Wednesday, February 25, 2015

God did not spare His Own Son

Second Sunday of Lent Year B

There are few lines and promises in scripture that leaves us speechless. But the words of St Paul in today’s second reading must be one of those occasions. He begins with the rhetorical question, “With God on our side, who can be against us?” We already know the answer to that question. No one, absolutely no one can stand against us. “With God on our side, who can be against us?” In fact in a few verses below, St Paul would express his firm convictions “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39) With the certainty that God is for us, who then can be against us?

This speechless grace-filled moment of revelation is depicted visually in the scene of the Transfiguration that we witness today in the gospel. Jesus had predicted his passion and the disciples continue to wrestle with the horror and impact of these words. The Messiah’s words that He would be tortured and killed in Jerusalem would have deeply troubled His disciples. A vision of the crucifixion might have evoked the feeling of despair in Christ’s disciples, the thought that everything was irrevocably lost. It would have shaken their faith to the core. How could they possibly endure this enormous trial that lay ahead of them? No wonder that when it was first announced, it was St Peter who remonstrated with Jesus in order to convince his Master not to proceed with this suicidal plan. Thus, the Transfiguration takes place as God’s answer to their anxieties and concerns. This event, in fact, took place for the purpose of preparing the Apostles for the difficult ordeals of the Passion.

Jesus wanted to show the Apostles closest to him the splendour of the glory that shines forth in him, which the Father confirms with the voice from above, revealing his divine sonship and his Mission. This dual theme of divine sonship and mission recalls the sacrifice of Abraham. You have heard it said that the Transfiguration on Mt Tabor prefigures the future, the Crucifixion on Mt Calvary. But today’s readings, especially the first reading, draws a trajectory to the past, to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on Mt Moriah. The Transfiguration of the Lord was to be the Father’s demonstration of what his “beloved Son” truly is, the One whom he will permit to be slaughtered for and by mankind.

For the Jews, Abraham’s sacrifice is, with good reason, the climax of their relationship with God, and they emphasise that it was a double sacrifice: the sacrifice of a father, who draws his knife, and the sacrifice of a son, who agrees to his own slaughter. But Abraham and his son isn’t the real deal, as the slaughter does not take place. In scriptural language Abraham can be described as being merely a type or anticipation of a future perfection and reality.

The similarities between the story of Abraham’s sacrifice and the fate of Jesus is obvious but also highlights an additional problem. The horror and scandal of God’s decision. There is something disturbing about this event in which a father's faith and trust in God reach their apex. The horror that God would command a father to kill his own son, the son of his own body, is apparent. But there is a greater horror. This was the same son which God had miraculously given to Abraham in his extreme old age, a son destined to accomplish the divine promises. And so when God commands Abraham to kill his own son, it would seem that God contradicts himself. Yet though the command may be incomprehensibly contradictory and defies any human logic, Abraham obeys.

How could we understand this paradox of God? The second reading provides the solution to the apparent paradox – “Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give.” God is not an uncaring father who sadistically wishes ill upon his own son. In the words, he “did not spare him," we hear the immensity of the difficulty and the obstacle. God did not delight in the pain, the dishonour or even the death of his Son. This was an infinitely horrible thing for the Son of God to be treated this way. Sin reached its worst in the hours of His suffering and death. It was exposed for what it really is – an attack on God, a rejection of God, an assault on his rights and his truth and his beauty. And yet knowing the full implications God did not spare his Son this treatment. But why would God do this?

It is here that we see God reveals himself as love in essence, a love that does not contradict itself if it sends the Son of God into real death and thereby fulfils the promise to “give everything,” namely to bestow life, eternal life. This is the mystery of divine love revealed in the sacrifice of the Cross. Divine love for man and the horror of sin gather here, and divine love would emerge as the undisputable victor. He who withheld Abraham's arm when he was at the point of immolating Isaac, did not hesitate to sacrifice his own Son for our redemption. Here the extreme is not the one-sided obedience of man in the face of an incomprehensible command of God, rather it is the way the Son’s obedient willingness to enter death for the sake of everyone is united with the Father’s willingness to sacrifice to the point of not holding back his Son in order to give us everything.  

