Thursday, November 29, 2012

Making A List

First Sunday of Advent Year C

There’s certainly excitement in the air whenever December comes round. The festive mood is evident as we make the crucial countdown to Christmas. Dusty and weathered old Christmas trees are taken out of their boxes, Christmas shopping lists are drawn up, leave forms are submitted early, holiday recipe books get taken off the shelf, train and bus tickets are bought for the long trip home. It’s no wonder why some people collapse from exhaustion during the holidays. Last week, a little boy proudly told me that he was busier than his Parish Priest. He boasted that he had no free evenings to spare because he was fully occupied with carolling practices. With a bruised ego and not wanting to lose to an 8 year old, I retorted, “What’s there to practise? Everyone knows their carols. Carolling practices are just another excuse to sing carols!” Despite my cynical grumblings, I must admit that I do have a soft spot for Christmas carols. And old time favourite is “Santa Claus is coming to town.”  I especially love the part that goes, “He's making a list and checking it twice; Gonna find out who's naughty and nice.” Everyone dreams of being on the ‘nice’ list, but ‘naughty’ can be fun too.

It never occurred to me that the silly old carol had a certain eschatological undertone to it till I began humming the tune whilst preparing this Sunday’s homily. The word eschatological or eschatology comes from the Greek word Eschaton, which means ‘last,’ here referring to the Last Things (death, judgment, heaven and hell), or in common parlance, the end of the world. So, what has a silly happy carol, which no one takes seriously, got to do with a morbid and serious topic like the end of the world? What both the song and the end times have in common is that both speak of the coming of a certain important personage which heralds a time of reckoning. The significant event that marks the beginning of the end would be the Parousia, the coming of the Son of Man in glory. As the gospel tells us today, it isn’t Santa who’s coming to town. Sorry to disappoint some of you. It’s someone far better! Jesus Christ! And his list of naughty and nice has more serious implications than ensuring that you are guaranteed a present underneath your Christmas tree. In fact, it concerns our very salvation.  

The million dollar question: What must we do if we only had a little time left? Well, here’s a list to start with:

  1. Quit the job you’ve been thinking of leaving for the last few decades and tell your boss, to just “go to hell!”
  2. Sell your house, liquidate all assets, and buy a one way ticket around the globe.
  3. Go out in style – ride out in glory, with a certain heroic bravado (and whole lot of stupidity).
  4. Lie down and just wait for death to overtake you. As the Borgs in the Star Trek sci-fi series would announce before they forcefully assimilate other cultures, “Resistance is futile!” What’s the point of doing anything? It’s all going to end anyway.
  5. Tell the girl you’ve been secretly having a crush on for so long what you truly feel about her, even if it’s going to risk a slap on the face.
  6. Drink yourself silly, party all night and break every rule.
  7. Climb Mount Everest, go bungee-jumping, hike up Machu Pichu, swim with the Great White Sharks, do a Monty in public!
  8. Start stockpiling candles blessed by a priest to weather the three days of darkness – better safe than sorry.
  9. Or just scream at the top of your voice, “I can’t think ... I can’t think ... I can’t think!!!” while hyperventilating.

As you can see from the above list, people can be quite creative when reacting to the ‘end.’ Early Christians too reacted in different ways to news of the imminent coming of Christ: shock, anger, fear, weariness. Many were driven into a state of panic and terror. Some were so crippled by fear of the end times that they lost all interest in any activity. Others descended into wild debauchery and immorality, hoping to get a last fling before it was too late. Others neglected their duties and obligations to their families and communities because they believed that all their energy should be invested in preparing for the end. The advice offered by today’s readings is thankfully much more sober. In fact, sobriety together with vigilance, prayer and good behaviour are thrown into the End Times bucket list. These are jointly held up as virtues that need to be fostered by every Christian in preparation for the end.

In the second reading, we witness the earliest writings of the New Testament in the shape of St Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians. The theme and content of Paul’s letter gives a clue of the sentiments of the early Christians who live twenty years after the death and resurrection of Christ. Many of them would have been hanging on to the promise that they will not see death until they had personally witnessed Christ’s Second Coming. Their faith would have been seriously shaken when their members began to succumb to death. Would the dead be disadvantaged? Were they believing in a lie? And so we find Paul attempting to strengthen these converts in their new faith. For Paul, an essential part of the Christian message was the Second Coming. Without that event, the story of salvation was incomplete. Although Paul believed that the Parousia was imminent, the preparation which he proposed was different from the options adopted by his audience. He taught them that Christians should always be concerned with pleasing God in their conduct. The ultimate goal for every Christian was a life of holiness, which meant not only freedom from sin but also love for everyone. In the gospel, we are told that holiness is attainable through vigilance and prayer.

