Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Seek the Kingdom, Seek Humility

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

At one time, Catholics were expected to learn and memorise the 10 commandments, a collection of Catholic prayers, the names of the seven sacraments and the Beatitudes. Most of us may still be able to make a fair stab at the first three. But how many of us can recall all eight beatitudes?

Today, we have a chance to listen to the list of Beatitudes which serves as the opening to the Sermon on the Mount. Saint Matthew clearly saw the Beatitudes as important, as crystallising Jesus’ teaching. They are the first words of teaching that Matthew quotes in his gospel. The “sermon” is given its name because Matthew tells us that the Lord had gone up to the mountain to teach (just as Moses did when he received the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai), and the Lord teaches sitting down, the traditional position of a rabbi when wanting to teach officially, not just off-the-cuff, throw-away lines while wandering along. Jesus and Matthew are telling us: this is important!

The Lord looks at those gathered around Him on that mountain. These are people who do not live easy, comfortable lives. They are people who for the most part live in poverty, for whom hunger, starvation even, is only one bad harvest away, for whom sickness and disease can all too readily lead to suffering and death, who are weak and vulnerable to the rapaciousness of the rich, to the violence of the powerful. He looks at them and tells them that if they follow the way of the kingdom, they will be “happy!” Try wrapping your head around this. To say to this group of poor, struggling people that one day they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will see God, they will be called children of God, is just an extraordinary promise. To make such a radical connexion would require more than a few mental summersaults.

And yet, the Lord goes further: “If you follow me, you are blessed”. Each one of these eight remarkable statements begins with: “Happy are…” In other words “blessed are you…” or “you are in a good place when you are poor in spirit, when you mourn, etc…” You are in a place of hope, of life, of truth, in the here and now. Jesus tells those listening whose lives are so tough, He tells us too, “when you follow me, you are in that good place”. It’s the promise that in the midst of struggles we can be in a place of current hope, peace, joy, life. The beatitudes point us forward to an even better future but there is the promise that we can experience the taste of that future even now - joy can be found even in the midst of sorrow.

So how do we experience that place of current and future blessedness, that place of hope, of joy, of peace, of life, in the midst of the turmoil and struggles of life? Our Lord tells us: Live the life of the kingdom.

Here’s a hack on how to read the beatitudes. Although each beatitude merits a lengthy commentary, the first beatitude provides an adequate summary of the rest. “How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Who are the poor in spirit? The poor in spirit was a phrase used throughout the Old Testament to describe those who had come to acknowledge that they were totally in need of God’s help. It was often associated with those who were economically destitute, those who had nothing left to rely on – no money, no power, no influence – and so could only trust in God. Poverty of spirit is a total emptying of oneself, an abandonment of the self to the will of God.

It is that sense of utter dependence, of acknowledging that only God can meet our needs, that is meant here. We are not to rely on our own wealth, or status, or abilities. We are to humbly acknowledge that we need God in every aspect of our lives. Christ Himself shows us what that looks like.

So, the first beatitude could be re-phrased: “You are in a good place when you acknowledge that you totally need God, that you cannot do it by yourself.” That leads us to prayer and to humility. Humility is the key to understand the Beatitudes. Humility is the key which opens the door to the kingdom. Humility is the basis and foundation of all to follow. As Saint John Chrysostom says, “Pride is the fountain of all wickedness, so is humility the principle of all self-command.”

Of all the virtues Christ commended in the Beatitudes, it is significant that the first is humility, being ‘poor in spirit’. Here is the divine irony, the ascent to the mountain of the Lord (the Mount of Beatitudes) first requires a descent: the closer we come to the Lord, the more keenly aware are we of our distance, the more we grow in holiness, the greater the awareness of our unworthiness. That is why the virtue of humility (the blessed gift of self-forgetfulness) underlies all the others. For example, you cannot mourn without appreciating how insufficient you are to handle loss in your own strength. That is humility. You cannot hunger and thirst for righteousness if you proudly think of yourself as already righteous. Longing to fill that spiritual appetite demands humility. You cannot be merciful without recognising your own need for mercy. To confess your sin and ask God and others for forgiveness takes humility. You cannot be pure in heart if your heart is filled with pride.

In the first reading, the prophet Zephaniah describes the remnant of Israel who will be restored to their land after the period of exile as “the humble of the earth.” In his view, it is the humble of the Lord who will receive divine blessing, those who seek refuge in the Name or Power of the Lord and recognise their entire dependence on Him. So if one wishes to be reconciled to God and with others, heed the call to “seek integrity, seek humility.”

