Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Homily for Parish Feast of Corpus Christi Day 2: "The Church is Catholic: Being Rich in Mercy"

Guest Preacher: Fr Simon Yong SJ

Those who came last night, well, that was your rebate: a short homily. See, I am like the Government, give a small rebate (like Kedai1M or BaucarBuku1M) and then bang you somewhere else (like 6%GST). Today is a longer homily and a continuation of yesterday’s.

I began last night with an observation about cut Pandan leaves. If you are interested, Google, Infiorate di Spello. It is an Umbrian town in Italy renowned for its floral arrangements during Corpus Christi. The best tag to describe what they do is “Spare No Effort”. Take a look at the images that you Googled and you will be amazed by the intricacies of the floral arrangements. They are what you might call the “Before” pictures because the moment the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament passes by, the floral creations are stepped on and they are gone. To those who are sensitive, this surely feels like a scandalous waste.

The finale to the Novena is the theme Being Rich in Mercy. The theme can have two meanings. Firstly, it could be a description of God. If it is a description of God, then, there is a ring of redundancy to it because God’s mercy is always rich—as we heard in today’s Gospel. He fed not only 5000 but presumably the spouses and children of the 5000 men. Listen to the Collect from the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. It is taken from the previous missal which uses a dynamic equivalent approach when translating from the original Latin.
Almighty Father, the love you offer always exceeds the furthest expression of our human longing, for you are greater than the human heart. Direct each thought, each effort of our life, so that the limit of our faults and weaknesses may not obscure the vision of your glory or keep us from the peace you have promised.

Sacred Scriptures brim with instances of God’s abundant mercies. In fact, the Parable of the Prodigal Son has often been renamed as the Parable of the Prodigal Father to highlight the quality of God’s mercy as always more than we can think. Thus, the Collect evokes the unlimited response that God is inviting us to which brings me to the second meaning.

The theme is more an invitation to respond than a description of God’s prodigality. If it is an invitation, then, the call is to be merciful as the title of this Year suggests. Merciful like the Father is an invitation to be as merciful as the Father is.

The Latin term magnum opus is used to designate a piece of great work. For example, which do you think is Beethoven’s magnum opus? The 6th Symphony? The point is that in terms of our response to God, it is not because we are incapable of magnum opus. Instead, many amongst us are “Judasians”, if there were such a word. The spiritual descendants of Judas are legionary.

I consciously used the word feasible last night. It is not feasible to do such a thing in Malaysia, like lining the entire processional route with flower. It would most certainly be a scandal to many people because it is wanton wastage.

But, really extravagance is truly a symbol of love. In fact, God’s middle name is extravagance. Mirrored in the image and like of God, extravagance is the symphony of a generous of heart. The great Cathedrals of Europe are testaments of this kind of generosity and also an indication that we recognise not only God’s rule or God’s sovereignty but we can image God’s magnificent mercy. This is exemplified by the woman who along with breaking an expensive alabaster jar of pure nard to anoint the feet of Christ the Lord, also damped them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. She was not afraid of God’s mercy because she trusted in Him. Quite unlike for Judas. The fear of God’s mercy was the response of Judas which explains why, instead of taking the route of Peter, he hung himself in despair of God’s mercy.

However, today our response these days may not be directly from a despair of God’s mercy but rather it is circumscribed by a fear of inadequacy. There is not enough for ourselves and certainly not enough for God. It is interesting though that this fear of shortage is sometimes expressed through opulence and ostentation. Like an unnamed official who built a RM24M- mansion just a little too big for he and wife’s needs. What about acquiring a legendary 2999 pairs of shoes too many or last count, my favourite fat cow’s 11 Hermès Birkin handbags. A display of ostentatious opulence for self and not for God will always come across as ugly and distasteful. As the case may be, dictators who build monuments to themselves are mostly notorious for their infamy.

If fear is not the reason for our restrained response, perhaps the crave for comfort and calculative convenience might explain our present “Judasian” spirituality. Once a person expressed this opinion whilst discussing the building a new church. He said, “The church is for our use and so our needs should determine how the building should be like”. It is true that the church is built for our use. But, a church building is also sacramental in the sense that it expresses what it means to praise, worship and glorify God and by that we are saved. A church built, according to the principle of accommodating our needs first might purely be a convenient construction for self-worship and not only that. When we are calculative with God, then whatever we do for Him will be tainted by an impurity of heart: what will I get for what I do for God?