Holiness and vigilance seems to be worlds apart since the latter implies some form of belligerency. Now, you may think that I’m beginning to sound like a Christian fundamentalist who constantly sees the world as divided into two irreconcilable spheres – Christians and others. But the qualities of sobriety and vigilance are specifically pointing to such a reality, that we are at war with evil, something that many have grown accustomed to, and others refuse to mention, since it is believed that such words like ‘evil’ should be banish to the Dark Ages together with other words like ‘heresy’, ‘error’, ‘sin’ and ‘hell.’ It is precisely to correct this erroneous form of thinking that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict had said that the members of the Church on earth are aptly described as "ecclesia militans," the Church militant, since it is "necessary to enter into battle with evil." He recognised that although the term "ecclesia militans" is "somewhat out of fashion," it is nevertheless true, in that "it bears truth in itself." Evil is seen in many forms of violence but according to him, also "masked with goodness and precisely this way destroying the moral foundations of society."

So what does it mean to be vigilant and watchful? I find great inspiration from this explanation taken from one of the works of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman: “This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as he came once, and as he will come again; to desire his second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of his first.”

And so we Christians should never fear the End Times. On the contrary, we should look forward, joyfully welcome, and indeed desire the day when Jesus comes back to rule his creation and restore what once was pronounced “Good”.  We as Christians long for the day when all things are made new again, when there will be no more sorrow, when there will be no more tears, pain, and suffering.  We are an eschatological people awaiting the day when God sets things right again. After the storm of destruction, suffering, and death, we will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” and we will know for sure that “our liberation is near at hand.”

You may be familiar with this oft quoted phrase, “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our Song” which comes from one of my favourite theologians and Fathers of the Church, St Augustine. This is so because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the centrepiece of our Catholic faith.  But today’s readings also remind us that “We are an Eschatological People and Maranatha is our Song.” (Maranatha, Aramaic: "O Lord, Come!") My thoughts go back to a dramatic scene in the second instalment of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the Two Towers. At the final moment when the Battle of Helm’s Deep seemed lost, with the good guys, the humans facing imminent and total annihilation, surrounded by a formidable army that outnumbered them, numerous enemy orcs with only murder and destruction on their minds, the defenses of the fortress breached, when all hope seemed abandoned, one of the chief protagonists, the valiant Aragorn remembered a promise made to him by a close friend and ally, the wizard Gandalf, "Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east." And sure enough, in the heat of battle, Aragorn looks up to the hills and sees Gandalf riding a white horse, framed by the rays of the morning sun which rises dramatically behind this Messianic like figure, as if on cue. And one can almost hear the strains of the orchestra playing and the choir singing:

So you better not pout, you better not cry,
Better not shout, I’m telling you why,

Jesus Christ is coming to town!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Look to the East

Solemnity of Christ the King, Year B

Found this delightful poem as I was browsing through the internet the other day. It’s aptly entitled ‘The Updated Mass’, referring here to the liturgical changes, or some would call it the liturgical upheaval, that took place after the Second Vatican Council. Here are the first two stanzas:

Latin’s gone
Peace is too
Singin’ and shoutin’
From every pew.

Altar’s turned round
Priest is too
Commentator’s yellin’
“Page Twenty-two!”

As the second stanza candidly notes, one of the most apparent changes was the ‘turning around’ or the re-orientation of the priest to face the people. For many, orientation could simply refer to the introductory briefing or training to acquaint a person new to the job, project, organisation or to a particular lifestyle (campus) ensuring that they are moving in the same direction (thus orientation) as the rest. Another popular notion of orientation today has to do with sexual preferences, namely one’s sexual orientation.

