Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Joy and Gift of the Law

Twenty Second Ordinary Sunday Year B

Last week, I broached the topic of Catholics leaving the Church, some having opted for a watered down version of Christianity served with just the ideal cocktail of humanistic ideology with a brisk and relevant motivational message stirred right in. In other words, a sort of self-improvement programme that leaves it’s dotting fans with a ‘feel-good,’ ‘I’m OK You’re OK’, ‘I want more of this!’ experience every Sunday. This week, the readings deliberately lead us further down another slippery slope to confront a yet more explosive cocktail, this time made up of laws, legalism and religion.

Many would claim that legalism is the Church’s death of a thousand cuts (I believe that this form of execution which is of Chinese origin is vividly self-explanatory). When critics speak of ‘Legalism’ in the context of the Church, they are referring to the Church’s seemingly obsessive preoccupation with laws. In spite of this criticism, many Catholics do often seem to be preoccupied with matter of laws. “Father, can we eat meat on Friday?” “Father, how many times can you receive communion on Sunday?” Critics would, of course, explain this behaviour as the result of relentless conditioning by the Church. They complain that the Catholic Church has too many rules and restrictions which have resulted in its members being weighed down by heavy shackles. The basis for this accusation is the belief that the Church and Laws, or to be more specific Jesus and Laws are antithetical. If Jesus was the personification of Love which liberates and includes, the Pharisees, his antonymous counterparts, personified the Law which enslaves and excludes. The oft quoted argument is that if Jesus were alive to do, he would abolish the regime of law in favour of a kingdom based on love. But would Jesus really do this?

A careful reading of today’s scriptural passages would reveal an entirely different picture.  To understand the first reading which is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, which literally means, the ‘Second Law’, it is helpful to remember the very positive view of God’s Law adopted by the Israelites and later the Jews. The Law was considered a gift from God that set Israel apart from other nations. Whereas the law codes of other nations functioned as necessary safeguards of individual rights and as a means to redress wrong, Israel understood the Law as a communication from God which imparted favor and blessings. Far from feeling constricted or inhibited by the Law, they felt that it illumined their path in life.

Although the Law was described by the Jews as a fence or wall around the Torah, designed to preserve and protect, it had become a virtual barrier and a burden which obscured God’s gift of the law and weighed heavily upon the hearts of the people. By the time of Jesus’ ministry the Law or at least the rabbinical extrapolations of it had become so detailed and cumbersome that ordinary people could not comprehend its complexities; their only recourse was to consult the scribes, experts in the law, who were able to guide others through the legal labyrinth. 

Jesus, for his part, cut through the legalism of his critics and spoke to the very heart of the matter. Purity or holiness would no longer be a matter of soap and water but of a lived faith which responds to God’s word and cooperates with God’s forgiving, cleansing grace. Jesus called his contemporaries (and us) to move beyond that hypocrisy which pays lip service but hides a sinful, devious heart behind impeccably washed hands. He rejected human legalism that had scarred the spirit of the Law, waylaid its purpose, and entrapped those subject to it under the heavy burden of senseless practices.

But was Jesus advocating anarchy, a state where we would not need laws? Is lawlessness part of the original ethos of Christianity proposed by Him? I do not believe that any scripture scholar worth his salt would dare to make this claim. If we define "legalistic" as the exhortation of others to obey and live by a set of rules or a rule of law, then anyone, especially Jesus could be seen as a "legalist". Notice the words with which Jesus prefaced his new teaching, “Hear me”. This is reminiscent of the fundamental commandment given to Israel who is called to hear and obey the law of God. In Deuteronomy 6:4 God prefaces the Law with these words, “Hear O Israel…” If you're going to argue that the Church is "legalistic", then you also need to accuse Christ of being "legalistic", and yet you follow his law without complaint? Are Christ's instructions in today’s gospel not also "law"?

