Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Glimpse of the eternal


Second Sunday of Lent Year C

Sometimes, Lent seems to be an attempt at reconciling extremes or at least provides us with both ends of a spectrum. Last week, we had a taste of hell and the devil, in the scene of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness. This week, it’s God’s turn to deal His cards and we get a glimpse of heaven in the Transfiguration.

In fact all our readings today partly sets aside the veil that separates earth from heaven and in so doing, they reveal the glory of the world as God created it. In the first reading, the ancient Abram who had lost all hope of producing a progeny who will ensure the continuation of his name, is provided a glimpse of heaven. In the stars, he is shown the promise of God that his descendants would be beyond his present imagining. In the second reading Paul exhorts the community in Philippi to “not give way but remain faithful in the Lord,” by reminding them that their “homeland is in heaven” and that Christ will “transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body.” But heaven still seems to be a remote dream, an illusion, perhaps. This is where the gospel gives flesh to the dream, a mere idea gives way to reality.

The transfiguration occurs in a context where our Lord has just revealed to His disciples that He would be put to death in Jerusalem. Jesus’ prediction of His imminent death was met with denial and even anger. They were shaken by the thought that the awaited Messiah, would meet such a horrific fate. This is why our Lord took them up to the mountain where, He was transfigured before them. This experience of the transfiguration was God’s way of delivering the disciples from a crisis of faith by providing them with a glimpse into the glory of heaven. The cause of their crisis of faith was the way in which they saw people and things around them. Death, suffering, and separation seem to be defining moments in our lives. The disciples needed a vision from God’s point of view, to see that in spite of the death sentence hanging over the head of Jesus, God was still with Him, God was still in control and that God would be triumphant in the end.  In the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John got a glimpse of the future glory of Jesus’ resurrection. His death would not mark the end; it would only inaugurate the beginning of eternal life. It would open the gates of heaven.

Only here in the gospel of St Luke, though missing from the present text we’ve just read, do we have an editorial note that the transfiguration took place about “eight days later.” Both St Matthew and St Mark mention “six days.” But what is the significance, of the “eighth day”? Some scholars believe that this may be an allusion to the feast of the Tabernacles or Booths, in which not only the first day, but also the eighth had special significance. This may explain as this feast commemorated the Exodus and the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness where they lived in tents. And, Peter’s offer to erect three tents or tabernacles to house our Lord and His two esteemed guests. But for Christians, the “eighth day” has a more powerful significance. It is the Day of the Lord, the day of His Resurrection, our new Sabbath: St Gregory calls this “the mystery of the Eighth Day, that is, of the future age, coming to be revealed after the passing away of the world created in six days.” The transfiguration is an anticipation of the resurrection.

St Luke is the only evangelist who gives an indication of the topic of conversation taking place between our Lord and His two esteemed guests – “they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The word translated as “passing” here points us back to the Exodus. As the Jews passed from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land, so too Christ passes from death to the resurrection, He passes over the bondage of sin and death to the “promised land” of heaven.

An important truth shines forth from the centre of this mystery. The transfiguration was not only good for the apostles but also good for us. Glimpses of this transfigured world are not only good for our mental health but are essential for our salvation. They help us see through the illusions cast by the devil who constantly tempt us to store up treasures in this world and to place our hopes in projects which can only disappoint us. Our dreams of an earthly utopia, where we will be shielded from all pain, trouble, and disappointment is merely delusional. It is not an earthly utopia but heaven, that makes the journey or passage through this life worth travelling. Sometimes our faith faces a particularly tough challenge and we need a special grace to endure. Heaven provides the strength to bear the weight of our tribulations. Heaven keeps us on course, away from the distractions that tie us to this earthly life and its lies. Someone once puts it this way, ‘For the unbeliever, this life is the only heaven they will ever know. For the believer, this life is the only hell we will ever know.’

Not a week goes by that I don’t talk to someone whose suffering seems to be overwhelming. It may be cancer or some other disease, it may be a broken marriage or a child in trouble, it may be financial disaster or trouble at work or at school. God’s people endure many hardships in this life. Most of the time, we can’t fully understand why God allows certain things to happen to us. But we have this promise in Paul’s letter to the Romans, (8:18) that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” And St Paul assures us in the second reading that when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, “He will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body, He will do that by the same power with which He can subdue the whole universe.”

