Thursday, December 2, 2021

A voice calls out in the wilderness

Second Sunday of Advent Year C

Pope St Paul VI famously wrote: “The history of salvation is being accomplished in the midst of the history of the world." This is what we see in today’s gospel passage - the convergence between human history and salvation history - between man as a subject of time and God who is Master of time.

St Luke provides us with a list of historical and political luminaries at that material point in time, teasing the reader to think that he is about to provide us with another account of world history. But then the evangelist swiftly shifts our attention to a seeming nobody “John son of Zechariah”, whose ministry and teaching now provides us with the foundation for the climax of salvation history - the coming of the Messiah.

The reason why St Luke weaves both threads into his narrative is to show us that the story of salvation history does not take place in a vacuum, as something totally separated from human history, but as Pope St Paul VI asserts: “the history of salvation is being accomplished in the midst of the history of the world.” God who is not bound by time and space chooses to enter our time and space at this very moment and in this very spot – the unnamed wilderness in an insignificant part of the Roman empire, away from the centres of power and influence.

But the mention of these historical political figures also wishes to establish a context for St John’s preaching and ministry, which will subsequently lead to that of Jesus. This opening verse sets the scene for a world that has gone awry, a world where God’s people live as a conquered people in their own land, and where those in power would crucify the One God sent to save the world. The first verse sets forth a world ruled from Rome and rife with sin. In this world gone wrong, the Word of God came not to any of these political figures who often claim divine election to support their claim for legitimacy and authority, but to John the Baptist who “went through the whole Jordan district proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Notice that John was not calling for a political revolution or instigating his followers to start an insurrection. What was far more needed was a spiritual revolution.

We often blame our politicians for the problems we face in our country. We blame our parents for the influence they had in our upbringing. We blame the school system for the defective education that we have received. And finally, we blame the Church for her sanctimonious values and her penchant for making us feel guilty. But the real problem often evades us, especially when we can’t put our finger on it. Our world is falling apart and we cannot repair it until we honestly acknowledge the problem. The fact of the matter is that the root cause of the problems in our world is sin. Sin is spoken of in Genesis chapter 4 as something that is crouching at our door, desiring to consume us, and we are told that we must rule over it. Instead, we have allowed sin to rule over us.

And so, the ministry of calling God's people to repent is at the very heart of John the Baptist's ministry. And he called on the people not to give just lip repentance, but to give life repentance: to show the evidence of real gospel repentance by the way they lived - nothing short of a massive spiritual re-engineering and death-construction.

St Luke tells the reader that the ministry of St John calling the people to repentance is a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy has in mind, building up a great road for the arrival of a majestic king. The idea is to fill in the holes and knock down the hills that are in the way. The idea is taken from the practice of eastern monarchs, who, whenever they entered upon an expedition, or took a journey through a desert country, sent harbingers before them, to prepare all things for their passage; and pioneers to open the passes, to level the ways, and to remove all impediments. The returning victorious King deserves a smooth highway, not some dirt road cutting through treacherous terrain.

The idea of preparing the way of the LORD is, therefore, a word picture, because the real preparation must take place in our hearts. Building a road is very much like the preparation God must do in our hearts. To flatten mountains and fill in valleys, is no easy task. Likewise, to remove the obstacles of sin from our hearts is not something which demands little effort on our part. Both enterprises are costly, both come at great effort, they both must deal with many different problems and environments, and they both take an expert engineer to clear the path of obstacles. God is that expert engineer whom you must allow into your heart.

What a contrast this vision of the construction of a great highway is to the voice of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness who announces its coming fulfilment. What a contrast it is to that scene of a helpless infant lying in a manger which is the focus of the great feast we prepare to celebrate during this Advent season. Other political rulers and celebrities of our modern times may occupy the front covers and headlines of our news, and yet we know that it is not them but that helpless infant, whose John’s voice heralds, is the salvation of God which all men shall see, the One in whom this prophecy is fulfilled.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Stay awake, Pray always and Stand confidently

First Sunday of Advent Year C

I know it’s Advent and you would be expecting me to say something about the spirit of this season, but the terse three-part command issued by the Lord at the end of the gospel draws us back to the evening of Holy Thursday, to the scene of our Lord and His disciples gathered together in the Garden of Gethsemane. This threefold command almost seems reminiscent of what the Lord had expected from His disciples.

