Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Authority under the Cover of Charity

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We all know the expression, “Clothes make the man.”  But what does it really mean. Is this about creating an external reality via the perceptions of others? Or do the outer garments we wear affect us on an internal level, which then creates a new external reality? As a priest, I would go with the second. If clothes make the man, then surely vestments makes the priest! This may seem to be an outrageous claim coming from a man of God who is expected to shy away from all displays of vain-glory. But it expresses a sacramental truth about the vestments of a priest.  The vestments of a priest do actually reveal the mystery of who he is – the priest acts and stands in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.  

Of great significance and yet something which is seldom noticed since it is often not visible to the congregation, is the stole – a long narrow band of material worn around the neck of priests.  The stole has ancient origin.  Rabbis wore prayer shawls with tassels as a sign of their authority.  The crisscrossing of the stole also was symbolic of the crisscrossed belts the Roman soldiers wore.  In this sense, the stole reminds the priest not only of his authority and dignity as a priest, but also of his duty to preach the Word of God with courage and conviction. Though, the stole is a sign of a priest’s authority, it is properly worn underneath, indeed hidden beneath the chasuble, the outer garment of the priest. The chasuble is a symbol of the charity or love of Christ. Taken together, the stole beneath the chasuble reminds the priest that authority is never to be flaunted but always exercised under the cover of charity.  

But the common perception of authority is anything but charitable. One tragedy of our time is that “authority” has become almost a dirty word in the Western world, while opposition to authority in schools, families and society generally is cheerfully applauded. “Authority” is a word that makes most people think of law and order, direction and restraint, command and control, dominance and submission. Authority in all its incarnation is often regarded as the denial or suppression of our personal freedom. Many hate the very idea that anyone or any power could ever tell them what to do. The problem that we face today is not that we attempt to hide authority under the cover charity, but that we choose to bury it altogether!

Perhaps, the real reason for this widespread dislike and suspicion of authority is that we often equate it with power. Yes, authority is related to power, but they are two entirely different concepts. Power is the ability to influence the outcome of events. Power may be correctly used power, when it is tied to authority; or it may be incorrectly used power; it may be power exerted by sheer force and coercion. Authority, on the other hand is rightful or legitimate power. Therefore, someone with authority does not only have power, but can legitimately and rightfully wield that power. It is power without authority that spells trouble. If authority speaks about our dependence on and relation to the one who confers it, blind power often suggests independence from any source. This is the crux of the problem today – we want power but have little regard for real authority.

Scripture, by using two Greek words, makes a distinction between power and authority.  Dunamis” is usually translated as “power,” from which we get our word ‘dynamite.’ “Dunamis” implies power, strength or even violence. In the New Testament, this is often associated with the ability to do miraculous things. Whereas, the Greek word “exousia” is usually translated as “authority” and suggests jurisdiction, right, and strength. Jesus indeed had dunamis, but more importantly He had exousia, the authority of the Son of God. Indeed, as the Gospel of St Matthew attests, “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Jesus Christ. And that very same authority has been entrusted to the apostles and to the Church. Without such God-given authority, the exercise of power would be ruinous. Instead of being a gift, power can become a great source of temptation.

In today’s gospel, Jesus exhibits power in driving out a demonic spirit but more significantly his teaching was recognised by the people as one “with authority.” But they do not fully understand that authority. At this stage of the gospel, only the demon is able to recognise him, for the power of evil knows its adversary, it knows that the time of its defeat and destruction has come. The demon understands that Jesus comes with the authority of God. The story reflects the great cosmic battle between the power of God and that of evil, where God proves to be triumphant. At the very same time, this story helps us understand how the Greek word “exousia” can also mean freedom and liberty. The authority of Christ is one which frees man from enslavement to sin and evil.