I find resonance in the works of Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. In his semi-autobiographical book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recalls an incident where a group of Jews were forced by their Nazi captors to march in the darkness through harsh terrain and how a vision of his wife gave him the needed strength to continue living and surviving. In a way, the transfiguration, a glimpse of heaven and what or who awaits us at the end of our earthly journey, a vision of our Beloved, is the true motivation to endure the pains of this life:

“Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honourable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

We know the face of our Beloved, He is the Chosen One of the Father. Listen to Him!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The End does not justify the Means


First Sunday in Lent Year C

It’s the First Sunday of Lent, and in all three yearly cycles of our Lectionary, we return to the story of the temptation of Christ. There are significant differences in all three versions. St Mark provides us with little information and the three temptations are visibly absent. St Matthew and St Luke share some common points in the narrative but the positionings are different; St Matthew ends with the temptation of power over the kingdoms of the world whereas St Luke concludes with the scene in the Temple. But today, I would like to act as the Devil’s Advocate - literally. I would like to suggest that the temptations were in principle good suggestions in themselves. Can it be bad to feed the hungry, or have the power to make significant changes in the world or even convert your enemies and make them your friends or fans? And the answer would be ‘no.’ What Satan is suggesting here is apparently good and the result would be guaranteed success for our Lord’s mission, with much ease and little cost and pain on His part. Wouldn’t that be great? The devil’s logic is simple, “It doesn’t matter how you get what you want as long as you get it.” But then again, the end doesn’t justify the means!

And this is how “evil” often looks like – it does not wear the face of a monster, but a benign one. It’s not like you have to wake up one morning, and decide to plot some monstrous plan to commit evil. You don’t. Evil often takes the path of a slippery slope, each decision, often innocent looking, taken one after another, until you’re swimming eyeball deep in the moral mud.

The “end justifying the means” is a philosophy known as pragmatism. At this point it’s important to distinguish between pragmatism, and being pragmatic. Being pragmatic is trying to solve a problem logically and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being a pragmatist means that you simply believe that the ends justify the means. In pragmatism, the guiding force is the force of expediency. Something is true if it works. Everything is justified, as long as you attain the desired results. Here’s an example of how a pragmatist might defend his position. Nazis come to your door and ask you if you have any Jews hidden there. You do, but obviously you don’t want to turn them over. So, instead of telling the truth, you lie to the Nazis and save the Jews. See? Good end (saving human life) justifies normally bad means (telling a lie).

But pragmatism has also resulted in extremely “evil” decisions. Nazis too have used pragmatism as an argument to support their sick ideology. They frequently used euphemistic language to disguise the true nature of their crimes. The term “Final Solution” was used to refer to their plan to commit genocide and annihilate the Jewish people. They argued that this was good for humanity and the purity of the Aryan race. Therefore, the end justifies the means. No reasonable person today, would argue that the Nazis were correct, but yet again, modern progressive society uses similar arguments to further the pro-choice cause, the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Here are several arguments: women have a moral right to decide what to do with their bodies; the right to abortion is vital for gender equality; banning abortion puts women at risk; and finally the sickest argument of all, “it’s for the good of the child” – killing it spares it from future sufferings of this world.. The pragmatist would argue that if it is good for the woman, then abortion is not just permissible but a fundamental right. Bishop Fulton Sheen once taught that “the greatest disaster that can happen to man or a nation is not, to do evil; it is to deny that evil exists by calling evil another name like “progress”.”

We can see that pragmatism is fixated on seeing results. The pragmatist relies upon brains, brawn, or beauty to accomplish his ends. Very often, these ends are self-serving. To achieve these selfish ends, anything can be justified. What does pragmatism look like in the Christian life? Well, it takes the things of God and turns them into the things of man. In our arrogance, we become self-sufficient relying on our own strength. We forget that it is actually God who should get all the credit! But the subtlety of the devil is to make us believe that we don’t really need God if we can find a solution of our own. Ultimately, in wanting to do it “our way,” it overlooks “God’s way.”

