Monday, December 29, 2014

More Spacious than the Heavens

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

It is never flattering to describe a woman as “large” or “big.” And yet, the Church in describing the immensity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, pays her the greatest honour. Mary is described as the one “made more spacious than the heavens” or in Greek, “Playtera ton ouranon.” Wow! that’s big! The title also refers to the icon found in most Orthodox churches in a very prominent position - high in the front apse over the Altar and is often of such scale that it overwhelms and overshadows all other icons in the Church. The immensity of this icon can present a rather striking first impression especially to a non-Orthodox visitor. How is it that in a Christian church, a place where life centres around Christ, can an image of His mother appear to have such prominence?

And so on this first day of the New Year, the Church speaks of her the greatness of the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, because she carried God within her. Let us just pause for a moment to consider how enormous a challenge that really was. It is already almost impossible to fathom this immensely vast universe of ours, we a mere a speck of dust.  Our galaxy, just a tiny portion of the universe, is big enough for light to take 100,000 years to cross it. The edge of the observable universe, which our present astronomical instruments allow us to preview, may just be the tip of the iceberg of uncharted territories that have formed the stuff of science fiction speculations in movies like Star Trek. Simply the Universe we know about is mind-bogglingly big. Yet, we recognise that God is far greater than that. The universe, for all its vastness, remains finite. God, on the other hand, is infinite!

But here is the great mystery we celebrate today – God who could not be contained in his created universe chose to be contained in the tiny womb of this human being. Thus we call Her “more Spacious than the Heavens” because she held in Her womb Him who holds the whole universe. She succeeds where the whole universe fails. Thus the Eastern Orthodox Akhatist hymn exalts her position, “You were made more spacious than the heavens, O Most Pure Mother, for God cannot be contained by the whole universe, and yet He chose to be contained in your womb for the sake of our salvation.” Such designation appears fitting when one considers that, within her womb, she contained the Creator of the universe.

Perhaps, due to attacks from Protestants, we have become embarrassed of such titles being accorded to Mary or to any other human person. How could a creature be deemed as the mother of her Creator? How could a mere human give birth to God? And yet, it is precisely this preposterous belief that forms the basis for our celebration of Christmas. God did not become man in a vacuum. He did not beam himself down from the heavenly heights and materialise in human form. At Christmas, we celebrate how God chose to be born of the Virgin Mary. In order for Him to assume our humanity, the Blessed Virgin Mary truly had to give birth to God. Since Mary is Jesus’ mother, it must be concluded that she is also the Mother of God: If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and if Jesus is God, then Mary is the Mother of God. There is no way out of this logical syllogism.

Of course, we are not saying that Mary brought God into being. If this was the case, then together with the Protestants we have much cause for concern, because it would be raising a mere creature to a level above her Creator. This is not what the Church teaches. Although Mary is the Mother of God, she is not his mother in the sense that she is older than God or the source of her Son’s divinity, for she is neither. Rather, we say that she is the Mother of God in the sense that she carried in her womb a divine person—Jesus Christ, God "in the flesh" - (and in the sense that she contributed the genetic matter to the human form God took in Jesus Christ. 

Saint Anselm presents this argument in the following fashion – “To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary. God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Saviour of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.”

Mary is indeed a cosmos to herself with Christ as its solar centre. Thus, the Platytera is less an image of Mary as an image of Christ, in the same way that today’s feast of the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, is less about the Mother than it is about the Son. As Christ is at the very front and centre of the Platytera icon, Christ too is at the heart of today’s Marian feast. Though, this feast seems dedicate to her, note that she is in the background not in the foreground of our celebration. Both the icon and today’s feast shows the traditional view of the Church concerning the place and essential role of Mary in God’s divine economy – his plan of salvation. She is indispensable because without her, Christ’s birth could not have taken place. The pre-existent Word could not have become flesh if not for her fiat. Christ could not have been born without her free consent.

Just as the icon of the Platytera straddles the upper levels of the Church and connects it with the lower levels, our Blessed Mother is the heavenly ladder, whereby God has descended and she is the bridge leading those on earth to heaven. The Mother of God, she who is “made more spacious than the heavens,” stands between the heavens and the earth and serves as a bridge between. Let us therefore ascend to the heavenly heights and enter into the Holy of Holies. Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, the Heavenly Jerusalem, for Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Theotokos and Mother of God, has already bridged what was previously impassable. Through her co-mediation, she has allowed us to approach what was previously unapproachable and to comprehend what was previously incomprehensible.  

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Male and Female, He made Them

Holy Family 2014

One of the most iconic Catholic traditions of Christmas is the Christmas crèche. Here, we are invited to contemplate the various figurines contained within the scene; with the members of the Holy Family at its very heart and centre. And so we see the humble figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling before the manger gazing lovingly upon their newborn son, the Son of Man, the Son of God. In a way, the whole scene reaffirms a wonderful truth – it reminds us of God’s immense trust for this couple, that He would deigned it fitting  to entrust his only Son to two human beings, a woman and a man, wife and husband.