God is with us! God is with man! The only and complete proof of this is and always remains the following: “Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give.” In this, God is not only with us, as in the promise of Isaiah, “Emmanuel,” but is ultimately “for us”, his chosen ones. In this he has not merely given us something great, but has given us everything he is and has. Now God is completely on our side that any indictment or attack or threat against us loses all its force. No one can excuse us before God’s judgment seat, because the Son of God is the irrefutable evidence and the undefeatable advocate that silences all charges made against us. What an impact this should have on our lives! Unlike the world, we Christians should no longer fears sickness and theft and terror and loss of job and a dozen other things. “With God on our side, who can be against us?”

In this perspective the true meaning of the illuminating light radiating from the Son on the mountain in today’s gospel can be understood. It is the radiant truth of perfect surrender, incomprehensible love – it shows what the Father has really given up to “slaughter” for the world, what the new Isaac permits to be done to himself out of obedient love toward the Father, what the overshadowing luminous cloud veils into divine mystery. Within this scene, we see the triumph of that great sacrifice, not by man, but by God himself, we see the light of the Sons’ Death and His Resurrection, we see the truth what St Paul has written, “With God on our side, who can be against us?” We see Love Enfleshed!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

God Chooses the Place and Time

First Sunday of Lent Year B

It is clear at the very beginning of this mass, that we are in the First Sunday of Lent. This, however, is not the beginning of Lent. Lent began a few days ago on Ash Wednesday and will continue for another forty days till Easter, (that is if you do not count the Sundays). If you throw in the Sundays and the Paschal Triduum, you can actually say that Lent lasts about 46 or so days. But the number 40 tends to stick better. Let’s not go into the nitty-gritty details which explain this little discrepancy. As you all know, the devil is in the details. It is already a great task to explain his presence in today’s gospel.

The reason why we easily associate Lent with the number 40 can be found in today’s gospel. The gospel of St Mark records this specific number of days that Jesus had spent in the wilderness, and where he was tempted by Satan. The number 40, while it certainly can be a literal number, has a greater theological significance. The number 40 indicates a sufficient time, a time when what needs to be completed can be completed. It is a time that extends beyond the ways in which humans keep time. It is longer than a lunar month, and so represents another way of keeping time, a way of keeping time that accommodates the plans and purposes of God.

For someone acquainted with Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, the number 40 has a prominent and significant part to play in the history of Israel and the history of salvation. I hope you won’t get lost as I make a list of these occasions. In the story of Noah and his life-saving ark, when God destroyed the earth with water, He caused it to rain 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12). Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18). Moses interceded on Israel’s behalf for 40 days and 40 nights (Deuteronomy 9:18, 25). The Law specified a maximum number of lashes a man could receive for a crime, setting the limit at 40 (Deuteronomy 25:3). The Israelite spies took 40 days to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13:25). The nation of Israel, after its disobedient refusal to enter the Land of Promise, wanders for 40 years in the desert until the unfaithful generation has all died out (Deuteronomy 8:2-5). Before Samson’s deliverance, Israel served the Philistines for 40 years (Judges 13:1). Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him (1 Samuel 17:16). When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he travelled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).

Now, if someone were to claim that all these events connected with the number 40 were just coincidence, you would really need to get your head checked. 40 isn’t any magical number. Don’t have to decipher this uncanny correlation as some secret code handed down by God or by an alien race. The common thread that runs through all these stories is that God’s time just doesn’t seem to follow our own schedule. Forty days represents the time needed for God to fulfil his purposes. It’s God’s time, not ours, and during this new way of counting time, God is at work.

Just like the final scene any stereotypical country Western film, the protagonist or his detractor often chooses not only the time but also the place for that epic showdown. If forty days, is God’s choice, now the wilderness becomes that place for encounter. Notice that the work of God does not take place in a town or city, not in a synagogue or even the Temple itself. If 40 days or years marks a new way of understanding time, then the wilderness symbolises a new place to encounter God.