But not all exercise of power is liberating. When power is separated from authority, it descends into authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is authority corrupted, twisted. Authoritarianism appears when the submission that is demanded cannot be justified in terms of truth or morality. Authoritarianism betrays an imperious mentality that thinks that one’s actions must always be without constraint. Authoritarianism often involves a greasy, sneaky and even manipulative abuse of power. But perhaps the most insidious distortion of authoritarianism is that it actually denies legitimate authority in order to hold that authority for oneself autonomously. All these examples show the problems that happen when authority is twisted. But true authority is sacrificial and giving. Such authority is a  matter of service rather than one which lords over others. It is an authority that liberates rather than one which subjugates and enslaves. And just as a priest wears his stole beneath his chasuble, there can be no true exercise of authority unless it is exercised with charity. And when true authority is abdicated, so is love abandoned.

Today, modern man fails to recognise the irony of his predicament. He believes that the rejection of any external authority, especially in the area of moral authority, will guarantee his personal liberty and freedom. On the contrary, the drift from the authority of Truth – indeed from acknowledging any external authority at all, whether it be the authority of God or of the Church, is producing disintegrated, distracted and self-absorbed individuals and a disordered and anarchic society. We are indeed possessed by demons of a different kind, waiting for emancipation that can only come when we recognise the authority of God. Real freedom is only ever found under authority — God’s authority in Christ and that same authority now exercised by the Church. It is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to him every moment, in every endeavour and relationship; not to exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them.

When the Church and its leaders exercises authority today, it does so at the service to Charity and Truth. When the Church and its leaders continue to teach, to sanctify and to govern with authority, they do so in the name of Christ, Our Teacher, High Priest and Shepherd. When they act with authority, they make present the voice of Christ who continues to proclaim the timeless gospel message: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and Believe in the good news.” And so when these leaders abdicate their authority in the name of misplaced democracy or as a cultural compromise, they set aside more than just their own personal power. They act not under their own authority but that of another, of Christ. This is the reason why their stoles are worn under their chasubles. It is no simple fashion statement, but a reminder that the hallmark of the priesthood, in fact the hallmark of all authority is pastoral charity.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Time for Change

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

How many times a day do we ask the question, "What time is it?" Sounds like a simple enough matter until we take the time to think about it. It’s not as if we can’t tell the time with all our time-keeping devices from wrist watches, to smart phones, to wall clocks. Often, the question suggests that it’s more than chronological time that we are concerned about but rather the significance of the hour, whether it be the appointment we are to keep, the dateline we have to meet, or the lateness of the hour.

In the English language, there is an accepted commonsense notion of “time”. This notion of “time” suggests a measured unit of the ongoing duration of life- it’s measurable by the ticking of the clock, the realm of time and space we all inhabit. Time measures life chronologically, in a linear manner. In the Greek New Testament many words allude to time. The Greek word for this common-sense notion of “time” is chronos, thus giving rise to the English derivate, “chronological.” Time moves chronologically. But there is another sense of “time” in our English language: The time is right! This time speaks of the moment of opportunity – the opportune moment, the hour of decision. One understands this sense of time as the right moment to act. The Greek word for this second meaning of “time” is kairos. Kairos, therefore refers to the moment for decision.

If time is so important to man, that it affects every aspect of his life, time is even more important to God. God is working out his purposes across time. On the other hand, God is not strictly bound by time, either. When God, the timeless One, enters into our discussion of temporal time, the timeline of history is extended beyond any possibility of human calculation. Salvation history reads human history quite differently - History has a beginning in God, it has its centre in Christ and its end in the final consummation and the Last Judgment.

In today’s gospel, we see the consequence and conclusions stemming from Jesus’ declaration that “the time has come.” This is no ordinary time that he speaks of. Here the words of Jesus points to that great moment of Kairos, to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into our earthly and temporal reality, the moment that poses the most urgent decision to every listener who hears this announcement – to either follow Christ or remain unchanged by this encounter. Thus, kairos has become heightened time, a time bursting forth with meaning, a moment pregnant with possibilities. In that very announcement of the gospel of Christ, we see the God-given moment of destiny not to be shied away from but seized with decisiveness; the floodtide of opportunity, the unseen waters of the future surge down to the present, when heaven touches earth and the earth is aligned to heaven in a conjunction that will never be witnessed again. Since that “time,” our experience of time will no longer be the same.