Returning to the story of the temptations of Christ, what is apparently missing from the “good” suggestions of Satan is God and His plans for us. Ultimately, pragmatism, just like the temptations of the devil, often seeks to remove God from the equation. We just need to take a quick look at each of the temptations to expose the cunning casuistry of the Tempter.

In the first temptation, the devil tells our Lord, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.” Of course, the Church recognises that there is a fundamental option for the poor and should work towards the alleviation and even where possible, the eradication of destitution. This is where we see the devil ingeniously subverting this good and then reducing the entire gospel to a socio-economic solution. Resolving social problems becomes the primary yardstick of redemption. Make sure the world has bread, other things, including God, comes later. But then the Lord reminds us, “man does not live on bread alone.” Rather, it is Christ, who is the Life-giving Bread from Heaven, who is the real answer to our hunger.

In the second temptation, which in the gospel of St Matthew is the third, the devil shows the Lord the kingdoms of the world and promises power over them if only Jesus should worship him. The tempter is not so crude as to suggest directly that we should worship him.  He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to our machinations and thoroughly organised world, where God is exiled to the private sphere. Faith and religion are now directed toward political goals. Religion matters only insofar as it can serve that objective. But then the Lord challenges this falsehood by reiterating the fundamental commandment, “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve Him alone.”

In the third temptation, the devil transports the Lord to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and challenges Him to perform a spectacular miracle. Imagine the instant influence and adulation Jesus could have acquired, if the crowds had witnessed Jesus literally being carried down by the angels or levitating in mid-air. But our Lord wisely responds that we “must not put the Lord your God to the test.” Authentic faith, does not grow in the midst of a “circus” performance but often in low-key seemingly ordinary situations in the silence of the heart.

Ultimately, when we choose the temptation of pragmatism over that of God’s way, we end up with a lie. We want victory with limited commitment. We want heaven without sacrifice. We want a crown without the cross. As we begin this penitential season of grace, let us not just merely rely on our meagre strength and resources. In our eagerness to perform Lenten practices of self-denial, let us not forget that the end of all these acts is to expand the space in our hearts for God. They are not performed as if they are goals or achievements in themselves. Conversion is impossible without the grace of God. As we contend with our usual list of habitual sins, we often fail to recognise that one of our greatest temptations is to begin to rely on ourselves rather than on the power of God. To be a Christian is to be dependent upon God for everything, in battling temptations and growing in virtue. So does the end justify the means? Not if that end does not end in God and the means lead us nowhere closer to Him, for as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, “the ultimate end of each thing (including man) is God.”

Monday, March 4, 2019

Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn


Ash Wednesday 2019

What are you giving up for Lent? I am quite certain, that this would be the question on the minds of many Catholics, a question that would be certainly posed by others. Be assured, I am not trying to give you a guilt trip. On the one hand, giving up something for Lent seems to be a fine way of spending Lent, some form of self-sacrifice in preparation for Easter. But on the other hand, any visible sacrifice on my part may be a form of self-aggrandisement, publicising my achievement and thus negating any spiritual benefit I might have gained by giving up something. As everyone is devouring their piece of steak, I smugly order a bowl of salad. So today, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the Church challenges us with a more important question: what is the point of penitential practices during Lent? And is there anything that I can do to make my Lent more meaningful, to bring about real change in myself?

Let’s begin with the first reading. “Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning. Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again.” These are the beautiful words of the Prophet Joel in the first reading, and indeed they are the inaugural words of scripture for this Mass, the first words the church offers us this Lent. As such, they are the foundation for the message God wishes to communicate to us this Lent. Here and throughout this prophetic book, the Prophet Joel is doing what prophets do best. He is calling the people to conversion by making them aware of their sins and pointing them to ideal action, “let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn!”

