Friday, March 30, 2012

Honour from God vs Honour from men

Palm Sunday Year B

Which is more important?
To be praised and exalted by men or to be glorified by God?
Which is more important?
Today’s readings provides the answer. To be glorified by God – that is the most important goal of our lives.

But in reality, the opposite is true. Most of us want to be praised. Most of us want to ‘save face’; we want to be liked by people around us. Most of us want to be popular. No one wants to be mocked or ridiculed. No one wants to be unpopular. No one wants to be rejected. We want to be seen as the “good guy”.

But the truth of the matter is this: if we want to follow Jesus, we can’t always be the “good guy”, we can’t always please everyone. If we want to follow Jesus we will not always be popular. When the prevalent culture in the workplace is dishonesty, you will be singled out and ostracized for your honesty. If you are sincerely honest in all your transactions, you would most probably lose a lot of business and will not advance very quickly in your career. If you refuse to cheat in your exams while your classmates are doing so, you most probably would not get grades as good as them. If you are a faithful follower of Christ, be prepared to receive insults and even opposition from others. Be ready to be labeled foolish by your own relatives and friends. Forget about trying to be popular.

This is the way which Jesus had taken. It is the Way of the Cross instead of the Way of Glory. It is the way of humility rather than the way of self-glory. It is the way of being last instead of being first. It is the way of losing everything for the kingdom of God rather than the way of gaining everything and yet losing our lives.

This is the way of Jesus as described in today’s second reading: “His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.”

This too must be our fate if we wished to follow Jesus. If we ask the Lord for a disciple’s tongue as Isaiah did in the first reading, we must be prepared to receive all kinds of opposition and insult from others. To be a disciple of Jesus means that we would be treated like Jesus.

Having heard all this, you may feel discouraged. You may find it hard and even find it impossible to follow Jesus. Therefore, most of us are tempted to settle for a ‘soft’ version of Christianity, one which is insulated from the cross. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister and theologian who was executed by the Nazis for his refusal to subordinate the Church to the state machinery, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” The truth is, it isn’t easy following Jesus. Bonhoeffer reminds us: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”

The palms which you carried at the beginning of the mass can also be found in Christian iconography – in the hands of countless of martyrs who willingly gave up their lives for their faith. Placed in their hands, the Church acknowledges that they paid the price of discipleship not just in words and nice plenitudes, but by their lives. This is the costly grace which Bonhoeffer wrote about and the cost all Christians must be prepared to pay if we wish to be true to the vision and mission which Christ has offered us. It is fitting testimony that in suffering and death, the martyrs found true glory in the eyes of God. Thus, our consolation is that the Lord will be our strength and our support. Isaiah assures us of this: “The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults.” We are also reassured by the promise of Jesus that if we share in his death, we will also share in his glory. In spite of the rejection and humiliation Jesus received from the hands of men, St. Paul in the second reading assures us that “God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names”. To be glorified by God is far greater and far more important than any insults or rejection we may receive from men. To receive the gift of eternal life is far more precious than holding on to the passing years we have in our earthly life.

As we begin Holy Week, let us follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Let us remain faithful to him even when the going gets tough. Let us take up our crosses and follow him. We can do this because we know and we believe that at the end of our journey, we will receive the crown of glory from the hands of Jesus who gave his life for us on the cross. This is the crown paid for with the price of the blood of the Son of God – a costly grace indeed!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Roll the Stone Away

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year A

Have you noticed how the massive crowds that swell during Good Friday celebrations every year seem to dwindle to the usual Sunday numbers at the Easter celebrations? This annual phenomenon begs the question: Where did they come from and where did they go? In spite of a culture which fears and denies death, the death of Jesus remains a vivid reminder of human mortality and thus its celebration becomes an annual Mecca drawing Catholics of various levels of observance, from the nominal to the deadly pious. Many ‘annual’ Catholics will return to church, a church whom they feel is historically linked to them and yet remains at the periphery of their daily lives, to celebrate both the birth of Jesus at Christmas and his death on Good Friday. Both birth and death are tangible realities which they can experience. The resurrection, on the other hand, remains largely conceptual to many.

The story of the Raising of Lazarus reminds us, however, that the resurrection is anything but conceptual and symbolic. It is objectively real. The story of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, a story of death and despair, life and hope, mirrors our own predicament, our own times, our own hearts. If we look carefully, we can see ourselves in every character. If we notice the rock bottom despair in this tale, we will recognise our own despair and our own complicity in the powers of death. Even so, we will also hear the liberating voice of Jesus calling us out to new life.

Although the resurrection refers primarily to coming back to life of the biologically dead, its implications are far broader than that. The raising of Lazarus is certainly prefiguring the resurrection of Jesus, as intended by the author of the Fourth Gospel. But for the early Christians the story of the raising of Lazarus was more than a pointer to the resurrection of Jesus. For them, this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the hopeless situations in which they found themselves as individuals. Nothing is too late, when Christ is present. And even when one is consumed by the seeming finality of death, there is the promise and hope of resurrection.