If Kairos is the moment of decision, the moment of action, the moment of change, what is that decision, or action or change that must be undertaken? The words that follow immediately after the announcement of kairos time sets out the path we must follow, “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Pope Paul VI observed: "These words constitute, in a way, a compendium of the whole Christian life."  They are the sum and substance of being Christian.  This is the Gospel in a nutshell. To repent and believe the good news is nothing less than a spiritual paradigm shift, a spiritual revolution. It is the divine turning point, God turns to man in a way that was unprecedented and never anticipated, inviting man to turn to God in the most radical of ways. The Greek word “metanoia” expresses this reality.

Literally, metanoia is the state of thinking differently. When one tries to translate the word metanoia, one immediately runs into difficulties: change of mind, reconsidering, remorse, repentance, turning back, conversion are available, but none of these words exhausts the contents of the original meaning. But it is apparent from the Scriptures, however, that the change involves more than the adoption of an attitude, a philosophy, or a manner of life because it involves an encounter with God in the Person of Jesus Christ. 

As Pope Benedict XVI put it in his book Credo for Today: “Metanoia . . .  is actually the fundamental Christian act, understood, of course, in terms of one very definite aspect: the aspect of change, the act of turning, of becoming new and different.  In order to become a Christian, a human being must change, not merely in one place or another, but unconditionally, down to the very bottom of his being.” The person of Jesus is very clearly at the heart of metanoia.  We encounter the Lord Jesus who calls us by name.  We have two options: continue on our way, or metanoia.  We either follow our own path or follow Jesus on the way. There is no third way.  And if we decide for metanoia, we opt for a radical, interruptive change of our entire being.  The person who encounters and decides to follow Jesus resolves to give the Lord Jesus his all.  There is nothing – absolutely no holding back.  Metanoia means a resolve to turn to Jesus with all our heart, soul, mind and strength throughout our entire lives.

It is obvious, then, that metanoia is not a one-time change of heart, a one-time action, but a continual, constant, perpetual, habitual resolve to change one's heart to follow only one master, and one master alone: Jesus.  That decision therefore includes a rejection of anything that opposes itself to this decision, whether it is something in ourselves or something outside of us. The Christian metanoia hears but one voice--the voice of his or her Beloved- and that is not the voice of "everybody," of prevailing standards, of the majority, of a particular political party, of academia, of celebrities, of ever-shifting convention, or even our laws.  No.  The Christian metanoia does not result in us turning into reeds shaken by the wind – into “lallang”.  The fidelity to the Lord that is part of metanoia gives the Christian the courage to make the break," a break from all false convention, all peer pressure, all false standards and ideals, so as to gain true freedom, a freedom the world does not, cannot offer.  In metanoia, we can honestly say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” 

Every Christian, therefore lives in two time zones – the temporal and eternal. When kairos intersects kronos, the decisive moment has already come. Every single moment becomes deathly urgent. At every single moment, we stand at the threshold of Judgment Day. “The Time has come,” it’s D-Day.  No more time for procrastinating or dilly dallying. No more time left for half-hearted commitment. No more time for casual deliberation and long-term planning. The urgency of the hour of grace and judgment is upon us. Today, Christ stands at the door of your heart knocking. It’s time to open the door and let him in. Time to heed the call to repentance and to whole-heartedly believe in the Lord of Time and History. Time to stop walking away, but start walking in the direction of Christ. Do not delay!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Disturb Us Lord

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We often overlook those moments when God speaks to us, those times when He “disturbs” our lives and shakes us out of our slumber and complacency. To be honest, we often hate to move out of our well-defined and secure comfort zone. Could it be that we miss those moments because we tend to look for dramatic evidence of God’s direction, when ordinary instances abound, if only we were aware of them? Or could we be that we perceive that the goal of our faith is to acquire blissful moments of pure relaxation, free of all disturbances or trouble.  Most of us would certainly not dare to utter a prayer such as this:

