Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Necessary Crisis of Faith

Third Sunday of Easter Year A

Crisis is not an attractive word. The word often suggests that we are facing a catastrophic disaster; if it didn’t feel this way, we wouldn’t call it a crisis. Imagine the feeling – it feels as if segments of the sky are falling on our heads, we have vivid visions of the earth rending asunder beneath our feet and tsunamis approaching just over the horizon. But yet again, a crisis is not quite a disaster, not yet. During lucid moments and on hindsight, we come to recognise that though there was a sliver of threat of an impending disaster, the crisis was more accurately a call by our whole psycho-somatic system for immediate and drastic action. In fact great good can come out of a critical situation if such action is taken; or if unaddressed, then it could turn out to be the disaster foretold.

A crisis of faith, like any other crises, follows the same pattern. A crisis of faith takes place when you reach a dead end, then realise you simply have no faith in your faith. Our inability to find a way out of our problems makes us feel abandoned and betrayed by the Lord. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus would have certainly experienced this. The shocking demise of their Master had left them questioning their faith; they have become uncertain about their prior convictions and beliefs, which had appeared so certain when the Lord was alive. And as a result of this crisis, this seeming catastrophe, they are now rendered emotionally insecure, bewildered and, wandering as sheep without a shepherd.

Wherein precisely lies the crisis in modern times? Of course, there are the age old catalysts– unanswered prayer, the darkness and silence of God in the midst of personal crisis, laxity in prayer life and the inability of immature faith to deal with hard questions of life.
The surface causes for such a crisis are as varied as individual experience. But today, the causes and occasions for giving rise to faith crises have evolved and multiplied. In fact, as Pope Benedict XVI himself had observed and proposed in his Motu Poprio, Porta Fidei (PF), that there is a serious crisis of faith and this is the reason: faith is no longer a self-evident presupposition in life (PF 2) In other words, our society and culture have become unfamiliar with the vocabulary of faith. More often than not, our children and we are beset by a variety of forces that are totally secular and even sometimes anti-religious and anti-God.

A faith crisis arises not because faith contradicts or excludes reason. On the contrary, it is the failure to exercise the full capacity of our reason in service of faith that occasions such a crisis. The age old adage attributed to St Anselm reminds us that “faith seeks understanding”; it does not, however, suspends or abdicates reason. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, from the beginning of his pontificate, has called our attention to the problem of a self-imposed limit on the use of reason.  One result of this narrowing of reason is making religious and moral questions part of the subjective realm; in other words, a matter of personal preference. In this way, faith has become a matter of sentimentality. Faith no longer has anything to do with knowledge. In other words, I believe because I “feel” that it is true and not because it’s reasonable to do so based on objective knowledge. In a society that thrives off the ‘feel-good’ philosophy, the prevalence of faith crises is understandable especially when faith is associated with the absence of discomfort, pain, suffering, tragedy, or in short, the cross.

Thus, today we are witnessing a crisis that affects not just on a small isolated level of individuals grappling with issues of faith. We are witnessing as never before a crisis at a scale that affects thousands and millions within the Church itself. Some are in open rebellion against the faith of their fathers. Other people are not yet ready to discard the faith they may still cherish for purely sentimental or cultural reasons. But they have serious doubts about so much of Catholic teaching. Some articles of faith they are willing to admit, but others they have strong reservations about, e.g. contraceptives, abortion, gay marriages, or anything that does not square with their modern sensibilities. Some have their faith shaken by the scandalous behaviour of clerics in the Church; these former heroes and giants of faith now stand with their feet of clay exposed. Today, there is a whole new vocabulary of relevance, subjective meaning, and dissent that it is no wonder so many have serious doubts not only about this or that feature of Catholic life, but even about its value at all.

With the compartmentalisation of faith and its restriction to the private and subjective sphere, it becomes more and more difficult to hold a conversation or dialogue concerning ultimate questions.  Yet, this separation of faith and life does not correspond to our nature, it does not match the deep desires of our heart. Our desire is to find meaning in our life, to see the link between the fleeting moment of our circumstance and the big picture. Our desire is for truth, beauty and goodness, and we want this in an objectively real way and not merely for a subjective and sentimental cheap substitute. These aspirations of the heart are what make us human – in fact, our thirst for God is what characterises us as human.