Today, I would like to focus on the three commands issued by Jesus. The first command is ‘Roll away the stone.’ The stone which Jesus referred to here is the stone that is normally placed in front of a cave tomb to seal the body in. Its purpose was obviously not to keep the contents of the cave from escaping – dead bodies don’t run away. The purpose of the stone was to prevent wild animals, robbers and vandals from invading and violating the sanctity of the tomb, the place of rest for the deceased. But in the context of the resurrection, the tomb stone was no longer a source of protection but now seen as an obstacle. Unless the stone was rolled away, the miracle of raising Lazarus would not have seen the light of day. In the light of the resurrection, our earthly securities cease to be efficacious, in fact they can pose as impediments and barriers for us to attain grace and eternal life. Sometimes, we place large stones at the doorway of our hearts to protect ourselves from experiencing disappointment, rejection, and betrayal. The resurrection changes everything. Our preoccupation in securing our lives against danger, destruction, failure, illness and old age seems purposeless. Death is no longer the most feared reality, but something to be embraced because it is the doorway to the resurrection, the gateway to eternal life. Therefore, to roll the stone away is to cast aside all things that provide somewhat false securities, money, education, position, power, popularity, in order that we may place our trust in the promises and power of God. To roll away the stone would be to allow the light that comes from the dawning new day of the resurrection enter in to cast aside the shadows of fear and loneliness.

The second command Jesus gives is directed to the dead man: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ There is often a tendency to hide in the shadows, especially when we are ashamed of the things which we hope to conceal. We would often let things we are afraid off lie in the dark. I believe that many of the onlookers including the relatives of Lazarus weren’t sure what to expect when Jesus made this command. Would Lazarus emerge as a ghostly spectre or would he come out in the form of a decomposing zombie? The darkness of the tomb, therefore, offers us some security, although we are aware that only the dead prefer it to the light. Despite our fears, the darkness offers us a place of concealment for our sins and the things which we are ashamed off. But today, the message of Easter, the message of the resurrection is that you don’t have to stay in the tomb. Jesus is calling to you to come out … to see that it is God who has the power to change despair to hope and foolishness to wisdom.

The third command is again addressed to the people, ‘Unbind him, and let him go!’ It is here that we see the ultimate power of the resurrection. The resurrection frees and unbinds us from the shackles of sin and death. A few weeks ago, I spoke to you about the icon of the Harrowing of Hell. According to the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, Jesus descended into Hell, as we profess in the Apostles’ Creed, and broke down the gates of Hades which kept prisoners all those who have died. In the icon, he is seen lifting Adam and Eve out of their respective tombs by holding on to their wrist. Adam and Eve represents the whole of humanity who have fallen prisoners to Hades or Death. They have been waiting for this moment for centuries. The fact that Jesus holds them by their wrist emphasises the fact that they are unable to break free of their prison on their own. Only Christ can do so. It is not only death but also sin that shackles us and keeps us bound in a fashion as we were already dead. But today, we hear the command of Jesus, ‘Unbind him, and let him go!’ and know that death and sin no longer has a hold on us unless we willingly submit to them despite the gift of the resurrection.

My dear elect, today you will be celebrating the Third and the last of the Scrutinies. Today, the whole church prays with you as we have been praying in the past, that the stone which lies at the doors of your hearts be rolled away. Today, the Church of Christ calls you to emerge from the putrid tombs of sin and evil which has kept you trapped and imprisoned – ‘come forward’ – do not be afraid. Today, the Church in praying the third and the last of the exorcism prepares you to be freed of the shackles of sin and death so that you may be unbound and set free. This is the power of Christ’s resurrection. This is the gift of his new life. This is the mystery of Easter which we will all celebrate with you in another two weeks. Be certain of this, that you will not wait any longer than necessary. Jesus is coming to harrow hell and death, and no barrier or wall will keep him from you.

Friday, March 23, 2012

We want to see Jesus

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year B

Some of you would have felt shocked entering church this evening (morning) and seeing (or rather not seeing) all the statues, holy pictures and crosses hidden behind purple veils. It all seems unnerving to a Catholic who is quite used to having his senses scintillated by the elaborate sacramental signs and symbols found in our churches. I guess, if you had a chance, some of you would even have walked up to me and demanded this – “I want to see Jesus.” My humble request to all of you is to be patient and to listen to this week’s catechesis at the end of mass. Suffice to say at this point that the veiling of the statues, holy pictures and crosses, an ancient custom of the Church, is a kind of fasting of the senses.

“We want to see Jesus” was also the request made by the Greeks to Philip who then conveyed it to Andrew in today’s gospel. Their request, however, (Thank God) was more benign. Who are these Greeks? Most likely the accolade here does not refer to their race or nationality. They were in fact Jews. But what set them apart from the Jews of Palestine at the time of Jesus was the lingua franca they used. Unlike the Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, these Hellenistic Jews used the common Greek tongue.

Jesus on hearing their request strangely launches into a monologue speech on a topic which seems entirely unconnected to the request of the Greeks who had simply wanted an audience. Well, at least on appearances. On the contrary, the words of Jesus were merely clarifying what he hoped the Greeks will see. The Greek speaking Jews who had come to Jerusalem on the occasion of the Passover wanted to have their curiosity sated. They must have heard of the fame of Jesus –news of his prowess at preaching, teaching, performing miracles would have travelled far and wide. But Jesus wanted them to ‘see’ beyond this shallow and superficial stereotyping. Jesus was more than just a charismatic teacher, healer or miracle worker. Jesus wanted them to see the true nature of his mission and its significance. In order to see Jesus, it was necessary for them to see the specter of the cross.

