Saturday, January 28, 2017

Saved by the rooster's crow

Homily for Chinese New Year 2017

For those of you who still remember my predictions gleaned from my good friend Lillian Too at the beginning of 2017, I’m going to disappoint you today. There will be no repeat performance of that cock-and-bull story of how things would simply be hunky-dory and so there’s nothing for you to worry about. The truth is, I don’t know what’s in store for this year. So, be worried, if you have to. But the good news is that I am going to speak about the cock, or to be more accurate, the rooster. Not the rooster of the Chinese Zodiac fame and how this totem would fare in your life this year, but the rooster of Christian symbolism.

Yes, a rooster is a Christian symbol, and “why?” you may venture to ask. The rooster has been a Christian symbol since God used it to show the weakness of man with Peter and the triumph of Christ in the resurrection. Remember how a rooster played a part in the story of Jesus’ own passion and death? When Peter said that he would never deny Christ,  Jesus spoke to him and said, “Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” St. Peter, in weakness, denied Christ, and yet, by God’s grace was called to leave behind his treason and to believe in the work of Christ’s redemption. The rooster reminds us that Christ welcomes all who have doubted and denied Him. Through the cross even the man who three times denied the Saviour was forgiven, loved, restored and sent out to zealously live for the glory of God. There is hope in the Gospel for sinners everywhere, for sinners like you and me.

Simply put, the story of the rooster provides us with a picture of God’s grace to sinners. It is an image of Peter’s failure and Jesus Christ’s triumph. The Church is not just a community of ready-made saints, but a story of sinners who are work-in-progress, growing slowly and incrementally as they push back the darkness in their lives to embrace the dawn of the resurrection.

This lead us to another layer of symbolism, perhaps a symbolism that has been lost to many of us urbanites. When was the last time you were awaken by the sound of a crowing rooster? Unless, you happen to be visiting your hillbilly cousins at the farm, the correlation between dawn and the rooster’s crow has been expunged from our memory. Scripture tells us that Jesus rose from the dead, “very early in the morning.” Thus the rooster’s crow announces the resurrection. The rooster reminds us that as Christians we are not children of darkness, hiding in the shadows of death and sin. The gloom of night has been scattered by Jesus' death and resurrection. As the rooster awaits the coming of the new day, so we await our new day in Christ.

Finally, because the rooster is the first animal to call out the dawn of a new day, roosters are a reminder of vigilance. Jesus used the example of the rooster when He said, “Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming — in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning …” Christians saw the alert rooster as an image to be emulated. As the rooster watches for the morning, so all Christians are to watch for the Lord who would one day suddenly return to judge the living and the dead.

Since we are on the topic of cocks and roosters, here’s one last trivia. If you’ve been to the Atlantic Coast of Portugal, you would see a distinctive emblem of the region etched out on every possible surface, house walls, porcelain ware, tapestries, laced dollies etc. Yes, it is the rooster. According to the local folklore, a miraculous rescue of a condemned man is attributed to a resurrected cooked Rooster. The story is about a man who was accused of theft. When he faced his accuser, he claimed that the dead bird on the table, a rooster, intended for the banquet would crow as soon as they put a noose around his neck. The judge ignored the warning and took him to hang nonetheless. True enough, the Rooster stood up and crowed, telling the judge of his terrible error. Thankfully, a poorly made knot kept the accused from dying and he was given his freedom to travel in peace. Nice story, right? I’m not sure if a rooster would help save the day, when my own head is on the chopping block.

