Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Waiting vigilantly

First Sunday of Advent Year B

No one likes waiting, seriously. The proliferation of instant foodstuffs on supermarket shelves, speedy internet connections, online banking is evidence of it. Who likes to wait in long lines and be subjected to the humiliation of having to wait your turn? No, we simply have no time for waiting. When we are forced to wait, we believe that there is something seriously wrong with the system or the device. When an elevator takes a long to time to arrive, we give the button another series of rapid jabs. Waiting drives us crazy. So we fight it. Rushing, running, planning, speeding, doing. Instant gratification is our answer to waiting. Waiting time is wasted time, and none of us can afford to waste even a minute.  

But didn’t our parents and today’s parents still teach us how to wait patiently. They say things like – “No, not now, you can have that when you're older.” “Just wait a while and I'll get it for you.” “Wait until your birthday.” “Wait a bit, and just be patient.” “Wait, don’t open your present yet. Wait, don’t start singing Christmas carols yet. It isn’t Christmas!” But if the last example is anything to go by, waiting is a hard lesson to learn.

So what do we do when God asks us to wait? We do what we do when anyone else asks us to wait. We fight it. We rebel. When God asks us to wait we respond by doing. We transfer our busy-ness from the life of the world into the life of the Kingdom. We begin to interpret our busy-ness as being busy with the work of the Kingdom. We fight God’s call to wait because we mistakenly define waiting as worthlessness, as waste, as doing nothing. But what if we’re wrong? What if there is merit in waiting, even grace?

Advent is a time of waiting. But how are we to wait? It is important to note that this kind of waiting is not waiting passively. On the contrary, waiting for God is an active waiting. It requires not that we do nothing, but that we do only what we can do. Waiting actively means not trying to do God’s work for Him. For those who faithfully waited for God’s defining intervention in liberating Israel from its woes, God broke into the world in a new and unexpected way. The Word became flesh - that was never expected to be part of the deal. Active waiting requires profound humility – we must know our limits. We cannot set the timetable, we cannot determine the action plan, we cannot dictate the solution. Which, in turn, requires slowing down, listening and making ourselves vulnerable to God’s will and plans. Therefore, waiting makes us keep in step with God’s timing, to prepare us for what He wants to give us in life, and to sift our motives.

Active waiting requires us to do exactly what Jesus tells his disciples today, “Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come.” Our Church year begins with this Gospel that makes a call for vigilant waiting, since the time of the Lord’s coming is uncertain. Notice here that Christmas has a firm date, but the Lord’s coming into our life and death, into the life and consummation of the Church does not. It is as if, the Church, through the liturgical year, provides us with this constant caution and exhortation, that Advent could be at any time, at any place, and on any occasion. And so we must always be on our guard, we must always be awake, because we will never be able to predict when the Lord will come and where we must give an account of the time and opportunities that have been entrusted to us.

In today’s gospel, Jesus gives us a parable about a man who goes on a journey. He doesn’t tell his servants where he is going or when he will come home again. He leaves his servants in charge of his home and property and gives them work to do while he is away. He then leaves and his last word to his servants as he closes the front door is to be diligent and ready for his return, whenever that might be.

There is an element of danger implicit in this parable. From this and other, similar teachings of Jesus we learn that danger may come from without or within. The danger that comes from without is often represented by the darkness of night and the grim possibility that some robber, under cover of the darkness, will dig through the earthen walls of the house to steal what is inside. This is representative of the very real, destructive evil of sin in our world. The danger that comes from within is the danger of becoming lax about one's behaviour or becoming indifferent to the danger or to the master's return - perhaps becoming drunk, mistreating the other servants, or both. Whatever the source of the danger, the only effective approach is to be alert, careful - watchful. At one level, it means that we need to be watchful against our sworn enemy the devil, to guard against sin and the occasions of sin. To be watchful also means doing the work the Master has assigned us to do. Though, we may all have different responsibilities and duties, each have to be accountable to the Master over that which has been assigned to him or to her. 

We are in the time between Jesus’ first and second comings and Jesus has told us to watch and wait, doing the jobs he has given us to do. As we do unto others as he did unto us; when we give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothes to the poor and visit those who are sick or in jail; as we make disciples of all nations, we are working and waiting for Christ’s return. We may not know the date, time or circumstances of his return. But one thing that we can know from the scriptures -  Jesus will return, and like the servant in the parable, his absence must not lull us into forgetting about the master and what he wants us to do, but to actively wait and be prepared for whenever that moment of his arrival might be.