St Paul provides a correction to the popular identification of humility to self-deprecation. It is not about boasting about your achievements or lack of it which makes you proud or humble but rather in whether one seeks to give glory to God or dwell in some form of narcissistic self-worship. That is why St Paul tells us in the second reading: “The human race has nothing to boast about to God” and that is why “if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.”

The Beatitudes encourage an upside-down view of what leads to being in a good place, a place of blessing, a place of solid not just fleeting happiness. We may be tempted to think that it is when all our needs are met, when we are self-reliant, when we are financially independent, when we are in control of our lives, that we are happy. Instead, the Lord calls us to humbly acknowledge that we are always in need of God, and to live that out by living lives of prayerfulness. And we may be tempted to deny real sorrow or to avoid recognising the impact of our own failings. But instead, the Lord calls us to acknowledge the depths of our grief, the gravity of our powerlessness and the extent of our failings, for it is in doing so that we discover God as healer and comforter and the only true source of strength.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Ignorance of Scriptures is Ignorance of Christ

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today, the Church celebrates a relatively new feast which was instituted by Pope Francis in 2019. It is a feast dedicated to the Word of God and is celebrated each year on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time. The gospel readings for all three lectionary cycles focus on the beginning of the public ministry of Christ and we see how this very ministry is firmly rooted in the Word of God.

First, our Lord is revealed as the One who fulfils the prophecies in the Old Testament. In fact, the Fourth Gospel tells us that Jesus is not just a preacher of the Word, He is the Word of God enfleshed. Second, He begins His ministry by preaching repentance and calling His disciples to believe in the gospel. Third, He calls His first disciples who will be His close collaborators in the mission of evangelisation, in proclaiming the Word of God. So, Jesus is the Word of God. He calls people to repent and believe in Him, the Living Word of God, and then He commissions them to share Him who is the Word made flesh with others. This is why St Jerome, doctor of the Church who translated the scriptures from the original languages into Latin and who wrote volumes of biblical commentary made this strong equivalence: “ignorance of scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Just looking at this short description by the evangelist St Matthew of the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry, we may draw these conclusions about the benefit of studying and reading the Word of God.

First, the Word of God enlightens. To enlighten the world, God sent to us His Word as the sun of truth and justice shining upon mankind. The people who lived before the time of Christ lived in spiritual and moral darkness. But with the coming of Christ and His gospel, they have now “seen a great light.” This is because “the word of the Lord is a lamp unto our feet and a light to our path” (Psalm 119:105).

Next, the Word of God calls us to conversion and repentance. No one who has read and studied the word with faith, will be untouched or unmoved. The Word of God is not just informative, it is deeply transformative. The Word of God stirs our hearts and moves us to change alliances and orientations. It compels us to turn away from the world and all its allures so that we may turn to God in loving submission.

Third, the Word of God calls us to discipleship, to be followers of Christ. The Word of God steers us in the direction of Christ, it inspires us to grow in our relationship with Him - to go where He goes, to do what He does, to be where He is.

And finally the Word of God calls us to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. The Word of God is not meant to be kept as some kind of esoteric secret by the few elite disciples of Christ. It is meant to be shared with others because by sharing the Word, we make more disciples.

And that is why mature Christians must know the Bible through both prayer and study, because ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. To recognise the Risen Lord in His incomparable gift of the Most Holy Eucharist, to recognise Him in the distressing disguise of the poor, and to recognise Him in the fellowship of other Christians gathered to sing the praises of God, it is first necessary to recognise Him in the pages of Sacred Scripture, to hear and heed the Word of God in the Bible because “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

If you aren’t familiar with your Bible, even if you’re a faithful, Mass-attending Catholic, let me encourage you to start reading it. If you do not know where to begin, start by using the Sunday and daily lectionary readings as your reading guide. Read scripture as how the Church reads it by weaving it into the liturgical seasons as we journey with Christ from His birth to His death and resurrection and as we await His return in glory. When we read scriptures with the Church as our guide, we will see how the Old Testament is to be read through the lenses of the New Testament, by seeing how the prophecies and figures in the Old Testament are perfectly fulfilled and explained in the gospel and in the New Testament, by using the Book of Psalms as our personal and liturgical book of prayer.

