Thursday, February 7, 2013

God's Initiative or Man's Achievements

Fifth Ordinary Sunday Year C

In one of his most provocative and insightful books, Truth and Tolerance, Pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger, or Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as he was then known, defended the uniqueness of the Christian faith in the face of religious and cultural pluralism. At the beginning of his book, he tackles one of the most difficult questions posed by the presence of diverse religious beliefs and refutes the oft-repeated claim that all religions essentially affirm the same things. According to him, that apart from common and similar elements, there are actually fundamental, non-negotiable differences among religions.

In expounding the history of religion, he distinguishes two main forms of religion. On the one hand, there is a kind of mysticism in which one seeks to merge into or become identical with everything, in an all-embracing, impersonal unity. Many Eastern religions and the New Age movement are religions of that sort. The point of reference is the mystical experience of the mystic – the sage, the monk, the guru who attains enlightenment and perfection. On the other hand, there is a great departure from this understanding in what he calls the monotheistic revolution. This monotheistic revolution provides "a personal understanding of God," in which one is united in love with a personal God and yet remains distinct from him. But this personal understanding of God cannot happen without God taking the initiative. God must reveal himself. The point of reference is no longer man – not the prophet, nor the patriarch, the king, or even the priest. That is why our scriptures are littered with fallible and weak individuals, men who sin. The point of reference is God, the God of love who calls them to his purpose. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are examples of the latter kind of religion.

Thus we have two structures that right from the start are built up in quite different ways. In mysticism, inwardness holds the first place; spiritual experience is posited as an absolute. That includes the view God is purely passive in relation to man and that the content of religion can only consist of man plunging into God. God does not act; there is only the mystical ascent of man to union. The monotheistic way, on the other hand, starts from a conviction that is the opposite of this; here man is the passive element upon whom God acts; here it is man who can do nothing of himself, but instead we have here an activity on the part of God, a call from God, and man opens himself to salvation through obedience in response to the call. Thus we see the link between revelation and the call. We cannot come to know the inner life of God unless He reveals Himself and God reveals himself in order that he may call.

The readings for this Sunday demonstrate the truth of what our Pope has written. It is God who takes the initiative in calling the apostles; weak, frightened men, men who were sometimes filled with personal ambition, men who also failed the test of discipleship by fleeing the scene of Jesus’ arrest. It is God who calls the prophets, men with unclean lips who require purification and redemption just like everyone else, in order that they may announce his Word to kings and commoners. It is God who selects the weakest, the least fitting, the most unsuitable candidates, even those deemed enemies of the faith, and raises them up to be his messengers, his apostles, his leaders. The Bible does not make any apology for these strange and crude characters; it does not need to cover up their faults and offenses with euphemistic glossing-over. In fact, it celebrates and even holds up as heroes the weakest, the youngest, the least likely to succeed, the pauper, and the sinner in order that may give highlight to one single truth – man’s redemption comes not from man himself, unlike the mythic stories of other traditions. Man’s redemption comes only from the grace of God. Thus the Bible is filled with illustrations of the truth of God’s initiating grace.

It is God who creates and God who calls. God's initiative upends our vaunted selves, for we thought we made things happen. However, the biblical story paints this narrow view as pride, hubris, even idolatry. Then God's initiative goes further. God elevates "the least of these," declaring the weak strong. In the midst of death and exile, God asserts there is life and belonging. And when resources look scarce, God says there is enough. None of this makes sense – according to conventional wisdom. But this is God's subversive, countercultural way that we are invited to trust. God calls his people to have faith, to believe that all is possible with God, even when it seems impossible for men.

Because God is the God of all grace, He does not sit back and wait for us to find our way to Him through our own miserably inadequate means. He does not wait for evolution to produce the perfect man, the perfect hero, the perfect saviour. God takes the initiative to seek us. He enters our domain to become one of us. Indeed he has entered this world to become its Saviour, the only Saviour, indeed the unique and universal of the whole world. Christianity has always held that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is definitive. According to our Holy Father, the divinity of Jesus is "the real dividing line in the history of religions," which makes sense of "two other fundamental concepts of the Christian faith, which have become unmentionable nowadays: conversion and mission."