So, let us wait with great expectancy and hope. The work of the kingdom of God, the work of the Master has been entrusted to you and me, his servants. And he expects us to be faithful servants. There is little point in worrying and fretting over when the master will return. Neither should we be lulled into a complacency that would dull our sense of readiness for his return. The most important concern we have is that we faithfully carry out the work he has given us to do so that when he does return he will find us faithfully working on those tasks he has given us. As faithful servants, we must “wait.” Yes, we must “wait,” for to wait is the mark of obedience, the expression of humility, and the sign of our willingness to do the Master’s will.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Who are you to Judge?

Christ the King Year A 

One of the most oft-quoted and certainly misquoted phrases of our Holy Father, must certainly be the one he made in one of his signature off-the-cuff interviews with the media, “Who am I to judge?” It was splashed in headlines across the world, with the additional commentary that Pope Francis had now given his papal approval to homosexuality. The media coverage on the recently concluded extraordinary synod of family, which hinted that the Church was on the verge of doing just this, did not help. Of course the real context of the Pope’s interview, if anyone really bothered to discover since it’s of little news value, is that the statement was made in reaction to questions about the Vatican Bank scandal, the questionable past exploits of the bank officer who was involved in the aforementioned saga and a particular clandestine gay lobby working within the Curia. The entire quotation is certainly more sedated and may not rate as something sensational enough to be published.

Here it is: “There’s a lot of talk about the gay lobby, but I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card. When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalised. The tendency is not the problem … they’re our brothers.” Now, if anyone also took the trouble to research Catholic moral teaching on the issue, they would discover that the Pope merely resonated the Church’s position on the matter – homosexual acts, just like any other acts against chastity, is sinful. But that doesn’t mean that someone who has homosexual orientation or tendency is evil. In fact, the Church advocates special pastoral care and support to be given to those who struggle with this orientation. A person with a homosexual orientation, just as someone who has a heterosexual orientation, is equally called to a Christian life of purity and chastity.

It’s funny how the phrase “who am I to judge” and its derivation, “don’t judge me,” have become an over-used defence that validates every sort of behaviour and excuses us from being accountable to moral truths. The injunction can never be an approbation of sinful behaviour. In fact, charity demands that we speak out against evil and sin, and when we do so, we are really showing love of our neighbour and a concern for their soul. In fact, it is a lack of charity when sin is ignored. But, then how do we understand Jesus when he tells us not to judge? Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven.” Well, today’s feast provides us with the answer. To judge in the manner of condemning others would be tantamount to usurping the authority of God and Christ. It is Christ who stands as Judge over us and not we who act as judges over others or even God. The divine power to judge each and every person belongs to the Son of Man.

The Church year closes with a description of Christ’s last judgment. Christ is indeed the King of the universe, as he sits triumphantly on his throne of glory, but Christ is also its Judge. We see two themes interwoven into this magnificent scene of the Final Judgment. The first and central theme is that everything we do or do not do to the least of our brethren is done or not done to him. The second theme is also found in the same place: if the first theme is the absolute criterion, then those who undergo judgment must be completely separated into right and left, eternal reward and eternal punishment. The final judgment is not just for show, where everyone will receive the same sentence of a general acquittal and all be admitted to heaven, a popularly held belief. There will be judgment and sentencing. Our actions in this life will ultimately determine our final fate – we will reap what we have sown.

But the interesting thing about this parable of judgment is that the second theme depends on the first, which provides the decisive teaching given by the entire tableau: the judging, glorious King shows his solidarity with the least of his brothers. Christ unites himself with the hungry, the thirsty, with aliens and the homeless, with the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned. And here lies the irony, a truth that we should ponder constantly: in the most miserable of our fellow men we have already met our Judge. Therefore, today’s gospel provides the criteria by which the eschatological judge will formulate his verdict.

And the ultimate criterion of his judgment will be love, active love, overflowing into simple deeds of goodness and charity. The works of charity in regard to one's neighbour are a fundamental element of the judgment. Christ identifies himself precisely with this neighbour. The small, routine, and seemingly insignificant deeds we do to our neighbour have profound ramifications of eternal proportions for us, and upon these shall we be separated sheep from goats. From the gospel we learn that it is not by earth-shaking deeds or headline making activities. Simple and often obscure acts of love, of which anyone, at anytime, is capable, are the deeds which wield his power in time and space.