In that Garden, our Lord asked His disciples to “stay here and watch with Me”, but when He returned, He found them asleep and caution them “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).  Earlier, He had taught them: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” And yet at the end, one of His disciples would betray Him, another deny Him while others fled instead of choosing to “stand with confidence before the Son of Man.”

On all three accounts, the disciples had failed. Nothing we do can change that. No one can re-write history. There is no turning back the clock. What is more important is that we should know where we are going and that will affect the choices we make. The disciples eventually redeemed themselves or to be exact, they were redeemed by the Lord.

Likewise, the season of Advent provides us with a similar opportunity to redeem ourselves by preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming - will we succeed where the disciples failed? Will we be able to stay awake, praying at all times for our survival and salvation and finally, stand confidently with Christ if we find ourselves on the hot seat?

If you are nervous and uncertain as to whether you are able to withstand the test and pass where the disciples had failed, you have every reason to do so. Listening to our Lord’s ominous warning, it would appear that there is plenty to be anxious about. “There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.” When you begin to examine each of the items on this list, however, you would soon realise that this is not just something that will happen in the future; these things are happening to people right now. Instead of just being crippled by fear, our Lord tells us that the true object of our focus should be Him: “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Troubles coming our way is certain. But our Saviour’s coming “with power and great glory”, that too is most certain.

This is what Advent should mean for us. It is a time for us to be filled with new hope, new courage without putting on blinders and pretending that the mess we see in the world is not real. We are not asked to ignore or deny the reality of suffering, evil or death. In fact, we are asked to affirm these things while also recognising that there is something here far greater than suffering, evil and death. Therefore, Advent is a time for us to be reassured that the darkness that overshadows the present moment, whether from sin, sickness, poverty, sorrow, weakness or failure, will be dissipated and driven away by the Sun of Justice, the Word-Made-Flesh.

Advent is not a season of false hope. We are not getting ready for some improbable, imagined event that exists only in fantasy. Our hope is based on the assurance that our God is coming. He has, in fact, already come among us in our own flesh. He has already loved us beyond death, has overcome sin and evil, and has seeded us with the hope of Eternal Life. And that is why our Lord can say this to us with such confidence: “When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.”

Advent days are not to be wasted in spiritual idleness, in distracting ourselves with busy activity nor in fruitless worrying. We should use these advent days to stir up this hope in a fearful world, to cultivate that seed of hope to full bloom. We know that the Lord has come... we are certain that the Lord will come. And for us, that does not mean waiting in fear and dread for doomsday. We do believe in the Second Coming of Jesus and that is why we should stand erect, hold our heads high, because our liberation is near at hand.

We are not spending four weeks just to welcome again the "baby Jesus". We are trying to drive away the shadows of sin and despair, so that we can open our hearts and minds and lives to the overpowering light of the incarnate Son of God made man. We want to use this sacred time to deepen our understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We need to realise again how fully He has entered into the very fabric of our lives. We want to allow Him to transform every facet of our human existence, so that in all things we think, speak, choose and act, as redeemed children of God. Our coming Christmas celebration has to include all of this. So, if you’ve drawn up a bucket list of things-to-do before Christmas, don’t forget the following, place it at the top of your list:

“Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

To know that He is Lord

Solemnity of Christ the King 2021

As we come to the end of a second year of this pandemic, two years marked by lockdowns, social-economic upheaval, rising unemployment, businesses closed, disruption of our sacramental lives and all our plans, deaths of friends and loved ones, we look back and come to realise how fragile our lives have really been. These disruptions have cascaded in ways that seem novel and imaginatively overwhelming. All of a sudden, we see before us something we have perhaps talked about before, but never really faced personally. Suddenly we must “stay home,” keep a safe distance from others, turn to ourselves. And we are, surprisingly, afraid!

