Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church

Pentecost 2017

A priest friend of mine narrated an incident that took place just a few weeks ago. He was invited to grace a multicultural event, which was showcasing the diverse cultural talents of the multi-national workforce. My friend noted, that this colourful event somehow reminded him of the local Catholic Church. During the event, there was a quiz, and a Pakistani man was asked a question pertaining to his country. “What is the capital of Pakistan?” His confident and immediate answer was, “P!” (The capital letter “P”).  Another worker, who hailed from Vietnam was asked to say something in his native language; and he proudly pronounced, “Việt Nam”.

If you found that amusing, I’m not sure if you would find the following amusing though. If someone were to ask you, “What does ‘Catholic’ mean?” Perhaps, you may give this answer, “Diversity” or “Inclusivity.” Perhaps, you may not find this funny, but theologically, it is hilarious (at least to me), because “catholicity”, “diversity” and “inclusivity” mean different things. In fact, one may say that the two popular values of modern society, “diversity” and “inclusivity” are actually polar opposites. Diversity means one size does not fit all; inclusion, on the other hand, means one size fits all. Diversity means we are allowed to shop around; inclusion means that there are no exceptions. One cannot logically support both at the same time. We have to choose. Either we believe in pluralism, which is what diversity means, or we believe in uniformity, which is what inclusion means.

There are plenty of good reasons to support diversity and inclusion within the context of any society, including the Church. But being Catholic is something quite different. Catholicity is what holds together the polarities of diversity and unity. Notice, that in our Creed, we profess that we believe in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” and not in a “diverse” or “inclusive” Church. Is there a difference? Yes, many!

What does it mean to be “Catholic”? The origin of the word is to be found in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “He has put all things under His feet, and made Him as He is above all things, the head of the Church; which is His Body, the fullness of Him who is filled, all in all.” (1:22-23). The catholicity of the Church here refers to her possessing the “fullness” of Christ, the church is the body of Christ in His fullness and perfection. It must be kept in mind that “catholicity” is based in Jesus Christ – and in such a way that “catholicity” is, in its deepest nature, a quality or an attribute of Christ, and the church is “catholic” insofar as it is rooted in Christ and based in Christ as its head. As St Ignatius of Antioch puts it, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

St Cyril of Jerusalem, from the 4th century, in his Mystagogical Catechesis (No. 18), dedicates an entire paragraph to explaining explicitly the meaning of the third mark of the church. According to St Cyril, catholicity means: first, the worldwide expansion of the church; secondly, the universality of the teaching: the church teaches everything that is necessary for salvation; thirdly, the correct way of venerating God, which is valid for all human beings; fourthly, the universal power to forgive sins; and fifthly, the universal work of salvation for all humanity, which is manifest in the fullness of the means of salvation. Thus he combines the geographical aspect of catholicity with the aspect of doctrinal and salvific perfection.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises the various layers of nuances of the word “catholic” in these two paragraphs: “The word “catholic” means “universal,” in the sense of “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole.” The Church is catholic in a double sense: First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.” In her subsists the fullness of Christ's body united with its head; this implies that she receives from Him “the fullness of the means of salvation” which He has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia.” (#830) “Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race.” (#831).

Though many continue to use the concepts of diversity, inclusion and catholicity interchangeably, you may have noticed that from the above definitions of the word ‘catholic', that there is no convergence between the various notions. The concepts of diversity and inclusion focus on ‘us’. Catholicity, on the other hand, focuses on Christ and His universal mission. When we prefer the former over the latter, we risk falling into the same trap of the people who attempted to build the tower of Babel, who strived to “make a name for (themselves); (saying) otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4), the danger of erasing God from the equation. Diversity and inclusion, being purely human projects, eventually lead to greater fragmentation and polarisation.

Catholicity, on the other hand, acknowledges that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that makes the difference, just as it is the gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost which reverses the Tower of Babel divisions of humanity. After that “they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Those are marks of catholicity and remain so with us today, “correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession” (CCC #830). These are works of the Spirit to which Scripture bears witness, and there is no true or lasting unity without them.

Our focus on catholicity needs to be restored - that even though we are different and scattered all over the world we are joined together in Christ because “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:5). There is no need to add any other ingredient into that equation.