There simply is no substitute for one’s own direct and personal knowledge of Holy Scripture acquired over many years of study and prayer, and the more deeply one understands the Bible, the more deeply one can know and love the Lord Jesus Christ because “ignorance of scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Behold the Lamb of God

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Last Monday, we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, we seem to encounter a déjà vu moment. Unlike the synoptic gospels, the Fourth Gospel only has this second hand reported account of the Baptism of the Lord. Being a reported account rather than a direct record of the incident by the evangelist does not diminish its value. In fact, there is added value in the testimony of an eye witness, no less than St John the Baptist. This is no mere clinical and factual account of what others would have witnessed but also provides us with John’s own mystical insight of this event.

St John the Baptist sees our Lord approaching him and cries out in an imperative almost commanding voice addressing the crowd: “Look!” John did not use the rather tepid words “this is”. Rather the original Greek is ‘ide,’ which is an exclamation, and is matched well in formal English by “behold!” It’s the kind of expression when an artist unveils his masterpiece. The invitation to ‘behold’ helps us then to better visualise what John the Baptist is doing – he spots his cousin Jesus, points a finger in His direction and in a loud thundering voice exclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him who takes away the sins of the world!”

The next day, John is standing with two disciples. Again, he sees Jesus coming towards them, and for the sake of his disciples he repeats the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. This time these words are directed to his own disciples, not the crowd in general. The Baptist acts as a kind of sign-post – testifying to the One who is greater than he. John points away from himself to Jesus. It is clear that John intended his own disciples to leave him and join Jesus. They were now expected to give their undivided attention to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John understands that his own ministry is ending – it will end. The time has come for them to follow the Messiah.

What does John expect his disciples and all of us to behold? What did he mean when he conferred on Jesus the beautiful title of the ‘Lamb of God’?

First, the “Lamb of God” is not a phrase from the scriptures that is traditionally associated with the Messiah. There is one verse in Isaiah (53:7) where the “Suffering Servant” is described as “a lamb that is led to slaughter”. For the Jews, the image of a lamb resonates with them as they remember the sin atoning sacrifices offered at the Temple. Forgiveness of sins and worship in general was a messy and bloody affair. Thank God, we Catholics have the confessional and the Mass. But for the Jews, no blood no gain. Unblemished lambs were sacrificed every morning and evening in the Temple as a sin offering, and also at the great annual festival of Passover to mark the great event of Israel’s liberation. John’s gospel supports this motif by stating that Jesus was slain at the very time that the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple.

But then, John does not stop with the title ‘Lamb of God’, but introduces a further imagery – this is the Lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world.” This seems to recall the scapegoat, over whose head the Jewish High Priest confessed the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. The goat was then driven away into the wilderness, as a sign that God in His mercy had removed far away the sins of the people. So added to the Passover themes of deliverance and rescue, of freedom from slavery, is the theme of atonement for our sins.

The words of John the Baptist finds a parallel, a sort of parody, at the end of the gospel of John. Pontius Pilate presents Him, flogged, bloodied, crown with thorns before an angry mob crying out for His execution. Pontius Pilate announces to them, “Ecce Homo” (Latin), “Behold the Man”. This disfigured person seems too human, in comparison to the idealised image of the Messiah they were expecting – a man of skin, blood and bones. “Behold the man!” Pilate didn’t know what he was saying, but John the apostle did. Jesus is the perfect man. The image of the invisible God, the beginning and the end, the One in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The One who shows us what God always intended humanity to be like. He is the One who takes the shame of our sin and bears the mockery of evil. The masterpiece of God’s creative work. When, therefore, Pilate sarcastically introduced Jesus with: “Behold, the man!” he said far more than he knew. “Behold, the man!” — indeed! We see before us not just a Man, we see before us the Invisible God made visible!

But it is in the Book of the Apocalypse, where we will see a convergence of these two images - Jesus identified as the Lamb of God at the beginning of the gospel of St John and Jesus as the Man of Sorrows at its end. It is the scene where St John describes his vision: “Then I saw, in the middle of the throne with its four living creatures and the circle of the elders, a Lamb standing that seemed to have been sacrificed; it had seven horns, and it had seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits that God has sent out over the whole world.” (Apoc 5:6) Jesus is the Lamb “standing” or “resurrected,” who had willingly allowed Himself to be “sacrificed” on the cross! The Book of the Apocalypse points back to the scene of the crucifixion on Golgotha and we now fully understand what the Baptist and Pilate could only perceive incompletely: the One on the cross is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” “Behold!”

