Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Living Sacrifice

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Every dimension of human existence can, and often does, require sacrifices. There are certain things that we have to give up, that are taken away from us, and so forth. But according to the great 4th century Doctor of the Church, St Augustine, no sacrifice could properly be termed a “sacrifice” unless if it is offered to God. “A true sacrifice is anything that we do with the aim of being united to God in holy fellowship – anything that is that is directed towards that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. It follows that even an act of compassion towards men is not a sacrifice, if it is not done for the sake of God. Although it is performed by man, sacrifice is still a divine thing, as the Latin word indicates: “sacrum facere”, “holy-doing” or “holy-making”. Only God can “make holy.”

Today, St Paul exhorts us in the second reading to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices”. What could he mean by this? The language is of a sacrificial ritual well known to the Jews. Under the Old Covenant, God accepted the sacrifices of animals. Notice that the priests were offering dead sacrifices, not living sacrifices. According to the ritual, those offerings, or at least parts of them, had to be destroyed. By destroying them – burning them on the altar, for example, or giving them to the priests, who had no farms or land of their own – faithful Israelites acknowledged that those good gifts, and their own lives which depended on those gifts, belonged first and foremost to God. The sacrifices, then, were a form of worship. In all cases, ritual sacrifices provided a way for believers to bring themselves, their work, and their communities into communion with God, to make them holy.

Instead of offering ritual sacrifices of grain and bulls in order to gain God’s favours, which is what happened in the Old Covenant, Christians are now called to a different mode of worship. In the old mode of worship, good things were destroyed. But this would be different in the New Covenant. The sacrifice which Christians are expected to make would be significantly different from that of the Old Covenant - the human body is not presented to be slain, rather they are to be “living sacrifices”. Thank God for that! The body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of Christ is to be presented to God, constantly, day after day. St Paul is commanding his readers to totally give themselves up to God. God asks for total, not partial, devotion—body and soul. We either acknowledge Him as Lord of our entire lives, or we deny him as Lord of any part of it.

For Christians, the ultimate paradigm of sacrifice is Christ. In fact all those sacrifices of old were only shadows of the one true sacrifice, Jesus’ self-offering on the Cross. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary has an eternal dimension and wide ranging implications: it achieves the forgiveness of sins, it roots us more deeply in Christ, it glorifies God most perfectly, and we brought into the love of God by the Holy Spirit. And it was Christ’s sacrifice that makes us holy, not because of anything we can do or earn, but simply because God in his mercy has offered us this grace. In the New Covenant, then, the role of sacrifice has changed. Christ’s sacrifice is now the source of our entering into a right relationship with God.

We are called not to earn God’s mercy by our offerings, but to express our gratitude and our love for God’s mercy – which we have already received through our faith in Christ’s definitive sacrifice on Calvary – through our new way of life. This new way of life, this new life in Christ (the life of the Beatitudes, the life exemplified by the saints) has become our way of deepening our union with God and worshipping him. It is a new way of life based on the commandment of love and at the heart of love is sacrifice. Instead of the ritual sacrifices of the Old Covenant, we are now engaged in the great adventure of making our entire lives into a living sacrifice, an entire life “made holy” in Christ to give glory to God and to lead us to the fulfilment of everlasting union with him in heaven. Growth in discipleship is ultimately growth in the Imitation of Christ: becoming more Christ-like in our thoughts and actions. And that involves sacrifice and hard work. Christian existence, if lived in imitation of Christ, is thereby both a sermon to the world and a sacrifice for the world, since Christians have their share in Christ’s self-sacrifice for the world. Jesus invites us to say a definite “Yes” to the scandal of the cross.