Jesus speaks of his Hour of Glory. This is the hour or the time that had been prophesied since the period of the Old Testament. In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of the days that will come where God will establish a new covenant with his people. It would be a very different covenant from the covenants of the past. The covenants made with Noah, Abraham and Moses, which formed the basis of the Jewish way of life and belief, would pale in comparison with this new commandment. This covenant will not be written or sealed in a rainbow, the stars and stone tablets. These covenants were broken just like how the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments were shattered by Moses when he saw his people’s apostasy. This new covenant, however, will be written upon the hearts of the people and that no one can thereafter plead ignorance. In other words, the covenant will be communicated by God directly to his people through the voice of their conscience. But this law is not a new law. It is just that now the Holy Spirit will help us interiorise God’s ancient eternal law.

How will this take place? Where did the Spirit come from? The author of the letter to the Hebrews in the second reading provides the answer and we begin to see why Jesus speaks of this hour as the hour of glory. The gift of the Holy Spirit will ultimately be connected to the gift of life offered by the Son on the cross.

Coming back to Jesus’ speech in response to the Greeks’ request to see him, we now see that Jesus wanted to stress the gravity and the significance of the hour, the hour where he will have to lay down his life for the salvation of many, the hour where he will be raised up on the cross in public humiliation, but also the hour where he will be glorified by the Father for his faithfulness to the Father’s plan of salvation. On the eve of his passion and death, Jesus now went straight to the crux of the matter. He didn’t teach people any longer about how to live. He began to teach about death, especially his death. He told a parable of a seed to explain death and resurrection.

Lent is a season for learning about the meaning of Jesus’ death and how we shall die as Christians. Being Jesus’ disciples means not only to live according to his teaching but also to die according to his teaching. If we want Jesus to be our Saviour only for our life and deny his teaching about death we cannot participate in his resurrection. Jesus’ teaching about life is difficult. But his teaching about death is more difficult. This Lent I hope we struggle with his teaching about death because we wish to see Jesus. We can see Jesus through his death and through his teaching of death.

Some people understand Jesus’ death as the sacrifice of his life. He sacrificed his life to pay the price to save us from our guilt, sin, and death. But what puzzles many people is this – if the Father is truly loving, how could he sacrifice his only Son? The answer to this question lies in the way the gospel of John explains his death. According to John Jesus chose to die very willingly to glorify God rather than passively sacrificing his life. Jesus’ death is not passive sacrifice by his Father but his own willing choice to love people even unto his own death. In today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus’ own honest and desperate struggle in facing his death. Nevertheless, Jesus knew that God so loved this world, he was willing to obey God’s will to love God’s world and to die. Through his willing obedience he glorified God’s name.

To see the truth of Jesus is to see who God is but it’s also to be able to discover the truth of the human being as originally designed by God. To see or to go seeking the real image or vision of Jesus is the central task of each and every life and the journey like His journey begins slowly and lowly. To see the truth of Jesus and His being is to look not as something of a curiosity, but a long journey to His heart. He responds to the seeking not to the curious. To see the truth of Jesus is to encounter the beauty of his love which is demonstrated by his sacrifice on the cross. To see the truth of Jesus is to see the paradox of the cross – to attain eternal life, we must be prepared to die.

Often times, I have people who come up to me making the same request. They too want to see Jesus. They want to see a Jesus that will soothe their pain and take away their misery. They want to see a Jesus that is tangibly present in miracles. They want to see a Jesus who will provide a solution to their problems. They want to see a Jesus who will restore their physical health. If this is the kind of Jesus they are looking for, they will be sorely disappointed. But in a week’s time we will all get to see the real Jesus in the liturgy of Holy Week – Here is a man who could be king but chose to go the way of a slave. Here is a man who could have stirred up a following to overthrow the Roman occupying forces but decided to submit to human authority. Here is a man who could be arrayed in the finery of an emperor but chose to be stripped of all human dignity and die naked on the cross. Here is a man who willingly chose death in order that we may have life. Here is the man, Jesus, the Son of God. Here is the man we want to, we hope to, we desire to see, to live by his teachings and to die by them!

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Price Paid for Love

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B

Today’s gospel reminds me of the famous short story by O Henry, ‘The Gift of the Magi’. Despite its misleading title, the story isn’t about the wise men who visited the infant Jesus at Christmas. Rather it is about a young newly married couple, Della and Jim. Both deeply in love but also cursed with poverty. But each had a prized possession for which they were extremely proud: Della had the longest and most beautiful hair in all New York and Jim possessed a magnificent gold pocket-watch, given him by his father.