One of the great challenges of our time and even for the first disciples of Jesus, was making sense of Him being crucified. If He truly was the Son of God why did He suffer and die? Even the resurrection does not stifle this questioning, that Jesus rose from the dead does not make His suffering and dying any less real and problematic. But the answer to this problem at the end of the story, is found at its very beginning. It was the same two disciples who had followed John the Baptist who remembered his cryptic words “Behold, the Lamb of God!” and made the connexion between the innocent Jesus and the lamb of the Passover; linking His passing with the events of Exodus. The first disciples of Jesus preached His death not as a defeat, but as a sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. Their ideas crystallised around the phrase “Lamb of God” and from being something shameful, the cross became their boast, from being a symbol of defeat, the cross has become a symbol of victory. His death was necessary in exchange for our lives.

That is why Christian liturgy and art show just how powerful the image of Christ as “the Lamb of God” is for Christians. Our Eucharistic liturgy still echoes the prophetic words of John the Baptist; the host is elevated and the priest says “Behold, the Lamb of God” – we are to look and recognise the innocent victim whose death takes our sins away. We recall Christ’s sacrifice as the Lamb of God, we recognise that in communion we taste forgiveness and life, liberation and salvation, the fruits and benefits of His passion. We behold Christ, in whom God has taken human flesh, and in seeing – beholding – Christ, we behold God. This is not just a man who has made Himself to be the Son of God. That was Pilate’s mistake. The Baptist understood and wanted his disciples to see what he saw. This is the Son of God who has made Himself the Man, the Lamb sacrificed and slain and left for dead but now standing erect because He is risen! Behold! Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Dreaming and Believing

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Dreams can be so vivid and life-like. Psychologists speak of them as the voice of our subconscious crying out for attention, whereas certain primitive cultures view them as premonitions or messages from the gods. According to Jewish tradition and scriptures, God revealed Himself in dreams to biblical heroes, for example, Abram’s dream (Gn 15:12-13); Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Gn 28:12); Joseph’s dreams (Gn 37:5-9); the calling of Samuel (1 Sm 3:3-4) and Daniel’s dream (Dn 2:19). According to the great Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 2.216-19), God promised Moses’ father in a dream that He would keep the infant Moses safe.

It is no wonder that St Matthew, with his keen interest in showing in his gospel that the Lord Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and expectations, utilises themes and literary devices from the Hebrew Scriptures. Among the gospels, the gospel of St Matthew alone provides us with accounts of life-changing dreams, where the dreamers were so convinced about the veracity of their dreams that they had no other choice but to follow them. You might notice that the Christmas story in the gospel of St Matthew is very different than the one in Luke. For here in Matthew, there are no shepherds, no sheep, no manger, no singing angels. Only in Matthew do we meet the magi, we see the star that guides them. Only in Matthew, do we hear about four dreams in the infancy narrative of Jesus (the fifth dream was dreamt by Pilate’s wife who then warned her husband to have nothing to do with Jesus, a warning that went unheeded). Dreams provide the tool by which God directs human affairs.

The first, third, and fourth set of dreams are given to St Joseph, the betrothed of the Virgin Mary. It’s no coincidence that St Joseph is a dreamer like his namesake and ancestor, the patriarch Joseph, who not only dreamt dreams but also interpreted them for others. Since the dreams of St Joseph are not part of today’s gospel reading, I will not trouble you with their details, except to say that they gave direction to St Joseph and his family.

The second dream in the series, comes to the magi at the end of today’s gospel - warning them not to return to Herod. They chose to defy the orders of Herod by obeying the commandment of God to return to their homeland by another way. History tells us that Herod the Great was a wicked, paranoid king, who though hailed by some as a great strategist and builder, but by others as a bloodthirsty insecure ruler. For political reasons, he even murdered three of his own sons. It would seem that our Epiphany narrative is no conspiracy theory but fits neatly into this description of the king. The magi had reason to fear he might target them once he found out where Jesus was born.

After their departure is recorded at the end of today’s gospel, the magi are no longer mentioned anywhere else in the gospels. If their sudden appearance in the storyline seemed almost dream-like, their disappearance would similarly be enigmatic, like a whiff of a dream going up in a magical puff of smoke.