The wilderness doesn’t have any of the spiritual aesthetics of the Temple, where God seems to be confined. God who is found in the wilderness is a Wild God, a God of surprises, a God that refuses to conform to our categorical definitions of who He is and how He should behave. He works in His own Time. In the wilderness, all our illusions are stripped away. In scripture, the wilderness has a long and marvellous history of being the place where God is found. Wilderness has always been a place of seclusion, of revelation, and of danger. Moses encounters God in the burning bush in the harsh terrain of the desert, and it is that encounter which sets the stage for the rest of the history of Israel and the world. It is the place where the prophets retreat to rediscover their centre and where they could recover their voice to courageously preach the Word of God, even though this meant death and persecution.

So, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel dramatically says Jesus is thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit. God is up to something, and the wilderness, in all its stark devastation is the place where Jesus is to meet God, his Father. But in his encounter with God the Father, Jesus must also face God’s adversary, Satan, the Devil. Where the St Matthew and St Luke described the three temptations in the wilderness, St Mark merely records the fact that Jesus was tempted by Satan. The temptation of Jesus highlight the contrast and conflict between this world, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus is about to announce and begin to usher in. But Jesus would not be alone in facing Satan and the collective forces that had been rallied against him. St Mark provides us with this simple message of assurance that is certainly not only meant for Jesus but for all of us who have to face similar temptations in our lives. As the “angels looked after” Jesus, so will they care for us too. God will not abandon us to the power of evil.

More importantly, in such an encounter, where both the time and place has been chosen by God, God remains totally in control. And there is the further reminder that we have a choice, we need not be slaves to our temptations, to sin or even to the devil. Just like Jesus who was also tempted, we can choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. We must make a conscious choice to live our lives differently, with different values, than the current world system. During this Lent, we are reminded that we must live according to God’s schedule and it is He who chooses the venue for an encounter with temptation as well as grace. Let us then follow Christ into the wilderness for forty days, for where the Head has gone, so must the Body follow.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Goodbye Meat

Ash Wednesday

In many historically Catholic countries, the period that immediately precedes the Lenten season is marked by celebrations that are collectively known as Carnival. The Carnival typically involves a public celebration or parade combining elements of a circus, mask and public street parties. People often dress up or masquerade during this entire week of celebrations, overturning the often mundane norms of daily life. It often seems ironic and even scandalous that the austere, penitential and holy season of Lent is preceded by this orgiastic display of frivolous and drunken debauchery. It’s as if all the rich food and drink, pleasures and luxuries, and excesses of every kind, had to be consumed and disposed of in preparation for the Lenten fast and abstinence. The word "carnival" literally means "farewell to meat." Today, we say, “Goodbye meat!”

But there is a necessary juxtaposition of Carnival and Lent. There can be no Carnival without Ash Wednesday and the significance of Ash Wednesday and Lent will be lost upon us, if life did not have its Carnival. All things have their season – there is a season for feasting, and a season for fasting. Carnival is indeed a time of physical and spiritual preparation for the Lenten time of self-denial. We had just concluded a Carnival of sorts – our Parish Feast Day and Novena. I jokingly commented to many that the celebrations of the past week had a been a kind of religious and spiritual Disneyland. But that time of feasting has ended. Now we must begin our fasting. This is the time when the Church invites us to reexamine and reorder all aspects of our life. We can see the contrast of Carnival indulgence and Lenten fasting not just in foods, but all areas of life. Carnival puts into perspective the things we need to give up in Lent.

Our pre-Lenten celebrations and preparations provide us with a graphic illustration of the message of Lent, that we are fools, if we who seek our final end in earthly things! The Church, during this season of Lent, will show you where true happiness may be found, Who it is that brought it, and how He merited it for us. The pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations, despite their rollicking good fun and general merriment, really had a deadly serious objective. The “princes of this world,” in all their tinsely splendour, followed by a long train of personified human vices, sins and infirmities, solemnly enters the city gate and takes possession of the town.  

The performers are all arrayed in their costumes with the purpose of portraying Death, the World, Vanity, Beauty, Sin of every kind, human wealth, suffering, the joys and sorrows of human life, etc. This is not a triumphant procession of a victorious army. But a ridiculous motley crew of defeated individuals that are being subjected to mockery and humiliation. It is the procession of the defeated forces of the world, of sin, of vice and the Devil. It’s a parody of the triumphant procession of our true King, Christ, as he enters his City.