Christmas was drawing near, and Jim and Della began to think what presents they could afford to give each other. Della knew that Jim needed a chain for that gold pocket watch and Jim felt that only a jeweled hair comb would do justice to groom those beautiful locks of Della’s. Finally, feeling helpless with the little savings they possessed both resorted to extreme measures to acquire the money to finance their respective gifts. Unbeknownst to the other, Della sold her hair in order to buy the gold chain whereas Jim pawned his watch in order to purchase a comb for Della. When the gifts were finally opened, they realized that both had been willing to part with their most prized possession to acquire a gift of value for the other – a chain for the watch that had already been pawned, and a comb for the hair that had already been shorn and sold. The irony of the story demonstrated that the best Christmas presents were ones paid with the price of love and great sacrifice.

If you felt that this was a great story of love and sacrifice, then you’ll be balled over by today’s gospel. God did not pay the price of love with a jeweled comb or a gold pocket watch chain. He paid it with the price of his Son’s life. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” This oft repeated text has certainly lost much of its impact on its readers. There is no doubt that this is a definitive statement about the extent of God’s love. But it also speaks to us of the true value and worth of our lives which we often discount.

Perhaps, the most frequent doubt people have about God, is not with regards to his existence but about the measure of his love. When we examine our behaviour and actions, we can recognize our lack of belief in God’s love for us. Whenever we sin, we forget this truth about ourselves. The root of sin is this: we sin when we believe that God’s love for us is not enough. In other words, when we sin we doubt God’s love for us. When we sin we call God a liar. When we sin, we claim that there is something more important than what God can give to us. We give in to the temptation that we must supplement the inadequate love of God with other things – material possessions, popularity or power.

Sin finds a parallel in our psycho-emotional state. Many people generally do not feel good about themselves. They harbour thoughts that they are not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not loving enough. They often suffer from a poor self-image. Because of this low estimation of themselves, they often are also critical of others and easily find fault with them. There is some sick cycle being played out – they criticize and belittle others with the hope that they will feel bigger and more superior.

We get angry with others for hurtful words and actions and find it hard to forgive them because of the same reason. Other’s comments and criticism shake our already poor image of ourselves. People find it hard to forgive because they find it hard to forgive themselves. If we are harsh in judging ourselves we will also be harsh in judging others.

Many people also try to please others – their parents, their spouses, their children – by doing whatever is asked of them, even when it makes them miserable and unhappy. Many of us also try to please God. Following the commandments and penances are performed without much internal freedom. If they are done, it is to appease a capricious God who seeks to heap heavy taxes on his people. St. Paul reminds us in the second reading that “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.”

This is it: We are saved by God because he loves us. We are saved not because we deserve it. We don’t deserve it because we are sinners. We are saved not because we have earned it. Love and salvation can never be earned. This is the extent of the love of God – that he saved us despite our sins and not because we were good. God came not to condemn us but to save us. Today’s gospel reassures us of this: “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” This is our destiny. This is our dignity. This is the real story of the greatest love the world has ever known – a love paid with the price of one’s life – the life of God. How then should we respond to this insight? Our thoughts go back to the First Sunday of Lent, to the message of Christ which began all this – the good news of salvation. In this message, Jesus summarises it simply in two words - “Repent” and “Believe”. Repent from your sins and believe in the good news of God’s salvation.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I Was Blind But Now I See

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year A (With Scrutinies)

Most of you may have heard of the amazing and inspiring story of Helen Keller. Helen Keller was an author, political activist and a lecturer. Her achievements and credentials would have sufficiently best any other person who was considered a peer, not discounting the fact that she was also a woman who lived during the time of the early years of women suffrage – where women had just earned the right to vote. What was even more amazing about her story was that Helen Keller had lost both her hearing and sight at the young age of 19 months. To be blind or deaf would seem to be sufficient tragedy for many. But Helen, would grow up being both blind and deaf. Against all odds and expectations, she would emerge as an inspiring model for millions of people, especially those who are disabled. She practically altered our perception of the disabled and remapped the boundaries of sight and sense. Once when questioned by a journalist as to what could be worse than being blind, she replied, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

Some people are born blind. Others lose their eyesight as they are growing up. Many elderly people gradually lose their eyesight as they advance in years. Physical blindness in not a matter of personal choice. One becomes blind whether one chooses to do so or not.

But there is another blindness which is a matter of choice. This is spiritual blindness, the blindness which today’s readings speak about. Unlike physical blindness, we can choose to be spiritually blind.

What makes us blind? What prevents us from seeing? First, sin blinds us. It distorts our vision. Evil makes us see evil in others. If we allow sin to control us, then we will only be able to see the ugly, the rotten and the bad in others. But the truth of the matter is that what we see in others is actually a reflection of our present state.

Prejudice and presumptions also blind us. Prejudice distorts reality and the truth. We see this in the story of how David, the youngest son of Jesse, was chosen as king. Samuel assumed that God would have chosen the eldest or the strongest of the sons of Jesse to be king of Israel. His prejudice blinded him to God’s choice, David, the youngest and weakest son of all. Prejudice prevents us from discerning God’s will. It prevents us from seeing with God’s eyes.

Hatred and jealousy also blinds us. The Pharisees and chief priests in today’s gospel were filled with hatred for Jesus and were envious of his powers and his popularity with the crowds.

Selfishness and self-centeredness is also another reason for spiritual blindness. When we are only concerned with our own matters and problems, we will not be able to recognize the needs of our brothers and sisters.