We don’t have to look into the content of the magi’s dream to conclude that there is something magical and dream-like about the whole Christmas narrative and it is this magical element that has inspired both Christians and secular culture to expand on the Christmas story beyond the pages of scripture. The story of what happened to the wise men after they left Jerusalem has also been the stuff of legends.

Matthew does not give us the name of the Magi. The names of the Magi as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior, come to us from a 6th-century Greek manuscript. The tradition of chalking our homes also uses the initials taken from their traditional names. Extra biblical tradition also seems to present them as cosmopolitan representatives of the world, with each representing one of the three known continents of antiquity - Europe, Asia and Africa. In almost all modern representations of the Magi, Balthasar is depicted as Black, since he is said to be an African king. Caspar is Asian (said to be an Indian scholar or sage) and Melchior, a Persian (thus Arian) prince representing the white Europeans.

Tradition also has it that after discovering the “infant king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2) and paying Him homage, the Magi returned home, gave up their titles, distributed their property to the poor, and dedicated themselves to spreading the Gospel. Tradition also has it that the apostle St Thomas baptised them forty years later in India. There is also the tradition that tells us that St Thomas ordained them as priests in India and that they were martyred there.

Whether one chooses to believe in the veracity of these extra biblical traditions is not important. What is important is that the discovery of the Magi is real. Though directed by astrological calculations and mystical dreams, the reality that the “infant king of the Jews” who is also the Son of God is undisputed. What the Jewish priests and scribes should have seen by scouring the pages of scripture, the magi had discerned by looking at the stars and reading their dreams, as if these were the natural scriptures of God’s creation.

The impact that the Christ-child had on the Magi is deeply touching. This event completely transformed their lives. According to all these traditions, it was not merely a star that led them from that moment on, but rather, Jesus Christ. Jesus consumed their life and existence. The Magi are an invitation today to let Christ have the same impact on us. Are we wise like the Magi? Let our life tell that story! The depiction of the Magi as people of different colours and races helps us imagine a parish community as a global community. The Magi are the microcosm of a parish community. No one should ever feel unwelcome in a worshipping community. We know that this clearly was a problem in the early Church. In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul struggles to convince the Jewish Christians that, “Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5-6). The Magi bear witness to a global nature, indeed, the catholicity of the Catholic faith.

The Magi did homage to the Divine Child and then their lives became a witness to Him. Today, after we have woken up from the stupor of sleep and dreams, from two years of pandemic lockdowns and online Masses, let us resolve with excitement and new vigour to do homage to the same Christ, so that our lives too can be transformed and shine like the star that will lead others to Christ.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Good luck, bad luck ... who knows?

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

You know what they say about the Chinese … OK, its not just the straight hair … we are unrepentant story tellers. Here’s an old story that comes from my tradition. Some of you may be familiar with this.

A father and his son were poor farmers. The only prized possession they had apart from the small piece of farm land which they tilled was an old horse. One day the horse ran away.
“How terrible, what bad luck, Mr Lim” said the neighbours.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” replied the wise old farmer.
Several weeks later the horse returned, bringing with him four wild mares.
“What marvellous luck, Mr Lim” said the neighbours.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” replied the old man.
The son began to tame and train the wild horses, but one day he was thrown and broke his leg.
“Oh dear! What bad luck,” said the neighbours.
“Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” replied the farmer.
The next week the army came to the village and conscripted all the able bodied young men in the village. The farmer’s son was still disabled with his broken leg, so he was spared. “So … Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”

So what’s in store for this coming New Year? Good luck or bad luck? As we stand at the threshold of a new year, it is natural that many would attempt to divine their fortune for the following year. We would certainly like to ward off the misfortune that we had experienced in the past three years and pray for a real break in fortune for the next. You don’t have to grab an almanac or get the latest feng shui book for 2023 in order to get your annual predictions. Today’s liturgy and readings provide us with all the projections that is necessary.

On the first day of the New Year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. But this feast isn’t really about Mary. It’s about Jesus. By celebrating this feast of Mary and affirming that she is the Mother of God, we are also affirming that Jesus is God. Mary is not only the mother of Jesus, she is also the mother of God. Jesus is God. The baby that was born on Christmas Day, the baby whom some call the Son of Mary, we acknowledge as the true Son of God.