It was this innate yearning and aspiration of the two grieving disciples that led them to open their hearts and door to the stranger on the road to Emmaus. This encounter helped them to discover the central point of the Christian message, a point which the separation of faith and life will constantly miss – faith is to be found not in the absence of pain and suffering but in the crucible of life’s troubles. Only by embracing the cross can our faith grow stronger. Yes, faith will survive, even in the midst of a worldwide crisis, but not without pain – the pain of the cross. Such as there can be no Easter without Good Friday, we as Christians cannot live the resurrected life of the redeemed unless we are prepared to embrace the cross. Because of this central fact, every crisis of faith need not end in the loss of it, but rather is a call “to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.” (PF 2)

In a modern world with few moral champions, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta stands as one of the most well regarded religious leader in recent history. Her work among the poorest of the poor is legendary and her faith, an inspiration to millions. Yet, as it turns out, the missionary who brought light to those in deepest darkness was herself in darkness. After her death, some personal letters were made public in a book. In one of her letters, she wrote an undated address to Jesus, "Where is my Faith - even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness - My God - how painful is this unknown pain - I have no Faith." This must have come as a shock to many, for example, one reporter mockingly quipped that she should be made the patron saint of doubters, but to those who have travelled the necessary road to Emmaus, the story of Mother Teresa is all too familiar.

How do we make sense of this? Pope Benedict’s Regina Caeli reflection on the Story of Emmaus provides the answer to this mystery: “This road to Emmaus on which we travel can become a way of purification and maturation of our believing in God.” In other words, a faith crisis is meant to help us grow in faith, not smother the smouldering ashes. It would seem that God’s greatest challenge is to teach us to trust Him, and the only way to trust Him, is to enrol us in the graduate school of hard knocks, wintery darkness, desert dryness, and walk us through the path that passes through Calvary before it reaches the Garden Tomb. It is possible to be not only sustained in this arduous journey but actually to grow into a much deeper and more authentic faith, when we constantly return to the twofold table, once made known the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to us at every mass – we are nourished and refreshed as we feed on His Word and His real presence in the Eucharist. It is here that we will discover the object of our deepest longing, it is the Risen Lord, who died for us but has now vanquished our oldest foe, death itself. And it is in this two fold fount of grace, that we will discover that every faith crisis need not end in disaster but in new life!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Open the Door to Mercy

Second Sunday of Easter Year A

Doorways have been symbolic across cultures for as long as history has been recorded. It’s clear that a door can say a lot and hold a thousand meanings. A door is both an entrance and an exit, and thus its ambivalence allows us to see it both as an opportunity or a trap. Just as a door that’s an entrance represents a beginning, a door that’s an exit represents an end. An open door shows that there’s a way out and can also provide a view of what lies ahead. A closed or locked door, on the other hand, can represent a dead end or create the feeling that there’s no way out or suggest danger. To the person standing outside it conveys this message, “You’re not Welcomed.” Doors can lead to adventures, secrets, opportunities and new starts. Remember the old saying, “when one door closes, another door opens.” Since we do not know what lies behind this portal, opening doors always involves a risk. The closed doors are apt symbols of those who live in fear. Nevertheless, when “opportunity knocks”, the door beckons us to open it in order to discover the surprise.

And so the disciples of the Lord hid behind what they perceived as the safety of their closed doors, cowering in fear, tending their bruised egos, struggling the make sense of the death of their master, and contemplating the next step for their future. The disciples, these grown men who boasted of accompanying Jesus to his death but fled at the first sight of his gaolers, are meeting in terror – listening for every step on the stairs and for every knock at the door – expecting arrest, and perhaps death. Their imagined invincibility had been thoroughly shaken by the discovery that their all-powerful Master was mortal too, or at least they thought his life ended that way. They were afraid, and they locked the doors! The irony is that they had greater trust in the security of these wooden rickety doors than in the one who declared that He is the “Door”, the “Sheepgate,” the “Way, the Truth and the Life.” There is a failure to realise that although doors may be able to temporarily keep foes at bay, they equally have the capacity to keep out our friends too. But no door can keep the Lord out. Not even a big rock blocking the entrance of a cave tomb could pose an obstacle.