Self-righteousness also blinds us. In the longer version of today’s gospel, Jesus ends the passage with this: “Blind? If you were, you would not be guilty, but since you say, “we see”, your guilt remains.” If we assume that we are perfect and that we are in the right, there is no need for conversion or change on our part. Salvation can only begin when we are able to recognize our faults and repent before God. If we say that we have no need for conversion, then we are truly blind.
The season of Lent is also called the Period of Purification and Enlightenment especially for those preparing to receive the Easter sacraments. The name suggests the nature or the dynamics of conversion in the lives of these candidates. Lent will be for them and for us a period of purification from the putrid stains of sin and evil. Lent will be a period where they and we will gain sight to see all things anew, through the lenses of faith. Our gaining of sight consists in our beginning to see ourselves as full of sins and capable of every evil and betrayal. Our gaining of sight consists in our seeing the world as it really is: lying in evil. Our gaining of sight consists in our beginning to see and appreciate in this world only God’s great mercy toward us and all of blind humankind. But if we do not see all of this, it means that we only think we that we see, but in fact we remain in our blindness—from which may the Lord deliver us!.

Today, Jesus, the Light of the World, wants to remove your spiritual blindness. Today, Jesus wants to give you new eyes to see – to see the world as how he and the Father sees the world. Today, Jesus wants to make you see him as he truly is – the Light of the World that has come to dispel the darkness of our lives. Are you prepared to cast off the darkness of your sins? Are you prepared to renounce your prejudices, hatred, jealousy and self-righteousness? If you are prepared, then join our Elect as they prepare to celebrate the second scrutiny. Unite yourselves in heart and mind with them as we renounce the causes of our spiritual blindness and ask for Christ our Light to dispel the darkness of our sins. Let us ask Christ to give us new eyes to see.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Spiritual Sense of Conversion

Third Sunday of Lent Year A

Every Catholic today wants to get to know the Bible. What is Jesus trying to say here? What do all these weird facts, figures, characters, customs, and details mean? So, you have loads of Catholics, at least those who want to make sense of the readings they hear every Sunday or the verses they read everyday, jumping on the bandwagon of Bible study programmes. There is such a great thirst for understanding the Bible that this massive interest in biblical studies often betrays a lack of discernment in choosing the right programme. Many Catholics often find their way to other Protestant Bible study groups because they find their own parishes bereft of similar courses.

I’m not going to go into an evaluation of Bible study programmes here but would wish to make this clarification. It is a myth that Catholics do not know the Bible or have very little contact with the Bible! The truth is that Catholics do not only know the Bible, but are saturated in it. We confess it in our creeds, live it in our precepts and Church laws, celebrate it in our sacraments and pray it in our devotions and sacramentals. The way we approach and come to know the Bible, however, may be quite different from the way Protestants study it.

We know our Bible through the lenses and actions of the Church. We encounter it through our liturgy, not only in the Liturgy of the Word, but also throughout the whole Mass, in the Collects, the prefaces of the Eucharistic prayer, in the Anaphoras, the Eucharistic prayers. We know our Bible through the praying of our rosaries and the divine office when we say our morning and evening prayers. We learn the Bible through our Catechism, which brings to us both the Word of God in Sacred Scripture as well as in Sacred Tradition. We only come to beat ourselves, and I must add ‘unjustly’, when we seek to compare ourselves with the Protestants who study the Bible verse by verse. Let’s just say that the Protestants approach the Bible in its literal sense, the meaning conveyed by the words of scripture. Here, one tries to ascertain the meaning intended by the sacred writers. To assist us, we have various literary tools at our disposal – archaeological findings, literary sciences, knowledge of ancient languages. Catholics do no reject this and the early fathers of the Church like St Jerome and those of the Antiochene school, were well versed in this. But Catholics view the Bible in a ‘fuller sense’ (sensus plenior). They read the Bible not only in its literal sense but come to discover the rich layers of meaning found in its spiritual sense.

What is this Spiritual Sense? Traditionally, the spiritual sense can be divided into a further three subdivisions: the allegorical, the moral and the anagogical sense. The Allegorical Sense helps the reader to see how those things, events, or persons mentioned in the text point to Christ and the Paschal Mystery. For example, the story of Moses leading his people across the Red Sea becomes an allegory of Christ leading his Church to salvation through the waters of baptism. The Moral Sense points to the Christian life in the Church. This is when we ask the question, ‘What is this verse or this passage telling me to do in my life?’ And finally, the Anagogical Sense points to the Christian’s heavenly destiny and the last things. Last week, we heard the story of the Transfiguration. The anagogical sense of the story is that it points to our destiny – we too will be given new bodies on the day of our resurrection – we will be transfigured, like butterflies emerging from our chrysalis.

Understanding the four senses of Scripture provides an interpretive key for unlocking many spiritual treasures in the Word of God. With this approach, we see more clearly that the events and people mentioned in the Bible are intimately linked to our own Christian experience and serve as models for us to follow. We can now understand that if we were to only focus on the ‘literal’ sense, as do the Protestants (though this too is undeniably important), we would be left impoverished.