We may be wondering as to what significance this knowledge brings to us. The answer lies in the second reading. St. Paul writes: “When the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.” That’s it. God’s Son became man so that we can become sons and daughters of God. Our salvation did not only take place on the cross. Our salvation begins with Christmas – when God became man. The divine commerce is the best bargain we can ever attain - in exchange for taking our humanity, God shared with us His divinity. Today’s feast of Mary, Mother of God, confirms this central faith of Christians everywhere … our Saviour is not just some great human personage, political maverick, or enlightened soul, our Saviour is God. Christmas is the feast where we celebrate and proclaim our faith that this immortal Deity took on the flesh and mortality of a human person in order that all humanity may assume the divinity of His nature. Son of God became man in order that men may become sons of God.

Thus, if we were to wonder whether the following year will be filled with blessings or curses, we already have the answer. This is our greatest blessing – being called children of God. We often pray that God will bless us with good luck, or riches, or good health, or good results at our exams, or filial and successful children, or a good bonus or win fall, or success. We often forget that His greatest blessing isn’t any one of these things. God’s greatest blessing isn’t found in good luck or riches or in success. His greatest blessing comes in the form of our adoption as His children. We can call him “Abba Father” and He calls us His sons and daughters. This is our most precious blessing.

Mary understood the meaning of this truth – that our greatest blessing lay not in fortunes, good luck, and perfect conditions but in our new relationship with God. Today, in the gospel we read of how “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” What were some of the things she treasured? Instead of having rich and powerful visitors, she was contented with the visit of poor and humble shepherds. The shepherds were not rich or powerful but their presence was far greater than the presence of any king or rich man because the shepherds could recognise the blessing of God in the baby Jesus, while others couldn’t. Any mother could have wished that they could have delivered their baby in a clean hospital or a comfortable house, but Mary was contented with the stable and the animals who shared their home with the holy family. Although rejected by men, the animals welcomed the Son of God.

How was Mary able to recognise these blessings in the midst of what appears to be misfortune? Mary provides us with the example of prayerful reflexion. Prayerful reflexion allows us to walk by faith and not by sight. Prayerful reflexion allows our vision to penetrate the darkness of misfortune in order for us to behold the face of God who continues to shine on us in both good times and bad. When we are unable to savour silent prayer, meditation and contemplation, we will find ourselves impoverished. When we recognise God’s greatest gift and blessing in the person of Jesus who made us sons and daughters of God, then we will be contented with whatever we have. If we are sons and daughters of God, then we are also His heirs. What is the inheritance that we will receive? Our inheritance is Eternal Life, in that which is imperishable and not in the worldly possessions that are perishable. We don’t have to wait till after death to claim it in heaven. This inheritance is already ours – Now! We are children of God, that is a treasure in itself – and we have no need for any other.

So, what’s my prediction for this year? Would it be a good year or a bad year? Let me tell you without any doubt – it’s going to be a splendid year, a great year, a marvelous year – a year of blessings. A year where we can continue to be assured of our inheritance that has been won for us in Christ.

And so, as we rejoice with Mary over the treasure of her son, Jesus, the Son of God, I pray that you will receive God’s choicest blessing, especially the blessing of being called children of God:

“May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.”

Thursday, December 22, 2022

In the beginning

Christmas Mass During the Day 2022

The great Feast and Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ is the second most important feast in the Church’s Liturgical Calendar after the Great Pasch, the Feast of Easter. Its importance is attested by the liturgy in the three masses celebrated on Christmas Day proper – the Midnight Mass, the Dawn Mass and presently, what we are celebrating now, the Mass during the day. Because the feast of Christmas is so great, the Church does not stop rejoicing after one or even two special Masses. She continues her worship with a third, the Mass of the Day. And so after a marathon of masses, just when you thought you’ve exhausted everything that needs to be said about Christmas, we find ourselves right back at the beginning. Not just to the beginning of the Christmas story that took place two millennia ago in Bethlehem, but to the very beginning, before God embarked on the great enterprise of creation, before the beginning of the history of man and the universe.

“In the beginning…” that’s how the Prologue of St John’s gospel begins. St John does not start the story of Jesus in the usual way as in the case of Ss Matthew and Luke who provide two different versions of His infancy narratives. He says nothing about the way Jesus was born. Rather, he takes us back in time to "the beginning” and his opening line is deliberately chosen because everyone knows that’s how the entire bible and first book of the Bible (Genesis 1:1) begins: “In the beginning.” In Hebrew - be’ resh’ it. If in the book of Genesis, we hear how everything began with God’s creative act, in John’s prologue we will see the One who was behind that act and who is responsible for our salvation.