So, what is the significance of orientation to Christians? Few people know that the etymology of the word comes from Christians. The word “orientation” itself means facing East (Latin ‘oriens’). Church buildings, traditionally, have been oriented ie. traditionally built to face the rising sun, thus literally ‘facing East.’  The Christians were not the first to have a specific orientation. Synagogue worship was oriented toward Jerusalem, the place of the Temple. Christians, however, chose to face East (thus Ad Orientem).  The choice of direction was not merely a matter of preference for a particular compass point. Christians imagine themselves looking toward Christ, whose future coming in glory is aptly symbolised by the brilliance of the rising sun. According to Tertullian the Christians of his time were often mistaken as worshippers of the sun as it was their practice to turn to the east when praying. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Orient contained man's original home, the earthly paradise. St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking for the Middle Ages, adds that Our Lord lived His earthly life in the East, and that from the East He shall come to judge mankind.

The profound symbolism of direction is lost to most of us today. The reason for this lost of sacral orientation among Catholics was the result of certain changes made to the liturgy since Vatican II. The priest, who was humorously described as having his back to the congregation whilst facing the wall, experienced a 180 degree re-orientation with new changes introduced to the liturgy. As opposed to Ad Orientem (facing East) or Ad Deum (facing God), his normative position (by convention rather than by legislation) had become Versus Populum, or facing the people. I’m not going to go into a discussion on whether this radical re-orientation was actually sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council or even by the liturgical documents. Suffice to say, that this new orientation of facing people had various effects on both the priest and the congregation and their understanding of the Mass, some of which were adverse.

One of the reasons cited for the change of orientation was to remove or least reduce the distance between the priest and the congregation. Facing the wall, it was argued, exuded aloofness. To the critics of Ad Orientem, the priest by ‘turning his back on the people’ was simply ignoring them. Turning to the people restored his humanity and solidarity with the rest of the hoi poloi. Affability, accessibility, and approachability became key pointers in accessing the performance of the clergy. The recovery of his humanity led to a certain kind of democratisation of the liturgy; where everyone was now seen as celebrants. Politically correct terms, which were more reflective of the socio-political world, replaced sacred roles – the priest was no longer a celebrant, but president. The priest was thus reduced to that of a presiding functionary of a communal meal. What this seem to have done is to throw off balance the entire understanding of sacred liturgy. The primary characteristic of the Mass in both Latin and Eastern liturgical traditions have always been the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The essential link between the Sacrifice of the Cross and the Sacrifice of the Mass was eventually forgotten, as the celebration took on exclusively the character of a ritualised meal.

Thus, the shift has had a number of unforeseen and largely negative effects. What is wrong in all this, and that which leads to this skewed vision, is the core understanding of the focus of the liturgy has come to rest on man and not upon God. Liturgical anthropology replaced liturgical theology as the point of reference. The priests had to rely on a charismatic personality to entertain the audience, liturgies had to be subjected to creative innovations to avoid boredom, communion rails had to be removed to close the distance between the nave and the apse, sacred music and ancient Gregorian chants were replaced by folksy ditties and catchy pop tunes with banal lyrics. Eventually the mass gave the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God.

In today’s great Solemnity of Christ the King, which marks the end of the Liturgical Year and also symbolically points to the climax and conclusion of human history, we are reminded once again of man’s ultimate purpose – man’s chief end is to glorify God and to acclaim him as Lord and King. Thus this celebration provides the needed orientation, not just for today but everyday. We are asked to turn our hearts and minds to the East, to Christ our King, who is the central figure of history – He is “the Alpha and the Omega”. It is according to this sense that we are invited to turn our hearts to the Lord during the celebration of the Mass, as the introductory dialogue to the Preface reminds us. Sursum corda “Lift up your hearts,” exhorts the priest, and all respond: Habemus ad Dominum “We lift them up unto the Lord.” We note how our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI constantly reminds us that in worship we are meant to focus on God, to give God the glory, not to glorify ourselves. He criticised a self-centred over-emphasis on ourselves that has damaged the quality of worship. “The turning of the priest toward the people,” according to him”, has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself.” When the liturgical community turns in on itself, it ends up worshiping itself.