Joseph and Mary were far from the perfect and ideal couple, by modern standards. The beginnings of their married and family life were already marked by disastrous omens – a suggestion of conception out of wedlock, the threat of divorce, dislocation and homelessness, economic poverty and to top it all - a hostile environment that posed the greatest threat to both the safety and welfare of the couple and their new born child. In today’s world, all these would be interpreted as unfavourable factors that would warrant either delaying the marriage, postponing the start of a family, or even justify the abortion of the foetus within the womb. But something amazing took place. Instead of turning their backs on each other and on the child, Mary’s fiat and Joseph’s acceptance of the Incarnation – indeed the man and woman’s loving obedience to God’s will triumphed at the end. Their love for God, which outweighed self-interests and societal pressures, served as the wellspring for their own steadfast love and provided a rich sanctuary for the Christ Child.

Mary and Joseph were both significant and necessary influences in the life of Jesus – a child needs both his father and his mother. Mary and Joseph remained side-by-side, nurturing and protecting the Son of God as he “grew in wisdom.” Yet Scripture hints that they are asked to play distinctive roles. Mary watches and listens to all the wondrous events that accompany the birth of her son. After the visit of the shepherds and Magi, we see the natural contemplative in the person of Mary who “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Joseph, for his part, receives messages from angels, who direct him to take action to protect his family. His readiness and courage to respond immediately without hesitation proved his manliness and reaffirmed his paternal qualities. Joseph was never the absent father. His humility shines forth through his willingness to be obedient to God’s will. In Joseph, we understand that truly “being a Man”, is not doing it “my way,” but according to ‘God’s ways.’

Thus, this figures assembled in the Nativity scene, call us back not only to the mystery of the Incarnation, to the joyous event of Christmas, but to the very origins of creation itself. We come to recognise that the crown of God’s creation after he set in place all fixtures and wonders of the universe is not just man alone, but a man, both male and female, made in the image of God, and entrusted with the first commandment to come together in marriage and to form a family. What does it mean, though, that man as male and female has been created in the image and likeness of God? This simple verse in the Bible affirms that both male and female, while fully equal as the image of God, are nonetheless distinct in the manner of their possession of the image of God. This is what we call the complementarity of man and woman. Therefore family itself becomes a sign that points to the very wellspring of love, the Holy Trinity – One God in Three Persons. The family is an icon of the Most Holy Trinity.

In October of this year, the world’s attention was caught by the proceedings and statements emerging from the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Family and Marriage. The media focus may be due to the fact that hot-button issues came to the fore, suggesting perhaps that the Catholic Church was on the verge of making major changes to its doctrinal teachings, especially in the areas of divorce and homosexuality. Why so much interest in the press? It has much to do with contemporary culture. Contemporary culture is challenging the most vital aspects of the existence of the human being, in ways that go so far as to overturn our understanding of human nature, and particularly of human sexual identity and relations between the sexes. Contemporary culture is proposing and imposing models for sexual identity and relations between the sexes that would ultimately mean redefining marriage and the family.  Contemporary culture cannot accept that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Contemporary culture has no place for God and his kind.

In contrast to the Synod, very little media attention was given to a subsequent Conference organised by the Vatican in November expounding on the complementarity of men and women in marriage. There was nothing sensational when speaking of traditional family values. And with the mainstream media avoiding the topic, the rest of the Catholic world, which often relies on secular media than on its own institutional channels for information, were left clueless about what transpired.

But something amazing emerged from this Conference. It was the reaffirmation of the beautiful teaching of marriage and family based on the complementarity of man and woman. At the opening of the Conference, Pope Francis, delivered a powerful address that set the tone for this Conference. Unlike the earlier Synod, there was no question of ambiguity in his words.  Our Holy Father reiterated that the complementarity of man and woman is “at the root of marriage,” dashing hopes among gay rights supporters that he might open the door to acceptance of same-sex unions by the Catholic Church. Thus, when we arbitrarily decide to take either the man, husband and father, or woman, wife, and mother out of the equation of marriage and family, it would have destructive consequences.  The family, according to the Pope, is “an anthropological fact … that cannot be qualified based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history.” (There you have it from the horse’s mouth!)

The Conference concluded by paying tribute to the beauty of marriage, seen as “the music of man and of woman. Man with woman brings out the finest in him, directing his blood and his mind toward what makes life possible; and woman with man brings out the finest in her, directing her love and her care toward what makes life sweet.”

