Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Sublime Art of Christian Living

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year A

If you are a connoisseur of art, you would realise that the point of art and painting is not to represent things in the real world as how they should actually look. If this was the case, it would have been much easier to just a take a photograph. Representational art, when it is good, conveys to the viewer not just an idea of what the subject looked like, but some of the artists’ reflection or experience of seeing as well. At least this seems to be part of the reason why representational art has survived and is still valued, even in the age of the photograph, video cameras and of course, camera phones! Even though you may have several albums full of photos of your mother, nothing can substitute a good painting of her. This is because a good painting is not merely a representation of what someone or something looks like, but also a reaction to it. It says more about the subject than its appearance. It shares insights into the human meaning of what it represents.

These reflections on art have a certain relevance to the gospels, especially to the Gospel of John. Its purpose is not merely to give the story of Jesus, but to meditate on its meaning. Throughout the gospel, the historical Jesus is seen from the perspective of the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. All of the gospels are more like paintings than like photographs, but especially John’s gospel. One might say that the Synoptics are more like Western Christian art form: certainly theological rather than merely biographical, but generally straightforward, realistic, narrative and historical. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, is more like Eastern or Byzantium iconography; stylised, with a complex set of symbols, consciously looking at things in the light of eternity, demanding deep personal engagement by the viewer.

Today’s gospel is a good example. The scene is once again the Last Supper, but it is portrayed poetically, not historically. Jesus, who has yet to meet his passion and experience the resurrection, speaks from eternity, from beyond the grave. In Jesus’ sacred, saving hour, a great liturgy of love emerges from the poetry of this prayer. Through his word and in the sacred bread of his body, all are drawn toward the Father to receive life and glory. A major biblical motif, “glory” (kabod) was used in the Old Testament to illustrate God’s goodness in providing for his people in the wilderness; for example God’s presence in the pillar of fire and cloud was called “glory”; God’s saving intervention was described in terms of manifesting his “glory,” and God’s presence as He alighted on the Tent of Meeting, also referred to his “glory.”

So, what did Jesus mean when he spoke of the hour of entering into his “glory”?  Such “glory” is certainly not equivalent to what man often desires - popularity, public acceptance, praises and a good name. Here lies the divine paradox of the gospel - when Jesus spoke of his own glory he was speaking about the cross. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus and his ministry was portrayed as a progressive process of glorification, a process of preparation for the ultimate “sign” – the crucifixion, the culmination of God’s saving intervention in salvation history.

St. Peter must have finally understood the connection between glory and the cross after several failed attempts. At the time of his first letter, the early Christian communities were already experience persecution and suffering for their faith. The cross was no longer theoretical or symbolic, it was very real. And yet in today’s second reading, St Peter writes with great confidence and as a means of encouraging his fellow Christians: “If you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, because you will enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed. It is a blessing for you when they insult you for bearing the name of Christ, because it means that you have the Spirit of glory, the Spirit of God resting on you.”

The other radical twist introduced in today’s passage is that Jesus speaks of eternal life not as some future or eschatological reality, something which you experience only after death. On the contrary, one can experience eternal life in the here and now. According to Jesus, eternal life is “to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. To know connotes the intimacy of an immediate experience rather than cognitive knowledge. Such as, my family knows the real me! Therefore, “to know” God, means to be called into an intimate relationship with the Father, like the one that Jesus the Son already enjoyed. This provides another beautiful layer to our understanding Jesus’ hour of glory. In other words, knowledge of and intimate participation with Jesus in his hour, in his glory, or in the words of St Peter, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, one can already taste eternal life here and now.

Thus, the cross and suffering for our faith, continues to be mark of every Christian, his glory, his path to intimacy with God, to eternal life. Of course, practising our faith today, may not be as dangerous as in antiquity (unless you are a Christian living in the Middle East, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan etc), yet remains challenging, perhaps more challenging than the past. Today, we face a greater danger from modern society – the danger of being ignored or even rejected by secular culture. Its moral values, forced to compete in a free market of ideas, frequently seem unattractive, outdated or simply irrelevant to present day lifestyles.  Many, thus, have given in to the temptation of allowing its core teachings and values to be reshaped and moulded into a more politically correct and socially acceptable version that is to the liking of modern tastes. Social tolerance and relativism has led to the suspicion and rejection of the particularity of the Christian faith and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour. Ultimately, it has led to widespread moral decline, and with that the world suffers the loss of beauty, the good and the Truth.