A priest, whom you may have gone to for confession, has this reputation as a Touch-and-Go priest because before you can finish rattling off (not even listing) your sins, he is already making the hand gesture of the Absolution. His queue was always the fastest and the shortest. All my years as parish priest, I tried to rush through Mass at a pace that makes it just a little short of passing through Smart-Tag. A bit more like a Touch-and-Go, perhaps? Why? Cut this and cut that because they feel redundant and unnecessary. Finish Mass fast so that people can go off. A long Mass is just really inconvenient and then there is always the excuse that we have to let people out before the next wave comes in.

I am sure you must have heard this a lot: The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of Christian life. This makes Sunday a holy day of obligation dedicated to the Lord. But, our actions belie our “Judasian” behaviour. When Judas plotted to have Jesus arrested, he sealed it with a kiss. The kiss as it were, got the act over and done with. In a sense, Sunday can also be an obligation to get-it-over-and-done-with. I know of a parish where the Sunset Mass is packed with people who because they have kept the “let-us-get-it-over-and-be-done-with” to the last minute, they come and often leave at Communion time.

Judas was not rich and that 30 pieces of silver did not represent his acquisitive greed. His was a heart miserly and miserable. Our measure of love for God will be our measure of love for each other. It is not really our forgiveness of others that measures our love for God. Jesus’ right relationship with His Father became the standard of His relationship with the world.

So, the road to a mercy extravagant requires that we free our relationship with God from the clutches of convenience, comfort, feasibility and the fear of inadequacy. The sea of flowers or even the daring wastage of the flowers is indicative of who God is and the length we go to in our love for Him will bear fruits of charity and mercy. This is one way of expressing the principle of sacramentality. Love is shown in deeds rather than in words. When we are tight-fisted with God whom we cannot perceive then we will often be miserly towards those whom we can see. There is a correlation between a deep love for God expressed through an untiring missionary outreach and a corresponding link between a compliant love for God that fulfils the minimum necessity of obligation.

In the Philippines, an eminent Jesuit psychologist came up with this term to describe a Filipino reality. A taxi driver, festooned with all the paraphernalia of Catholicism, rosaries, not one but a few hanging from the rear-view of his Taxi, Perpetual Succour stickers and every name of Mary you can find are pasted on the dashboard. You climb into this most Catholic of taxis and the driver asks you, “Sir, you want girls. Or boys”?

He calls it “Split-level Christianity”. Truth is, this phenomenon is not restricted to Filipinos. So, ang mga pinoy dito, huwag kang mag-alala. Hindi ako mapanlait ka”. There is no need to insult the Filipinos because everyone here suffers from some forms of schizophrenia. For example, the servers here. They are orderly in the way they process and carry out their duties. It is most pleasant visually but go to their rooms and you will probably find chaos—sweaty smelly gym gears strewn all over the floor etc. I am not saying they are untidy because I have never visited their rooms. The point is, we proclaim our love for love God but our lives frequently do not reflect it. It is basically a matter of degree how big the gap is between what we believe and how we live our lives. Conversion is the tough work of narrowing that gap.

Yesterday, I witness evidence of extravagance at work especially in the days running up to the Procession last night. There was an outpouring of generosity in accompanying the Lord as He leads us to heaven. Here, I also want to make an apologetic digression about a person whom I think gets it or is more clued in on the idea of the extravagance of generosity. A few days ago, I told a Jesuit joke and said that your parish priest does not look holy but he is. His work ethics certainly reveal an understated holiness. I pray that God canonises him because I am not. I am purely making an observation. He drops practically everything when there is an emergency. He goes to wakes and takes time to hear confession until 1 or 2 am. You can say, he is doing what he is supposed to do, so what? Well, I cannot do what he does. I do not offer to hear confessions at wakes or I definitely do not drop everything immediately when there is an emergency. The truth is, I wish I could be more like him. And I can safely say that many priests like me would do just the necessary. This is not a pissing contest but really an indication that for a person to be able to do more than what is necessary, it is an indication[1] that his or her love for God is the motivating drive to reach the furthest ends of the earth.

And for us, like it or not, the road to a mercy rich and extravagant begins humbly with what we often take for granted or even complained about: The uselessness of the Liturgy. Here and there in the homilies, I pointed this out. Once again, I return to your servers. The servers’ deliberate style, even the candlesticks on the altar which you will be hard-pressed to find in other parishes, the men who are formally dressed and the women who have their heads covered, all these are but indications of “uselessness” or “inconvenience” or “wastage”. In a way, the slowing down of time, the demarcation between sacred and profane spaces through dressing or veiling, they could be symbolic acts against the encroachment of utilitarianism. Whatever is done here has no benefits except that the actions represent a recognition of who God is and without any thoughts of the benefits. We worship God because we want to and not because we have to. If you do not come to Mass on Sunday, God is not going to strike you down or make you have a car accident. But, if you come, it is an indication that this seemingly useless ritual is an expression of your love for Him. If there is anything that can be said of last night’s procession, it is this. That which is most useless is that which saves us.