The Blessed Virgin Mary and St Joseph, the woman and man who wait before the manger in our homes and in our churches, affirm the beauty of this daily path of married love — this school of virtue — and they testify against “the culture of the temporary,” which, said the Pope, has wreaked the most havoc in poor communities. Therefore, the feast we celebrate today is so important to reaffirm once again the beautiful original plan of God at creation, a plan that is not subject to the fleeting changes of fad and fashion, precisely because God had “forged the covenant of marriage as a sweet yoke of harmony and an unbreakable bond of peace”. In the nuptial blessings contained in the Wedding liturgy, we are comforted by the promise that the blessings endowed by God on marriage and family life is “not forfeited by original sin nor washed away by the flood.” May the Nativity figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Joseph and the Christ Child inspire us to foster and embrace the distinctive gifts we share in our marriages and spur us to help others, especially families in crisis, see their own salvation in the steadfast love of the Holy Family.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Day Eternity invaded History

Christmas Day Homily 2014

The birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth has split history in two so that each calendar is reckoned before or after His birth. The year in which He was born marks the period known as Anno Domini (literally ‘the year of the Lord’), and the years before that as BC ('Before Christ'). Of course political correctness has substituted AD with CE (Common Era) and BC with BCE (Before Common Era) for fear that any reference to Christ or to the Lord (certainly referring to the former) would offend the sensitivities of non-Christians. Yes, the abbreviations may have changed, but one cannot turn one’s back on the essential reason for the dating. Whether you use Common Era or Anno Domini, the date is actually still the same and the reference point is still the birth of Christ. Call it by whatever name, the Nativity of Christ still provides us with the defining moment of human history – all history before leads to it and all history thereafter is measured by it.

Why would the birth of a humble carpenter’s son in an insignificant hovel such as Bethlehem be the epicentre of such a tremor that would ring out throughout the different epochs of history? The answer is found in the passage of the gospel we just read this morning. If the Christmas mass at night (formerly known as the Christmas midnight mass, perhaps changed because most Churches chose not to celebrate it at midnight) focused on the birth of the Saviour in history, today’s gospel taken from the prologue of St John’s Gospel speaks of his “birth” in eternity. Today’s reading reminds us that Christmas is not just another event within history but is rather the invasion of time by eternity. If last night, the Church wishes to emphasise the concrete reality of his birth, that he was truly a historical person in the flesh, this morning’s liturgy points to his divinity, the pre-existent Word. “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him.” Jesus, the child born in humble state in Bethlehem, is that very same “Word (that) was made Flesh!”

“O, wondrous, awesome and salvific mystery!” as the ancient Fathers of the Church would sing. The Word was made flesh; that is, the Son of God, co-eternal with God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, became human. The One Who had no beginning took on a beginning according to humanity; the One without flesh assumed flesh. God became man – without ceasing to be God. The Unapproachable One became approachable to all, in the aspect of an humble servant.

But Christmas is not only his birth, it must also be our birth from God with him. The Word became flesh in order to make us earthly beings into heavenly ones, in order to make sinners into saints; in order to raise us up from corruption into incorruption, from earth to heaven; from enslavement to sin and the devil – into the glorious freedom of children of God; from death – into immortality, in order to make us sons of God and to seat us together with Him upon the Throne as His royal children. The wall that separated heaven and earth is destroyed; the sword that barred the way to the tree of life disappears.

That is why we Christians measure history from this date. This is the reason why the world, even for those who continue to shun the use of the abbreviations BC and AD, continue to mark time according to this event. Today we are witnessing a prevalent culture that is generally hostile to religion, a culture that tries its best to remove any trace of Christianity from world history or even Christ from Christmas. The whole push has gotten so ridiculous that it's pathetic. It doesn’t help when we Christians seem to be willing participants of this exercise by acquiescing and even becoming initiators and collaborators of a culture that has forgotten that Christmas is about Christ. Just noticed our greetings – “Seasons Greetings,” “Happy Holidays,” and the content of our carols which seem to glorify reindeers, that iconic jolly elf that promises a Christmas bonus for being nice, and dreamy allusions to wintery weather that seems so out of place with our all-year-round tropical weather. All these are often placed on equal footing with the event of the Nativity, if not given more air time.

In today’s world there are many, including those who have been baptised into the Catholic faith, who are seeking to see where God belongs in their lives. For many, God is just an addendum. For others, He has already been expunged from their lives. But yet, there is a mysterious steering within the core of their being, often unnoticed and very seldom understood. This search is often translated into a search for identity, a search for meaning. Perhaps, they seek to understand and rekindle the faith that they have inherited.  The starting point of their search for adult faith is all too often still the abstract God of ideas and ideologies and the theological formulae of their youth. 