Traditionally, the people of Israel would rip or rend their clothing to signify mourning. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph, when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died. Even today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts (which is known as “keriah”) if the deceased is one of their parents.  But Joel is calling the people to not just ritually acknowledge their sins, but to mourn their sins—to grieve for their broken relationship with God—in not simply through outward ways, but inwardly as well. To encourage the people’s conversion, the prophet Joel is not calling them to strengthen their resolve through rituals of penance, he’s telling them to take these penitential rituals straight to their hearts, to the very core of their beings. They are not told to demonstrate repentance on the outside, but in their hearts and souls.

In the New Testament, the rending of garment seems to be an outward expression of indignation at sacrilege and blasphemy. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, Saints Paul and Barnabas rent their garments when the people of Lystra began to worship them. But in the gospels, the High Priest, Caiaphas, rent his garments when Jesus affirmed that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. There is profound irony here as in the rest of the gospel; instead of Jesus committing blasphemy, it is the High Priest who expresses blasphemy against Him. Furthermore, Caiaphas had violated the Levitical prohibition against a high priest rending his garments. This is in sharp contrast to the seamless simple garment of our Lord that was left intact at the moment of His crucifixion. St Bede the Venerable would recognise the symbolism in this action. In the Old Testament priesthood was to be rent on account of the wickedness of the priests themselves. But the solid strength of the Church, which is often called the garment of her Redeemer, can never be torn asunder.

There was one more “rending” that occurred during the Passion. This was the rending of the veil in the temple that separated the holy place from the holy of holies when Our Lord died on the Cross. That curtain which veiled God’s presence in the temple might be called His garment. God Himself rent His own garment, as if weeping the death of His Son. Yet that most holy death was also the sacrifice pleasing to the Father. In union with the Crucified one, we too should rend our own hearts in preparation to receive the gift of eternal life.

Keeping in mind the command to break our hearts instead of merely tearing our garments, let us now turn to the gospel. Our Lord here gives us pointers as to how to conduct ourselves when we do acts of piety or righteousness, namely, giving alms, fasting and praying. When we do these acts, our Lord is asking us to do them without fanfare. He places the emphasis on our motivation: “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.” Rather, our actions must be done in “secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” He reminds us that the intended audience is not men, but God. Our actions are meant to please God, not seek favour in the eyes of men. Such outward actions without interior conversion would be pointless. Therefore, these acts must spring from the heart and go hand in hand. Giving to the needy without prayer and fasting lacks a spiritual dimension. Prayer without fasting and giving to the needy is an exercise in self-expression and wishful thinking. Fasting without charity and prayer becomes self-centered physical conditioning. Pope Francis tells us in one of his homilies on this day “that conversion is not a matter reducible to outward forms or vague intentions, but engages and transforms one’s entire existence from the centre of the person, from the conscience.”

These practices are never goals in and of themselves, but instead are tools, working like ice picks to crack open our frozen icy hearts, levers to pry them open, so that we can look inside ourselves and see our deepest longings and fears for what they really are. Each Lenten ascetic practice—denying oneself meat, or luxury, or treats—helps us to put our lifestyles and desires into perspective and creates a space for God to enter. Having created a space, we must allow God to come into our lives and into our hearts: here is where Lenten practices of daily prayer and reading scripture are important. Take some time each day to pray, breaking open the monotony of the everyday to let God in to your life.

Finally, let this also be a season of loving. Very often, making sacrifices and performing penances can put us in a bad mood. Rather, than purifying us and helping us to grow in virtue, we end up becoming grouchy, irritable and even judgmental of others whom we believe are not as holy as we are. The way of loving requires an openness and vulnerability, a letting in of the stranger and the unknown, and a giving away parts of ourselves that we may rather keep. In short, to love as Christ loves, we must be willing to love to the extent of allowing our hearts to be broken. And becoming like Christ is not a one-time event, it is being constantly remade in Christ in our daily lives and in all aspects of our lives. The penitential season of Lent is not about slow progress to a singular moment of conversion; rather, it is a process of constant conversion, constant rending, and constant breaking. The rituals of Lent, such as giving something up or marking our foreheads with ashes, do not in and of themselves, mark our conversion moment. Instead, they are habits of ongoing conversion: allowing us to break open our hearts and give them over to God. When shall we begin? The answer is now! As St Paul reminds us in the second reading, “Now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation!”