A frightening and yet challenging thought remains with us from today’s gospel: those who were condemned to eternal punishment were separated from the just, not for dastardly deeds or heinous crimes, but for the little acts of love they had neglected to do. In failing to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, provide consoling support to the sick, they had summarily rejected not only their king and his reign but their own inheritance of salvation as well. And certainly the failure to correct our brother when he errs must surely count as not just as being polite and non-judgmental, but really a neglect of charity. We can even hear a modern paraphrase that could sound like this, “where were you when I needed correction and direction to be led back to the path of repentance?” And so while we still enjoy the mercy of time, we can and should awaken ourselves and others to the presence of Christ’s reign and seek out the message of need in the faces of the poor, the downtrodden and the lost. In so doing, we shall discover the power of our king and establish his reign of peace and love.

Christ is not only our Judge, he is most certainly our Saviour. This is manifested in the whole messianic mission of Christ. Christ does not regard it as his mission to condemn people. He is, first of all, the one who teaches the way of salvation, and not the accuser of the guilty. The nature of divine judgment must therefore be seen in the rejection of Christ’s mission. In the presence of the Light of the World, in the presence of one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, each one is judged by one's own deeds. Man condemns himself when he rejects the possibility of salvation offered to him. In today’s gospel, Christ offers that possibility by teaching us that acts of love would be certain path to salvation. When we refuse to love, when we ignore the needs of others, when we remain silent where we are under duty to speak, when we choose to please our brother by approving his sinful actions, we have already signed our own death warrant.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

With Grace Comes Accountability

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Most people would certainly remember one of the most iconic quotes of the superhero film industry, Uncle Ben’s advise to Spiderman, “With great power comes Great responsibility.” Despite what Marvel and the movies would have us believe, this powerful quote does not come from Hollywood. Some say that the quote is attributed to Francois-Marie Arouet, or better known as Voltaire. On the other hand, I am partial to believe that the quote has a more ancient root, it must have found inspiration in the words of Jesus Christ. Wasn’t it he who said that, “to those who much is given much is required” (Luke 12:48) and who in today’s parable reemphasised that with more “talents” comes greater responsibility?

The familiar parable of the talents found in Matthew 25 is the third in the series our Lord gave his disciples at the close of his great discourse on Mt Olive. After outlining the course of events from the time of his first coming through the destruction of Jerusalem under the Roman armies and the turbulent movements that would flow through the intervening age before he came again, he closes with a word of admonition contained in one word, “watch.” To expound what that word means he has given us three parables. They describe what it means to be watching for his return. The common basic pattern that runs through the three parables is an absent Master, characters who await his coming or return and the judgment which follows. Yes, the story ends with judgment. There is an accounting to be made.

To simply dismiss the message of this parable as having to use our talents and nothing more is over-simplifying matters. This is no X-Factor or Asia’s Got Talent storyline. The theme that is often forgotten in the frequent reading and preaching of this gospel is that it reasserts God’s sovereign authority and that the Kingdom of God belongs to him and not to us. This is similar to the truth we saw in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants of the Vineyard. What we see in this parable, as with others, is that what we have really does not belong to us. Rather, it is purely and entirely a gift from God. It all belongs to God and is on loan to us. And because it is merely on loan to us, we are to be good stewards who will be asked to provide an account of how we have used these gifts on Judgment Day.

This leads us to the second point. More than anything else, the parable speaks of fidelity to the vocation and mission for which God has called us to. In modern parlance, it speaks of accountability. The story really has to do with man giving account before God. We have received such “talents” in trust and not as an absolute right, and are supposed to work with them not only for ourselves but for God. For we owe ourselves, together with all we have, to God. The unfaithful servant was judged not for failing to make as much as the other two servants. His sin was not the lack of business acumen but unfaithfulness to the task that had been entrusted to him. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta often reminds us that we shall be measured not by our success but by our faithfulness. And so, we will ultimately be judged by our fidelity to God’s intention and will, and not by our self-perceived cleverness or productivity.

Each of the servants were allocated different amounts according to their respective abilities, in other words, in a very personalised fashion, but when it came to the reward both the first and the second, who had produced unequal amounts were rewarded equally and given further responsibilities. Since all things belong to God, He has every right to dispense with them as He wishes. This provides us with the crucial lesson that we should never compare our individual lot with that of others, but be concerned with our own responsibility to work out our salvation with what each of us have received. The Little Flower, St Therese de Lisieux, too struggled with this mystery, “Why souls all did not receive the same amount of grace?” According to St Therese, God instructed her by using the metaphor of a garden, “The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.” “God's love is revealed just as much in the most simple soul who does not resist His graces as in the most sublime.” In other words, it’s not how much you possess but how faithful have you been to what had been entrusted to you that matters.