Then Jesus appeared. Despite their best attempts to keep out the enemy, Jesus appeared. Despite their best efforts to stay as safe as they possible could, Jesus appeared. God is not stopped by locked doors. Whether we have chosen to shut ourselves behind them out of fear, or whether others have locked the doors upon us, they are not barriers to God. What wonderful news – in our greatest fears, we cannot lock Him out!

The disciples who initially hid behind closed doors would be forever transformed by their encounter with Christ and by the power of the Spirit. They have moved beyond those closed doors of that room they crowded into for safety, out into Jerusalem, into the temple itself, proclaiming their dangerous yet life-giving message. And that is what every disciple of Christ is called to do on this Sunday after Easter. We've revelled in the glory of the resurrection, celebrated God's amazing triumph over death and now it is time to get on with what Jesus has commissioned us to do. We too have been blessed and empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit. It fills us as it filled those early apostles, giving us new life, making us one with God, and sending us out as Christ's witnesses in this world.

It is heartening to remember that when we least expect it, Christ will break through locked doors of the human heart. He will find us, in our fear and uncertainty.  He understands our misgivings, our hurts, our infirmities and weaknesses.  He comes to us not only in power, but he comes to us to demonstrate his tremendous mercy. This, too, is part of the message of this Sunday.  Among all the apostles, St Thomas would have understood this part best. St Thomas had adamantly rejected the testimony of his brothers regarding the resurrection of Christ, but Christ did not reject him. In his abundant mercy, Christ gave Thomas a second chance as he gives to each and every one of us. This Sunday, we mark Divine Mercy Sunday, when we embrace the power and beauty of God’s forgiveness. Today is a time for seizing second chances. It is the Sunday in which we remind ourselves of God’s tender mercies – when we strive, more than ever, to let Him break through the locked doors of our hearts. We can step out of the tomb of selfishness and sin.  We can feel the healing light of God’s care. We can take that second chance. God’s mercy, Divine Mercy, assures it.  The Sacrament of Penance enables it. We can be made new.

This Sunday, we have an additional reason for rejoicing. Divine Mercy Sunday or the Feast of Mercy was instituted by Blessed John Paul II in the year 2000, in response to a direct request by the Lord Jesus to St. Faustina Kowalska, whom Blessed Pope John Paul II canonised that year. It would therefore make perfect sense that the canonisation of the pope responsible for the institution of this feast together with Blessed John XXII, another great pope who convened the Second Vatican Council, would be celebrated today.  Both saintly Popes were characterised by their ‘open door’ policies, John XXIII for calling on the Church to open its doors and windows, and John Paul II for advancing the Church into the world, thus witnessing to a gospel that reaches beyond national borders and closed doors. We all need the example and the prayers of these two saintly Popes.  

The locked doors served to keep the fearful disciples safe from arrest on that first Easter. But they did not keep Jesus from appearing among them and offering them peace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The doors did not keep them from conquering the world with the message of God’s love and mercy. Today, though the world is becoming increasingly globalised, it is still much easier to stay behind the false security of locked doors, high walls, in our homes, in our schools and universities, in our places of work and entertainment and in our political discourse and decisions.  