Our parish of Our Lady of Lourdes, has within the short period of a week, been transformed into a Mecca of a sort. The allegedly miraculous images that first appeared on two window panels of the Sime Darby Medical Centre, now relocated in the Chapel at the back of the Church, seems to be drawing in pilgrims. As much as this may be a sign of growing piety and devotion among the faithful, no one could possibly deny that Our Blessed Mother would never intend to take the limelight away from her Son. Her Son remains the King of the Universe and the focus of our attention, our worship and certainly our orientation. She tells us as she did in Cana, “Do whatever he asks you to do”. She lived her life for her Son and never wavered in this orientation, even at the moment of crucifixion. In that sense, Mary becomes the perfect model for the correct orientation in life as well as in worship. She never allowed herself to be consumed by her sorrow and self-pity. Even when she was invited by Jesus to establish the new family of the Church together with the Beloved Disciple, she was not trapped by the self-enclosed circle of this new bonding, forgetting that her Son was its very foundation. At all times, her orientation was fixed on Jesus, and that was her salvation. It would be no surprise that she calls Christians throughout the ages to imitate her and do likewise. She points them to her Son.

Today, we encounter her Son most perfectly in the liturgy. Our Pope invites us to see the glory of Christ Priest and Victim in the liturgy. The Pope proposes to direct us away from ourselves and back to God by focusing on the altar, the great sign of Christ among us. In two of his books dedicated to his theological insights on the liturgy, ‘Feast of Faith’ and ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy,’ he argued that the altar is not a setting to display a man, namely the Pope, the bishop or the priest. Rather, during the action of the liturgy, the altar itself should draw us around Jesus Christ crucified and risen. One of the ways in which we can sufficiently visualise this new orientation is not by changing the position of the altar or the celebrant. The Pope recognises the psychological upheaval and damage this would have on many. The Pope, however, proposed placing a crucifix at the centre of the Altar. “Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith,” he writes.  The central placement of the Crucifix is deliberate so that all may concretely face and look upon Lord, in such a way as to orient also their prayer and hearts.

Critics of this new practice have often argued that the crucifix eclipses the celebrant and forms a barrier or obstruction. In answer to this allegation, the Pope clarifies: “Let it not be said, moreover, that the image of our Lord crucified obstructs the sight of the faithful from that of the priest, for they are not to look to the celebrant at that point in the liturgy! They are to turn their gaze towards the Lord! In like manner, the presider of the celebration should also be able to turn towards the Lord. The crucifix does not obstruct our view; rather it expands our horizon to see the world of God; the crucifix brings us to meditate on the mystery; it introduces us to the heavens from where the only light capable of making sense of life on this earth comes. Our sight, in truth, would be blinded and obstructed were our eyes to remain fixed on those things that display only man and his works.”

So as we come to the end of this Liturgical Year and on the eve of the new one, let us orientate our hearts and minds to Him. We look for the first rays of light piercing the veil of darkness, sin and destruction. In the words of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, “at dawn look to the East.” Let us behold the beauty of our King, our Lord, and our Saviour, revealed and not concealed by the cross. Thus an additional last stanza to the poem would be fitting.

No turning of altars
Priest need not too
But the Beauty of the Cross
Will reveal what is True.

Post note

We have already begun a project to restore our sanctuary to its original beauty and glory. Thus, you would be seeing me celebrating mass on a mobile altar with a wooden panel as a backdrop for the next three weeks. I believe that many of you are excited to cast your eyes on the new altar, the reredos and the tabernacle. Some may be questioning our actions and the parish priorities. You see, part of the making of this visible orientation to Christ the King in an external manner which matches the interior disposition, is to restore beauty to the liturgy through music and art. In divine worship, we see the glory that the apostles beheld in Jesus Christ. According to Our Pope, “Beauty, then is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.”
He calls us by his word and example to set aside the banal. To use what is beautiful, be it old or new: the best vessels, fine vestments, good design and architecture, gracious ceremonial, excellent music. This is not mere aestheticism because is derived from the God who is Beauty personified.

By contrast, as anyone can see, a feature of the hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture is a tendency towards ugliness, or at least promoting a modernist aesthetic, often dull, cold or minimalist - ugly churches, vestments, vessels etc, and all bereft of mystery. Functionality dictates! But the God we worship and praise is beautiful, to be worshiped in the beauty of holiness, worshiped “in spirit and in truth”. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky once claimed, “Beauty will save the world.” That is why Catholic liturgy in all its forms, simple or solemn, Eastern or Western, captures something of the glory and beauty of God. And it is the beauty of the Divine Liturgy, the source and summit of Christian life, which will save the world!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Two Window Panels from SDMC Relocated to Klang

114, Jalan Tengku Kelana 
Klang, Selangor, Malaysia 
Tel 03-33713043, Fax 03-33737823

20th November 2012

Relocation of the Two Window Panels from Sime Darby Medical Centre

We are pleased to confirm that the two window panels located on Sime Darby Medical Centre, where images have formed, were respectfully and successfully taken down by professional movers and safely delivered to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Klang.