But until we know God in a concrete way, we will never know who we are, that’s because we are made in the image and likeness of God. We need to know God. We need to have a very personal relationship with God. God sent His Son to be born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, born in Bethlehem, so that we should know him, not just as an idea but as a real person. So that we can see in human form what he is like. And knowing what he is like, we can shrug off whatever thoughts we may have of God. Jesus shows us the face of God – his unconditional love, a love that was translated by the greatest sacrifice ever made on the Cross. God wants every soul to know him, not vaguely, not just as an undefined mysterious bazaar instinct of the heart, but to know him for who he is. That’s why he gave us Christ. To know God, we must know Christ.

That is why Christmas is not an accident.  Jesus chose to be born in those circumstances to show us who God is.  The Christian God is not a distant much less an absent God, but a God who is present in history but who cares for and directs history. Jesus is not an idea or an ideology but a person, a person who reaches out to us and whom we can encounter in prayer.  The loving kindness of our God has appeared in the person of Jesus Christ.  On him we build our trust.

The time may come, the time should come when someone ask of you “You believe in God, tell me what is God like?” amidst so many ideas, I hope that you have an answer to that question. And if you haven’t here it is – Christ is God – it is Jesus. Jesus is the Lord God.

Our culture needs to know who the Lord God is. Christ himself now sends us you and I to let our society know – this is the face of God – we have seen him in the mystery of the Church, we encounter him in the living word of scriptures, we have experienced him in the depths of our spiritual experience, and we celebrate His birth today. Today, if you have come here feeling a little out of place, if you feel a little distant from the Church, a little alienated from your faith. Come and receive the greatest gift God has given you – it is Christ Jesus. And you in turn can also give this gift to others. You have already received that gift at your baptism. Perhaps, it’s been put away in the broom closet, or looks a little rusty from lack of use, but know for sure that the seed of faith, this great gift of God has already been planted in your hearts and your souls. It is a great treasure just waiting to be discovered and to be harvested. May God strengthen your faith today so that you may become His joyous and courageous witnesses in the world and proclaim once again, not just on Christmas Day, but everyday, that Jesus is Lord. He is God! For in Christ, our history has been entwined with eternity!

The Manger and the Cross

Christmas Mass at Midnight 2014

Every year, Catholics repeat the familiar ritual of setting up their crèches, the humble figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling before the manger, not as guardians watching over this hapless baby, but as fervent devotees worshiping the Lord God himself who deigned to take human flesh and allow himself to be treated as their child. This beautiful scene immediately invokes a sense of warmth and even security from this troubled world of ours. We go away often feeling better about ourselves, but hardly disturbed. Why aren't people disturbed by Christmas? One reason is our tendency to sanitise the story of Christmas. We romanticise the story of Mary and Joseph rather than deal with the painful dilemma they faced. We beautify the birth scene, not coming to terms with the stench of the stable, the poverty of the parents, the rejection of the townsfolk, and the hostility of Herod. Don't miss my point. There is something truly comforting and warming about the Christmas story, but it comes from understanding the reality, not from denying it.

Christmas is the least disturbing visible facet of Christian life. No one seems offended by the Christmas story. So much so, it is welcomed and even celebrated by popular culture – from carols playing on the radio, TV programmes revolving around a Christmas theme or malls “decked with boughs and hollies” and neon lit Christmas trees. It's Christmastime; our hearts should be focused on the joy of His birth. Certainly! But perhaps something is missing then?  For us, the meaning of the manger is found only in the suffering of the Child who was laid to rest within it. The manger has no particular significance apart from the cross. Jesus was, as one man put it, “Born Crucified.” The birth and death of Jesus Christ, the Manger and the Cross, belong together indissolubly. Thus the Manger and the Cross form a union. Both the Manger and the Cross are for us the revelation of God's love. God loved us so much that he did not shrink back from becoming man in a manger. God loved men so much that he did not shrink back from dying on the Cross.

The good news is not just that Jesus was born of lowly estate, but rather that He was born to “bear the sins of many.” Jesus did not only choose to share our human nature at his birth, but also undertook to share our guilt, though he was sinless, by dying on the cross. There on the cross hung the world’s “greatest sinner” – “he was without sin, became sin.” Please don’t misunderstand. Jesus was not personally guilty. But though innocent of transgression, He none the less received on His person the full weight of our terrible disobedience.

When St Luke gives an account of the birth of Our Lord, he wrote that the Blessed Virgin Mary “wrapped the child in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). “Wrapped” and “Laid” - these same two verbs were used back-to-back one other time in Luke: at the end of Christ’s life when his body was taken down from the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus’ body was wrapped in a linen shroud and laid in the tomb (Luke 23:53). In Eastern Iconography, the Cave of the Nativity is deliberately made to resemble the Cave of the Holy Sepulchre or the Tomb of Christ. The point St Luke is making is that Bethlehem foreshadows the Cross. Christmas anticipates Calvary.