What a needed gift of Divine Mercy are our two new saints!  In health and in sickness, in life and in death, on earth and from their place in heaven, these two popes echo the words of Jesus and remind us once again, “Peace be with you! Be not afraid.”  Be not afraid to give witness to the truths and values which we receive from the Church.  Be not afraid to stand up for our Catholic faith in private and in public.  Be not afraid to live a countercultural life according to the Gospel. Be not afraid to open the doors of your heart and to allow His Divine Mercy to fill the emptiness of your lives. For in so doing, like Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II (soon to be called Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II), we will continue to give testimony to the Risen Lord, the Fount of Divine Mercy, who has conquered death and defeated the powers of Hades, and invite Him into our own locked upper rooms and pray as well that He will break through all the barriers that might be keeping Him out of lives.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Death has been Defeated

Easter Sunday 2014

For many, Easter Sunday morning mass seems like a big liturgical let-down especially when compared to the elaborate richness of the vigil mass the night before. There is nothing of the dramatic juxtaposition of light and darkness, nor the marvelous series of readings chosen to give us a glimpse of the width and breadth of salvation history, nor the exhilarating experience of witnessing the entry of new members into the Church as they celebrant the Paschal sacraments of initiation. Easter Sunday morning mass, by comparison, seems to the average person like any other ordinary Sunday mass with just a few innovative twitches. Although, it cannot match the solemn grandeur of the vigil celebration, Easter Sunday still boasts of a liturgical gem which can only be found in the mass of the day – it is the Easter Sequence which you had just heard and sung before the Gospel Acclamation.

The second stanza of the hymn goes like this “Death with life contended; combat strangely ended! Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.” What a terrific image! Most commonly if we speak about people defeating death, we mean that they came close to dying but did not, probably because they fought to stay alive. Christ, however, died. He really died! He did not feign death nor came to near-death encounter. He truly, really died! But in death, He defeated death in a more definitive way than by staying alive when his life was threatened. He defeated death by dying and coming back to life by his own power.

Jesus Christ travelled the roadways of cruelty, injustice, and agony, on his way to do battle on death’s own turf. By dying he gave death every possible advantage over him. His friends and followers on that day only knew that he was gone to the place of death. They did not understand that he was there to do battle. He had descended to the darkest of places so that he could shine his light into all its otherwise hopeless corners. The story of the resurrection is therefore the story of the outcome of the greatest battle ever fought. Jesus Christ, Life’s own Champion, won the battle that day, and on the first Easter he emerged as victor with great glory. He defeated death’s despair, and transformed death itself: no longer hopeless, it was now, for those who long to see God, the doorway into his unveiled presence and the full realisation of his life, love, and indescribable goodness. It was the greatest redemptive and restorative act of all history. According to St Melito of Sardis, Christ declares through his resurrection that he has “destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ.”

It is true that a large part of society does not fear death anymore, not because of their belief in the resurrection. On the contrary, society often lives as if death were inexistent and the resurrection useless. We toy with the idea of immortality brought about by technological advancement, just like in the recent movie ‘Transcendence.’ We have sanitised death and have made it the butt of jokes and the stuff of comedies. And yet there is nothing as daunting as the mystery of death as Church records and daily newspaper reports show. We live as if death were inexistent precisely because the fear of death remains pervasive, particularly for those who are ill or elderly, despite our efforts to defeat it with various methods; it consumes our peace and fills our souls with an unjustifiable anguish, constant uncertainty making it intolerable. To cope with ennui, that perennial feeling of listlessness, we live in denial of death. You remember the old expression that claims that the only things we can be sure of in life are ‘death, disappointment and taxes’. In fact, we can act to overcome our disappointments and cope with taxes – but death is the one thing we have no power over, despite recent advances in technology.

But our Lord’s resurrection puts an end to our uncertainties.  Death no longer cripples us.  It is no longer the inevitable end of our existence.  The tomb stone no longer covers our existence in an eternal silent.  The massive rock that covered the entrance to Our Lord’s tomb has been removed and Christ has emerged triumphant, victorious over death.  For those who followed in his footsteps, the fear of death disappeared to be replaced with the infilling of joy and hope.