Ultimately, faithfulness to God means having the courage to take bold initiatives in every aspect of our lives, to express our gratitude to God for all that He has given us by making it grow. If we wish to be a disciple of Christ, we must take risk. Why the man who went off and buried his talents – why did he do that?  He wasn’t dishonest or unethical. He could have been lazy, but perhaps, the real reason was fear, as indicated by his excuse to the master.  He took what he felt was the safest part – no action. He felt safer to do nothing rather than take the risk of investing his talents and failing or losing it all.  His ostensible fear let him forget that the nature of the gifts entrusted to him is to produce more – it is a call to be fruitful. Genuine faithfulness must lead to fruitfulness. It is ironic, that he treats a “living” gift as if it were dead, by burying it. His actions bore no fruit, they were barren. Each day we are faced with thousands of decisions and how often do we opt to do nothing rather than taking the risk of doing something.  We worry about what others will think of us, what will happen, if we will look stupid, or if we will fail.  When we are unprepared to take risks for Christ, our lives count for nothing.

To risk means to live dangerously! To risk means to love dangerously! C.S. Lewis wrote, "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements, lock it up safe in the casket or the coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell."

When the master finally returns, there will be an accounting of his resources, of what he had entrusted to each servant. To each of us has been given a certain amount of time, a certain amount of opportunities, a certain amount of gift and graces and a certain amount of talent. At the Final Judgment, God will hold us all accountable. For the unfaithful who chose to take the safe path, who misused the time, resources and opportunities accorded to him and demonstrated unfaithfulness, he will thrown “out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For those who have faithfully served the Master, who chose to take the risk to follow Him even on the path that led to Calvary, who have used his gifts and graces for His glory, this passage reveals a promise, “come and join in your Master’s happiness.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Catecheses in Stone

Solemnity of the Dedication of St John Lateran

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Dedication of the St John Lateran, the first church to be formally dedicated after Constantine allowed Christians to practice their faith freely and openly. Prior to this, the persecuted ‘church’, or the community of Christians clandestinely gathered in “church-houses”, residential homes which included a hall or a room meant for worship and the celebration of the Mass. Many Catholics may not be aware that the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is not the Basilica of St Peter, but the Basilica of St John Lateran. For the above reasons, it is only fitting that the following inscription appears on the façade of this ancient Church, “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput,” meaning “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world.”

The celebration of the dedication or consecration of a building, even though it may be of a church, seems strange and anachronistic to many of us. This risks being seen as some form of architectural idolatry. Are we worshipping a building, rather than worshipping in a building? The fact that the liturgy of the anniversary of this dedication takes precedence over our Sunday liturgy reinforces this suspicion. We have perhaps been told in the past that the Church is not a building but in reality a community of believers, thus a church building seems only secondary to our identity. Such an explanation seems to say it’s more about the “people” than about the “building,” which explains the common caution from good-willed people that we should be busy “building communities” rather than “building churches.” The shop-lot churches of the Protestants perhaps lend greater support to this type of reasoning. We can actually worship anywhere and everywhere. Buildings are just a “necessary evil.”

What we fail to recognise is that such reasoning is not, has never been, and never will be part of Catholic thought. It flies against our sacramental sense of things. The age-old definition of St Thomas Aquinas for a sacrament is “outward sign of inward grace,” constantly reminds us that our material world, so transformed and divinised by the Incarnation, allows us to have a glance of the spiritual and invisible realm. Therefore, St Augustine describes the “church” building as an outward sign of who we are interiorly. "What was done here, as these walls were rising, is reproduced when we bring together those who believe in Christ. For, by believing they are hewn out, as it were, from mountains and forests, like stones and timber; but by catechising, baptism and instruction they are, as it were, shaped, squared and planed by the hands of the workers and artisans. Nevertheless, they do not make a house for the Lord until they are fitted together through love" (St. Augustine, Sermon 36).

The church is catecheses in stone, therefore, it is properly said to be a sacramental building since it makes present to us the realities of heaven and earth at the end of time. The past, the present and the future converge in this architectural image. In the time of shadow, the Temple of Solomon gave us a look at this future glory. In the future, in the time of realisation of the Promise, the celebrations of heaven will be purely communion and feast without need of material mediation. But now, as beings who perceive through the senses, we human beings require the image. The Church building, with its liturgical arts, tells us in a way that nothing else can, what heaven looks like, who is there, and what the nature of redeemed creation might be like. In short, it gives us a “foretaste” of the realities by way of image.