Thus did the merriment of the passing hour imperfectly conceal a stern seriousness. This was the means the Church took to warn her children not to be spiritual fools. Piercing through the noise and fun-making, and clearly heard by all, was the. warning voice: “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice.” A further warning that all we aspire to accomplish, all that we hope to acquire and possess is merely “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Only one thing is necessary: Save your soul; give heed to what the Church will command you during the coming season of Lent. The words that accompany the imposition of holy ashes ring true, “Paenitemini, et credite Evangelio.” “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  

Certainly, if the world were given a choice between Carnival and Lent, Carnival is the more popular choice of the two. And yet, Carnival must find its ultimate meaning in Lent. It is the austerity of Lent, the penance of Lent, the prophetic self-renunciation of Lent that truly prepares us for the Carnival celebration of life. St. Augustine can serve us as a safe guide during this period of preparation for Lent, and of course, during the season itself, too. “The pagans,” he says, “present each other with gifts of friendship, but you should give alms during these days of wickedness. They shout their songs of love and pleasure; you must learn to find joy in the hearing of the word of God. They run eagerly to the theatre; you must flock to the churches. They guzzle their drinks; you must be temperate and fast.”

Thus, the prayers and gospels of the season of Lent attempt to awaken us to a profound realisation of the fact that only through penance and through uncompromising rejection of sin, that is, through a thorough change of heart, can we partake of the redemption of Christ. Through His incarnation, His passion and death, Christ gained for us the graces of salvation without any merit on our part. But only a heart freed from sin and evil inclinations can become the field producing fruit fifty and a hundred-fold for the divine Sower. Whoever refuses to toil at purifying his sin-laden heart will of necessity remain in fatal darkness, and the light of salvation and grace will not reach him. After the feasting that ended yesterday, let us now begin our fasting. And after the long winter of fasting from the pleasures and delights of the world, we will be guaranteed a rich harvest of spiritual fruits that comes with a springtime of the Soul.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

He Sees You

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees. A humble posture of supplication from someone who fully realises the depravity of his situation. But kneeling is also the proper posture for worship. The leper then makes a humble request of Jesus, “If you want to, you can cure me.” No demand, no pressure is placed on Jesus. This man understands that Jesus owes him nothing and that he deserves nothing. He can only hope for a few generous crumbs to be thrown his way by the Lord.

Though, the text is silent, I would like to invite you to picture the expression on the faces of the onlookers and their reaction to this event.  The leper must have been a loathsome spectacle. Lepers in the time of Jesus suffered not only from the disease that they had to live with. What was even worse than the disfiguring effects of the disease was the isolation and loneliness that marked its victims. The Law of Moses concerning leprosy was strict – lepers simply had to isolate themselves from everyone. At the sight of him the people would crowd upon one another in their eagerness to escape from contact with him. Though they see him in all his pathetic ugliness, the leper neither sees nor hears them. Their expressions of loathing are lost upon him. He sees only the Son of God. He hears only the voice that speaks life to the dying. Pressing to Jesus, he casts himself at His feet with the cry, “If you want to, you can cure me.”

And the amazing turning point of the story is that Jesus sees him. The crowds, the Pharisees and the priests regarded his affliction as an evidence of divine displeasure. They have coldly pronounced him incurable, and abandoned him to the wrath of God. But Jesus sees differently. Jesus chooses not to judge but only offers healing and forgiveness. But more than just resisting to follow the mob’s aversion and disdain for this leper, we witness here the lovely picture of sheer simple compassion and tender-heartedness. “Feeling sorry for him,” i.e. Jesus is moved with compassion, a factual note which occurs only in Mark’s account, he “stretched out his hand and touched him” and said, “Of course I want to … Be cured.” Note, then, three things: the compassion, the touch, the word.