In the beginning, John says, was "the Word" or ‘logos’ in Greek. To the uninitiated, the "Word" here may seem ambiguous, but it becomes clear in verse 14 that John is talking about a person: "The Word was made flesh, He lived among us." The Word is not just an impersonal concept but a person. The Word became a human being, a Jew by the name of Jesus. But the Word was also at the beginning, the Word was with God and then John makes this audacious claim, “the Word was God!” Jesus Christ, the child born in the humble stable of Bethlehem and laid in a manger is no ordinary child. He is the Divine Creator-Word, He is the Son of God; He is God.

By using the word ‘Word’ or ‘Logos’, St John was using a term that had rich meaning to Greek and Jewish philosophers. They also believed that God had created everything through His word, or His wisdom. Since God was a rational being, He always had a word with Him. The "word" was His power to think — His rationality, His creativity. According to Plato, the world of ideas was more perfect than the material world, which could only provide a poor copy of the former. John takes this idea and gives it a radical twist: The Word became flesh. Something in the realm of the perfect and the eternal became part of the imperfect and decaying world. That was a preposterous idea, people might have said. It is no wonder that John tells us that when the Word came into the world, “the world did not know him. He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gives us a beautiful reflexion. He says that this rejection by His own people, “refers first and foremost to Bethlehem, the Son of David comes to his own city, but has to be born in a stable, because there is no room for him at the inn. Then it refers to Israel: the one who is sent comes among his own, but they do not want him. And truly, it refers to all mankind: He through whom the world was made, the primordial Creator-Word, enters into the world, but he is not listened to, he is not received. These words refer ultimately to us, to each individual and to society as a whole. Do we have time for our neighbour who is in need of a word from us, from me, or in need of my affection? Do we have time and space for God? Can he enter into our lives? Does he find room in us, or have we occupied all the available space in our thoughts, our actions our lives for ourselves?” These are questions we must constantly ask ourselves.

Jesus did not just bring a message about God — He Himself was the message. He showed us in the flesh what God is like. We are more than just people of the Book, as Muslims would claim. We are people of the Word of God, the Word who is, who was and will ever be God. We are not just called to be acquainted with the words in our Bible or in the Catechism of the Church. We are called to encounter the Word Himself, Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour – the true light that enlightens all men – a light that shines even in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower.

Our celebration today is testimony to the immense beauty of encountering the word of God in the communion of the Church. In listening to the word, may we become one with the Word. But it is also the Word that became flesh. So, as Catholics we are called not only to be in communion with God and with each other through the words of scripture but more perfectly through Holy Communion. Christmas is a call to conversion, to be renewed in our “personal and communal encounter with Christ, the word of life made visible, and to become his heralds, so that the gift of divine life – communion – can spread ever more fully throughout the world. Indeed, sharing in the life of God, a Trinity of love, is complete joy (cf. 1 Jn 1:4). And it is the Church’s gift and inescapable duty to communicate that joy, born of an encounter with the person of Christ, the Word of God in our midst. In a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).” (Verbum Domini, # 2)

Incarnate Humility

Christmas Mass During the Night 2022

One of the most impactful experiences I had as a newly ordained priest was when I had the privilege of ministering to a group of Vietnamese textile workers in Nilai. They emerged at one Christmas gathering organised by the parish for migrants and asked me if I could celebrate Mass for their community at their “hotel” (of course, they meant “hostel”). When I asked them if they had space in their “hotel” large enough to host a Mass, they excitedly told me that they had a hall. I asked them how many persons the hall can accommodate and they said 50. When I asked them how many Catholics were living there, they told me “300!”

I was having trouble doing the maths, so, I asked them how a hall meant for 50 persons could accommodate 300. Their answer simply floored me: “we will take turns.” In a world where so many feel entitled and are constantly complaining about how their demands are not being met, a world where everyone is jostling for the best seats and the best slots in the Christmas Mass schedule, here was a community who revealed to me the most needed virtue of humility which today’s feast epitomises - how one can and should give up one’s place for another – a reflexion of how our Lord emptied Himself of His divinity to make room for us in heaven, even though we collectively denied Him hospitality on earth!