This is the reason why St Peter in today’s gospel takes offense at the cross. He doesn’t only represent the whole of humanity but many of us Christians who wish to escape suffering as much and as long as possible. Thomas A Kempis, the Christian writer of ‘The Imitation of Christ’ commented that: "Many come following Jesus who love his heavenly kingdom but few come looking forward to suffering. Many admire His miracles but few follow Him in humiliation to the cross." How true that is for us too: we admire Jesus, we admire his teaching, we glory in his love for us, but we are far more reticent to accept the humiliation of the cross for ourselves. But that is what is demanded of us. All religions outside of Christianity respond in some way to the problem of suffering by laying out a plan – how can a man flee suffering? In radical contrast, Christ became man in order to suffer, to suffer more than any other person ever has suffered. By inviting St Peter and all of us to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses to follow him, Jesus spells out the paradox of the gospel, that salvation does not consist in eliminating your “I”, as the Buddhist and other esoteric religions would hold, but in sacrificing your “I” for others, which cannot take place without the cross.

As Christ invites us to follow him by denying ourselves and taking up our crosses, in making this unworthy sacrifice of ourselves, we hear not a fearsome challenge to immolate ourselves as a bloody sacrifice as in the past. Rather, what we would hear from him would be closer to the words of the great homilist, St Peter Chrysologus, who tells us that this is what Christ wishes to say to us, “Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death. These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them I draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love. I count it no less to shed my blood: it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds.”

By our lives of sacrifice, we share in the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. In the sacrifice of the Mass, we perpetuate, make present, and apply the continuing effects of Jesus' once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. In summary, our lives in Christ are lives of sacrifice centred on Jesus' sacrifice on Calvary, which continues to be present through the sacrifice of the Mass. Now, as we come to the foot of the cross, it’s with a new sense of commitment, a new sense of affirmation that we come.  We want to offer ourselves, each of us, in his and her own heart, a living sacrifice – soul, body, mind, will to God.  This is our prayer and desire even as we come to the table of the Eucharist this morning/ evening.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Our Mourning Shall be Turned ...

Homily for National Day of Mourning

On this day, my dear brothers and sisters, the day the Church celebrates the Queenship of Mary, on this day when our Nation mourns the loss of so many lives in the downing of MH17, a tragedy following so close to another of recent memory, the missing MH370, we find ourselves once more at the foot of the Cross in all our brokenness and frailty.

The loss of so many innocent human lives, one tragedy trailing another, seem so incomprehensible, so horrific that our human minds and hearts, our frail human emotions fail to come to terms with the immensity of our pain. It is necessary for us, as a community, to come together in human solidarity and in Christian love and support so that, through our common prayer and reflection, we may, in some way, find answers to questions which burden us, to doubts which weaken us and to fears which threaten us. In the darkness of tragedy, in the seeming finality of death, in the continuing apprehension of the unknown of the future, we Christians stand together in the light of Christ, our Saviour. Mary's Queenship and presence in heaven with the saints provides us with a powerful testimony that our hope in the resurrection is not in vain. Death is not the end, but merely a transition to something far greater.

On this National Day of Mourning, It is particularly important to remember the second beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Reading this, we might immediately think it refers to God comforting us when we mourn a loved one’s death. Of course, as believers we do experience God’s consolation in times of loss, but this is just one way the promise of the second beatitude is fulfilled.

According, Pope Benedict XVI, “there are two kinds of mourning. The first is the kind that has lost hope, that has become mistrustful of love and of truth, and that therefore eats away and destroys man from within. But there is also the mourning occasioned by the shattering encounter with truth, which leads man to undergo conversion and to resist evil. This mourning heals, because it teaches man to hope and to love again.” This is the mourning we Christians are undertaking today, the mourning that brings healing and change, not one that traps us in hopeless grieving and which leads to despair.

As our prayers and thoughts reach out today to the many who are grieving the loss of their dear ones, let our mourning be turned into a source of comfort, consolation and healing for them. For the souls of those who have died, let our prayers be a sign of our solidarity with them within the communion of the saints. As we pray for all those who have lost their lives in the skies over Ukraine, and all those whose lives today are filled with anguish because of their loss, let us also pray with urgency and with faith, that the hard hearts of those responsible for this terrible event might somehow be touched by the wave of mourning and sorrow which has been unleashed
, a mourning that heals, brings conversion and teaches man to hope and to love again.