So, having laws isn’t the issue at all. In fact, St. James in the second reading speaks of the law of God as “all that is good, everything that is perfect, which is given to us from above.” It is given to us in order that we become the “first fruits of all that he had created”. Without God’s law to guide us, we will be lost in the confusion created by our own pride and selfishness. Therefore, the laws of God and his church are meant to help us become free from our own selfish motives and intentions. We know that laws are established to create boundaries and help guide our moral compasses, therefore serving our best interests. Without laws, we will descend into the muddy mire of relativism, where Truth is no longer objectively accessible. Moral relativism is the ethical approach asserting that what is important is the sincerity of our decision, nothing else. As long as you mean well it’s ok. But the goal of moral judging is not just to make a sincere judgment. It is also and even more ultimately, to do the truly right, truly helpful, constructive, life-giving thing. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the moral law is the work of divine wisdom. Its biblical meaning can be defined as fatherly instruction, God's pedagogy… It is at once firm in its precepts and, in its promises, worthy of love.” (CCC 1950)

On the other hand, we must also avoid the other extreme. There are many who slavishly follow the letter of the Law without understanding its Spirit, or its intent. We find these people often very judgmental of others. They see themselves as the perfect guardians of the Law and take it upon themselves to be the watchdogs of morality. Others are contented with performing the basic minimum requirements of the Law, for example, abstaining from meat on Fridays, but then gorge themselves silly on seafood, thus neglecting the spirit of the Law which is self-discipline and sacrifice in order that we may enter into solidarity with those who suffer. This is the legalism which Jesus condemns.

Legalism asserts that what is really central to moral living is obedience to the law. But morality is not an enterprise of obedience, it is an enterprise of wise and caring action. Sometimes we follow laws blindly. We do it only because we fear retribution. We must note that the Catholic’s tradition’s involvement in moral questions is not essentially a matter of rules, but of teachings. It is a matter of wisdom acquired, wisdom claimed, about how human persons can best serve one another. And it is a matter of sharing that wisdom, out of care for and commitment to the persons who are involved. Such wisdom is never satisfied with the minimum standards set by the Law. The wisdom of the Church’s teachings ultimately lead us to aim much higher, to aspire heavenly virtues, to reach for the sky, to surrender all and to even offer our lives in humble sacrifice for the grand prize of eternal life. Morality is never just about blind obedience but about firm conviction that comes from conversion.

Pursuing a moral life in accord with God’s grace does not depend simply on one’s own subjective feelings and judgment but on a conscience informed by the preaching and laws of Christ and the Church, sound religious education; a conscience guided by scripture, spiritual direction, and the witness and example of other believers. Catholics understand, therefore, that there are external resources that may guide a person to strive for an upright, holy life. All of these external resources combine over a lifetime to help form Christian character, whose goal is to imitate the Lord. These laws are never meant to kill joy and deprive us of our freedom. Laws do not render faith dull and love passionless. On the contrary, the laws serve as milestones and hedges to mark the certain path to freedom and glory. Laws when oriented to the ultimate good which is God himself, ultimately leads us to love. When we truly love, we realise that obeying laws is never just a matter of fulfilling an obligation. We do so freely and joyfully. The famous English convert to Catholicism at the turn of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton wrote (and while he was still Anglican, 14 years before he became a Catholic): “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.”

Thursday, August 23, 2012

At the Expense of Truth

Twenty First Ordinary Sunday Year B

Today, we come to the end of Jesus’ enigmatic discourse on the Bread of Life. We’ve kind of laboured through the gospels these last few weeks listening to what seems to be a broken record of Jesus speaking of Himself as the Bread of Life – “I am the Bread that has come down from heaven.” “I am the Bread of Life.” “I am the Living Bread.” Some would find the repetition annoying or just plain tautology - unnecessary prolonging of a single point. But it is not the repetition that finally proves to be the last straw but the disturbing content of the message that scandalises and disgusts the audience. In last week’s gospel, Jesus ended with these words, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life in you. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” 

Seeing the outcome of Jesus’ pronouncement in today’s gospel, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him,” many of us would be secretly asking ourselves, ‘Has Jesus gone a little too far?’ ‘’Should he not have tampered and moderated his words?’ At the beginning of chapter 6, we saw how He had miraculously fed the 5,000. It was an astounding figure by any measure. Jesus had the crowds literally eating from his hands. But having brought them to the heights of a towering spiritual experience, a re-enactment of the foundational experience of their ancestors when they were fed manna that dropped from the skies, a glimpse of the heavenly banquet, Jesus’ sermon on the Bread of Life seems to have come as a catastrophic let down.