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

This prayer was originally written by the British seaman and explorer Sir Francis Drake, regarded as a war-hero to the English but viewed as a notorious pirate to the Spanish. Whether viewed as either a hero or villain, a saint or sinner, the prayer of Francis Drake resonates with the experiences of the persons figured in today’s readings. These are stories of persons not disturbed by the troubles of the world. These are stories of persons disturbed by grace. These are stories of how the Prince of Peace comes to disturb our peace. If the Prince of Peace is to bring real peace, he must expose the contradictions that are robbing us of that real peace, and expose himself to the angry denials and hostility of those who are exposed.  

In the first reading, we have Samuel, who’s slumber has been disturbed by none other than God himself who calls him to a prophetic ministry that would thereafter define his life. From the secure and risks free life as a priest’s apprentice, he is now summoned by God to the often dangerous task of appointing kings, challenging them and finally revoking the mandate that had been granted by God to rule the nation. The Lord has come to disturb Samuel from his peaceful slumber so that he may disturb the conscience of the king and the nation and call them to repentance in order to liberate them from the evil that had enslaved them.

In the gospel, the first disciples of Jesus are called. Their contented lives as disciples of another renowned preacher, St John the Baptist, is shaken up and disturbed by the call to follow the Lamb of God. Let us not be mistaken by the gentle and harmless appearance of this lamb. It is the Lamb of the Book of Revelation, which has come to judge the world and destroy evil. It is the lamb, prophesied by Isaiah, who will be led to slaughter and his vicarious suffering would prove to be redemptive and salvific. He is the new Paschal Lamb whose blood will not only save an enslaved Israel but lead the whole of humanity from slavery to sin into the freedom of being made children of God. This is no soft cuddly pet, but the One who has come to set the hearts of his followers aflame with the fire of God’s love.

These men’s cautious distance would be upended when Jesus turns around and puts a disturbing question to them, “What are you looking for?” Isn’t this the perennial question of every searching soul? It is as if they cannot put into the words the deep longings and stirrings within their heart, that they ask a question in return,” Master, where do you live?” In reply, Jesus issues the invitation which he issues to all of us, “Come and see!” Only one who accompanies will see.  Jesus’ invitation was more than social niceties or oriental hospitality.

To “come and see” is to recognise that we have fallen in love with life and all its illusions, and we have lost our thirst for the waters of life. To “come and see” means to be disturbed and shaken out of our accustomed comfort with sin. To “come and see” means to widen our vision beyond what seems familiar to us. To come and see means going out on a limb into unchartered territories. To come and see means to abandon everything in order that we may possess everything in the person of Christ, the treasure beyond compare. The call of the gospel reveals to us the breathtaking glory and loveliness of God, and in so doing, it lures our heart away from love of self and leaves us enthralled by Him instead. 

If you are lost, confused and without direction, come and see. If you have wondered if there really can be meaning to this life, come and see. If you ache with a pain that soaks up any good feelings, come and see. And even if you are feeling deliriously happy, content, and full beyond compare, still come and see. To be honest, there are no adequate words to describe the experience of being in the presence of a living God, a loving God, a creator God who knows us without qualification, and a saving God who loves us just as we are. A love that is unyielding in its desire for you. A power beyond measure. Not in coercive control of our actions, but in deep compassion for our being. It is peace. Real peace. Satisfying enduring peace. It is very unlike the peace of the world, the kind of peace that you are often fighting to preserve. In finding this peace, we come to understand the prayer of St Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Today, Jesus continues to ask, “What are you looking for?” and to challenge, “come and See!” the disturbing but transforming power of his grace is still present and his Spirit is still calling disciples. You will only hear his voice when you are ready to be disturbed by his grace. We come to realise that even in our sin, failure and limitation, we do not have to journey to find an elusive God. We have only to turn into our hearts to find the God who never stops calling us, the God who never stops disturbing us, the God who never stops searching for the lost sheep, because this is a God who will never stop loving us.
“Disturb us, Lord … Disturb us!”