Today, with Mary, we are asked to gaze on Jesus, the Son of God who suffered and died for us on the cross. Though Jesus was a man of sorrows, He was able to endure suffering and pain because He knew that “out of the anguish of his soul” He would “see and be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11). We will never have to go through what Christ did, but we can look to God’s promise of comfort as a similar guarantee that we will one day see our mourning is not in vain, but as the Psalmist assures us, that our mourning will be turned into joy. Requiescat in Pace.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Where Peter is there is the Church

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Ubi Petrus Ibi Ecclesia,” “Where Peter is, there is the Church”, is the famous quote from St Ambrose of Milan. This statement makes an important claim; in fact, an undeniably outrageous claim. It points to the essential centrality of the papacy in relation to the Church’s unity. In other words, it is saying “without the papacy, there is no Church.” Though many would contest and reject the veracity of this claim, popular culture has accorded him a special role, a caricature at best. One such popular image is that St Peter stands as a sort of gatekeeper (“or perhaps, even a goal keeper), guarding the Pearly Gates, the entrance to the heavenly realm – a seemingly ignoble job. Though hardly accurate, the image is derived from the gospel passage we just heard today, where Jesus bestows special prerogatives on Peter.

First, St Peter is given a new name, which in Scripture denotes a change in status or position. Jesus spoke Aramaic and gave Simon the Aramaic name Kepha (Rock) which is “Petra” in Greek and “Peter” in English. The Greek “petra” is feminine so the masculine “Petros” was adopted. If “Petra” refers to a rock, “petros” can refer to a little pebble. This has often been the contention of Protestants who see in the conferment of this name, not a great honour but a subtle insult. Protestants argue that Christ is the only foundation (1 Cor 3:11) attempting thereby to unseat Peter. There is, however, no distinction in Aramaic, between Kepha the “Rock” and Kepha, the Apostle Peter, upon which Jesus would build his Church. Peter is Kepha, He is the rock. In fact, Syriac Christians, who continue to use Aramaic in their scriptures and liturgy, also claim that Jesus, the Rock of Salvation, conferred his own name and title on Peter. This must simply be the greatest honour accorded to any man.

Having been conferred a new title and name, St Peter is also given the metaphorical keys by Christ.  As Jesus, the new King of Israel, re-established the Davidic throne he appointed Peter to the office of royal steward to rule “over the house” of the king. Keys represent primacy and exclusive dominion and this authority was granted to Peter alone. As the steward of Christ’s kingdom, Peter is given the authority to bind and loose. These are keys not of any earthly palace but of heaven itself, which is another way of saying that the issue is linked to salvation. Of course, this entails more than the no-brainer job of opening heaven’s door to the faithful. The term binding and loosing was also familiar in Rabbinic tradition. They represented the legislative and judicial powers of the Rabbinic office. These powers Christ now transferred in their reality here to Peter. To say that St Peter has the key means he can declare certain things to be lawful and others unlawful; that is to bind or to loose, or to prohibit or to permit, or to forgive, and to teach and to govern with the authority of Christ in matters that are necessary for our salvation. In all this, he acts with the power of Christ!

But the authority of the King, officially conferred here on his steward, does not end with the death of the steward. Jesus would not have missed filling up this gaping loophole. The office of a royal steward was a hereditary position. Familiar with their history, the Jews certainly understood that the office of Peter would be filled by successors as was the royal steward’s office in Judah. The steward may die, but the office continues. That is why the keys remain a prominent symbol in the coat of arms of every Pope.

The authority and the power of the Petrine Office, that is the office of St Peter in Christ’s kingdom, which is now handed down to his successors, the popes, is not just a point of contention with the Protestants who clearly reject it, but has also become a scandal of sorts for Catholics. Irony has it that the rock, the foundation of our Church and our faith, has in fact become a stumbling block to critics, dissenters and persons who often treat their personal opinions as dogmas. For many people nowadays, there is something of a sense of skepticism about institutions – we tend to think of them as overly bureaucratic, slow to respond as if they were intentionally established to hold us back and slow us down. Our modern notion of democracy has also instilled in us a suspicion of arbitrary power, especially so much power centred on one single person. In fact, this expression has entered into the English language, “the Dread of Popery.” A belief popularly held by many is that no one individual should have unfettered powers of decision. Perhaps, the real point of contention is that no one should act like God, or at least act with divinely instituted powers.