One reason why this has been a major crisis in so many lives is because we have been living in a bubble, believing that everything is under our control. Both medical and technological advancements have given us a false sense of security - we are enveloped by a delusional sense of impregnability and immortality. We are so cut off from our past that we have forgotten that our experience is not unique. Many in previous generations took for granted—in ways that are unthinkable to us—that life was not predictable, diseases, the inability to travel, death at an early age or in infancy—were a part of life. We have largely forgotten this until this pandemic hit us with a harsh reality check.

Many believe that this crisis has shaken our faith in God because it has disturbed our assumptions about God’s benign supervision and His ability to control suffering. But I choose to see it differently. I believe that it is this false faith we have in ourselves and in the infallibility of science which has been shaken. If this crisis has done anything, it has drawn us back to acknowledge once again, the utmost sovereignty of God over the universe. He alone is God, not man.

COVID-19 calls us to learn again from our forbearers, who looked to Scripture’s descriptions of God’s agency in times of disaster as a compass for their own times. Modern man only attempts to demythologise these stories and provide them with a plausible rational explanation devoid of God’s agency. One obvious place to turn, is to the story of the plagues visited upon Pharaoh and Egypt, at the time of the Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery. One can note a key difference between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses recognises God in extraordinary events. Pharaoh does not. Despite experiencing one remarkable plague after another, Pharaoh refuses to believe. His failure to do so because he thought of himself as the true ruler, the true king of his empire. God describes the purpose of the ten plagues clearly: they are not punishment. They are an invitation to know God: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them” (Exodus 9:15-16).

Likewise, this pandemic has also provided us with an opportunity to know and acknowledge the sovereignty of God. Though, it often doesn’t feel this way, this pandemic has been a reminder that we are first and foremost recipients—and not the creators—of all that is good in our lives. We are not in control and there is some sense of relief in knowing that. Could you imagine the total mess we are capable of making if we were really in-charge of the universe and all that happens therein? Many dictators have attempted to assert this, only to leave millions of people dead and a trail of destruction in their path, in seeking to create a utopia of their own design. As we work for the Kingdom, we are not building a utopia here on earth. Our duty is not to bring the Kingdom into existence, nor is the Kingdom something we build ourselves. The Kingdom is brought and built by the King – our duty is to serve the King.

Who is that King that we serve? I believe you know the answer. Our Lord Jesus Christ is our King and yet, He tells Pontius Pilate in today’s gospel: “Mine is not a kingdom of this world.” Why is our Lord’s Kingdom different?  Our Lord is not just highlighting the difference between His kingship and that of worldly models, but also suggesting that His kingship will appear differently in this world and in the age to come.

We must distinguish between the Kingdom of Christ on this earth and that which He exercises in eternity. In Heaven, His reign is one of glory and sovereignty. Here, in time, it is mysterious, humble and hidden. Although appearances may seem misleading, Jesus, is in fact, the Supreme Lord of every single thing in the universe, including the sub microscopic virus. This is what the Second Vatican Council declared, “here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes, it will enter into its perfection” (Gaudium et Spes 39). This is what He meant when He said that His Kingdom is not of this world.

Times like this remind us that we are still fragile mortals living in a fallen world, under the ancient curse upon creation and that the Kingdom of God in its fullness is still the future. When the city of Rome burned from foreign invasion in 410 AD, St Augustine penned the City of God from his diocese in North Africa to assure that, while earthly hopes are being shaken and shattered, the eternal promises of God's Kingdom for the future, remain certain.

Times like this are also opportunities for the Church on earth to show what she truly believes, by exhibiting an unshakable faith and hope in her Sovereign King, while continuing to do good in love toward one another. In dark times, especially, be on the lookout and watch for extraordinary rays of light, faith, hope, and love. We might not all be called to the frontlines of caring for the sick, but there are other ways we can show loving concern and compassion toward others during this time of crisis, and certainly, our response through this disruption will reflect where we place our hopes, and the strength of our faith, before a watching world. The Church will come through this, as it has in times past, though not without scars, but then that too was how our Lord appeared to His disciples after His resurrection – scars, wounds and all. Likewise, the scars of the Church are not proof of her defeat, but evidence of her Divine Spouse’s victory over sin and death.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Death will be replaced with life

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Apocalyptic texts, such as what we’ve just heard in the gospel and the first reading, can be fodder for much fanciful speculation regarding the end times. Even though apocalyptic writings often end in an assuring promise of hope, the triumph of God and the vindication of the righteous who remain faithful in spite of tribulations, it is more common to find people focusing on the frightening cataclysmic images associated with the end times, whilst ignoring the second part.