Christian faith continues to present a different picture of glory, one which requires us to see the world, its trials and tribulations, through the lenses of eternity. It calls the world to transcendence, to appreciate once again the need for beauty, goodness, and truth. But if this message is to be heard, there must be Christians who are disciples that are willing to live out the message of today’s gospel. This means living a life in the world that already goes beyond it and resists being reduced to its conventions. And it is intrinsic to this way of life that it be lived not merely by isolated individuals, but by a community. Thus, the essential need for our BECs, our Basic Ecclesial Communities, to bear witness to the gospel message. Where we reject community living, we in fact reject the gospel, and we become anti-witnesses of its message. Thus, community life should not only communicate a message of about communion and love, but also show its truth and beauty. In this sense, Christian life must be a work of art – it must be sacramental, it must be beautiful. For if the message of Christ’s triumph over death is to be convincing – even to ourselves – we must show in living it that it is beautiful, good and true, that the vision it shares is about what really is, and that apprehending it leads to fulfillment and joy.  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Between Faith and Doubt

Ascension Year A 2014

We are a conflicted lot – we often vacillate between moments of grieving sorrow and bursting joy, between moments of profound love and moments of intense hostility, between moments of deep faith and moments of critical doubt. And I don’t think it’s because we are bi-polar. It merely speaks of our imperfect human condition, a contingent existence where so much depends on our present yet temporary condition and surrounding circumstances.  The apostles were certainly not immune from this predicament. They too vacillated between exaltation over the miracles they had witnessed and misunderstanding and doubt. 

Toward the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, which I’ve just read, and right before the passage called the Great Commission, you’ve heard that the eleven disciples saw the Risen One in Galilee, and the gospel makes this seemingly puzzling observation of seemingly contrasting, even contradictory actions: “when they saw Him they fell down before Him: but some hesitated.”  The sequence seems disjointed. Most other translations use the word “doubted,” a shocking alternative to the more ambivalent “hesitated”.  The very event that was intended to both proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and set forth Jesus’ Great Commission seems compromised by this intrusive statement about doubt among the eleven closest disciples.

Some commentators would explain this seeming contradiction by reminding us that in St Matthew’s account of the post-resurrection story, we do not have the reports of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus as in the case of St Luke or the first hand encounter with the Risen Lord in the Gospel of John. For all purposes, in St Matthew’s Gospel, apart from the women who returned from an empty tomb, this was the first time the Risen Lord had appeared to them in person – thus the explanation for their doubts. We can’t be too sure that this was the reason for their doubting and hesitation. The laconic words of the Gospel say nothing about the nature of their doubts.  But the Apostles’ doubt makes their state closer to that feeling familiar to anyone striving to find a conscious faith grounded in understanding, and yet continue to be beset by doubts.

To add further puzzlement to the mystery, it’s interesting to note that the word “some” which appears before “hesitated” or “doubted” doesn’t appear in the Greek. It’s just not there; it’s been added in the translations. A more direct translation is “seeing him, they worshipped and doubted” or perhaps, “worshipped but doubted.”  With the addition of the word “some,” it makes the verse sounds as though there were two groups of disciples: the good ones, those who worshiped without doubt, and the not so good, those who doubted. But in the original Greek, what the text really states is that they all worshiped and they all doubted.

Which leaves us with this question, is it possible to believe and doubt at the same time? NO!!! I mean, YES!!! Absolutely not! It is, too! If two people were having this conversation, it would be tense...If this were a conversation between me, myself and I...well, that’s just scary! Yet, how often do we find ourselves in this actual predicament. My Myer-Briggs Personality test reveals that I’m a typical INTP type, and one of the most distinctive characteristics of this type of personality is self-doubt – I’m constantly busy debating with myself, doubting the correctness and the veracity of my thoughts, actions, decisions and conclusion. Examining my own experience, which I do not believe that I am peculiarly alone in this, I’ve come to realise although I can honestly say I believe in God, I have to admit that there are certainly times when I doubt; doubt that I am really speaking to God, doubt that God is actually in control of the whole situation or doubt that, given some situation I’m facing, God really loves me or knows what He’s doing.

