Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Never tire of doing what is right

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

I know that this will sound like a rant but I’m going to start off with a rant. So bear with me. I know that many of you can connect with my frustration if you’ve experienced something similar. You go out on a limb, beyond the call of duty, you sincerely wish to help the other, and instead of gratitude, you get flak. You look around for some support and understanding, and you find yourself all alone. You begin to wonder, “Is it worthwhile being good? “Does it pay to do good?”  Well, St Paul gives us the answer: “My brothers and sisters, never grow tired of doing what is right.” (2 Thess. 3:13).

The simplicity of that advice is quite striking. St Paul is wise in recognising the fragility of our resolutions, the wearing down and wearing out of our good intentions in the abrasiveness of daily living and the prevalence of apathy. He understands that it is hard work being good and doing good, especially when all the odds are against us, when there is little appreciation shown by others but instead, we face opposition at every turn, especially when we are attempting to do what is right. But that’s the advice given by St Paul, which is his advice to the Thessalonians in today's second reading and it is strangely and unfortunately missing from the lectionary.

It actually takes the virtue of courage and patience to stick to what is right over time. Courage in putting up with the hassle, bustle, the inertia, and all the various frustrations of life, with a determined, strong-minded, never slacking perseverance. We Christians see this virtue as a divine gift coming from God and not from ourselves. It flows from the divine gift of Hope.  Hope in God and trust in the active presence of the risen Christ and His Holy Spirit; in the gifts of the sacraments, the Scriptures, the whole Christian life and in the Church. Although Christian Hope finds its fulfilment in the future, its dynamic is a matter of the here and now, of the present, although not yet “on earth as it is in heaven.” The hope and joy of the kingdom exists here and now, but sometimes it does seem to get blurred especially when we are confronted with the present realities which seem hopeless.

If the Church is indeed a “sign” of hope, how come it doesn’t feel like it these days? Our Church has been wracked with so many controversial headlines in the news, the scandalous clergy sexual abuse, claims of financial mismanagement and even misappropriation, we seem beset by news of so many worrying developments in Rome and elsewhere, we are most aware of the partisan infighting among the Church hierarchy and wonder whether any of the criticisms, accusations of heresy and schism have some bearing of truth. When the anchor of our faith and hope is attacked from without and within, whom or what should we turn to for guidance or direction?

Today’s gospel is an important reminder that our chaotic and troubled times are not something unique. We’ve been here before, more times than we can remember or imagine. The passage begins with some people admiring the beauty of the Jerusalem temple.  The majesty of the architecture and the stonework of the House of God is praised.  But like the prophet Jeremiah, before him the Lord prophesies that “not a stone will be left upon a stone” (which is a reminder that this is not to be the first time the temple would be reduced to rubble), Our Lord goes on to foretell of wars and the violence and civil unrest which will take place in the coming decades. The Temple will be destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.

The destruction of the Temple, the religious centre and most important icon of the Jewish faith, felt like the end of the world. The disciples of our Lord and the early Christians felt this way too. No wonder the disciples, who must have been shocked with our Lord’s prophecy, proceeded to ask Him how they can tell when this is about to happen. However, the way they put the question reveals that they are under the misconception that the destruction of the Temple happens at the end of the age. Our Lord begins to clear up their misunderstanding by explaining that the destruction of the Temple and the end of the age are in fact two separate events. There are going to be wars and rumours of wars, natural and man-made catastrophes and people are going to claim it is the end of the world and that He is coming, but they are all going to be wrong—every single last one of them. Those aren’t signs of the end. If anything, they are signs of the beginning of a new age, the Christian era, not its ending.

Actually, when you think about it, if wars and rumours of wars, cataclysmic catastrophes are signs of anything, they are just signs of business as usual. There has never been a time without wars and catastrophes somewhere. You might as well say that the end of the age will happen on any day which appears on the calendar. Every single time there is news of this and that, with so many speculating that THIS  is the end of the world, but it always turns out that it isn’t. In fact, before we even get near the end of the age, there is going to be a time of persecution. The Church throughout the centuries remains a persecuted Church. Throughout human history, there is going to be suffering, disease, dislocation, intolerance, persecution, natural disasters, schisms, heresies, wars, and all sorts of unpleasantness, but unfortunately, that is the human condition from which our Lord redeems us, it is not a sign of the end.

So our Lord is pleading with us today to persevere in the faith, even in the midst of all the terrible calamities. He is telling us to expect this as part of life. “When disaster strikes, don't give up! When the world seems to be on the verge of collapse, don’t panic! And when everything within the Church seems to have gone mad, it doesn’t mean it’s the End– well, not yet, at least, not for now! What’s important - keep My Word; the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness; nothing can defeat God's purposes; no evil force can ultimately thwart God's plan for your fulfillment.” The key is to cling to your faith no matter what – “Your endurance will win you your lives!” Your life is like a small boat being tossed about in a great storm, there’s bound to be turbulence. You have to ride out the storm, and the best way to get through it without falling overboard is to cling to the mast—Jesus Christ. This too is what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wishes to convey to us, “Being an 'Adult' means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ, is adult and mature. It is this friendship which opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false, and deceit from truth.”

In these disconsolate days, Christ calls us now, in our time, to become courageous and patient and faithful bearers of hope and joy. The Christian vision does not deny the reality of evil, of brokenness, of suffering and sorrow, and the fragility of goodness. But we should not fall prey to hopelessness and resign ourselves to doing nothing. We should not let life’s difficulties cause us to give up and put us on the sidelines. Christians are to avoid Utopian dreams on the one hand and cynical despair and weariness on the other. The vast majority of “doing good” happens not in the limelight to be celebrated by thousands, but in the private, unobserved place where God’s kingdom goes forward and eventually turns the world upside down. Doing good is not like the flash and sizzle of fireworks, but the slow, organic growth of a sapling into a tree.  As disciples of the Lord we are called not only to confront evil and even to suffer under it, but also to curtail its power; and to cherish signs of life and light and love and help them to flourish. As St Paul reminds us, “my brothers and sisters never grow tired of doing what is right.”