And then there is the issue of interpretation of these mysteriously cryptic texts. Our Lord seems to contradict Himself in the second half of the gospel passage. On the one hand, He seems to argue that the end times would be discernible from the cataclysmic signs and He likens this to how one can discern the seasons by looking at the life cycle of a fig tree. On the other hand, He is telling His disciples that any speculation on when the end times is going to take place would be futile: “But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.” How do we reconcile both these sayings? Well, it depends on what the Lord meant by end times.

On the one level, the end times which our Lord is speaking about will take place in the first generation of the Church. Our Lord is referring to the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Jews, the Temple was a microcosm of the universe as seen in the constellations and heavenly bodies embroidered on the Temple veil and the light of the sun, the moon and the five known planets are symbolised by the seven lights of the menorah candle stand. The words of our Lord are fulfilled, both at His death when the sun was darkened and the Temple veil was torn into two, and also in the year 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans who invaded Judea to quell a local rebellion. If we take this understanding of the end times, then our Lord was speaking the truth when He said, “I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place.”

But the intentional ambivalence of the words of our Lord could be pointing to another time - to a distant unknown future - to the end of the world. The chaos described here is an undoing of God’s work of creation. Whether His words were pointing to the past or to a future event, the various levels of meaning are not meant to be contradictory but closely interconnected. The end-time tribulations begin in our Lord’s own passion and the subsequent destruction of the Temple, which signal the end of the age of the old covenant and ultimately, the end of the universe that will follow the final upheavals at the close of history. So, the end times does not solely refer to some indeterminate event in the future but to an event that has already occurred and which is in the process of reaching its final conclusion. If you are looking to uncover the secrets of the end times, look no further - We are living in the end times! We have been living the end times for the past 2000 years!

It is one thing to know that our Lord’s prophecy had been fulfilled in events of the past - His passion and the Temple’s destruction - but what about the future? How would we know that the final outcome of all the turbulence and chaos will end in our Lord’s victory and the salvation of His followers? We can. The veracity of our Lord’s prediction is supported both by what we have witnessed in the past as a fulfilment of His prophetic words but it is also backed up by this claim: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Accepting that the Lord’s words, His promises is eternally true, that He will never renege on them, is no great issue here. But what does He mean by saying that “heaven and earth will pass away”? What could He mean that “heaven,” which everyone knows is supposed to be eternal, will also pass away? If we want to get an answer, we must certainly look to the last book of the Bible – the Apocalypse.

But before we look at how things will end, we would have to look at how it began. The Book of Genesis paints a picture of how heaven is wedded to earth in the earthly Paradise of Eden, where man dwelt in harmony with God and the whole of creation. This is the old “heaven and earth.” But because of man’s sin, this earthly paradise has passed away, the earth is cut off from the full life of heaven. Throughout history, man has attempted to restore this earthly paradise but have repeatedly failed because only God alone can heal the rift. And He has done so through His only begotten Son, “for God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:19-20)

And the new creation is here, taking a form which we least expect, Jesus Christ. He is both the author and the fulfilment of the new earth and new heaven. In the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse, we are granted a vision of how the story of salvation ends - with the emergence of a “new heaven and a new earth.” St John using symbolic language, speaks of how a river which flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, will water and nourish this new garden-like paradise. It's an all-new Garden of Eden, where the tree of life (and not just a fig tree) is made accessible to man again. It is not a 'return back' to the garden; it's a step forward into a new Jerusalem, a great city representing the marriage of heaven and earth. In this city, there is no need for a Temple because God dwells among His people and the Lamb will be the Temple.