Another matter which I would like to address today is the place of culture in relation to our faith. No one needs to alert you to the fact that this Sunday also coincides with the most important cultural festival for our Chinese community, the Lunar New Year. Whereas the signature red seems to adorn the rest of the world, it’s presence during this liturgy seems subdued, even absent. In fact, the servers and I have donned the liturgical green of an ordinary Sunday and the Church seems culturally naked bereft of cultural accouterments. Am I oblivious to what’s happening or does Fr Michael have another piece of catechesis up his sleeve to explain his seemingly cultural short-sightedness? I believe that by choosing to celebrate the Sunday liturgy as a Sunday liturgy instead of substituting it with an alternative Chinese New Year liturgy provides us with the proper orientation with regards to culture, customs and traditions.

We find once again in the book, Truth and Tolerance, the Pope confronting head-on the claim that Christianity has imposed European culture on other peoples. This claim is often used to support a kind of inculturation that seeks to modify the gospel and the tenets of faith through the insertion of cultural elements from the pre-Christian customs and traditions of the peoples. In a way, it is a sort of Christian post-colonial rhetoric which accuses the missionaries of not only having Christianised the peoples of mission lands but had also arbitrarily forced upon them a European culture foreign to their taste. The Pope reminds us that "Christianity … originated, not in Europe, but in the Near East, in the geographical point at which the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe come into contact." Yes, Christianity undeniably has a European element. But above all it has a perennial message that comes from God, not from any human culture. While Christians have sometimes pushed their cultures on other peoples, as have non-Christians, Christianity itself is alien to no authentically human culture. The gospel is not the creation of men, it comes from God.

Nevertheless, the Church treats culture with great reverence and even sees it as an effective means of transmitting the gospel message. According to Gaudium et Spes n. 53 (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World), one of the four key documents of Vatican II, ‘the word “culture” in the general sense refers to all those things which go to the refining and developing of man’s diverse mental and physical endowments.’ In other words, culture refers to man’s greatest and most refined achievements. But in spite of the lofty place given by the Church to human customs, nothing replaces worship of God, man’s primary activity.  So we do not put aside our duty to worship God even in the face of an opportunity to show reverence to our customs and traditions.  Often by over-emphasising the cultural element to the detriment of distorting and eclipsing the spiritual, we give in to the narcissistic temptation of worshipping man above God. The liturgy is always the worship of God, not of man.

This year is dedicated to the zodiac creature that seems least favourable to Christians, the snake. For many Christians, the symbolism of a snake is obvious – it represents evil, in fact the incarnation of the devil. In common parlance, when a person is described as a snake, it means that he or she is cunning, or someone capable of harming you. But for Chinese, the zodiac snake has a more positive meaning – it symbolises intelligence and good fortune (which explains its inclusion in the zodiac horoscope). We Christians also have an alternative image of the snake. You remember the story of the bronze serpent placed on the cross by Moses? In that story, the bronze serpent is a source of healing for those who had been bitten by poisonous snakes. When the people, stricken by malady, cried to God for a solution, He provided the answer. The source of their suffering will become the source of their redemption. This story is also an appropriate reminder that unless our customs and traditions are subjected to the authority of God and transformed by the gospel, they too can be harmful and dangerous.

Culture provides people with a common identity; it provides them with a rallying point, a reason for unity. But sometimes, culture can also divide, especially when culture become more important than our faith. We fight over them and begin to exclude others who do not share the same customs. It is only when customs are brought into harmony with gospel values, that they are transformed, transfigured. Culture then expands its horizons – it no longer merely communicates human traditions from one generation to the next, it also serves to communicate the perennial message of the gospel in the language of the present. Custom no longer celebrates man’s accomplishments but more importantly God’s blessings. Tradition then becomes a source of healing and in fact a great source of blessing.

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