It is a moment of reckoning for Jesus. The crowd has found his message unacceptable. It’s a phenomenon not alien to us where we encounter, for various reasons, people leaving the Church – complaints about leadership, scandals, boring services, stringent rules. How to arrest a decline in membership? Many a time, we hear the simplistic analysis that the Church has not caught up with time and in our enlightened hubris, we fail to see that the Church’s teachings on a variety of issues, including divorce and remarriage, contraceptives, abortion, same-sex marriage, are rigid and unrelenting. Many would also claim that the cause for the exodus from the Church is due to her liturgy, which seems archaic and therefore out of touch and meaningless. Even priests, in an effort to stem the decline, are not spared the temptation to play God under the guise of pastoral considerations. As a result, they have adopted certain pastoral measure in attempting to address this exodus of Catholics by trying to adapt and manufacture an environment, tamper the message, relax the strictures of the laws so that it would be sufficiently conducive to ensure that the masses remain in the Church and perhaps even attract others. The overriding priority is to stop the outflow and maintain the crowds, even at the cost of compromising one’s own integrity or the truth at the altar of popularity.

There is nothing unique or innovative about this number game. We’ve learnt it from the Protestants. Mega Protestant Churches have adopted a ‘seeker friendly’ approach in this respect.  The rationale behind a Seeker-sensitive church growth approach is to make a ‘seeker’ feel as comfortable as possible in church. The seeker, a technical term coined by Protestants, is an unbeliever who is seeking or attending church service for the first time or as an initial experimentation. The approach hopes to design a safe, non-threatening, comfortable environment fitted to the needs of the seeker. With these criteria as guiding principles behind the approach, it is often characterised by intensive market research, heavy reliance upon opinion polls, polished advertising targeted specific sectors, and unconventional worship styles which adopts the prevalent pop-culture. A number of social observers have suggested that mega-churches resemble shopping malls in their wide array of consumer-driven services deliberately designed and manufactured to fit the social and religious context of many people. In other words, they offer something for everyone.

But just altering the way, we ‘do’ Church seems insufficient. Many advocates of change also demand that what the Church stubbornly holds onto as eternal Truths should be exchanged for a less exclusive and threatening message – one which draws people rather than repel them.

If today’s gospel account is of any measure, then Jesus is ‘mega seeker insensitive.’ He understands the aversions and limitations of his audience. He recognises the difficulty of his teaching. He should have known better then to deliver a hard raw version of the Truth. Everyone prefers a softer, more politically-correct, less offensive version, one which moderates challenging teachings. In this liberal version of Christianity, both truth and love are mutually exclusive in the sense that truth is uncompromisingly harsh and love is compassionately accepting. In today’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t appear loving at all.

On the other hand, the Pope sees love and truth as intrinsically linked. In Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), he wrote of the necessity of love’s fidelity to the Truth. In Truth and Tolerance he says, "Truth and love are identical." It is only by knowing the truth about God that the truth about what is good, the truth about love, becomes accessible. Often we encounter an abuse of the word “love” in our Catholic setting where homilies are nothing more than the mere repetition of the Beatles’ "All You Need is Love" and “All are Welcome” becomes the staple entrance hymn. We have no understanding of what love truly is.

True love is never attained at the price of truth compromised. When we try to bend or window dress the Truth, we risk losing not just authentic love but also our souls. When we are too busy pretending to be someone else, someone affable, someone popular, someone attractive, at the expense of the Truth, then we are never sure whether the other person loves us for who we are. They may only love the manufactured self that we wish to project. They have come to love a lie or as St Paul puts it, they "exchange the truth of God for a lie" (Romans 1:25). But when Love is tied to the Truth, then we come to recognise that Love calls us to change. Love calls us to commitment. Love calls to choose between what God wants and what we selfishly desire.

The truth is not always palatable. Unless we embrace the hard-teachings of Jesus, we run the risk of Bonhoffer’s caution about “cheap grace” meaning that we embrace a Christianity without the cross. In that way, we are not better than sound bites with the gospel reduced to slick little formulae and mottos and slogans and cute little invitations and contemporary music and slick little motivational experiences and things to move people into some easy acceptance of the gospel. The gospel is hard to believe because the cross is hard to accept. In order to believe the gospel and also accept the cross, we literally have to die to ourselves.