In the widest sense, we can speak of the Passion of the Lord beginning with the Incarnation. The humiliation of our Lord on Calvary was already preceded by the infinite condescension and humiliation of the Lord in becoming man and being born in a dark dank cave only fit for animals and laid in a feeding trough of the beasts that occupied that same space. Already, here we see glimpses of his passion: the rejection by the towns people would prefigure his rejection by the religious authorities and the masses; the wood of the manger prepares this child for the wood of the cross, as this trough also prepares him for burial in a coffin; the swaddling clothes that wraps his fragile newly born flesh would one day encase his mortal corpse; the cave where he was born already points to the tomb where his body was laid and from here to he would proclaim the good news of the resurrection to the world.

This profound correlation between the Birth and the Passion of Christ is beautifully depicted in Michelangelo’s Pieta. We can easily picture the poignant scene of the youthful mother, who carries within her loving arms the broken body of her son. It is not the baby Jesus that you would expect to see on a mother’s lap but a fully grown man.  At the manger, the Virgin Mary received Christ from the Father. Now at his death, it is as if the Blessed Mother returns Christ to the father. As one preacher once said, “In the Manger Mary placed (Christ) from eternal life into temporal life, from the arms of the Father into the arms of the world. At the Cross Mary placed (Christ) from temporal life into eternal life, from the arms of the world (the beams of the Cross) back into the arms of (the) Father.”  The ultimate consequence of the Incarnation of Christ is his passion and death on the Cross. The ultimate consequence of Bethlehem is Golgotha. The ultimate consequence of the love of God is our redemption!

But it is the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Joseph at the crèche scene that places the final seal on this intimate link between the manger and the cross. Mary and Joseph remained side-by-side, nurturing and protecting the Son of God as he “grew in wisdom.” Today, as you make your little visit and pilgrimage to the crèche scene in the grotto, and as your eyes look with wonder once again upon the baby child placed in the manger, flanked by the Blessed Virgin Mary, His mother, and St Joseph, his father, try to imagine another scene. It is the scene of the main cross at the altar. Traditionally, a statue of Mary was placed on the right side of the crucifix (our left from our vantage point). It is also called the Gospel side of the Church. And to the left of the Christ on the Cross we have his earthly father, St Joseph (to our right, from our vantage point). We all know that St Joseph wasn’t present at the scene of the crucifixion, he does not survive to see the Passion, but Church iconography and architecture places him there for all eternity. It is as if the Church wishes to proclaim the union of the Manger and the Cross by juxtaposing and even transposing the scene of Our Lord’s Nativity onto the scene of His Crucifixion and Death.

So, if you have planned to come for a nice Christmas service in order to get your annual dose of feel-good sentiments, I think that you may find yourself disappointed.  Christmas isn’t about insulating us from the harsh realities of life, but it does return us to the very moment of God’s entry into this real and troubled world of ours to redeem it. Christ did not come as a panacea, he did not come to take away the pain. Rather, he came to share the pain, and to help us bear the cross that would be our vehicle to salvation. Properly understood, therefore, the message of Christmas confronts before it comforts, it disturbs before it delights. And only those who have been profoundly disturbed to the point of deep repentance, those who understand both the burden and the blessing of the cross, are able to receive the tidings of comfort, peace, and joy that Christmas proclaims.

A Knotted Past

Christmas Vigil Mass 2014 

Do you remember the TV mini-series Roots? It was based on a book of the same name where the author, Alex Haley, set out years to discover his family’s history. After a strenuous search that led him back to the African continent, he pieced together clues and bits of information regarding his family history. One day as he sat for hours listening to a tribal story-teller giving an account of his tribe, the clues all fell in place. “So-and-so married so-and-so. They had a son. In such-and-such a year he was taken away and never seen again.” What was the name of the son? Kunta Kinte. The year was 1752. Alex Haley said, “I had what they call a peak experience.” It was one of those moments of revelation that you have once or twice in a lifetime. He said, “I realised then that I had roots. I had history. My family came from somewhere.” Today as we heard the narration of Jesus’ genealogy, his family history, I hope many of you too had a similar peak experience. Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made Flesh, had roots. He had a history. And that history is ours too.

The liturgy and the readings of this Vigil Mass for Christmas seek to situate the birth of Christ in the history of the Chosen People of God. St Matthew wrote his Gospel in large part for the Jews to prove that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who fulfilled all of the Old Testament promises. Therefore, he begins his gospel by stating that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s covenant to David, which promised that the Messiah would be a king who ruled over an everlasting kingdom, and the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Abraham, which promised that all people would be blessed because of the Messiah.