Rooted in Catholic Tradition, many saints, doctors, Fathers of the Church, and even Jesus and the New Testament writers themselves used this method of shifting through scriptures by looking at in both its literal and spiritual sense. Unfortunately, the spiritual exegesis has become somewhat of a lost art, with many modern scholars either downplaying or ignoring it. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us these different senses, especially the ones found under the spiritual sense, is as much part of the treasures of the Church as is the literal sense.

For the next three Sundays, we will get a taste of the spiritual sense when we consider the gospel readings that tell the story of coming to faith – the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Healing of the Blindman and the Raising of Lazarus. According to the rubrics of liturgy, the gospels of Year A lectionary are preferred to those of Year B and C whenever there are candidates celebrating the Rites of Scrutiny and Exorcism. Since, we will be celebrating the first set of Scrutinies at this mass, we have chosen the gospel reading from the Year A Lectionary. This story of the Samaritan woman is rich with details and would be a treasure trove of discoveries for biblical exegetes. But in the context of the RCIA, they take on a richer meaning when considered through the spiritual lenses.

Let’s look at the characters and try to recognise the allegory therein. First we have Jesus. Of course, the person of Jesus represents himself. He is the focus of the story. He is the source of Living Water. But He is also the Bridegroom who has come to court his bride. If we were to examine the conversation that takes place between the Samaritan woman and Jesus, we would be able to detect a slight hint of flirtation. Was Jesus a flirt? We will soon get to bottom of this behaviour when we understand what the Samaritan woman symbolizes – she is the Church, she represents every Christian. Thus, Jesus, the Bridegroom, is here courting his beloved bride, the Church – drawing the latter into a relationship which is not based on fear or need or shame, but on love.

As noted earlier, the Samaritan woman represents the Church. She also represents those who are searching, just like the Elect, the candidates for baptism here, who have been searching for meaning in their lives. But initially, she does not know what she wants. She is searching for worldly fulfillment – the opportunity to have water without having to visit the well again. She looks for the elusive earthly Utopia – the final solution to all her problems, the perfect situation that excludes imperfections, companionship that will finally take away the sting of loneliness. She wants love as evidenced by her previous failed relationships and her present extra-marital arrangement. Throughout the story, we witness a gradual transformation. She moves from being ashamed of her background and incredulous to the claims made by Jesus, to a woman who courageously witnesses to her neighbours the new found faith she has discovered in Christ.

The five husbands and the man she is living with symbolises the false gods in our lives. We constantly have to contend with the temptation of idolatry, no so much in praying to other deities but in placing other things, situations or persons above God. Though these temptations seem to promise fulfilment, they are most certain to disappoint because it is only God who can fill the aching hole in our hearts and quench our thirst and hunger for love and meaning.

The well which sets the scene for the story also has an allegorical equivalent. It symbolises the waters of baptism. How can we draw and drink deep from the Source of Life Giving Water? It is through baptism. In some Eastern Orthodox icons, the well is depicted in the shape of a tomb or a cross. In fact, the baptismal pools in early churches were indeed constructed in the shape of a cross. The allusion is clear. The well represents baptism and its effects – we die and we rise with Christ.

My dear Elect, today the story of the Samaritan Woman is your story. It is the story of your transformation, your movement from a life of sin to a life of grace. Today, you will celebrate the first set of Scrutinies where you would be challenged to put off your false gods in order that you may be free to enter into communion with Christ. Are you ready to renounce the false gods in your life? Are you ready to empty yourselves of all your false securities in order for God to pour his life-giving water into your hearts?

And finally at Easter, you will come to waters of baptism where you will die and rise with Christ. It is at your baptism that you will experience drinking the Life-Giving Water, the Water that springs forth from the heart of Jesus, the water that promises eternal life.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What's Going on in the Temple?

Third Sunday of Lent Year B

We encounter a very different Jesus in today’s gospel. We would often like to think of him as calm and collected, wise, gentle and loving. But in today’s gospel, Jesus unleashes his anger on the moneylenders and animal vendors in the Temple. His anger is not just confined to verbal altercation but is expressed in a physical and even violent manner, as he overturns the tables, vandalises the tools of trade and collections of these businessmen, and even physically whips them with a makeshift flogger. To describe this behaviour as disturbing is an understatement. Many people, including many of us, would have deemed this petulant and childish and outright scandalous. What do we make of this?

But before we look into the text and try to discern the purpose of Jesus’ actions, we need to address an issue that may also distracts enquiring minds. The gospel of John presents this episode of the cleansing of the temple at the beginning whereas the same story is found at the end of the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. We must remember that the gospels were not mere biographies of Jesus written in a chronological manner. Each of the gospels is a theological document utilising stories from the life of Jesus. The Synoptic gospel writers place the story near the end because it fits their purpose of explaining why Jesus was tried and arrested. On the other hand, the Gospel of John places the story of the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning, because it also fits into the thematic schema of the first few chapters (e.g. Wedding of Cana) that Jesus has come to make all things new. Here lies the clue to unraveling the mystery of Jesus’ actions.

