Friday, April 22, 2016

Ever Ancient Ever New

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C

I felt really old the other day. It started as a casual conversation with one of my altar servers. He was speaking of a teacher in school and describing his exploits with this particular educationist who seemed bent on making his life miserable. I then ventured to ask, “How old is she?” He replied without hesitation, “She’s old!” “Oh, how old is old?” I pressed further. “She’s thirty something,” was the answer that took me by surprise. “She’s thirty and she’s old?” I immediately felt ancient – a living fossil. You feel old when people around you start calling you “uncle” or begin to stand up to offer you their seats.  

We “ancients,” who still haven’t resign ourselves to our new found status, often look for novelty, hoping to find therein the elusive fountain of youth or the elixir of immortality. Novelty is alluring. Well, that’s actually an understatement. Novelty is addictive. We get excited quite easily over new things and most new things catch our interest for a while. But it never lasts. Eventually, we end up getting bored of people, of activities, of ideas, of things and even of religion. The new always promises to surpass the old - and let’s face it, there is always a thrill when we get that new smart phone, or tablet or those new clothes. But, just like everything else, the new quickly becomes old, and so novelty creates an inexhaustible desire. Married couples look for new partners, religious brothers and sisters look for new relationships, priests look for new pasture, congregations look for new leadership.

In today’s gospel, Jesus also promises a different kind of ‘novelty,’ a novelty that will never grow old – “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” For many of us, the commandment of love has become so familiar to the point of being treated contemptuously. It’s almost impossible for us in this day and age to appreciate its ‘newness.’ What is so new about this commandment? Loving each other is not a new command per se. It was already there in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”). So, what is the novelty in today’s gospel passage? Pope Emeritus Benedict sheds light on the mystery: “This commandment has become new because Jesus makes a very important addition to it: “just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” What is new is precisely this “loving as Jesus loved.” All our living is preceded by his love and refers to this love, it fits into this love and is achieved precisely through this love… Jesus gave himself to us as a model and source of love a boundless, universal love that could transform all negative circumstances and all obstacles into opportunities to progress in love.”

Thus the principal reason why the commandment is ‘new’ is, evidently, the standard by which one was to ‘love one another’: “as I have loved you.” The new commandment of the Johannine community does not mean the love command itself, but the criteria by which the community will judge that love. No longer does the believer love neighbour as oneself. Neither is it loving oneself, as the late Whitney Houston would claim. Love of self, perhaps the most important benchmark by which we humans judge many things, will need to step aside for something far greater. Self-love no longer becomes the criterion but Jesus’ love for us. Jesus sets himself as the new norm and measure of Christian love. He himself loved ‘to the end’. Therefore to love one another as he loved is to give oneself wholly and fully here and now to the other. So it is in this totality of self-sacrifice and self-giving that the new element in the commandment of love is to be found.

So, the real secret of staying young and sprightly, of always remaining “new” until the very end, is that we must embrace Christ. Without Him, all things will risk becoming old news and a fading echo. All our human efforts at loving will eventually suffer the fate of growing old, becoming fossilised; and we eventually grow bored and tired, leaving us empty and desolate. But there is one particular manner of loving which secures eternal youthfulness – it is to love as Christ did. To love to the point of being able to give up our happiness, our dreams, our likes, and even our lives for it. This is the love of Christ that we will never wither, grow old, or be subjected to aging. Surprise, serendipity, youthfulness permeates the gospel newness of this kind of love. This is a “new” that will always remain “new” until the very end.

The world and all its inhabitants grow old without God. But in Him, the world remains ever young. The second reading, taken from the sublimely beautiful ending of the Book of Apocalypse, preceded by frightening images of destruction, affirms this very truth. It describes the End as a Great Wedding Feast, the union of Heaven and Earth, Christ and His Church, the Lord descending upon and choosing to dwell within the Heavenly City of Jerusalem. This is the New Commandment perfectly realised. This text underlies the major conviction of this book that however long or however arduous the struggle, good will never be overcome by evil. The world that has grown old with sin will be renewed. At the heart of the new heavens and earth, the key reason for the cessation of sorrow, evil, hunger, thirst and pain is the fact of God’s presence. God dwells with His people. He makes His home with them. Because of God’s dwelling among His people, all creation experiences the truth of these words. “Now I am making the whole of creation new!”

The ability to make things new again, even better than the original creation is a prerogative of God. Man, despite all his wondrous innovations and novel ideas, is incapable of inventing a newness that will last. Immortality eludes him. Only, God can guarantee this. This is because, as St Augustine wrote, God is “Beauty ever ancient ever new.” God is ever new, He never ages for He is eternal. Moreover, because He is infinite, we will never cease seeing new insights of his beauty and magnificence; for all eternity we will never be bored. All those who participate in the life of God would also experience this ever new-ness. Thus the Church, the Bride of Christ, after two thousand years, and in spite of all the insults hurled at her that she is ancient, hagged and no longer relevant, is no less young and beautiful than she was at first. We are always discovering new depth and new ways of presenting the timeless, unchanging deposit of faith revealed by Christ. The Church's teaching is always fresh.

Now not only the Church as a whole but each one of us, her members, is in contact with God. We share in the life of grace, the divine life of the One who never ages. We walk in newness of life, following a new commandment, destined to sing a new song of praise to God forevermore. That is why as we mature in the Christian life, we become like children - more innocent, more joyful, more simple, more vigorous and full of life. It is chiefly in mercy that God makes us new.  Mercy covers over our sins. If sin makes us old, it is the mercy of God’s grace that restores us and give us a royal make-over.

So, out with the old; in with the new! Out with sin and with all of its damaging effects. Disease and death - no more! Fightings and fears, troubles and tears - no more! False substitutes in the form of human innovations and novelty – no more! All these belong to the old order of things, and they are on their way out. This old world is passing away, but, my friends, there is a whole new world coming! You can count on it! For our Lord has given us his word: “Now I am making the whole of creation new!”

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