But as Alex Haley will tell you, dig deep enough into your family history and you would soon discover as many scoundrels as you have heroes among your illustrious or infamous ancestors. Most of us would have a knotted past. And so when we begin to study the names found in the Genealogy of Jesus in detail, it’s almost as if God has pulled together a rogue’s gallery. We may not know many that are on the list. But of the ones we know about, nearly all of them had notable moral failures on their spiritual resumes. For instance, Abraham lied about his wife Sarah. Isaac did the same thing. Jacob was a cheater, Judah a fornicator. David was an adulterer and Solomon was a polygamist. Manasseh was the most evil king Israel ever had. And on and on we could go. This is not a list of role models or saints. Far from it. Some weren’t saints at all. The best of these men had flaws and some were so flawed that it would have been best to expunge their names from the records of history. But Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus didn’t.

If you think the men were bad, wait till you hear about the women, four are named in this list. Matthew’s choice is perplexing. He could have chosen paragons of virtue but instead he chose the most scandalous of female ancestors, the ones whom you try to hide in the closet and blush whenever their names are mentioned.  To add to the perplexity, it is also interesting to note that when the Jews made a genealogy they normally didn’t include women on the list. These four women were each notorious in their own right. Each had a charge sheet that would make Bonnie and Clyde look like angels.
Tamar: Incest, immorality, feigned prostitution, a Gentile
Rahab: Harlotry, lying, deception, a Canaanite
Ruth: A woman from Moab—a nation born out of incest
Bathsheba: Adultery
Three are Gentiles
Three are involved in some form of sexual immorality
Two are involved in prostitution
One is an adulteress
These are serious knots in the line that leads to Jesus Christ! Yes, Jesus, the Son of Abraham and the Son of David, is also the descendant (by adoption, at least) of a whole line of notorious sinners.

What would this serve to prove? I think there are three answers to this question.
First, no one is condemned by a sordid past. All of us have a history, we have our respective baggage, skeletons in the closet, our past records of failures and a heap full of mistakes, yet through the mercy of God, these things do not condemn us a lifetime of the same messiness. Yes, we have a history, but we also have a present and a future. The coming of the Incarnate Word, was so to divinise us – in the words of St Augustine and other fathers of the Church, “God became man, so that men may become gods.

Second, the story points at the insurmountable splendour of grace. We may often be tempted by hubris to believe that we can accomplish things through our own efforts without external assistance, with even a certain autonomy from God. The story of Christ’s genealogy points to the providence of Grace. It is only by grace that a prostitute, an adulterer, a murderer, a fornicator, an incestuous daughter in law can become the carrier and medium of such saving grace. When you read the stories of these four women—and of the men on the list— St Matthew had not intended you to focus on their sin, but on the grace of God. The hero of this story is God. His grace shines through the blackest of human sin as he chooses flawed men and women and places them in Jesus’ family tree.

Third, the Genealogy points to the mission of Christ. The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost. He began this mission by situating himself at the very centre of the history of those who were lost and who required redemption. He weaved his own history into the history of sinners in order that he may redeem that history and chart a course for a glorious future.

Many of us are quick to boast of the heroes in our family tree, if there were any. But more often than not, we are often weighed down by the baggage of the past. The sometimes devastating impact of the past has wounded many of us psychologically and emotionally, and continues to colour our present lives not only with disturbing memories but also replays itself through recurring destructive patterns. Yet, the path of salvation is not to push the past aside, to suppress and bury it beneath our consciousness. Like the bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, in Dickens’ novella, the Christmas Carol, who was converted into a kinder and more benevolent man, we need to revisit the ghosts of our past and come to recognise that Christ, the central figure in all history, has come to lead us into the future of reconciliation and redemption. No one is condemned by his past. Christ has come to seek and to save that which is lost. Christ has come to make all things anew! A Merry Christmas! A Blessed Christmas to one and all!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Temple Welcomes her King

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B

Both the mood and focal theme of Advent has visibly changed on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. In the first three Sundays, there seems to be greater focus on the Second Coming of Christ. The last two Sundays had St John the Baptist as the main protagonist. Today, we shift our focus to the first coming of Christ at the Incarnation, at Christmas and the central figure of our contemplation is Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God. Although the gospel reading narrates the event of the Annunciation, the Church by weaving this gospel account together with the story of King David’s plan to construct the Temple in the first reading, is attempting to draw our attention to more than just the historical figure of the mother of Jesus. Mary is the figure of the Church, and thus she too is the Holy Sanctuary, the Perfect Temple, constructed by God to conceive and house the Word of God.

The Scriptures tells us nothing of Mary's hidden life. The inspired Word of God gives us no word about her Presentation in the Temple, the feast which we celebrate each year on November 21st. However, we do have the testimonies of tradition which are based on accounts which come to us from apostolic times. According to the Proto-evangelium of James, when Mary was three years of age, Joachim and Anne took her to the Temple so that she might be consecrated to the service of the Lord. The legend says that they invited the young girls of the town to walk before her with lighted lamps. As soon as they had reached the Temple, Mary, alone and unhesitatingly, went up the steps of the sanctuary (the apocryphal text speaks of her dancing with joy as she ascended the steps) where she was to remain, living in the contemplation of God and miraculously fed by the Archangel Gabriel, until the day she was espoused to Joseph, shortly before the Annunciation.