We now come back to the issue of interpreting the action and more specifically the anger of Jesus. Were the presence of the moneylenders and animal vendors justified? Here, it must be noted that their presence in the Temple grounds were neither a desecration nor were they deemed a distraction. Their business was in fact essential to Temple worship. Profane currency, which usually carried the image of the Roman emperor, was prohibited as payment of Temple taxes, because it violated the first and second commandment, which we heard in the first reading. The animal vendors sold animals used for sacrifice by the pilgrims. Their trade, with licenses issued by the Temple authority, guaranteed quality as pilgrims were prohibited to offer an animal victim that was blemished in any way. Therefore, both the moneylenders and the animal vendors served as intermediaries and their presence marked that invisible boundary between the sacred world of those who were worthy and the rest of the world that was considered impure.

In introducing the theme of ‘newness,’ Jesus’ anger can be understood at two levels.

At the first level, Jesus was targeting the culture of transforming religion into a marketable commodity. The point that is being made here is not just the commercialisation of the Temple building. Jesus was not targeting the traders in the Temple compound because he felt that these sacred grounds should not be desecrated by their wheeling and dealing. All those who sell religious articles within the Church premises or who attempt to raise funds can rest assured that they do not risk the wrath of a Jesus going amok once again. What was commercialised was religion itself. Although the money lenders and animal vendors provided access to Temple worship, it came with a price. Their presence and activities fostered the erroneous belief that faith and grace could be sold and bought.

The second level which Jesus attacked was the false dichotomy that stood between the outside world and the interior of the Temple. This dualism was reinforced by the presence of these tradesmen who acted as intermediaries between these two realms, thus fulfilling somewhat the function of the priestly caste. In fact, Jesus’ attack against them was in a way a more subtle attack on the leadership of the priesthood. The function of a priest was to mediate the relationship between the people and God. But, Jesus’ indictment against them was that they had not only failed to act as representatives of God and of men in facilitating this communion but indeed had become obstacles. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus stressed that the Temple was to be a place of worship ‘for all nations.’ But the priestly caste, including their business collaborators had made it an exclusive enterprise, a limited commodity that could only be dispense if one paid the right price.

But both these points are merely secondary to what Jesus had intended to teach through his actions. The temple for the Jews was where God was found on earth. God lived in heaven, but his presence could be found in Jerusalem. Because God’s presence was there, this is where the Jews found forgiveness and cleansing for their sins. Over the centuries, the temple changed. It had been sacked and looted and rebuilt only for it to happen again. The half breed Jewish King Herod built the temple Jesus walked into, but Herod because of his ancestry and his being Caesar’s puppet made this temple suspect, to say the least. In the past, the Temple was holy because it housed the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s indwelling among his people. But now its holiest sanctuaries stood empty. The Ark of the Covenant was long lost. The Temple had become an empty husk bereft of meaning. Different groups of Jews were waiting for the messiah to come and restore the temple into the splendour it had when Solomon built it. They longed for this time when true worship could take place there, without any taint of impurity.

The most important point, therefore, expressed by the words and actions of Jesus was that he was supplanting the physical Temple building with the Temple of his Body. From now on, religion could no longer be paid for a price by money either minted with the face of Caesar or with the menorah, the seven branch candlestand that was imprinted on the Temple coins. The faith that was introduced by Christ would be paid with a far greater price, the price of His own life on the Cross. Likewise, there was no need for any animal sacrifices. The most perfect sacrifice has been offered by Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In this new economy of salvation, in order for worshippers to worship God in Spirit and Truth, there was no need for the mediation of moneylenders and animal vendors. Christ Himself would be the Sole and Perfect Mediator.

Therefore, the themes contained in today’s gospel reading present us with several thought provoking and soul searching questions: Should we really get angry whenever we do not get our way or should our anger (a righteous kind of anger) be directed at sin or whatever keeps God from his rightful place of authority in our lives? Should we get annoyed when our space appears invaded or should we turn our anger to the many obstacles and walls which often creates false disparity between the rich and the poor, and insurmountable barriers between peoples of different cultures? Should we just be looking at the sacrosanct inviolability of our church buildings or should we be focusing on the new Temple, the resurrected Christ who is present in his Body, the Church, where there is no division between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor? As we continue our Lenten preparations to celebrate the newness of our lives through baptism which we will all commemorate and renew at Easter, let us cast aside all the impediments and obstacles that continue to separate us from the Love of God, the Love made flesh in his Son, Jesus Christ who has come to make all things new!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

God sanctifies us that we may glorify Him

Second Sunday of Lent Year B

I came across a beautiful icon of the Transfiguration last week as I was preparing a retreat for the seminarians in Singapore. In Orthodox iconography, although the figures and art form seem overly two dimensional, we have no static scene, but what we have is drama and a moment full of movement. Icons serve as narratives to open our eyes and hearts to a different realm of the Hidden mystery of God. Just the like icons on your computer screen which act as inter-phase portals linking you to another programme or application, these Christian art pieces, and perhaps more than that, links the visible world of the believer to the world of the invisible.

If depicting a scene from scripture, it tells a story that goes beyond the literal sense of the gospel text: here are live, happening events, real human beings, and challenges to the past, present and future. The icon of the Transfiguration which I came across was so rich with intricate details, each with a story to tell, and perhaps layers upon layers of meaning, that I found myself looking at it for almost an hour.