Although, we struggle with our present trials and endure the suffering that comes with a chaotic world caused by our sinfulness, we must always hold firm to the hope of the story of the Bible: God’s domain and our domain will one day be completely united. All things will be made new. “The learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who have instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.” Death will be replaced with life. The whole earth will be a recreation of the garden, and the glory of the temple will cover the whole earth. Every nation will be blessed through the power of the resurrected Jesus, and God’s own personal presence will permeate every square inch of the new creation. We can be certain of this promise because though the old heaven and earth may pass away, but our Lord’s words will never pass away because He always keeps His promises.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Giving till it hurts

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Today we are given two examples of remarkable generosity - the sort that really hurts. We have one story in the first reading where God commanded a widow to give her last bit of food to a prophet, and another story in the gospel, where Our Lord after having rebuked the teachers of the law for devouring widows’ houses, points to a widow’s giving at the Temple as exemplary. In both cases, these two women risked starvation and losing their entire livelihood in giving and sharing - one for a stranger whom she treated as an intimate neighbour and another to God.

In a way, both these women epitomise the two-fold commandment of love which we heard last Sunday. In fact, some ancient commentators have seen the two mites offered by the widow in the gospel as a symbol of the two-fold Great Commandment of love.

But both these stories are not just amazing stories meant to inspire us to be more generous and to give more, and I can assure you that I have absolutely no issue with this message. Instead, both stories are pointing to something greater and beyond themselves. They both point to God’s magnanimous giving, ultimately seen in the willing sacrifice of His Son’s life on the cross. The stories of these two widows serve as actual living witnesses to the Lord’s death and resurrection, which is more apparent in the first story, where we see the generous widow’s dead son being miraculously raised to life.

The story of the widow’s mite in the gospel could be considered from three different angles.

First, from the angle of the Temple. The meagre contribution of this woman would have little value since those two small coins would have made little difference to the financial upkeep of the religious establishment. It’s the kind of loose change that one will have little hesitation to drop in the coin box set aside for tips. The unloading of a few extra coins would outweigh the inconvenience of keeping them. The Temple authorities would not have missed their absence.

The second perspective would be to compare the woman’s contribution with the other donors. St Mark tells us that other rich people are also making offerings at this time. As their substantial contributions are dropped into the metallic trumpet-like receptacles, it would have been both a sight to behold, as well as produce a sound that would have warmed the cockles of the hearts of those in charge of the Temples. They would be thanking God for these generous donations! What would the tiny chink of the widow’s two miserable coins matter in comparison with these generous donations.

But the last and most important perspective of considering this story, is from the angle of Christ and God. Those two metal flakes would have little value from the perspective of the Temple authorities or in comparison to the other large donations, but to our Lord, it mattered most. Because the true value of a gift depends on its cost to the giver. Her gift may be small, but to her, it could possibly cost her her life. That is why our Lord was quick to say, “I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.”

We begin to see how the generosity of this widow in the gospel matches the generosity of the widow of Zarapeth. Both had given up what little they “had to live on.” Their giving would have not just have cost them their livelihood but more radically, their lives.

If this story merely focuses on the generosity of our giving, the demands made on this poor woman would certainly be scandalous and unjust. Aren’t we suppose to help the poor instead of demanding such sacrifices from the poor? So, merely focusing on generous giving cannot be the sole purpose of these stories. Our Lord is not justifying nor is He giving approval to an exploitive system which robs the poor, the widows and orphans. This would be the main criticism of many, who view any efforts by the Church to do fund-raising, as a violation of the principles of social justice and reduces the Church to a money-making enterprise. We must remember that when the widow gives, her giving is ultimately to God Himself, who has given everything to her. She never once complained about her gift giving but rather, it is the rich who often use the excuse of the poor to complain about giving. Remember Judas Iscariot, who complained about how Mary of Bethany wasted expensive oil on the Lord.

These women never counted nor begrudged the amount they gave because they were truly grateful for what they had received from God. Their generous giving was merely a reflexion of their gratitude. In this way, the widow in the gospel (just as the widow in the first reading) is a type, who points to the extravagant giving of our Lord, He gave up everything, including His own life, and held nothing back. Was His sacrifice and death unjust? Most certainly by any standards. But when done willingly and lovingly, it restored justice to our world.