These conflicting forces of doubt and believe best summarises the “little faith”, which is the hallmark of St Matthew’s theological understanding of the meaning of discipleship. The disciples are often confronted by Jesus himself for their “little faith,” which does not imply the absence of faith at all, but a reminder that faith by its very nature cannot be reduce to mere certainty or cocksureness. Remember, the opposite of faith is not doubt – the opposite of faith is certainty. Faith contains doubt, faith implies doubt or at least the possibility of doubt – certainty neither allows doubt nor requires faith. It’s important to note that the Greek word for “doubt” as Matthew uses it in the passage is not disbelief, but rather wavering belief – being of “two minds” – in other words, the absence of certainty. And we know this to be true from our own experience.

For most of us, faith and doubt often seem to go hand-in-hand. In a way, this puts the emphasis back on God to do the work in us. We can muster up all the belief in our heart, soul and mind, but without God’s help to do so, it will never be enough. For if faith is equal to certainty, there will never be an element of trusting God and allowing God to do what seems impossible to us or even at odds with our designs and plans. Once persons accept that they are both strong and weak, hardy and frail, capable of moments of shimmering faith and times where all seems lost, then they can relax, breathe, and trust in God’s faithfulness and providential care.

Thus the same elements of worship, doubt and a little faith inhere in the Church even after Easter as before. It is not to angels or perfect believers but the worshipping and wavering community of disciples, both saints and sinners alike, that the world mission is entrusted. It is heartening therefore that such a mission to share in the authority of Christ, to evangelise and proclaim the gospel, to enlist and make new disciples into a witnessing community, to sanctify through the sharing of sacramental life and finally to hand on faithfully the teaching of Christ, is entrusted not a rock solid faith-filled Church made up of perfectly impeccable members, but to one which is filled with those who often waver in their faith and who struggle with what little faith they possess. It is consoling and encouraging for us to know that we don’t have to be perfect, to possess rock-solid faith without a shadow of doubt, to be absolutely certain of our convictions and vocation to carry out the mission that Christ has imparted to us. Indeed, He has done this despite our many foibles!

At the end of the gospel of St Matthew, Jesus does not ascend. That seems utterly ironic especially when this is the gospel chosen for Year A of our Lectionary Cycle for this Solemnity of the Ascension. The significance of his Ascension is seen in the parting words of Jesus, “And know that I am with you always, yes, to the end of time.” His last words are a promise of his continuing presence during the Church’s mission. After the Ascension, our motley crew of worshipping and doubting disciples returned to the sanctuary of the Upper Room, led back to the place where the Church is born, to the place where these disciples will receive the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. And it is here, in the Church that we too must pursue our mission and find our peace. The Church, despite all appearances, remains the gateway. We need a community who heals, yet we are deeply fractured by our sinfulness. We need a community to strengthen our faith, although we continue to vacillate between belief and doubt. We need a community that continues to make present through the Sacraments and the Word the promise of Christ, “I am with you always, yes, to the end of time.” And because Christ is present in and with and through this community of broken people, a community of the spiritually bi-polar, that we are healed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If You Love Me, Keep my Commandments

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year A 2005

Professing our love for God usually does not pose any difficulty, obeying God’s commandments, especially when it is transmitted by the Church and the Magisterium, is another matter altogether. In today’s society, often the motivating factor for obedience to laws does not derive from a relationship with God. There may be other reasons, for example, laws ensure proper ordering of society and dispense justice. People observe the law because they fear reprisal; the punishment meted out for violating the law. Moral, ethical imperatives or a break in communion with God often do not figure at all. Often, it feels as if love and obedience are mutually exclusive, in that love precludes the need to obey, whereas obedience robs us of the freedom to love. But today’s gospel begins and ends with an appeal to love the Lord and to manifest that love in obedience to his commands.