The beauty of Christ’s humility on this feast day reveals as much as it conceals. He demonstrates through His own birth, the meaning of humility, which is to “give up everything that does not lead to God.” This is a necessary reminder especially when humility is no longer in vogue or respected. Instead, it is held in contempt. Humility is often regarded as a sign of weakness and even stupidity, a lack of prudence in an age that demands street wise tactics and an ego the size of a football field in order to survive or be admired. Thus, humility revealed as the pathway to God is concealed to our modern senses.

The capacity to change and influence the world requires a whole list of factors missing from the Christmas story: wealth, power, a degree from a prestigious university, stage charisma, success, achievement, a proven track record, connexions with the right people, a magical public relations team and lots of media promotion. Juxtaposed against the narrator’s introduction of a seemingly all powerful Roman emperor who can move the various nations on earth as if they were his pawns, and a less powerful politician but still formidable provincial governor, the story of a child born to poor humble parents would seem too trivial for the telling. But this child would be the main protagonist of our Christmas story and not the former two.

Today, the humble often go unnoticed and are deemed insignificant. They make no impact in our lives and hardly warrant a flicker of our attention. The role models of our society are not the humble, but the selfishly ambitious, the proud, the arrogant. The people that our society looks up to – royalty, businessman, politicians, sports heroes, celebrities, actors and actresses, singers, entertainers – they all tend to have one thing in common: a very high regard for themselves, insatiable ego and ambition, and a great talent for self-promotion.

But let us now consider the humility of the Incarnation itself, the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, taking on humanity with all of its limitations, with all of its pain and sorrow and suffering. It is impossible to fathom the transformation the Lord Jesus endured to leave the glorious perfection of heaven, for a manger. The Son of God gave up His honour and glory, He let go of His position, He relinquished all of the riches of heaven, in order to become poor like us, in order to save us from our sins. He gave up that glory in order to become a human baby, a helpless little infant.

Not even a royal baby, not the son of a king; not a wealthy baby, the son of money and privilege. But instead, a peasant child born to poverty and want, raised in very humble circumstances. Surrounded not by God’s holy angels and the glory of heaven, but instead surrounded by sinful, fallen human beings (with the exception of His immaculately conceived mother) and a stinking, dirty barn. But Christ’s humility didn’t end with His birth or His childhood. It continued throughout His life.

So, how do we come before Him on this Christmas night? What can we offer to Him who created the universe and gave us everything we possess? The answer is this: we come to Him in humility, we come to Him with nothing to offer but ourselves, when we have learnt how to “give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions.” Thus, the only way in which we can truly come to encounter our Lord and Saviour on this Christmas day, is to adorn the garment of humility and condescend to where He has chosen to lay His head for the night. If we want to restore Christmas to our culture, it will require more than just good intentions; it would require radical humility. We will need to give up seats on the pews or places in line. We will need to show grace, even when grace is not given. We will need to humble ourselves and follow the example set by the baby in the manger, the shepherds in the field, and Mary and Joseph as they agreed to God’s plan.

Today, anyone wishing to enter the Church of the Lord’s Nativity in Bethlehem, constructed over the site where tradition holds Jesus was born, will find that the doorway five and a half metres high, through which emperors and caliphs used to enter the building, is now largely walled up. Only a low opening of one and a half metres has remained (less than 5 feet). The intention was probably to provide the church with better protection from invaders, but above all, to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to get off his high horse and bend down, before entering.

Pope Emeritus Benedict in reflecting over the height and size of this doorway writes: “It seems to me that a deeper truth is revealed here, which should touch our hearts on this holy night: if we want to find the God who appeared as a child, then we must dismount from the high horse of our “enlightened” reason. We must set aside our false certainties, our intellectual pride, which prevents us from recognising God’s closeness. We must follow the interior path of Saint Francis – the path leading to that ultimate outward and inward simplicity which enables the heart to see. We must bend down, spiritually we must as it were go on foot, in order to pass through the portal of faith and encounter the God who is so different from our prejudices and opinions – the God who conceals Himself in the humility of a newborn baby. In this spirit let us celebrate the liturgy of the holy night, let us strip away our fixation on what is material, on what can be measured and grasped. Let us allow ourselves to be made simple by the God who reveals himself to the simple of heart. And let us also pray especially at this hour for all who have to celebrate Christmas in poverty, in suffering, as migrants, that a ray of God’s kindness may shine upon them, that they – and we – may be touched by the kindness that God chose to bring into the world through the birth of his Son in a stable. Amen.”