But what struck me most at first glance were the odd shapes that seemed to be protruding from the back of Jesus as if he had a pair of rectangular shaped wings set at strange angles. The circle of light (or mandorla) that surrounded the figure of glorified Jesus was obvious. It not only denoted the radiant light of his transfiguration but also represented the inner uncreated light emanating from Jesus, the Word of God, which pointed to his divinity. But was there a need to add these two other odd shapes vectors? They didn’t appear to be rays of light or at least stylized versions of it.

Upon further research, I discovered that these two odd shaped vectors represented the two fold movement of ascent and descent. On the one hand, it symbolized the ascent of Jesus and this three disciples up the mount of transfiguration and subsequently their descent thereafter. On a second level, it spoke of the two fold movement of faith. The first movement of faith or light of faith is a prophetic light which reveals the true identity of Jesus – apart from his messianic identity, Jesus is also the Only Begotten and Beloved Son of the Father. A second movement of faith or the light which illuminates and enlightens the disciples and all of us and help us make an assent of faith to what has been revealed.

Both these meanings may seem distant and abstract. But today, I would like to share with you what the ascending and descending movements of the Transfiguration say to us about a subject that is very close to us, something which we experience frequently, but perhaps with very little understanding. The two movements of the Transfiguration speaks to us of the two fold movement found in our liturgy, that is whenever we celebrate the Mass or any of the other Sacraments. The word “liturgy,” comes from the Greek word ‘leiturgia’ which means ‘public works.’ In ancient Greece, rich people often made expensive contributions to the city or to the state in terms of financing public works and received honour and privileges in return. Thus, the two fold movement could also be discerned from this profane use of the word liturgy – ‘you give and you receive in return.’

In the case of Christian worship, the celebration of the Sacraments, carries a similar two fold meaning. But here, the direction is reversed – ‘we receive in order that we may give.’ For us the word liturgy means the work of God in a dual relationship: the work God does for us and the work done unto God. Thus, liturgy is both what God does and what we do in return. Traditionally, the descending movement of God has been called ‘sanctification’ whereas the ascending movement of man has been called ‘glorification.’ God sanctifies man so that man may glorify God. This is what liturgy is all about!

The Transfiguration occurred not so much for the sake of the Lord as for the sake of His disciples. In the story of the Transfiguration, the glory of the Son is revealed in both the change of his appearance as well as the words of the Father descending from the clouds – “This is my Son, the Beloved, Listen to Him!” This is the descending movement of God. By revealing the divine nature of his Son, God was not merely providing the three apostles with a glimpse into the inner life of the Trinity but also providing them with the prototype of their own sanctification, or as the Eastern Christians put it, their deification. The Greek word for Transfiguration, ‘metamorphosis’, does not only indicate a transformation in appearance but also a progression or change of being from one state to another that will reveal one’s inner beauty. The disciples were shown what man could really be. They should not be content with just being caterpillars or trapped in the chrysalis of their earthly existence. They are destined to become beautiful butterflies that manifest the divine glory of God. In response to this revelation, Peter offers to build the three tents or shelters. At one level, these were mere dwellings to prolong the experience. At a deeper level and taking the spiritual sense of the text, Peter was actually offering to build a shrine, a temple or a sanctuary to glorify that which he now beholds – the visible Christ who reveals the invisible face of God.

This two-fold movement in fact unfolds in a Trinitarian and Ecclesial shape in our Eucharist; that is, God the Father comes through his Son to the Church for the sake of the world, and the Spirit illumines and vivifies every dimension of this movement. In the other direction, the Church, speaking in the name of the whole world, responds in thanksgiving by offering to the Father the very gift she has received: the Son. The Spirit effects the transformation or more exactly transubstantiation of the Church’s gifts into the Body and Blood of the Son.

In the Liturgy of the Word this twofold movement is also enacted by means of speech. God speaks, and we speak back. We can say that God speaks through his Son in the Holy Spirit to the Church; and the Church responds. Jesus Christ stands exactly in the middle position of these two directions of movement, and thus he is named Mediator. What God says to the world is his Son, Jesus Christ. What the world says back to God is also Christ, the Word made flesh, joined to the Church. The Church also plays the role of mediator here. God speaks to the world in speaking to the Church. The Church speaks for the world in responding to God.

Thus, the Transfiguration was not merely a historical event that prepared the disciples to face the trials ahead of them, especially that of losing their Master and Lord to the horrible fate of the crucifixion. The Transfiguration is re-presented and replayed throughout the centuries in the celebration of our liturgy. Here too we witness the transfiguration of the Lord as the bread and wine are changed into his Body and Blood. But it is not only the species that are changed; we too are ‘metamorphosised.’ At every mass, whether we are aware of it or not, we are sanctified and deified, we are transformed from glory to glory into the image of our Archetype, the new Adam, Christ our Lord, so that we may render worthy praise and glory to God. In the Transfiguration, Christ speaks to us of the fact that the world must be transfigured by love, which none of us has within himself, but which He is offering to us. In the Transfiguration, we are given the certain cause and foundation of our hope in order to follow Him on the way of the cross. Through the Transfiguration, the Church reminds us that present suffering is incommensurate with eternal glory, and that our brief and light suffering produces eternal glory in abundance. The butterfly will emerge from its chrysalis.