It was no mere condescending pity that moved Jesus to touch the leper with his hand; but it was the result of a far greater and more wonderful piece of compassion and self-emptying love that He had stretched out his hand to touch. The touch of Jesus on this “untouchable” goes beyond pity and absence of fear. It symbolises His identifying of Himself with mankind, the foulest and the most degraded. He is truly the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. According to a Jewish tradition (midrash), when the Messiah comes He will be found sitting amongst the lepers at the gate of the city. And this is how we are to recognise him – he will be numbered amongst the transgressors in his life, and with the wicked in his death.

Leprosy in Hebrew thought was more than a disease and the ritual of cleansing, was more symbolic than sanitary. Leprosy was as an emblem of sin. That is why it is the priest and not the doctor who must give the final diagnosis that the leper is cleansed of this disease. Doctors could only examine the physiological symptoms but the priests were entrusted with the spiritual task to determine whether God’s wrath had been appeased, and thus the punishment for sin, the leprosy, had been lifted. Therefore, the story of Jesus cleansing and healing the leper must be a story that goes beyond the miracle and physical cure. It is an illustration of his work in cleansing the soul from sin. It was a work of redemption and reconciliation.

Today, Jesus continues to reach out with compassion to touch the “untouchables”, the “new lepers” of our society. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the most troubling aspect of all this is how little has changed. We still live in segregated, isolating communities. It is true that we no longer live in a world where leprosy plagues us. But there are other new forms of leprosy – racism, AIDS and HIV positive persons, migrants and refugees and others who are marginalised either by our behaviour or our omission to reach out. There are the pure and the impure, the leper and the undefiled. Their alienation is sealed by both our prejudice and self-righteousness. We are shielded in our cocoon of indifference to take little cognizance of the other. Instead of seeking to reconcile those who are lost, self-righteousness continues to push them away. Prejudice and self-righteous judgment continue to make lepers of others.

The reconciling path of Jesus is a common theme in the preaching of our Holy Father who challenges us to reach out to the peripheries, to come out of the comfort and safety of the sacristy and to go among the sheep in order that we smell like them. Pope Francis, since the beginning of his pontificate, has inspired us to put on a new set of lenses, a new way of seeing the poor, the marginalised and even the sinner. It’s a lens which uses the hermeneutics of compassion. Our Holy Father reassured us that God always forgives those who show him the “inner wounds” of their sins. He provides that necessary reminder to all of us, especially to us priests who are confessors, “that the mercy of Jesus is not just sentiment: indeed it is a force that gives life, that raises man up!”

But compassion can never be interpreted as a licence to sin. Recently, Pope Francis railed against “the dominant thinking (that) sometimes suggests a false compassion, that which believes it is helpful to women to promote abortion; an act of dignity to provide euthanasia; a scientific breakthrough to produce a child and consider it to be a right, rather than a gift to welcome; or to use human lives as guinea pigs, presumably to save others.” Compassion can never mean compromising the truth nor can it be an approval for sinful lifestyle. “Fidelity to the Gospel of life and respect for life as a gift from God sometimes require choices that are courageous and go against the current, which in particular circumstances, may become points of conscientious objection,” Pope Francis said. Compassion requires courageous defence of the liberating truth, not false tolerance and certainly not moral compromise.

We often ostracise, we banish, and we exclude, and sometimes we do all these in the name of God. But the actions of Jesus provides a stark reminder that we must also enable the banished and the excluded, a way back in.

Both the gospel story and the message of Pope Francis are crucial reminders that compassion is the true revelation of the heart of Jesus Christ. The compassion of Jesus Christ is the summit of His revelation of the Father. Here is a God who does not remain untouched by our pain and sorrows, but rather one who reaches out to touch us where it really matters. Let us not be afraid to show him our sorrow and pain, our sores and wounds. Let us be not afraid to bare our soul and acknowledge the putrid corruption of our sinfulness. Let us not be fearful that we will be turned away. Only come to him, like the leper, demanding nothing, open to everything and only humbly expecting a drop of mercy and a tinge of compassion, and we would certainly be surprised by the generosity of God. Yes, God sees. He sees you. He sees not the loathsome putrid rot of sin, but the sinner who requires healing, the sinner who yearns for the touch of grace to be made whole, the sinner who desires liberation, and the alienated sinner so much in need of reconciliation.