In the Old Testament, ideal observance of the law was raised to a transcendent, supra-political level. Breach of the law, therefore, was regarded as a breach of the union between God and man. Those who would call themselves God’s people were required to infuse their actions with an attitude of love, as reflected at the supreme law in the Mosaic covenant, the heart of the Law,” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” That’s the bottom line of the law.

But all this talk about laws and commandments is a thing of the past, it belongs to the old dispensation of the Old Testament, right? Jesus wouldn’t have wished to perpetuate this restrictive regiment on us; he would have wanted to free us from the legalistic rigours of the law, right? Jesus came to give us the life of the Spirit, a life of freedom not a regime of laws. Didn’t Jesus always preach about Love and not the Law? But isn’t sincerity all that God expects of us? This last objection posing as a question begs a further question, How do you really know what God expects of us? The objector's implicit assumption here is that there is no objective truth in religion, only subjective sincerity, so that no one can ever be both sincere and wrong. It’s dangerous and arrogant to assume that we can read the mind of God apart from that which is revealed to us. And it is revelation, it is Scripture that reminds us that sincerity is not enough, Truth is needed above all. Remember the old adage, “The road to Hell is lined with good intentions.” How do we know that we are on course in the right direction unless we have a compass and map? That is the purpose of the truth of revelation. It leaves no room for speculation. True sincerity wants to know the truth. And the truth is what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel, “If you love me, you shall keep my commandments!”

In one radical twist, Jesus now makes one clear connection between love and obedience. In John’s Gospel, faith and obedience to Jesus’ commands have been deepened and raised to the level of love. Christians are indeed required to love, and in fact to love the Lord. But loving the Lord ultimately demands obedience to the commandments. Love is not just a matter of subjective feelings. Love is never a license for anarchy or whimsical behaviour. Love does not mean one is free of moral obligations. On the contrary, love has an objective content, it possesses an essential ethical quality to it, one which demands obedience to God’s commandments.

Much of the problem lies in the fact that love has been reduced to the level of subjective self-definition, rather than an objective reality. God is Love – that’s objective, there’s nothing subjective about it – who God is doesn’t depend on how we feel or what we think. But for many Catholics and Christians in general today, our faith is becoming really ethereal, touchy-feely, and abstract. For too many professing Christians, it seems that their relationship with God is dictated by how they feel towards God at the time or how they think God feels about them at the time. Closeness to God, according to this way of thinking and believing, is both subjective rather than objective and an experience rather than a reality. “I just feel so close to God today,” or “Can’t you just sense the Holy Spirit’s presence in the room?” or “I didn’t feel God was present at mass today” become definers of one’s spiritual status. According to the Scripture, a tree is known by its fruit, not by what the tree thinks about itself or its relation to its Maker. This is why Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. His point is that we would forget about how close we think we might feel to God and to rather prove our love for Him by obeying what He has already said to us in His Word. Obedience is how we prove our love for the Lord, and this is a very concrete, objective measure of the state of our relationship with God. And there is nothing abstract or ambiguous about this.

This intimate and dependent connection between love and obedience to God is something that needs to be stressed in this day and age, where love has come to be understood as being apathetic, non-judgmental, and based upon non-discerned emotions and feelings. Yet, how can it be authentic love if it is not connected to obedience to the word and commands of Christ Jesus? Whatever is not connected to the Truth, and Jesus is the “Way, the Truth and the Life,” is connected to the Father of Lies, Satan. Whatever is disconnected from love of God (Jesus, Love Incarnate), is connected to the hate of God (Satan). All sin is an exercise in disobedience to God’s word and commands. The reason why the love of the world is gravely disconnected from obedience to God is simply because it has rejected the authority of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, whom the Father has sent to teach us everything and to remind us of His Word. The world of media doesn’t help us either, because it continually shows us that sleeping around, stealing, murdering, lying and ignoring God, are both normal and acceptable. And if we are told something often enough, we will begin to believe it. And that’s what mass media is doing to us. They are de-sensitising us to sin and to what is wrong, and deafens us to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps, there is an innate suspicion of obedience and laws in our modern day society. Obedience carries negative connotations. It implies and assumes an unthinking submission that reduces one to a level of a child or a slave. And so we associate obedience with compulsion; the lack of freedom or love. We view obedience as a forced, unwilling decision to do something we don’t want to do because we’re afraid of punishment. But that’s not the kind of obedience that’s found in scripture. Today, Jesus reminds us – love involves obedience – “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It always starts with love. Obedience comes from knowing that God loves us and that we love Him in return. It’s not about blind submission, but about loving trust.