As the rooster looks out and calls to the sky, may we be reminded to look to the sky as we see the Day approaching. Christ is returning. A new day is dawning. Let us be given, therefore, to repentance and faith. Come to think of it, the church is God’s little rooster too. As we call forth the message of repentance to a sinful world, may God bless our little rooster, our brave and relentless rooster, a rooster who will refuse to be silenced even when everyone is happy to remain asleep.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Blessed Poverty

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today, we get to consider once again the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. This is the standard text that we hear every year on All Saints Day and occasionally at a funeral. Thus, I guess, if you’ve been listening attentively, it has been preached to the point of ad nauseum. Bear with me once again. The Beatitudes have always been something of a puzzle to Christian consciousness. They summon us, on the one hand, to a very high spiritual and ethical achievement, as in Jesus’ words, to a righteousness beyond the scribes and the Pharisees. In other words, it goes far beyond merely keeping the commandments, or trying to gain eternal life. At the same time, they appear to canonise dispositions that hardly seem to warrant being called “happy” or “blessed”: poverty of spirit, meekness, mourning, suffering and persecution.

Understanding the Beatitudes requires us to comprehend the meaning of the term “happy” or in some other translations, “blessed.” Happiness, in an ultimate sense, is certainly a part of being blessed by God, but divine blessing goes far beyond mere happiness. It involves God’s favour, His willingness to come near and dwell among His people. The hope of Israel was that God would shine His face on the people, that there would be close, intimate fellowship between the Creator and His creatures. The New Testament expands on this, revealing that our ultimate hope is the Beatific Vision — face-to-face communion with God and His glory in eternity, which would be heaven.

This begs the further question, who can have favour with God? What of the poor? The biblical attitude to poverty has always been shadowed by ambiguity. Is it something positive or something negative? In early sections of the Old Testament, it is believed that material wealth was a sign of God’s favour whereas the poor were being punished. This was a view often held by many, including Christians, who believe that the poor deserve their lot because they are lazy and idle and are thus receiving just punishment for their ‘crime.’ But in the first reading taken from the Book of Zephaniah, the term ‘poor’ receives a new significance. For Zephaniah, the “poor” is the one who has no security, and for this reason puts his trust wholly in God and submits to His will. Our Lord takes this meaning to another level in the Beatitudes. God does not only pity or favour the poor, He literally “blesses” them; and they are “blessed” and “happy” precisely because of their poverty.

The language of the Beatitudes, in fact, is the language of paradox. In all religious traditions, paradox is the natural language of spiritual wisdom, and our Christian scripture is no exception. It is the lame who enter the Kingdom first, not those with complete use of their legs, the meek who inherit the earth, not the movers and the shakers. The supreme paradox is that the Lord of History, the Creator of the Universe, entered history and human creation as a footnote. He is a King who reigns from the cross, the One who proves to be the greatest by choosing to be the least. 

One could go on for some time in this vein. Paradox is meant to disrupt our ordinary way of looking and understanding. If the ways of God are not our ways, we need to be turned inside out, or upside down, in order to see. So paradox disorients us in order to awaken in us a different way of looking and thinking. Since the Beatitudes are really blessings that proclaim the way of the Lord, such disorientation is required so that we may undergo a profound change in all our attitudes, our value system, to really come to know Jesus, to hear His message, to imitate His way of life and to follow Him. A Christian who truly lives the Beatitudes would be able to find happiness, even in the midst of depravation and suffering and that, will require profound conversion.

Today, we can't take apart all the Beatitudes and reflect upon all of them individually even though each one of them is so important:  Hunger and thirst for justice; be peacemakers- those who go out to reconcile, to draw back and give up violence; be sincere of heart; all of these are of great importance. But today, what is accepted as the foundation for all of them and for the whole value system of Jesus, is found in the very first one. As Matthew puts it, “How happy are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” In Luke's Gospel, it just says, “Happy are the poor,” and so sometimes people think, “Well, Matthew modified that. Poor in spirit - that takes a little bit off the edge.” But it really doesn't!  It simply helps us to realise that when Jesus speaks about the “poor,” He's talking more about an attitude, a disposition of the heart and not simply economic deprivation.