So what does Jesus’ resurrection mean for us today?  Jesus’ resurrection proves that once and for all death has been defeated.  Whilst we know one day we will die, we know also that there is life beyond death.  Because of Jesus’ resurrection there is the promise of sins forgiven. On the cross Jesus paid in full the penalty of our sin. Through his death and resurrection Jesus has dealt with the sins that mar our relationship with God and with one another.  Because of Jesus’ resurrection we can have the promise of forgiveness, and fresh start with God.  Jesus offers all those who come to him new life, life as only God can give – life with meaning and purpose, because Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” 

We live in the span of history between God’s convincing defeat of the powers of death, and their full and final destruction. The resurrection offers compelling proof that the powers of death are no match for God’s authority. Their weakness has been exposed, their ultimate threat disarmed. While the powers of death have been defeated they have not yet been destroyed. For a time they retain residual power and influence in this world. Indeed, many still cling to greed, domination, force and the threat of death as the best tools for protecting self interests. But its power has been diminished by the memory of its indisputable defeat at Easter. Its invincibility has been exposed.

Today, in the face of war, famine, dispossession, occupation, injustice and all that feels unfair, we cry out to God to act quickly and decisively to destroy what remains of death’s powers. But God waits patiently, offering every opportunity for the enemies of the to come to their senses and embrace the ways of God’s kingdom.

And we must wait too; but not passively. By our words and actions we boldly announce God’s Easter victory over death – light has triumphed over darkness, truth over falsehood, love over hate, nonviolence over violence and the way of service over the way of domination. In God’s new order, distress, sickness, death, displacement, domination and violence will no longer hold sway. They will be replaced by joy, good health, long life, secure dwellings and right relationships. Like Moses, we may not live to see God’s promise fulfilled in our life time. But Easter gives us a bird’s eye view of the new heaven and earth that God is creating.
Death has been defeated! Death will be destroyed! Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Easter Vigil 2014

You probably do not recognise the name Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin nor should you. But many of you may have had read or heard a version of this story in one of its incarnations. Nikolai Bukharin rose in the ranks of the Russian Communist Party and became one of the most powerful man as there was on earth. He personally took part in the Bolshevik Revolution 1917 that overthrew the Tsarist government which made him a legend of sorts. He was a prolific writer and apologist of communist propaganda, thus earning him the office of editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which by the way means ‘Truth’ – that’s irony!), and was a full member of the Politburo.

According to urban legend, the following story took place during a journey he took to Kiev in 1930 to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insults, argument, and proof against it. An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of men's faith. "Are there any questions?" Bukharin demanded, thinking it to be merely rhetorical and not expecting any answer from the uneducated working class peasants gathered there. Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern standing near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally he shouted the greeting that had been ingrained in the hearts and minds of Russian Christians for centuries: "CHRIST IS RISEN!" En masse the crowd arose as one man and the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: "HE IS RISEN INDEED!"

Christ is Risen! Just three words in a split second awakening the love and hearts of hundreds, capable of dusting off the soot of decades of iconoclastic and anti-religious cultural indoctrination, and it still happens today. The faith of the supposed Christian simpleton as he faced the formidable attacks of one of most articulate among the Communist intelligentsia was not just the thoughtless act of bravery nor was it a stubbornly silly display of superstitious belief. It was simply an act of faith in the Easter mystery we celebrate tonight. History would vindicate the actions of the daring Christian David and prove his opponent, the unbelieving Goliath, wrong. Today, communism, as a failed ideology and system, is in tatters. Christianity, on the other hand, once persecuted to the point of extinction, now flourishes in Russia and many parts of the former Communist bloc. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

But this simple declaration doesn’t mean our troubles are over. As Pope Francis recently reminded us, “proclaiming the gospel comes with persecution.” Like a dying hydra, the enemies of our faith continue to emerge and multiply in various forms. One doesn’t have to follow the daily news for long to realise that Christianity is coming under attack like never before. In fact, every day, mainstream media, box office movies and quality television shows display total ignorance about the first 1,500 years of Western civilisation and Christianity gets blamed for the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and thus every act of racism, genocide, or war is pinned on the Church. We encounter ridicule whenever we choose to go against the current of the world as we firmly hold onto the values of the gospel. Christians continue to face the darkness of violence and persecution in many parts of the world – their rights and freedom to practice their faith not only severely curtailed but lives are being lost in the killing fields watered by martyrs’ blood. The looming darkness constantly threatens to extinguish the light of faith.