The call of today’s Gospel is for us to develop a rigour of obedience to the Word and to commands of our Lord. What does that mean? In practical terms what that means is for us to prayerfully work on deepening our relationship with the Holy Spirit. In daily exercise terms it means to devote ourselves to the reading of Scriptures, to prayer, and to making frequent use of the sacramental channels of grace, especially the Eucharist and Penance. In living a sacrificial life of love it means putting the needs of others before yourself, forgiving others immediately, and always desiring to draw closer to Christ. How do we draw closer to Christ and to God?  Well, Christ provides the answer, “If you love Me, keep my commandments.” It is impossible to be obedient to God without loving Him, and it is impossible to love God without being obedient to Him. And it is grace that knits both obedience and love together in perfect harmony.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

I'm Sorry, Not All Rivers Flow into the Sea

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A

“All Rivers flow into the Sea!” An oft-repeated analogy (or over-repeated), that may have had its origin in Hinduism, is used to describe that all religions have an element of truth in them and are thus, equally valid and parallel paths leading to salvation or liberation. Of course, no one bothered to consult a geologist or more specifically a potamologist, a person who studies rivers, to confirm the veracity of this statement. Surprisingly, not all rivers flow into the sea. For example, the rivers flowing south from the Tassili Mountains in North Africa disappear in the searing heat and scorching dryness of the Sahara. Others run into other bodies of water like lakes and even other rivers. So, not ALL rivers flow into the sea!

But say that we accept that most rivers, though not all, do indeed flow into the sea, can we similarly postulate that all religions equally lead to salvation? The equality of the salvific value of each religion is a fallacy, it contradicts logic, specifically the principle of non-contradiction. When one accepts a proposition to be true, one is automatically forced to believe that all statements to the contrary must be false; otherwise one cannot in reality believe what one claims to believe. This basic understanding is derived from the universal law of non-contradiction, without which nothing can be determined to be true or false. In the words of Aristotle, "One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time", e.g. the man is dead and not dead (at the same time and in the same respect), which is false. Or in the case of religious beliefs, if one religion maintains that there is no God, as in a Supreme Omnipotent Personal Being, and another religion maintains that such a Supreme Divine Being does exist, both cannot be equally true. Or given the gospel reading that we have heard, one cannot both maintain that Jesus is singularly and uniquely THE Way, THE Truth and THE Life as well as also accepting as equally valid that apart from him there are other Ways, other Truths and other sources of salvific Life.

But why would such a fallacy gain such widespread acceptance, to the point of being mistaken by many Catholics as a doctrine of the Church? We live in a free marketplace of religious options. It seems that nearly every belief subscribed to in the history of human civilization is available for us to believe. And so many people take a "mix and match" approach to religion. The New Age phenomenon attests to the fact that people actually attempt to create a "make your own" salad for the soul and there is no shortage of consumers in the market. But we are not saved by a human recipe — we're saved by the Truth. And if something is true, then it must be true for all people at all times or as Pope St John Paul II teaches, “Truth can never be confined to time and culture; in history it is known, but it also reaches beyond history.” Likewise, Pope Benedict reminds us that “truth draws strength from itself and not from the number of votes in its favour.”