The offering to the Temple will soon cease with its destruction. But the Lord will build a new temple in His body, that will minister to the broken, the neglected, the sinners and the poor. He will lay down His life for this widow (and for all of us) in a way that far exceeds her or anyone else’s faithful giving. In doing so, this widow will have a new husband—Christ Himself—and her humble gift of two miserable coins will be reciprocated with the greatest gift of all - the eternal life of her Divine Spouse, who will not allow her to be exploited by those who would wish to swallow her property because He is the One who will never leave her nor forsake her, nor will death ever separate them.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Remember me at the altar of the Lord

Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed 2021

Most of us have a myopic view of reality, we often only see the small picture and are oblivious to the bigger one. This is a drastic mistake as it often translates into bad decisions, despair or at the other extreme, false optimism. The same could be said about the average person’s view of the Church. For most of us, church refers to, the physical building in which we worship and to the more enlightened, the community of believers of Jesus Christ spread out throughout the world. In the latter understanding of the Church, we often only remember the living members and never the dead.

But traditionally, the Church sees itself as a “bigger tent” - of both the living and the dead. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains how there are “three states of the Church … at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is'” (CCC 954). Traditionally, these three states have been referred to as the Church Militant, Church Penitent (also known as Church Suffering or Church Expectant) and Church Triumphant. Together, these three make up the Communion of Saints which we profess in the Creed.

In our eagerness to eulogise the dead, we often end up with the mistake of neglecting our duty of praying for the souls in Purgatory, the members of the Church Penitent or Church Suffering. For if our loved ones are already in heaven, they have no need of our prayers. Instead, we pray to those who are in heaven, the Saints, and ask for their intercession. Our funeral Masses would then be redundant since we can already start celebrating the death of our departed brother and sister as a feast.

If you find this ridiculous and even irreverent, then there is still hope. You’ve not entirely lost your Catholic sensibility. The idea of funerals and this particular day in the year, specifically set aside for praying for the dead, is premised on the belief that not all persons who die will immediately go to heaven. In fact, for the vast majority of us, we would most likely be in Purgatory, even if we have lived a fairly good but far from perfect life.

Of course, many people believe that by thinking or speaking of their loved ones in purgatory would mean sullying their memory. This is based on the belief that purgatory is often seen as some kind of negative judgment on the deceased - that the person was far from perfect, that he or she had feet of clay. But rather than a negative judgment, our belief that souls are being purified in purgatory is a positive judgment and one of hope. It means that though persons may not be perfect, there is still hope of their redemption in the ongoing work of God. As St Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans which we heard in the Second Reading, this hope “is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” It is a hope not based on human merits but the result of the sacrifice of Christ who “died for sinful men.”

Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). Souls in purgatory are destined for heaven! Once a soul is purified in purgatory, the baggage of sin and earthly attachments are gone, and they are able to love as God loves and enter into eternal union with Him.

Many of us live with the guilt of not having done enough for our departed loved ones when they were alive. We want to make it up to them but death has robbed us of the opportunity to do so, or that is what we think. In his “Confessions,” St Augustine remembers his mother dying and his brother expressing his concern to St Monica that she would die outside of Rome, rather than in her native country in Africa. St Monica looked at her sons, and said: “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” Monica was not concerned about the location or ostentatiousness of her tomb. She had only one wish, that her son, now an ordained priest, should offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the eternal repose of her soul.

We, too, should make praying for the dead a priority, since it is an act of mercy and love for those who can no longer purify themselves through their growth in the virtues here on earth. This is what our departed loved ones need from us - not stirring and moving eulogies nor memorials, tributes and imposing tombs. If our departed loved ones could speak from beyond the grave, we would most likely hear something similar to what St Monica had requested from her sons, “One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” For those who feel guilty for not having done their best for their loved ones before their death, this is an opportunity to make up for lost time and effort. This too, is what the Lord desires of us. The Lord in His patience, desires salvation for all and that we love as He loves.

The Church encourages you, therefore, to seek indulgences, pray novenas, fast, make sacrifices and have Masses said for the deceased, especially for those who have no one to pray for them. These acts of charity will increase the love of God in your heart and soul and help those who have gone before us in death. As St Ambrose reminds us, “we have loved them in life, let us not forget them in death.”

Friday, October 29, 2021

Losers and Winners

Solemnity of All Saints 2021

Some of you may have been fans of the characters of the Peanuts comic strip created by Charles M. Schultz. Without a doubt, we have grown up enjoying, laughing with, sympathising and even hating the various individual comic personalities. My most endearing character is definitely Charlie Brown, the main male protagonist. The reason for this attraction is because Charlie Brown reminds me so much of myself growing up and even now, as an adult.