Poverty in spirit is an emptying of our self-reliance. It is a recognition of our need for God, that we are utterly dependent on divine grace and undeserving of His favour. It is repentance for setting ourselves up as “gods” and then resting in the Lord’s promise of salvation. Poverty in spirit means that we understand a profound truth about ourselves - the truth that none of us is responsible for our own existence and our own continuance of existence. Without God and God’s gift of life and sustenance to us, we would not be here. God has loved us into being and His love sustains all of creation as it continues to evolve and develop.

Poverty in spirit, as the Church Fathers would explain, is the virtue of humility. Humility is the realisation that all your gifts and blessings come from the grace of God. Humility brings an openness and an inner peace, allowing one to do the will of God. He who humbles himself is able to accept our frail nature, to repent, and to allow the grace of God to lead us to conversion. On the other hand, when we have so much more wealth than we need, not just material wealth but also in other forms like knowledge and other false securities, we sometimes begin to think that, that wealth gives us power. We can do what we want; we don't need anyone else. We don't need God. Thus the opposite of poverty is not wealth but arrogance.

In the fallen world, poverty of spirit may seem to be a hindrance to success and advancement. Often this is an illusion. So many are stuck in the vicious cycle of self-promotion and inflated self-appraisal. What is the spiritual blessing that comes with living out this first Beatitude or any of the Beatitudes? If we are poor in spirit, if we are meek, if we are suffering persecution, then only are we able to bring an honest appraisal of ourselves. We don’t have to inflate our resume or boast about our achievements on social media. At the same time, we begin to acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy before God, that without Him at work within us, we can never realise the call of the Lord to the perfection of holiness. In its deepest form, it acknowledges our desperate need for God. Once you’ve grasped the first point of the Beatitudes, understanding the rest would not be a problem. Much of the rest of the sermon rips away from us the self-delusion that we are capable of acquiring a state of happiness on our own.

So sometimes we have to find the way to make ourselves aware of our need for God in that most profound way. Not just the need for God to provide us with everyday needs, but our need for God to provide our very existence and to sustain us. When we become aware of that, our whole approach to God changes. Thus, to sum it all up, let us heed the wise advice of St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “The human race has nothing to boast about to God, but you, God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing He has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom. As scripture says, if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hello Darkness my old friend

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The death of a loved one always hits us hard, like a tsunami that sweeps everything away, leaving the land barren and broken. We are thrown into a great darkness that feels void of everything we’ve trusted and loved. Our impulse is to turn away from death, turn away from pain, and find refuge in the darkness, a darkness so dark that you could slice it with a knife. In the darkness, we slowly attempt to unravel the trauma and deal with our anger, despair, and loneliness. In the darkness, we feel the extent of death’s devastation, but we also discover what we need to do.  In my fourth year at the seminary, I lost two significant persons in my life, both of whom I had loved dearly; a maternal grandfather and a former spiritual director. In my grief and confusion, it was easy to seek the companionship of darkness, “my old friend.” It was here in this darkness that I thought I could find the means of rebuilding my life from the ashes. Ironically, it is the very darkness that forces us to search for the sliver of light that survives in the rubble of our hearts.

One night, still reeling from the sudden loss of these two luminaries in my life, I took a short walk up to the hill located behind the seminary. A black-out had plunged the whole island into darkness. While others found the whole experience inconvenient and even eerie, I welcomed the darkness as it somewhat resonated with my personal mood. In the darkness I discovered something which I had often taken for granted. If you are an urbanite like me, seeing stars in the sky was a rarity. Light pollution usually gets in the way. But on that darkened night, my naked eye could see for the first time, thousands of stars, it was as if the whole Milky Way had just emerged from behind a curtain. It was so incredibly beautiful. Then it dawned on me that I was not alone in the darkness. Light shone in the midst of darkness and the darkness, no matter how seemingly over-powering, could not overcome it.