Like every year for the last two millenia, Christians gather once more in Churches to celebrate the Mother of all Christian Festivals – it is as if we are sending a message to the world that we are not about to give up a fight or our light. In fact, our message is not one of a defeated people who are desperately preparing to make a last suicidal stand in the face of the overwhelming odds. On the contrary, the message that we wish to convey is that of victory – it always has been of victory – not of any individual Christian or the whole lot of us, but that of the one who won the victory for us – Christ who is Risen. The Christian story does not end with Good Friday. On Easter Day we celebrate the coming of the light – a light which the powers of darkness, apparently victorious on Good Friday, cannot, and will not, extinguish.

Yes, the Easter Vigil always begins with darkness but does not remain so for long. The darkness represents so much of our lives and so much of what’s happening in the world. It is the seeming absence of God. It is a symbol of the forces that have grown so antagonistic to our faith, the darkness of suspicion, hatred, disbelief, prejudice, and anger heaped against what we stand for. The experience of sitting in the darkness is uncomfortable and confusing, humbling and nervous, and we fidget and impatiently wait for something to happen. Then a light is struck. It breaks into the darkness like nothing else can. Then priest utters these words of power over the flames of new born fire – “Sanctify this new fire, we pray, and grant that, by these paschal celebrations, we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires.” Then the candle is lit from the new Pascal fire with these soaring words, “May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.” That same candle is then brought into the community in procession, and we receive its light, and the power of that light grows – the Church is ablaze. Our hearts thrilled as we stood with lighted candles, attentive to the words of the Easter Proclamation and marvelling at the sublime poetry; words that defiantly throw a fresh challenge that penetrates the shield of blackness that fills the night.  

In a way, our liturgy seems to imitate life. The looming darkness which enshrouds this night always threatens to overwhelm the dimming light emanating from our candles but with the first notes of the magnificent Easter Proclamation being sung, the darkness is dramatically dispelled by the lights which are turned on in the Church. The forces of chaos that threatens to destroy our universe are subdued by the power and authority of God, and subverted into becoming the very raw material of both the old creation as well as the new one. God re-creates and redeems all life from dead, dry and destroyed bones. We are released from the bonds of self-obsession, addiction and whatever would steal away the radical freedom God has given us. From the waters of destruction, emerges new life. Death itself is trampled upon this night. Throughout our human history, death threatens to rob us of victory, but at the end of tonight’s marathon of readings, we discover that death is defeated by life itself. 

Our celebration is no anachronistic ritual that merely recall the past – rather it speaks to us of a present reality. Christ rose in glory on Easter Day, but today his light continues to rise to scatter all our darkness. Despite many appearances to the contrary, this bright flame of love continues to shine in the darkness. We know only too well those situations where darkness covers our lives. Our present struggles and the weight of world events, all obscure our hope. But the hope of the risen Christ can transform our darkness to light. Christ is the lens through which the whole world becomes brighter and sharper, more richly-coloured and more detailed.

The wonder of the resurrection is upon us once more. Soon this night, in the baptismal liturgy, we will witness the birth of new members and we too will renew our own baptismal entry into the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus, emphatically rejecting sin and proclaiming our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And finally tonight, in the liturgy of the Eucharist, filled with immense gratitude we will go to meet the Lord in his Body and his Blood, the angelic bread that sustains us on our present journey.

May we embrace God's ever-new life with every cell of our being, every yearning of our soul, and every muscle of our will. Christ is risen, death is vanquished, humanity is restored to rightful place with God. Praise God who brings light out of darkness, life out of death, and newness out of the stale and moribund. And no matter what the world throws at us, we know in our hearts that Good News that Christ is Risen! With love and joy, I greet and invite you to enter our massive chorus as we shout to a world darkened by its refusal to love and to believe, “CHRIST IS RISEN!” “HE IS RISEN. ALLELUIA!”