Pluralism has become attractive today, especially democratic pluralism which allows for personal freedom and social cohesion of a multireligious and multiracial society. Doctrinal pluralism, however, poses serious dangers. There is a danger that social tolerance of difference becomes personal indifference to values; when the lowest common denominator of public life becomes the major determinant of personal identity; when unreflective acceptance of material values precludes a deeper vision of life. Thus, when trying to find the ultimate common denominator among people of different religious or philosophical leanings, one would necessarily have to preclude God, since some religions and individuals choose not to believe in him. Perhaps another prime example of this danger may be seen in the area of morality, specifically in the degradation and cheapening of sexuality and love.

The most popular of all objections against the claims of Christianity today comes from this field. The objection is not that Christianity is not true but that it is not THE Truth; not that it is a false religion but that it is only A religion, one among many. The world is a big place, the objector reasons; "different strokes for different folks". Thus those who speak of the uniqueness of Christianity or even of Christ are deemed narrow minded and intolerant. Critics of Christianity’s exclusive claims would often co-op God into their argumentation – “God just has to be more open-minded than this.”

In our obsessively politically correct world, many actually no longer worship God, but equality instead has become the New Fashionable Deity. The benchmark for this new deity and his religion is a level playing field, even if this means dragging God down to our level. It fears being right where others are wrong more than it fears being wrong. It worships democracy and resents the fact that God is an absolute monarch. One popular Catholic apologist, Peter Kreeft gives this humorous though damning illustration, “If you confess at a fashionable cocktail party that you are plotting to overthrow the government, or that you are a PLO terrorist or a KGB spy, or that you molest porcupines or bite bats' heads off, you will soon attract a buzzing, fascinated, sympathetic circle of listeners. But if you confess that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, you will find yourself suddenly alone, with a distinct chill in the air.” You may actually risk being labelled ‘fundamentalist’,   ‘fanatical’ or a ‘religious bigot’.

When people claim that all religions are principally the same, with merely insignificant and superficial differences, as open-minded as they may sound, it actually betrays a certain ideological superiority and ignorance. No one could ever possibly make this claim unless he is abysmally ignorant of what the different religions of the world actually teach. Certainly, there are similarities and analogous parallels, but there are also many differences and even contradictions between truth claims. It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that there’s a world of a difference when one religion that states that there is no God and another one that asserts it, and one could obviously not sweep this inconsistency under the carpet and term it as ‘insignificant’ or ‘non-essential.’ To ignore or to collapse every single difference and contradiction into a single voluminous salad bowl of beliefs is like thinking the earth is flat.

Christianity is not a system of man's search for God but a story of God's search for man. Throughout the Bible, man-made religion fails but God continues to reach down, in spite of our failure. There is no human way up the mountain, only a divine way down. Of course, if these roads to salvation were indeed man made, it would indeed be stupid and arrogant to absolutise any one of them. But if God made the road and the path, He must indeed be a fickle and schizophrenic deity who enjoys confusing his creation by creating contradictory alternatives. But if He made only one path – One Way, One Truth and One source of Life, His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ and the Church which he has left behind as that one certain path for all humanity – then it is humility and not arrogance to accept this one road from God, and it is arrogance, not humility, to insist that all our manmade roads are as good as God’s God-made one.

The Second Vatican Council took a position that distinguished Catholicism from both modernist relativism, that all religions are either the same or that they all have relative value, and fundamentalist exclusivism, which proposes that only the adherents of one religious position can be saved whilst others are damned. The Council taught that on the one hand there is much deep wisdom and value in other religions and that the Christian should respect them and learn from them. But, on the other hand, the claims of Christ and his Church can never be lessened, compromised, or relativised. The Church continues to proclaim that God intends the salvation of all, and he does so through the mediation of His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Church, which is His Body. And yet those who through no fault of their own do not know Christ or His Church, but who follow the dictates of their conscience as prompted by the Spirit, may also be saved. But their salvation too comes from Christ and never apart from Him.

Though the world may appear to be free market place of ideas, opinions, theologies and ideologies, where we are constantly tempted to come up with a recipe or salad of ideas, we Christians have already made our choice. There may be many rivers which may ultimately lead to the sea, but there is only one Way, one Truth and one Life that leads to Heaven, it is Christ, for He is both the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Source of Life itself and its destined End.