In the first reading, the great King David felt uncomfortably guilty that whilst he dwelt in a grand palace, the Lord, by comparison, continued to dwell in a humble tent. Common sense and sincere piety led him to draw up plans to build God an imposing dwelling place. But God intervenes, with words of both criticism and promise. David is forgetting that God built up his entire kingdom from the moment when he made the young shepherd into a king by anointing him. And God has stood by him through all his victories. Yet this grace extends even farther: the house God has begun to build will be brought to conclusion in David’s descendants and ultimately in the great scion in whom the house will find perfection. David’s house will continue in his “Son” and will last forevermore. This is fulfilled in the gospel.

The temple of Jerusalem was a figure of Holy Church and a figure of each Christian. It prefigured our churches and cathedrals, but was also a representation of a temple far more holy and august than any material structure. What then is the true temple? It is the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is here in the gospel, that we see the Temple not built by human hands but by God himself. The virgin, betrothed to the man from the house of David, is chosen by God to be his incomparable temple. God’s Son, brought by the Spirit to her womb, will make his home in her and her entire existence will serve his development into a complete man. God’s work does not first begin with the moment of the Annunciation, rather with the first moment of Mary’s existence.

Therefore in the Blessed Virgin Mary, we see a perfection of all that the Old Testament had already prefigured. She is the Ark, for the Glory of God settled on her, just as the Glory of God descended on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant. Just as Aaron's Rod sprouted miraculously in the Old Testament, so too, the Virgin Mary has budded forth the Flower of Immortality, Christ our God. On Mt. Sinai, Moses saw the Bush that was burning, but was not consumed. So too, the Virgin Mary bore the fire of Divinity, but was not consumed. In the Exodus, the Israelites were led out of Egypt by a Cloud of Light, symbolising the presence of God in their midst. So too, the Virgin Mary, as the Carmelites were fond of describing her, is a Cloud, bearing God within. Into the Holy of Holies only the High Priest could enter. So too, the womb of the Virgin Mary is the Holy of Holies into which only the Eternal High Priest Christ entered. The Tabernacle was the place where the Glory of God dwelt. So too, the Glory of God dwelt in the Blessed Virgin Mary the Living Tabernacle. It is she who holds within herself not just God’s words; as the the Ark of old held the Commandments of the Law, but the mystical Ark holds within herself the very Word of God Himself, enfleshed.

It is no wonder that St Germanus, in a homily delivered on the occasion of the Presentation of the Theotokos, wrote these words of praise to the our Blessed Lady, “Hail, holy throne of God, divine sanctuary, house of glory, jewel most fair, chosen treasure house, and mercy seat for the whole world, heaven showing forth the glory of God.”

But the Blessed Virgin Mary, the great sanctuary of Incarnate Word, would herself only be a sign of something far greater to come. In the second reading, we hear how God is building for himself a temple that will be complete only when the revelation of the gospel has been “broadcast to pagans everywhere to bring them to the obedience of faith.” This is how St Paul’s letter to Romans ends. Instead of shutting up themselves in their cozy little “Church,” Christians remain open for the “mystery kept secret for endless ages, but now so clear” to them. Far from being confined within the cavernous treasure halls of the Church, reduced once again to heavily guarded secret, the good news of Christ’s coming addresses the world as a whole. The Temple built by Solomon, and the Temple of Mary’s heart built by God, always points beyond itself to a greater edifice, a more magnificent reality planned by God, an edifice that will only be finished when “Christ has put all his enemies under his feet” and “hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every other sovereignty and every authority and power.” (1 Cor 15:24-25)

With Christmas just a few days away, we are reminded once again that our Christian faith is a seamless garment that is firmly grounded in the reality of the famous Patristic dictum “For He was made man that we might be made God.” There has been but one true revolution in the history of the world and that is precisely the Incarnation in the flesh of the eternal Logos in the person of the God-man Jesus Christ, whereby the power of sin, corruption, death and the authority of Satan are shattered and the chasm between the uncreated God and His creation is bridged. If the Incarnation is a foundational mystery of the faith then the person of Mary the Theotokos from whom Christ received His flesh and was born also stands at the centre of the faith. A faith in Christ which does not include the veneration of his mother is another faith, another Christianity from that held by the Church. A Christmas without the mother would be a meaningless Christmas, for the Word would not have taken flesh and become the source and summit of our salvation.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rejoice! The Lord is Near!