So when we witness Catholics leaving the Church because its teachings are too hard to follow and its ways too unattractive, does this mean that we have failed? I was recently reminded of some potentially prophetic words written by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, our present Pope, in an extraordinary little book entitled "Faith and the Future". He wrote, "From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge - a Church that has lost much.  She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.  She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices that she built in prosperity.  As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges… But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her centre: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world."  "In faith and prayer she will again recognise her true centre and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God …”

Sometimes, someone speaks to us and tells us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear.  Parents tell their children what they need to hear even though they don’t always want to hear it.  Teachers tell their students what they need to learn even though they don’t always want to learn it.  And Jesus tells us what we need to know and believe even though our sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear about the need for rescue and redemption from sin.  Mother Church continues to guides its children in a world tossed by the winds and waves of competing ideologies. But eventually children come to appreciate the advice their parents gave them.  Eventually students come to recognise that the toughest teachers they had actually taught them the most.  And though our sinful nature will never delight in the Word of God, the Spirit has brought you to faith in Jesus and into the Father’s family and has led you to enter into deepest communion with Christ through Holy Communion, so that your new nature may know the joy of the redeemed, the peace of forgiveness, and the sure promise of a perfect paradise with your God for all eternity.  Thank God that Jesus and the Church has told us exactly what we need to hear - what’s necessary for salvation and not just entertainment!

Friday, August 17, 2012

We Become What We Eat

Twentieth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Some of us, especially the more adventurous, have eaten really weird and wonderful stuff, ranging from what would normally be considered humanly unpalatable fare to heavenly gastronomical delights. Food is much more than a tool of survival. Food is a source of pleasure, comfort and security. Food is also a symbol of hospitality, social status, and religious significance. No wonder people like to say ‘you are what you eat.’ The Chinese have given this idiom a literal twist. If you wish to enhance your intelligence and memory, feast yourself silly on pig’s brains. If you wish to give a boost to your sexual endurance, then consume a tiger’s or deer’s penis or two. Primitive cannibalistic tribes ate the organs of their defeated foes in order to acquire their courage and strength. Urrrghhh …. If your body could talk, what would it say about you and your eating habits?

If you find any of the above dietary suggestions remotely disgusting and you feel your guts churning with nausea, then what do we make of our main meal every Sunday when we come for mass? Well, non-Christians would also think that we Christians have strange eating habits, if not downright disgusting and perverse. From the earliest times, Christians have been accused of cannibalism – eating human flesh. For example, Pliny, one of the Roman officials who had ordered the persecution and execution of Christians felt that the ritual cannibalism of Christians warranted death. He likened this Christian attitude to a kind of contagious insanity or mental disorder that would inevitably result in crimes against the Roman state.  

Do Christians really suffer from some ‘contagious insanity or mental disorder’? Have Catholics lost all logical sense when they place their belief in a piece of wafer bread and a cup of wine that they believe is truly, really, substantially, the Body and Blood of Christ?  I don’t think anyone of you here personally believes that you are insane or even a cannibal. This is not because we do not understand the gravity of these accusations. Perhaps, we have grown immune to the full implications and gravity of Jesus’ words and the Church’s teachings. The main reason we should be concerned for our lack of concern is that many of us have become pagans in the pews. We have stopped believing in the Real Presence.

When you believe in the truism of the statement, you are what you eat, this is even more true in the spiritual sense as Jesus tells us when speaking about the Eucharist. But the truth of the matter is that many Catholics do not believe in what the Eucharist is and not just what it represents. If we were to conduct a survey on what Catholics actually believe in, I’m convinced that many would answer the question on whether they believe in the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist as ‘No’ or do so in an ambivalent way.

The Eucharist, for many, has become, just like the Protestants, merely symbolic or metaphorical. It’s not really the Body and Blood of Jesus. It serves only to remind us of Jesus as far as it gives meaning to your lives. For others, coming for communion is merely perfunctory, fulfilling an obligation, living up to a family tradition. It would seem odd if you came for mass and not receive communion. What would your neighbours think? The attitude of these nominal Catholics is also reflected in their overall response to the mass. You are what you eat. Many scarcely hear the Sunday readings, not to mention the long and boring homilies, because their minds are filled with so many other concerns and items on their to-do list.  Many are just waiting to run out of Church after communion. Others don’t wait to run, they choose to stand outside the church – one wonders whether there is any awareness of what’s happening inside. Many complain about the various reasons for prolonging the mass, additional rites and liturgies, catecheses at the end of the mass, announcements. Most attend mass not because they feel they are receiving sustenance and food from heaven but because they are actually doing the church a big fat favour by honouring her with their presence.

