is ‘God’: a goal that is not of this world, but of ‘heaven’.” Every pilgrimage, therefore, has a beginning and an end and the desired end of our earthly pilgrimage is the perfection of charity or heaven, the city where the saints dwell. To arrive at our destination we must choose a path. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The way of Christ ‘leads to life’; a contrary way ‘leads to destruction.” (CCC #1696) The Beatitudes that we’ve just read in the gospel speaks of this path – the way of Christ that leads to life.

The lives of the saints remind us that the journey to sainthood is never one which is smooth and trouble free. All would have experienced severe trials, setbacks, failures, struggles with their own limitations as they struggled to continue the upward climb. St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Augustine, lest we forget, all had colourful pasts: denying Christ, persecuting His followers, and embracing a hedonistic lifestyle. All needed to keep the summit constantly in view as the temptation to turn back and to go down the mountain is great. In our spiritual journey we all descend into the valleys and climb back up the slopes of the mountains. Sometimes we slip or fall back, get hurt, or need to re-evaluate the path we are on. These are ebbs and flows in the spiritual life which provide us with the skills that we need to progress on our journey.

Ultimately the “path” entails conversion, repeated conversion, a process of conversion. For you to grow in holiness and be a saint, you don’t need to do extraordinary things. You need only to focus on continuous conversion, the nitty-gritty practice of daily avoiding sins, growing in virtue, living out the beatitudes, being fervent in prayer, and growing in intimacy with the God who loves you. Everyone, therefore, is called to ongoing conversion in his or her own “path.” St. Bernard once said that no matter how sinful one might have been in the past, he is still called to the heights of prayer—to the depths of the riches of the spiritual life. Our process of conversion to Christ is a journey that takes place over the course of a lifetime. You can probably look back to times in your life where you can remember making great progress on your spiritual journey, and other times when you have felt like you were moving backwards. Union with God always requires a process, often painful, that must pave the way for that union. For, if a box is filled with sand, it cannot be filled with gold dust. The sand must be removed, the vessel emptied and cleaned, and then there is room for the Gold of God’s presence.

But the saints also remind us that in order to conquer the heights of that mountain of perfection, it is not only through sheer effort and determination. There is the power of grace. The beatitudes captures this beautifully. Such blessedness is not manufactured or imagined, it comes from one’s total dependence on God’s grace, goodness and providence. The situations or scenarios described in the Beatitudes places the disciple in an uncomfortable, awkward and vulnerable situation, where he is unable to rely on his own personal strength or resources. In such desperate situation, he ultimately comes to recognise that his only recourse is in God. This is what St Therese de Lisieux, the Little Flower, meant by her little “shortcut” to holiness. “We live in an age of inventions. We need no longer climb laboriously up flights of stairs; in well-to-do houses there are lifts. And I was determined to find a lift to carry me to Jesus, for I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection. So I sought in Holy Scripture some idea of what this life I wanted would be, and I read these words: “Whosoever is a little one, come to me.” It is your arms, Jesus, that are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up: I must stay little and become less and less.”

When mountain climbers are at the base of a mountain looking up at the top, they have an experience of the mountain’s beauty, but when they actually arrive at the top and look around, the scenery spread before them is exhilarating and far beyond anything they could have imagined previously. All the trials, struggles, and difficulties of the climb are forgotten as they bask in the grandeur of what they now experience. They will go back down the mountain and when they look up again it will be with new eyes, for what they have witnessed will have changed their perspective. They will never view the mountain the same again. The saints provide us with a similar vision. Listening to their stories, having seen what they’ve seen, heard what they’ve heard, lived how they lived, life will never be the same again. The saints are a constant source of encouragement that nothing is impossible with the grace of God, even for a sinner like me. Such an experience is a foretaste of what the Lord has in store for us at the end of life’s journey. We cannot begin to even imagine what this will be.

Let us give thanks to God for the saints and turn to them in prayer to assist us on our journey as we strive to reach the perfection of charity!
Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.