Third Sunday of Advent Year B

Have you ever seen an apocalyptic “end-of-the-world” movie that was a cause for celebration? I guess not. Unfortunately, when we think of the end of the world it is often with anything but joyful hearts. The thought of going out with a cataclysmic bang is hardly something to shout about and applaud. From the Mayans to the prophecies of the Irish bishop St Malachy or Nicodemus to modern doomsday preachers, there’s a long list of people who predicted the end of the age. It’s not the triumphant return of Christ in glory which becomes the focus of such prophecies. Rather, we hear about a time of tribulation, war, earthquakes, death and destruction. Catholics, on the other hand, see something altogether different when they envision the end of time.  We see it as the return of Jesus Christ in glory, a time of judgment, yes, but also a time of liberation. We rejoice! Not only do we rejoice when thinking about it, we pray for the coming of that day!

So do we believe in the End Times? Of course we do! For Catholics, the terms “end times” and “last days” refer both to the conclusion of history at some future point, and also—even primarily—to the last two thousand years. It is here that what I’m about to say may come as a big surprise even to Catholics. Yes, we are living in the End Times. The death and resurrection of Christ is the first and decisive act of the End Times. But now we wait for God’s work of salvation to be completed when Christ returns in glory. That is why our Advent celebrations help us to focus on these two comings, the first Coming of Christ at Christmas and His Second Coming at the very end. So, yes, we are living in the end times, they’ve always been the end times, and they’re always going to be the end times. Notice that in every age, there are tribulations, both natural and manmade. And yes, in every age, there will be the forces of Anti-Christ, the ideologies, structures, governments, individuals and corporations who would deny the Kingship and salvific role of Christ. Given the ambivalence of these signs, it would appear that we are continually in the End Times.

But our Christian expectation the End Times is marked by joy and hope because of the object of our contemplation. “By gazing on the risen Christ,” wrote Pope Emeritus Benedict, when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Christianity knew that a most significant coming had already taken place. It no longer proclaimed a pure theology of hope, living from mere expectation of the future, but pointed to a ‘now’ in which the promise had already become present. Such a present was, of course, itself hope, for it bears the future within itself.” “In Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi, his 2007 encyclical on Christian hope, “God has revealed himself. He has already communicated to us the ‘substance' of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty.” Attempting to describe that substance of things to come, the pope writes: “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love... life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”  

Therefore, we Christians anticipate the End Times not with fear and trembling but with rejoicing. St Paul reminds us in the second reading, “Be happy at all times, pray constantly, and for all things give thanks.” Like the prophet Isaiah in the first reading, the thought of the “end times,” of Christ’s coming, should be met with euphoria, “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God!” The prophet announces that the coming of the Lord’s messenger will mean healing and liberation to all who are poor, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and captive. This “year of the Lord’s favour” applies to all of us, for all of us are imprisoned by ourselves and captivated by ourselves; far from being uninjured, all of us are so fractured and poverty-stricken that we cannot heal ourselves. The Spirit of God continues to bring healing and liberation and works from within us, just as an organism heals from the inside out. But our duty is not just merely to wait passively. We must actively ensure that the Spirit has opportunity to work in us; we must be guided by Him in discerning good from evil.

Such attitude of hopeful and joyful expectation therefore brings about a livid consciousness that we are witnesses of God’s light while steadfastly denying that we ourselves are the light. Just like St John the Baptist, the closer one comes to God for the purpose of testifying of him, the more clearly one sees the distance between God and creature. The more one vacates space within himself for God, the more he becomes a simple instrument of God, a mere voice that cries in the wilderness, “Make a straight way for the Lord.”

Sometimes we have an image of John the Baptist as an austere ascetic. In depicting the Baptist in this fashion, we tend to forget the joy that is associated with his entire life and vocation. It was him who leapt for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she encountered the Mother of the Word Incarnate. In the fourth Gospel, St John speaks of the source of the Baptist’s supernatural joy - it is the joy of the best man, who rejoices greatly at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. And thus his humility opened a space within him for true joy, the kind which comes from the real presence of the Lord. So it can be for each one of us. Thus, John stands as a sign for us today on Gaudete Sunday. He points out for each one of us the path to lasting joy; a lifestyle of self emptying – a life marked by humility – we prepare for the coming of the Lord by always holding on this basic principle that defined the Baptist’s life and mission, “He must increase and I must decrease.”  We can know no lasting peace and joy, unless we come to know Christ. Such a way of life leads to continual conversion and transformation as we respond to the gift of grace.
So, this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, becomes another opportunity to be joyful
, indeed it is a joy that is greater than it was. In just a matter of days we will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord. But we do not just commemorate the past. The Liturgy anticipates the future, the coming of our Saviour, our Liberator, the Christ who will bring to completion the good work he has begun in us. The Church as mother and teacher thus proclaims at the beginning of today’s liturgy, using the imperative case - Rejoice! Notice - It is a command! In Latin, Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete : Dominus prope est. In English, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near!”