Each Mass offers a feast of God’s word not only in the readings, but in the prayers and acclamations.  The word of God in the liturgy is like a double-edged sword that penetrates deep, challenging us, healing our wounds, enlightening our minds, directing our steps.  It stimulates the eyes of faith to recognise the Body and Blood of Christ under the humble signs of bread and wine.  The Eucharist is indeed the most substantial food Christ offers us.  Why did he give us his body, blood, soul and divinity under the forms of bread and wine?  Because you are what you eat. We become Christ by receiving Him.

In today’s gospel where Jesus invited His disciples to eat His body, He is not speaking symbolically because otherwise the disciples would have not been scandalised and some would not have deserted Him. The notion of consuming human sacrifice, a grossly repellent practice of the pagans who occupied Canaan, was forbidden in the Law. What more the eating of human flesh? But instead of moderating his words to the leaders, Jesus only intensifies the ultra-realistic verb trogein (Greek: to crunch, to gnaw). The verb connotes both the state of being torn to pieces and the mandate to consume the sacrifice. I can still recall with disgust the last time when I was invited by some Filipino friends to eat their national delicacy, balut, boiled fertilised duck’s egg. I gasped and choked when I had to bite, crunch on and swallow the entire thing, flesh, feathers, bones and all! Just imagine, if you were to feast on human flesh and bone, and throw in a human blood pudding on the side. One can only imagine the disgust of those who walked away from these words.  Such madness, such double-talk: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life in you. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” 

Today, the Church invites us to ponder this deep mystery of the Eucharist with Wisdom that comes from God. The bread from heaven can only be consumed and understood with Wisdom that comes from heaven. What is wisdom? Is it the same as intelligence? Today’s readings, however, paint a different picture of holy wisdom. St. Paul warns us in the second reading, “Be very careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people… And do not be thoughtless but recognise what is the will of the Lord.” That’s it. That’s real wisdom. It is not one’s cleverness that matters. It is recognising the will of God. It is thinking with the mind of God.

Therefore, human intelligence can sometimes be at odds with divine wisdom. Perhaps, one of the best examples we can give is the Eucharist. Our mind and perception tells us it looks like bread and tastes like bread. But it isn’t bread. It’s truly, really, substantially, the Soul and Divinity, Body and Blood of Christ. This is beyond human intelligence and can only be comprehended with divine wisdom, wisdom driven by love. Love need not necessarily be logical. Neither would it always appear reasonable to us. But love is the logic of God. Love embodies the wisdom of God. Jesus gives his own life for us on the cross, not only for the righteous but also for sinners, for those who have rejected him, for those who were his enemies, for those who refused to believe in him. This isn’t logical but it is wisdom based on the love of God. When we Christians come to the mass and receive communion, it is Jesus that we are receiving, his flesh, his body, his life, his mission. This may sound like foolishness to the world, but for us it is wisdom. Jesus is the only food that can satisfy all our wants and desires. The Eucharist is the only food that guarantees eternal life.

You are what you eat. With normal food, it is more a fact that the food becomes you, and has its place in your body. But with the Eucharist, the Lord does not become you, rather, you become Him. In his Easter Sermon, 227, St. Augustine exhorts: “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.”  And in receiving Christ, we become one body in Him, and through Him, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Through receiving the Eucharist, we enter into a unique and personal relationship with the Trinity and with one another, the Body of Christ.  This is why Christ came to us in the Incarnation, to raise man to God through spiritual grace. Today He comes to us in the Eucharist to raise us up to Him body and soul. When you receive Him, do so with fear and trembling, for it is God who dwells in you. Receive Him also in love, for He comes so that you and Him may be one and the same, so that you may also say with St Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20). We become what we eat.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Second Pascha, The New Eve

Solemnity of the Assumption

Today, Roman Catholics throughout the world celebrate the great Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church celebrates this feast in commemoration of its solemn belief that at the end of her earthly life, Mary was taken in soul and body to heaven, that is, to the glory of eternal life, in full and perfect communion with God. Our brothers and sisters from the Eastern Christian tradition, on the other hand, celebrate the event as the Dormition, or Falling asleep, of the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God. From ancient times, this event has been regarded by Orthodox Christians in the light of a second Pascha, or a second Easter. Thus, the Assumption finds its true glorious meaning in the revealing radiance of the Easter dawning sun.

The Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Pascha, was a pivotal turning point in the story of humanity’s salvation. With His resurrection, Jesus Christ trampled upon the gates of Hades, released its prisoners from the clutches of death and the devil, and opened for us the gates of paradise, which was originally intended for man - the crown of all creation, and which became closed to us because of the sin of pride and disobedience to God on the part of our ancestors. What man lost through Adam, he has regained through the second Adam. God Himself chose to come down to earth, became incarnate in the form of man, and once again opened to us the gates of paradise, having manifested - instead of pride - the greatest humility, instead of disobedience - complete obedience even unto death on the cross, and instead of sin He - the most pure and absolutely sinless - took upon Himself the burden of all the sins of the world. With these three qualities - humility, obedience and purity of nature - the Lord showed us the highest example of what man can be like, of what he should be like, and of what the Creator intended him to be.

However, we may well be tempted to think that only God incarnate could be such an ideal man, while a mere mortal could never attain such perfection. But to show us the error of such thinking, we have before us the Mother of God, Who is the highest example of the attainment of such perfection, and Who teaches us with Her entire life, Her death and Her Assumption that man can attain perfection precisely by means of these three qualities - humility, obedience to the will of God, and moral purity. Her Assumption is evidence and proof of such a life. Mary is indeed the first fruit of the new humanity, the creature in whom the mystery of Christ – his Incarnation, death, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven – has already fully taken effect, redeeming her from death and conveying her, body and soul, to the Kingdom of immortal life. In the Assumption of Our Lady, it is these three qualities of hers which are commemorated - humility, obedience and purity, - which have elevated Her, a mere mortal, above all earthly creatures and above the entire heavenly host, which have made Her according to the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of Dormition, “more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, which have made Her the Queen of heaven and earth.

As in all other feasts of Mary, we do less to honour her but in reality worship the Sovereign Lord who fulfilled his plan of salvation through the instrumentation of his humble maid, the most supremely perfect among His creatures. In this area, the Fathers of the Church have often used the method of scriptural typology to speak of Mary’s relation to Christ. Typology is a special kind of symbolism. When looking at scripture, a type can be seen as a “prophetic symbol” because all types are representations of something yet future. More specifically, a type in scripture is a person or thing in the Old Testament which foreshadows a person or thing in the New Testament. For example, the flood of Noah’s day (Genesis 6-7) is used as a type of baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. When we say that someone is a type of Christ, we are saying that a person in the Old Testament behaves in a way that corresponds to Jesus’ character or actions in the New Testament. For example, in the second reading, Paul describes Adam as a type of Christ. Though death entered this world through the first Adam’s disobedience, eternal life was made accessible again through the obedience of the second Adam, Jesus Christ himself.

The Fathers of the Church often spoke of Mary as the New Eve. St John Chrysostom, the great Doctor of the East spoke of  how the garden of Eden was closed forever to our parents through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but now the gates of Paradise, Heaven has been opened to the one who showed perfect obedience, Mary, the Mother of God and Our Beloved Mother. Where Eve listened to the deceptive voice of the serpent which caused humanity’s fall, Mary listened to the revealing and liberating Word of God and became the instrument of bringing man’s cause of salvation into the world, her son Our Lord Jesus. As a result of the fall, the serpent would constantly strike at the heel of the children of Eve but the ancient serpent, now a dragon in the Book of Revelation, will be deprived of victory over the Lady who is crowned with stars and who gives birth to the saviour who defeats the foe of the Church. Death and pain became the fate of our first mother because of the folly of sin, eternal life would be the prize won for our Blessed Mother because of her faithfulness to the will of God.