So, a door is not just any door, but a symbol of the Pearly Gates. The holy water font at every door reminds us that baptism is the sacrament that opens the doorway to salvation. The pillars of the Church remind us that the Church of Christ is built on the firm foundation of the Twelve Apostles. The leafy ornamentation above the pillars reminds us of Paradise Regained, where we are permitted once again to feast on fruits of the Tree of Life, once denied to our fallen ancestors. The nave (from the Latin “navis” – ship) of the Church, where the congregation sits, reminds us that we are secure within the hull of the barque of St Peter, the ark of salvation, protected from the raging winds and stormy waves that often threaten but never succeed in breaching the integrity of the Church. The soaring rafters and the company of saints that adorn the Church remind us that we are citizens of the Heavenly City and merely sojourners on earth. The Chair, the ambo and the altar signify to us that it is Christ Himself who shepherds and teaches and who finally offers himself as the Perfect Sacrifice to the Father for our salvation, and who will return on the Last Day to act as both Judge and Saviour. And the Tabernacle with the eternal flame burning at its side reminds us that even in the darkest moments of desolation, when all hope seems lost, Christ is not just symbolically present but truly, really and substantially present to us as food for the journey and the most potent antidote to evil, suffering and death.

This is why a church cannot just be viewed functionally. When liturgical architecture presents merely a functional or at least neutral setting or is viewed as a museum of devotional objects, then the consequences are dire. There is truism in the ancient maxim, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi (the Law of Prayer determines the Law of Belief, which ultimately determines the Law of Life). Thus, a church built purely on considerations of acoustic soundness and seating capacity, one which resembles an auditorium or a convention hall, may actually result in people expecting entertainment and outstanding performances, rather than inspire reverential awe for the purpose of sacred worship. It is no wonder that people are more often found dressed like they are going to the pub or a stroll in the park, rather than coming before the King of Kings, surrounded by His heavenly court.

Often, we hear people commenting how a church looks an airplane hangar or a factory warehouse. This is not just a matter of architectural taste but a statement that the theological reality of the building appears opposed to its architecture. When a Church does not look like the Church, rather than revealing the realities of heaven, it reveals a falsity because it’s very identity is not manifested in its physical expression (a factory is not how we would imagine heaven). It might be a mighty fine factory, but as a church, it is not beautiful, it does not reflect the heavenly liturgy.

As we celebrate the Dedication, the Birthday of our Mother Church, a day where we renew our fraternal communion with our Holy Father and the Church of Rome, we are called to celebrate the beauty of Holy Mother the Church, which is reflected in the beauty of her churches. St John Paul II, writing to artists, reminds them and all of us, “Beauty enthuses us for work, and work is to raise us up.” When he speaks of the work that is being enthused by beauty, he means the labour of prayer. In our fallen earthly condition, in a dehumanising age where man is often valued in a utilitarian way, where despair becomes a constant temptation, we are in need of joy and enthusiasm. The beauty of our Churches inspires both joy and enthusiasm. Thus, such beauty is indeed necessary for salvation. For in them, we receive hope and a constant reminder that we are to become ever more the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Living Stones which make up the Body of Christ, and it is "in him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace." (Eph. 1:7)


Chapter 5 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, reminds us of the following points:

§ 16 § Just as the term Church refers to the living temple, God's People, the term church also has been used to describe "the building in which the Christian community gathers to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, and celebrate the Eucharist." That building is both the house of God on earth (domus Dei) and a house fit for the prayers of the saints (domus ecclesiae). Such a house of prayer must be expressive of the presence of God and suited for the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ, as well as reflective of the community that celebrates there.

§ 17 § The church is the proper place for the liturgical prayer of the parish community, especially the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday. It is also the privileged place for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and reservation of the Eucharist for Communion for the sick. Whenever communities have built houses for worship, the design of the building has been of critical importance. Churches are never "simply gathering spaces but signify and make visible the Church living in [a particular] place, the dwelling of God" among us, now "reconciled and united in Christ." As such, the building itself becomes "a sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and reflects the Church dwelling in heaven." Every church building is a gathering place for the assembly, a resting place, a place of encounter with God, as well as a point of departure on the Church's unfinished journey toward the reign of God.

§ 18 § Churches, therefore, must be places "suited to sacred celebrations," "dignified," and beautiful. Their suitability for worship is determined by their ability through the architectural design of space and the application of artistic gifts to embody God's initiative and the community's faithful response. Church buildings and the religious artworks that beautify them are forms of worship themselves and both inspire and reflect the prayer of the community as well as the inner life of grace. Conversely, church buildings and religious artifacts that are trivial, contrived, or lack beauty can detract from the community's liturgy. Architecture and art become the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the local community, that of preparing human hearts to receive God's word and to enter more fully into communion with God.