The people who lived in the Galilean areas of Zebulun and Naphtali, mentioned in both the first reading and the gospel, also experienced a distressing darkness. When Isaiah uttered the prophecy which we just heard in the first reading, this area was located under a shadow of darkness. The Assyrian army had overrun it and was oppressing the inhabitants with every type of violence. The people lived without hope or consolation. The gloom that had settled over the land penetrated right into the heart and soul of every inhabitant and rendered the continuation of human life impossible.  But this darkness was not Isaiah's last word.  The prophet envisioned a light, a glimmer of hope. He saw the darkness and gloom giving way to radiant light and joy. 

The people living in the shadow of despair would have been looking ahead to this moment, anticipating their own liberation.  Finally, the light did appear on the Galilean mountains, but only 700 years later. The light, as St Matthew tells us in today’s gospel, is the illuminating word of Jesus, who began His preaching in Galilee and slowly began to spread it outwards. As Jesus moved along the shore of  the Sea of Galilee, and on the Sea itself, He shed light onto the lives of many people who had experienced the ravages of war, occupation, violence, failure and abandonment. Wherever the gospel was preached, darkness was driven back.

St. Matthew sees in the very ministry of Christ the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. “Land of Zebulun! Land of Napthali … The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light; on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death, a light has dawned.” As so perceptibly pointed out by St. Augustine, this episode like so many others demonstrated the truth that “the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the New.” Saint Gregory the Great also taught that “what the Old Testament promised, the New Testament made visible; what the former announces in a hidden way, the latter openly proclaims as present”.

Jesus, the Light of the World, came to bring those in darkness, those who were disparaged, those who were suffering, those grieving, those who were in sin, on a pilgrimage out of darkness and into the light. It wasn’t enough for them to see the light. He was going to help them walk in the light, to live in the light and become light. That’s why, as St. Matthew recounts for us, His first words were “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” which is another way of saying, “Leave the Darkness. Come and live in, the Light!”

If all this seems too lofty and ephemeral, Jesus made that pilgrimage from darkness into light even more concrete and specific. He saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, fishing. He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Even though St. Peter was aware of his own sinfulness and brokenness, and that he was living in darkness, Christ called him. And he left the darkness behind, he left his boats, he left everything immediately and followed Christ. As did his brother Andrew. As did James and John moments after. To follow Jesus, to embrace His way of life, was to leave the darkness behind and live in the light. But that was just the beginning for the apostles. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would remind them that they “are the light of the world, … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  So they accompanied the Lord in His missionary journey, passing on the light of His teaching and curing every disease, showing others that just as He took them from the darkness of ignorance, suffering and pain into the light of knowledge and health, so He wanted to take their souls from the darkness of sin and doubt, the gloom of depression, the pall of grief, into the radiance of a life changing relationship of love with Him.

Just as He had called these first disciples, it is crucial for each of us to recognise this personal call that Christ makes to us, to leave any and all darkness behind and follow Him into the light, to live and walk always illumined by Him. The Lord summons us to follow Him into the light so that we, in turn, can become His light.  The light of the world, illumining the paths of others to Him, and through, with and in Him, enter into the dazzling and eternal light of God’s abiding presence. Discipleship is thus heeding the call to walk and live with Christ to follow Him on that pilgrimage out of the gloom and darkness of our existence.

If there is anyone here today who still walks in that darkness, do not grow too accustom to it. When you spend too much time in the darkness, you will eventually find it more comfortable than the light. Come to His light — walk no longer in darkness! No matter how difficult things may seem, no matter how bleak, no matter how dark life may become, His light shines in the midst of darkness and the darkness can never overcome it.

In 1969, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, one of only two astronauts who stepped foot on the moon carried this prayer with him, a prayer written for all soldiers during World War II. In the darkness and isolation of space, with only darkness as an “old friend,” this prayer must have been a blazing beacon of light pushing back all the darkness of the universe,
The Light of God surrounds me;
The Love of God enfolds me;
The Power of God protects me;
The Presence of God watches over me;
Wherever I am, God is,
And all is well.
Amen. (‘Prayer of Protection,’ by James Dillet Freeman)