[1] Of course, wanting to do more could also come from an impure motive. Like, doing more not for God’s glory but for the praise of fellowmen.

Homily for Parish Feast of Corpus Christi Day 1: "The Church is Catholic: Being Rich in Mercy"

Guest Preacher: Fr Simon Yong SJ

I have a two-part homily. First half is today. Tomorrow the other half.

What is so special about today? A lot of Screwpine leaves have been cut. We are lucky that nature has endowed the Pandan with such an unbelievable fragrance that the chopped leaves can substitute for expensive petals.

Firstly, a short history of the Solemnitas Sanctissimi Corporis et Sanguinis Christi.

If we were to commemorate this feast, the most appropriate day should be Holy Thursday as it marks the day the Sacrament of the most holy Eucharist was instituted. But, on Maundy Thursday, the Church must accompany her Lord in His Passion that it is not possible to celebrate Corpus Christi as a festivity. The next free Thursday is after Pentecost but at one time in Church calendar, Pentecost itself had an octave. So, finally, the Church settled on the next Thursday available which is after Trinity Sunday. For the Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, since Corpus Christ is not a Day of Obligation, it is transferred to a Sunday.

Secondly, it is not that old a practice—probably 800 years old. Tradition has it that a 13th century nun, St Juliana of Liège, who had developed a strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, initiated a form of commemorating the Body and Blood of Christ. Pope Urban IV, in response to a Eucharistic miracle that took place in Orvieto, commanded its universal observance in AD1264. St Thomas Aquinas composed the Pange Lingua (Sing my tongue, the Saviour's glory) of which the last two stanzas form the familiar Tantum Ergo (Down in Adoration) we sing at the end of the Benediction.

Last night, a point was made that there are nuances to the notion we use rather freely: The Body of Christ. For example, the Altar is a symbol of the Body of Christ that at the Consecration, Jesus is all at once, Priest through the ordained minister, the Victim offered in the Bread and Wine and finally He is the Altar of Sacrifice. And there is more. At Mass, the Body of Christ, meaning you and me, gather to witness the changing of the substances of Bread and Wine into the substance of the Body of Christ and the Body of Christ also partakes of the sacred Body of Christ. At Mass, therefore, the faithful signals that they, even though belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ would very much like to be transformed into the likeness of Christ Himself. Though sinners, we are bound together in the one desire to be like Christ and this is actualised by the fact that a priest can be processing next to a prostitute, a preacher next to a sinner, a philosopher next to a coolie. The stations we have remind us that that salvation must reach the four corners of the world.

There is a two-way process involved in eating and it is best described by the word assimilation. When you eat non-stop, the assimilation takes place through the process of absorption. If you feast on two super-sized McDonald's Quarter-pounders, breakfast, tea, lunch, tea, dinner and supper, you can be sure, Kungfu Panda will lose to you in cuteness. Or like the Borg in Star Trek, "Resistance is futile", the Borg grows in size through assimilation. But, the process of assimilation is different when we partake of the Eucharist. Assimilation is the growing in likeness as in growing in similarity. We become more like Christ.

Today, another expression of assimilation takes place and it is through the Procession. 

There is a pilgrimage which is famous that has attracted thousands who do not even believe. It is known as the Camino Santiago or the St James’ Way. For whatever reasons people embark on a pilgrimage, for us Catholics, pilgrimages are sacramental because they represent our life’s journey. If you think about it, for many of us, our life's pilgrimage resembles more of a funeral procession, as if, we carry death on our shoulders.

But, life’s journey has a goal. You may have heard it said that, the journey is the goal but in the Eucharistic procession, the journey is not the goal. Instead, the procession simulates the pilgrimage of life as we make our way to heaven in the company of no less than God Himself. So, as we carry the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, we are also witnessing to an unbelieving world that we bear in our hearts the hope for heaven. This may be a lacrimarum vale, a valley of tears—for we are exiled children of Eve. We pine and we toil. But, we are not defeated. No matter how difficult life is, He comes to join us in this journey home. Finally, we are full of ourselves. I am full of myself. The procession reminds me that this journey I make is together with the Lord. It is not a test of my strength but a challenge of my faith and trust in Him. He is with us. We fear not.