Ultimately, in rejecting the authority of Peter and that of the Popes, one inadvertently but necessarily rejects the testimony of Scripture and in doing so we reject the authority of Christ; because Peter is his choice. Of course, this link between rejecting the Chosen of God and the God who chooses is not confined to the papacy. Throughout Scriptures, we see God’s choices of leadership often been called into question because these do not conform to our own criteria of suitability for a candidate. In fact, God often chooses the least likely to succeed – the youngest or the oldest, the frailest, the most insignificant, the candidate most likely to fail. The choice of God often highlights his absolute sovereignty and gratuitousness, rather than a decision based on the extraordinary qualities of the candidate. The chosen man often has nothing to offer and can do nothing himself, but instead relies heavily on grace and the power of God. At the end of the day, God takes all the credit, not man.

When God founded the Church, he founded a visible body, a visible body with a visible head, and that visible head had a name – Peter. The institution of the Papacy and the authority attached to this office is of divine institution. This was no human invention - the apostles did not come together and decide this. The Papacy and his authority was not the result of political manipulation. Quite the opposite, it is Our Lord who establishes this institution. It is Christ who builds and not Peter. It is not our choice, it is not our wisdom who picked out this apostle. The primacy of Peter is a primacy willed by God and not created by men.

If you have any confusion in your mind where that Church is, when faced with all those conflicting voices that inevitably always sound sincere and credible, if there are different claims to the Truth, you can know with certainty where the church is, Jesus assures us, “I give you a marker, a beacon – look for Peter.” Peter will be a point of stability, a guarantee and an assurance that the Church will not be fazed even when everything shifts. In a market place filled with various ideological options, where the search for certainty and stability is often frustrated, the Papacy provides us with clear direction. Where do I find the fullness of the Lord? Where do I find His Mystical Body, and not just a body that I have constructed? Then we only need go back his words, “On this rock, I will build my church.” “Where Peter is there is the Church.” Of course, the Holy Father remains utterly human, he sins as you and I sin. He may have opinions as we do. But when he teaches in his office as Pope, we can have confidence that Christ speaks definitively through him. He is indeed a gift from God.

I started with a quote from St Ambrose of Milan. Actually, the entire quote sounds like this, “Ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia, et ibi ecclesia vita eternal." Where Peter is there is the Church, and where there is the Church there is life eternal! If you want to know where the Church of Christ is, find Peter, and you will find the Church, and if you have found the Church and come to love Her and Her counsel and humbly submit yourself to the authority of Peter’s Successors, then be sure that you are on the sure path to eternal life.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dignity in Begging

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Times Year A

Can there be dignity in begging? I guess the first answer that springs to your mind is a definite “No!” Begging is the most undignified, the most degrading and humiliating act that we can possibly think of. Even those who are responsible for helping us dispose our trash are much better off – at least they can retain some dignity in claiming that they are doing an honest job. But then again, there’s a Japanese saying that goes like this, “It’s a beggar’s pride that he’s not a thief.” We’ve often been taught from childhood, “Never beg, never plead.” Begging is for losers. Begging means that you want something for free, and are asking the person to give up something for free, with nothing in return for it. And so, frequently, beggars are disdained or despised, labelled as lazy and worthless. Perhaps, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that begging is the most disgraceful ways of earning livelihood and we would consider that only the weak, the slothful, and the shameless would stoop so low as to engage in this.

But did it ever occur to you that when someone begs, he’s begging for more than just loose change or financial assistance. Most of us fail to realise that we sometimes end up begging in moments of desperation. Perhaps, what we really are begging for is to be treated with kindness. We are begging for someone to understand. Ultimately, we are begging for love and attention. It’s no fun, though. In fact, we hate the shame and the embarrassment that comes with having to debase ourselves to get what we one. But, we desperately want to be treated as a human person, and so it takes great courage and great sacrifice to humiliate ourselves in order to get that respect.