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

And so my life is good

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

One of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s greatest magisterial masterpieces is undoubtedly his second encyclical on the theological virtue of hope, Spes Salvi. It is unfortunate that this document did not quite capture the attention of the media. Aware that there are many menus of ‘hope’ presented to us in the world of today, Benedict’s desire, was to express that hope upon which men and women could trustingly rely. This is the hope that has God as its foundation, for, as Saint Paul makes plain (Eph 2:12), without God there is no hope - no future but darkness.

While Benedict’s lyrical theological waxing ranges from ancient to modern philosophy on the nature of hope, it is the down-to-earth Sudanese slave turned Canossian Sister, St Josephine Bakhita that he proposes as a visible and realistic model of hope. The amazing life story of St Josephine Bakhita is indeed a powerful story of hope. She was born around 1869 in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this, she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul, who returned to Italy. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master” – it was the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. This new “master,” the Lord of all lords, unlike her previous masters who despised and maltreated her, this Lord and Master is good, in fact, goodness in person, a Master who loved her.

Before this discovery, Josephine had no hope for freedom, no hope for living, she merely struggled to survive. But in discovering this new “master”, Benedict writes, “now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God.” And so Benedict argues that only love can free us from the prison of history.

Yet the creativity of Spes Salvi is not in its treatment of love but justice. Our hope for something more, something beyond this world and across the threshold of death, is not only a desire for a love beyond limits, but also a desire for a limit to evil, a desire for justice. Our hope demands the triumph of justice, which plainly does not prevail in this world. According to Benedict, the strongest argument for eternal life is not that we might love forever, but that in eternity, justice might be wrought for those who were denied it here in their lifetime.

“God is justice and creates justice,” Benedict writes. “This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace… Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value.” We may not experience justice in this life, but in the life of the resurrection, we will not be denied justice by the God who loves us.

This was the conviction of the seven brothers we read about in the first reading, who endured torture and finally martyrdom at the hands of a tyrant. “Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men’s hands, relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him.” To the astonishment of their tormentors, these brothers endured torture, flogging, bodily mutilation (hacking of limbs), because of their firm hope in the resurrection. That is why the martyrdom of the seven brothers is significant not just because it displayed their courage, but because as they went to their deaths they articulated clearly, for the first time in the Old Testament, their faith and hope in the resurrection of the body. “Resurrection” is not simply death from another viewpoint; it is the reversal of death, its cancellation, the destruction of its power. 

The resurrection of the body is central both to our understanding of the person of Christ and our understanding of ourselves. So central was the resurrection of the Body to St Paul (1 Cor 14) that he declared, that without such faith in the resurrection, we are of all people the most to be pitied: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” The Maccabean martyrs were fearless in the face of death because they firmly believed that death was not the end of the humanity entrusted to them at birth and that God would embrace and raise up the life that they had known in this life. The third of the martyred sons proclaimed this belief as he faced fearful mutilation. “It was heaven that gave me these limbs; for the sake of His laws I disdain them; from Him I hope to receive them again.”

While we cannot imagine our own resurrection in Christ, one thing is clear: we shall not experience life in Christ as disembodied spirits. There will be no violent disruption between the life that we have lived and the life that we shall experience in the fullness of Christ’s resurrection. All that we had lost, all that we had experienced as defective, will be restored to us in greater measure; what burdensome earthly trial we experience now, will be worth it, for the life of the resurrection will exceed our wildest dreams. That is our certain hope.

It is against this background that we should understand the clash between the Lord and the Sadducees concerning the resurrection. The Sadducees, while they believed in a life after death, did not believe in a bodily resurrection and used a hypothetical situation of a woman married to seven brothers, to show up how ridiculous this belief is. But our Lord refused to be trapped in the absurdities proposed by the Sadducees. He simply asserted that the resurrection, while a continuation of the life into which we were born, shall be lived in a way beyond our imagining. Marriage and generation which are necessary if our species is to survive, will have no meaning for those who will never die again. God is not a God of the dead, He is not a God of corpses but of the living. If we live in Him, we are all alive in Him.

Hope is not wishful thinking nor is it just theoretical. The resurrection of Christ brings hope. Our resurrection in Him brings hope. Such hope is the meaning of human life. It is balm to the wounded soul, it is fuel for the exhausted Christian, it is consolation to the one who has suffered much. More than ever, our society needs a big supply of hope today because hopelessness and despair are everywhere. Hope cannot be manufactured nor is it found in false optimism. Only in the resurrected life shared with God will we find true hope. There is hope that mistakes and sins can be forgiven. There is hope that we can have joy and peace in the midst of the despair of this age. There is hope that Christ is coming soon to right every wrong, to vindicate the innocent and call the wicked to account for their wrong doings. There is hope that those who have died will be raised from the dead and suffer death no more. There is hope that someday there will come a new heaven and a new earth, and that the Kingdom of God will reign and triumph. Our hope is not in our own ability, or in our goodness, or in our physical strength. Our hope is instilled in us by the resurrection of Christ, the One who has defeated death and led its captives to freedom. Knowing this, we can say with St Josephine Bakhita, “I am definitely loved and whatever happens to me – I am awaited by this love. And so my life is good!”

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.