The two panels will be displayed in the Chapel located behind the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes pending further instructions from the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur.

We would like to request the cooperation and assistance of the public who wish to view the above panels to respectfully observe good behaviour and maintain an atmosphere of prayerful silence as the panels have now been relocated to a chapel.

The Chapel and the window panels will be open for public viewing from 21st, NOVEMBER 2012. The hours for public viewing:

MONDAY- SUNDAY:  7.00 am – 10.00 pm

We have issued a Catechesis (Teaching) on the Church’s position on Apparitions to assist the Catholic faithful to have the correct understanding in these matters.

We thank the management of Sime Darby Medical Centre and Rev Fr Simon Labrooy and the parish of St Thomas More, Subang Jaya, for facilitating the move of the panels to our premises.

Yours faithfully,

Rev Fr Michael Chua
Parish Priest
Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Klang

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Catechesis on Apparitions

What is the Official position of the Catholic Church on apparitions?

The Catholic Church makes a distinction between public and private revelation.  In the case of public revelation, the Church definitely teaches that the entire deposit of faith (all that is necessary for salvation) is to be found in the twin pillars of revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which comes from the same source, the Word of God, Jesus Christ. There can be no further revelation that can add to or alter the above.

Any other ‘revelation’ if determined authentic is to be regarded as private.  According to St Thomas Aquinas, God continues to reveal Himself to individuals "not indeed for the declaration of any new doctrine of faith, but for the direction of human acts" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II q174 a6 reply 3). Private revelation cannot improve upon, correct or entirely supplant Public Revelation. Apparitions are to be regarded under the category of private rather than public revelation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

66 "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.

67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognised by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.

How do we determine whether an apparition is authentic?

On February 25, 1978, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued "Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations."

According to the norms, investigation can be done by the following
1.       The diocesan bishop on his own initiative or at the request of the faithful.
2.       The national conference of bishops.
3.       The Apostolic See (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

The process will involve 3 steps
1.       Initially, to judge the facts according to positive (moral certainty, qualities of the subject, conformity with doctrines, healthy devotion) and negative criteria (glaring error as to facts, doctrinal error, pursuit of monetary gain, gravely immoral acts, psychological disorders) .
2.       Then, if this examination appears favourable, to allow certain public demonstrations of devotion, while continuing to investigate the facts with extreme prudence (which is equivalent to the formula: “for the moment, nothing is opposed to it”).
3.       Finally, after a certain time, and in the light of experience, (starting from a particular study of the spiritual fruits generated by the new devotion), to give a judgment on the authenticity of the supernatural character, if the case requires this.

What is the status of the alleged image of the Blessed Virgin Mary which has appeared on a glass panel of the Sime Darby Medical Centre (formerly Subang Jaya Medical Centre)?

The appearance does not have official approval from the local ordinary, the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, or from the Apostolic See.

The Archbishop has instructed that the glass panel be respectfully placed in a place conducive for prayer in the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Klang, pending further investigation to determine its authenticity.

This is not to be interpreted as a tacit approval or recommendation by the church authorities that the image is worthy of private or public veneration.

What is the responsibility of the faithful?

The first responsibility of the faithful is to remain firmly established in the faith, in the sacraments and in communion with the Pope and bishops. Any Catholic who gives their primary attention to alleged private revelation at the expense of Sacred Scripture, the teaching of the Church (especially the Catechism), sacramental practice, prayer and fidelity to Church authority is off course.

The second responsibility is to have regard, in the first place, for those private revelations and apparitions approved by the Church (e.g. Lourdes, Fatima). Within a balanced practice of the faith the edifying content of approved private revelations can be a motive for deeper piety and fidelity to the Gospel.

Finally, there are many other private revelations that have not received Church approval. The Second Vatican Council urges us to discern the Spirit in the case of such extraordinary graces [Lumen gentium 12], which means being neither gullible or incredulous, but subjecting them to all relevant theological and human tests of credibility. (Adapted from an online article by Colin B. Donovan, STL)