Personality-wise, he is gentle, insecure, and lovable. Charlie Brown possesses significant determination and hope, but frequently fails because of his insecurities, outside interferences, or plain bad luck. Although liked by his friends, he is often the subject of bullying, especially at the hands of Lucy van Pelt. Charlie is the proverbial Born Loser. He is described by his creator as “the one who suffers because he’s a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than winning. Winning is great, but it isn’t funny.” We may laugh at Charlie’s bumbling expense, but as far as Charlie is concerned, losing isn’t funny either.

To be a Christian today often feels like being a loser. This is true, both as a matter of demographics and regarding the influence and respectability of traditional Christian values. There are fewer Christians even in traditionally predominantly “Christian” countries, and our neighbours think less of us because of our strange values and ideas. We are increasingly outsiders. And how we respond to this reality may be the defining question of our time.

The good news is that Christianity has always been a religion of losers. We have been persecuted, our beliefs have been ridiculed and rejected, our values have been maligned, sometimes driving us underground to practice our faith secretly. But though we may appear to be weak, powerless, failures, and losers in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of God we are victorious and winners! In this world we will have trouble; in this world we will lose; but take heart, Christ has overcome the world. And this is what the Saints in heaven declare in song and praise: “Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” These were the same figures who appeared to be defeated by anti-Christian forces, persecuted, tortured and martyred and yet, emerged victorious holding palms as trophies of their victory.

Nowhere is this truth more evident than in the Beatitudes. One could paraphrase the list of beatitudes as this: “Happy or Blessed are the losers!” This is what the paradoxical and counterintuitive values behind the Beatitudes seek to display. Our Lord and Saviour, just as the beatitudes would describe, had to experience poverty, pain, suffering, loss, persecution and death for the sake of righteousness in order to gain the victory and joyful blessedness of the resurrection and the gift of eternal life for all of us. This is the core of the Christian message - death before resurrection, loss before victory, last before first, poverty before riches. For in the Christian story, ‘success and failure’ is inverted.

Although we often describe the Saints in heaven as the Church Triumphant, those who have “run the race” and are crowned with glory in Heaven, it often doesn’t feel this way here on earth. Our earthly experiences of failure and loss make us doubt the promises of the beatitudes.

But if we take a deeper look at the promises which are proclaimed by the beatitudes, we begin to recognise the veracity of their claims even in this life without waiting for the next. The losers can discover something about themselves that winners cannot ever appreciate – that they are loved and wanted simply because of who they are, and not because of what they achieve. That despite it all, raw humanity is glorious and wonderful, entirely worthy of love. This is revealed precisely at the greatest point of dejection – our Lord’s death and resurrection. The resurrection is not just a magic trick at raising a dead body to life. That’s a neat and impressive trick. But it is so much more than that. It is a revelation that love is stronger than death, grace is stronger than sin, that human worth is not indexed to worldly success, but to one’s fidelity to the path laid out by Christ. The lives of the Saints are testimony to this. On this side of heaven, they may appear to be losers. But as the vision of St John in the first reading lifts the veil, we are given a glimpse of their true worth - they are winners and victors in the Kingdom of Heaven.

A successful Christian, if you can call him or her one, called to be a saint, ought to be hated rather than feted in this world. Yes, it does seem that the modernist forces seem to be attacking the Church from every angle, that orthodox Christian beliefs and values are aggressively under assault, yet this feast reminds us that we are not alone in our experience and that this epoch in history, is not that unique as the Church has always suffered derision, rejection, humiliation and condemnation from her inception. We often forget that until our Lord returns in glory as He brings judgment upon the earth, battles and wars will remain. So, no matter how peaceful we wish our lives could be, the truth is our lives, this side of heaven, will be tainted with conflict.

But despite the onslaught she experiences, not only from earthly enemies but also demonic forces, the vision described in the Book of the Apocalypse will be the final outcome. There, before the throne of the Lamb, we will know that we are conquerors, not losers and that failure will be redeemed by the victory won for us by the Lamb which was slain.