Today, we see Jesus meeting a Canaanite woman who comes begging him to heal her little daughter who is possessed by an unclean spirit. The Canaanite woman, instead of losing her dignity in groveling at the feet of Jesus, demonstrated astounding perseverance and dignity when opposition arrived from the disciples. The disciples were protective of Jesus and wished to ensure that he had much needed rest and privacy after a long tiring journey. But, the Canaanite woman showed that she had the poise of presence, the perseverance in character and the peace of mind that no one could fake, shake or take. If the woman pleaded relentlessly, the disciples were equally hard on Jesus to turn her away. Both factions, unfairly matched (12 against 1), were busy waging a “begging” war. Her fortitude would prove victorious. She will not be silenced by the disciples; she will not be deflected politely by Jesus' gentle bit of self definition when he says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Instead, she keeps on pushing; she won't stay in her place.  So Jesus speaks to her as he had been taught.  "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 

The harsh words of Jesus would certainly shock many of us. Not the politest thing to say to a friend, what more a stranger, and a woman at that. The aloofness of Jesus is also equally disturbing as this reduces the woman to the humiliating level of having to beg at his feet. Some would even suggest that Jesus, having been conditioned by his own Jewish background, was a bigot and a racist. We are offended today because we are preoccupied with our own innate dignity and worth. But perhaps, the actions and words of Jesus are meant to be catechetical. He was teaching his own disciples an important lesson using this life situation to demonstrate what he had been teaching them all along. Thus, the story becomes a living parable.

In the usual way, the gospels often introduce irony as a device to awaken us to the reality of Kingdom of God. Here, the woman is described as a Canaanite. Canaan was the old name for the land of Palestine or Israel before the time of Abraham. If anyone was deserving of being a child of the soil, a bumiputra, it would have to be her. The Canaanites declined in numbers and many were forced into exile with the invasion of the new migrants, the Israelites. It’s interesting how we are witnessing a replay of this tragedy in the ongoing conflict between the Jewish state of Israel and the Palestinian homeland. Though, the Jews were fond of calling all Gentiles “dogs,” it would appear that this Canaanite woman was indeed a true daughter of Israel.

Her right to such an honour did not come from birth. Neither did it come from her ancestral claims to the land. It came from her faith, which epitomises the faith of a true disciple as enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount. She was part of the True Israel that Jesus had come to establish, as opposed to the Old and False Israel. Membership in the True Israel did not come from lineage or the purity of one’s blood line nor did it even come from rigorous and scrupulous observance of the Law. Ultimately, the most essential criterion for membership in the True Israel, according to the Gospel of St Matthew, is that the person, the disciple, listens to, adheres and finally does whatever he has learnt from Jesus, and in observing all that has been taught by Jesus, does the will of the Father perfectly. So rather than be excluded by Jesus’ professed mission to the lost sheep of Israel, the Canaanite woman is revealed indeed to be one of the targets and beneficiaries of his mission.

A superficial glance would have left us with one of three options. We can choose to a) respect her courage and tenacity or b) pity her for her predicament of having to suffer the humiliation of begging or c) judge her negatively as weak for having stooped so low to get what she wanted. But there is another angle left untouched. The Canaanite woman is the embodiment of the reversal of values in the Beatitudes that sits at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. She helps us see the profound blessedness of the poor in spirit, the weak and the marginalised. Rather than being regarded as “blessed” and the “meek” inheritors of the earth, the poor are generally scorned as weak, slothful and diseased. Here, it is her poverty that will show up her blessedness.

The Canaanite woman has proven to us that there is dignity in begging, it is the beatitude that comes from being counted as poor in spirit. She had rid herself of pride, she had sacrificed every ounce of her dignity, because she knew that Jesus was her last and only hope. There was no need to act high and mighty. She may be accused of pawning her dignity, but she understood that the man who stood before her would be her true source of dignity and power. Without having heard the Sermon on the Mount, she came with the humble, repentant, mourning, meek and seeking heart that God requires for entry into His Kingdom. Jesus said in Matthew 5:3-6, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Because of her great faith, Jesus granted her request and her little daughter was delivered from the demon. But the woman’s appeal to Jesus was the turning point not only for the well-being of her demon-possessed daughter, but also for the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s kingdom. She proved to the disciples and to all of us, that there is not only great dignity in begging in faith, but there can also be salvation!