One may be tempted to ask: Isn’t the story of the Paschal Mystery, Christ’s death and resurrection sufficient? The answer is ‘Yes.’ But as the story of Adam is incomplete without mention of Eve, the story of the new Adam would be similarly inadequate without speaking of his new counterpart. If Jesus, the new Adam, is the primary cause of humanity’s salvation, then Mary, the new Eve, is the primary representative of redeemed humanity in displaying the effect of Jesus’ redemptive work. The new Eve followed the new Adam in suffering, in the Passion, and so too in definitive joy. Christ is the first fruits but his risen flesh is inseparable from that of his earthly Mother, Mary. In Mary all humanity is involved in the Assumption to God, and together with her all creation, whose groans and sufferings, St Paul tells us, are the birth-pangs of the new humanity. Thus are born the new Heaven and the new earth in which death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more

A popular iconographic depiction of Mary in the Orthodox world is the one called Theotokos Hodegetria (Greek: Οδηγήτρια) which literally means "She who shows the Way.” The icon has Mary holding the Child Jesus at her side while pointing to Him as the source of salvation for mankind. Today, the Feast of the Assumption is a celebration of the same theme. Mary’s Assumption shows the Way – it is Christ who has saved her from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb and it is Christ whose redemption has preserved her body from corruption and now leads her to heaven. The Mother leads us to her Son, the Second Pascha casts further light on the first, the fidelity, humility and purity of the New Eve reflects the perfect model of the New Adam. Mary shows us the way to heaven through her Assumption.

Today, as we raise our eyes above and through our imagination try to behold the splendour of this wondrous event of our Blessed Mother being assumed body and soul into heaven into the welcoming arms of the Holy Trinity in the presence of the angelic hosts and saintly choir, our vision looks beyond the person of Mary. The Assumption provides us with a glimpse of our future glory, our final home, the holy beatitude of heaven. Pope Benedict speaks to us of the power of this feast as one which “impels us to lift our gaze to Heaven; not to a heaven consisting of abstract ideas or even an imaginary heaven created by art, but the Heaven of true reality which is God himself. God is Heaven. He is our destination, the destination and the eternal dwelling place from which we come and for which we are striving.”

Today’s feast announces the victory of love over death. St Baldwin of Canterbury once delivered this beautiful homily on love and death.   “Death is strong: it has the power to deprive us of the gift of life. Love is strong: it has the power to restore us to the exercise of a better life. Death is strong, strong enough to despoil us of this body of ours. Love is strong, strong enough to rob death of its spoils and restore them to us. Death is strong; for no man can resist it. Love is strong; for it can triumph over death, can blunt its sting, counter its onslaught and overturn its victory. A time will come when death will be trampled underfoot; when it will be said: ‘Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your attack?” On this feast of Assumption, death is trampled beneath the foot of the woman who bore the Saviour of the world. Today, we celebrate the love of God and the love of our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Theotokos, the New Eve, the Second Pascha and Hodegetria, She who shows the Way. We celebrate love’s triumph and victory over death. Today, we echo the hope of Mary in affirming the greatness of God – this is the God, who according to St. Paul, will put all his enemies including death under his feet.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Finding Shade under a Broom Tree

Having listened to a string of confessions these past eight years as a priest and as a confessor has taught me an important lesson. I’ve come to realise that the greatest temptation faced by Christians is not one that concerns any of the ten commandments, that is to lie, to steal, to murder, to commit adultery or to do this or that. In fact, the most insidious and most common temptation of all is to despair. Many penitents often confessed that they struggle with the temptation to give up trying to be good. They are constantly tempted to see the futility of their efforts and lack of efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance. They lose all hope in their ability to overcome their own weaknesses and sin. They are overwhelmed by a sense of futility and defeat. Or as Mark Twain put it succinctly, despair is “a time when one’s spirit is subdued and sad, one knows not why; when the past seems a storm swept desolation, life a vanity and a burden, and the future but a way to death.”

The emotion of despair can paralyse and debilitate even the strongest of souls. If there is one emotion that unites us, both penitent and confessor, saint or sinner, it is despair. I confess that I too have fallen victim to its power and influence on countless occasions. There were many instances where I too prayed for deliverance, even if it came in the form of death. More than just a sense of personal defeat, despair signifies for us the failure of God. Despair convinces our hearts that our circumstances are bigger than God’s all-encompassing power. Despair is used by Satan to cause us to doubt God’s goodness, fear God’s sovereign plan, and reject God’s promises which is the basis of hope. Despair immobilises our spirits making us feel drained over past events, pessimistic about future possibilities, and discouraged about our present conditions.

In the First Reading, we find the great prophet Elijah in such a predicament as he experiences a similar despondency. Elijah fled Mt Carmel in fear because of the evil Queen Jezebel’s threats. When Elijah arrived at the broom tree, he was exhausted, depressed, and ready to die.  What was to be a victory for God and Elijah over Baal and his prophets turned into Elijah fleeing for his life from Jezebel and her henchmen. On Mt Carmel, Elijah seizes the day and performs a miraculous victory over the 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal. But instead of a decisive victory over the forces of paganism, it would soon turn into a Pyrrhic one. Jezebel would seek revenge over the death and failure of her prophets. She hunts down Elijah with a vengeance. It is no wonder that the latter sinks into despair over Israel’s apostasy and his seeming failure to change the course of history and turn the event into God’s favour. Israel did not respond to Elijah’s call to revival. Elijah is distraught over their inaction and spiritual declension. Elijah is baffled by Israel’s lack of repentance after God mighty displays of power on Mt. Carmel.

And so we find Elijah, of all places, in the middle of a desolate and unforgiving desert, huddled underneath a broom tree.  Scared, frightened, disillusioned, depressed, broken and tired.  I understand Elijah's "tired," I understand the weariness, the exhaustion of both mind and body, the point where we are so overcome by all that we've been through and all that lays ahead of us that we just feel like we'd rather lay down and die then to continue on another day. Elijah was totally vulnerable and exposed – exposed to the murderous whims of a madwoman, exposed to the heartbreaking “let-down” that always follows a pointless victory.  And perhaps most poignantly, as if to add insult to injury, exposed to the harsh elements of the desert – the wind, sun, heat and sand – because the broom tree in which he found himself under offered no protection from those sorts of things.  None.  That broom tree was more than a sorry excuse for shelter.  It was a metaphor for the depths of his misery.  And while it’s true that Elijah did some pretty powerful things in his time, here he now is – huddled in the fetal position under a broom tree, of all things, at the lowest point of his life.

The good news is that the Lord knows when we're weary. He sees when we're coming to the end of ourselves, he knows when we've had all we can take and when we feel like we just can't go on, and it is in our weakest moments that He is His strongest. God comes to us when we are huddled beneath our own broom tree wishing for an end to our misery. He will send Angels in the form of friends and situations to minister to us, He will send ravens to feed us, He will hold us in His arms and, if necessary, He will pick us up and carry us to where we need to be.

This is why we need to come to celebrate mass every Sunday and as frequent as possible. It is at the mass that we receive the life giving bread of Jesus, his own body, his own flesh given for the life of the world. It is at the mass that we come as broken people, sinners, people who have experienced failure and despair and on the brink of hopelessness in order that we may celebrate the power of the Paschal Mystery, where we may once again die with Christ in order that we may rise to life with Him. It is at the mass that we will receive nourishment for our hunger, strength for our weakness, hope for our despair, and consolation for our sorrow. It is at the mass that we can experience the renewal of our wounded spirits through the gift of the Spirit of God. It is at mass that we will receive the invitation given to Elijah under the broom tree, "Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!" It is at the mass that we meet this God who draws us to himself and to Jesus. It is at the mass that we will receive new life, imperishable life, eternal life!

Blessed John Paul gives us a beautiful paragraph in his encyclical letter entitled The Church Draws Her Life from the Eucharist (No. 60): "Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church's mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination. In the Eucharist we have Jesus, we have his redemptive sacrifice, we have his resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the Father. Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?"

When life brings us trouble, like Elijah, it is not hard to imagine how we can easily get scared and discouraged. It’s important to remember that our relationship with God does not come with a guarantee of happiness and easy living. There will be days when you’ll find yourself “under a broom tree wishing you were dead.” As Jesus put it in his last supper with his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble…” All of us know that all too well. Fortunately, Jesus went on to finish that sentence by saying, “…but take heart, I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33) The Eucharist becomes for us the guarantee and proof of this certain hope. Every week, when we come to receive the Eucharistic Lord at communion, we hear this same promise, “Take heart, I have overcome the world!” In the Eucharist, we will find a remedy for despair, an antidote for hopelessness. In the Eucharist, we are asked to look beyond the hazy stormy days of our lives in order that we may gaze into eternity in the presence of God, an eternity waiting just beyond the storms of this life. In the Eucharist, we remember that we are indeed the beloved Children of God and that Christ has offered his life as an aromatic sacrifice for us. In the Eucharist, we will find the pleasant shade of the broom tree, a place of renewal, a place of rejuvenation, a place of healing, a place where we will be made whole once again!