In the last precious moments of His Life before He was parted from His disciples to die, Our Lord Jesus Christ did not pray that they would be able to tolerate their differences while each sought his own vision of the truth and personal fulfilment. Nor did He pray that they would agree in everything. He prayed for them and “those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one”. But how? “As you Father, are in me and I am in you may they also be in us, that the world may believe that You have sent me.” (John 17:21). It is through our dwelling in Christ as the branches draw on the life of the vine (John 15:4,5), and His dwelling in us, that unity is given and made fruitful.. So if you wish to build unity, build up your relationship with Christ. It is this relationship with Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, that is the foundation of our life and work, without which there can be no catholic unity.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Prayer is Waiting

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year A

Many of you are familiar with the Novena Prayer to the Mother of Perpetual Succour which is prayed in many parishes before Saturday’s anticipated mass. Since, it seems to be a weekly occurrence, most people fail to recognise that “novena” actually refers to nine days of prayers (The word novena comes from the Latin word, “novem,” which means nine). The prototype of the novena is the Novena to the Holy Spirit and it comes from the Acts of the Apostles, when Mary, the Apostles and all of those in the upper room prayed for nine days while waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. Although a novena is a private and sometimes public devotion, few realise that this is the only devotion instituted by Our Lord. The heart of any Novena is the same as the first one. “He had told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised.” On the tenth day, Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them and the Church was born.

What would have happened if they had given up and left? We can only speculate. If they had left, they would never have been present to experience the Pentecost. And without the Pentecost, the gospel would not have been carried to the ends of the earth. In fact, the entire New Testament may never have been written and the Church would not exist today. Imagine that!  But, the persistence of Christ’s followers and His mother to wait for the promise, ended in fulfilment. On the Feast of Pentecost, tongues of fire appeared on each of their heads declaring the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Church was born.

The lesson learnt from the first novena instituted by the Lord is that sometimes prayer is about waiting. Prayer requires faith; faith requires patience; and patience requires waiting upon the Lord. To wait patiently for God is to trust in God’s unfailing love for us. To wait patiently is to pray with hope that we are not abandoned or forgotten by God. To wait upon the Lord is to recognise that He is our Lord and Master. How God does His will is up to Him. We cannot control God or tell Him how to accomplish His plan. He will do His will in His way. If only we could plunge into the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? (Rom. 11:33–34).

But waiting on God can be the most difficult, and perhaps the most confusing part of the prayer process. We live in a world of instant everything. We value speed. This is true not only in our culture at large, but in our spirituality and prayer. We rush through our prayers because we have other more urgent matters to attend to. We look for shortest masses. The quicker, the better. Many rush off immediately after communion or before the final blessing and announcements. Yes, waiting in prayer is not an easy kind of prayer to practice. When we pray, we want to see results; and we want to see them now!  And if that answer doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, we begin to wonder if God has abandoned us or if He really cares about us at all. We fail to recognise that when you treat prayer as if you have the right to tell God how to do His work, you will be disappointed. God does not take instructions. We wait, He doesn’t. But when you realise that God’s ways are not your ways, that His ways are superior to your ways, you will not be thrown off balance when circumstances seem to be leading you away from God’s will rather than toward it.

Something happens to us in this kind of waiting. There is purpose in waiting. Waiting on God forces us to look to Him. We are brought to attention. The prayer of waiting draws us into a place of stillness and quietness before God where we open our hearts to listen and receive the good gifts of guidance, wisdom and blessing. Waiting in prayer expands our hearts to accept God’s will instead of pushing for our own agenda. A deeper container is carved in our souls–a container that will be able to receive more of God’s life, more of God’s love and grace. When we wait with hope it is like sitting in the dark of night before the first rays of dawn appear. We know that dawn will come, yet we cannot hurry it. We can watch and wait with hope to receive the first lights with joy.

It is during the waiting time that many people drop out of the school of prayer. When not receiving their answers as they expected, many conclude that prayer doesn’t work—at least not for them. While the waiting time is the most difficult part of the process, it is also the most important. Waiting gives God the opportunity to redefine our desires and align our purposes and vision with His. What appears from the earth-perspective to be a delay on God’s part is really the time when God is working behind the scene, beyond our senses. During the waiting time, we are operating by faith.   Trials cause us to persevere by deepening our knowledge of God and relying on Him more intentionally. That is why in the midst of our daily frenzied activities, our Christian life needs to include times of contemplation and prayer to simply be with God in the stillness and to wait upon Him in loving anticipation of what He would do with us.

Waiting as an essential element of prayer helps us not to treat novenas and other special prayers as quick fixes. As Jesus told His disciples, we must pray constantly and never give up (Luke 18:1). It’s important to remember that just because we say a novena for nine days, it doesn’t mean our prayers will be answered on the tenth day, or the twentieth or hundredth day. Like any prayer, a novena is a spiritual exercise and a way for us to draw closer to God, not a bartering system. Sometimes we have to pray for a long period before we see any results. Why? We don’t know. As much as we grow impatient, we need to recognise that His timing is an astounding thing. What we do know is that Jesus always has our back and He knows what’s best. We mustn’t become disheartened or give up saying novenas because we don’t immediately see the fruits of our labour. The Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles obeyed the Lord’s instruction to wait and pray and scripture tells us that their fidelity and vigilance finally paid off.

So, let us continue our novena to the Holy Spirit, to Pentecost. Next month, we will be having our Novena of masses in preparation of our Parish Feast. These nine days are dedicated time to prayerfully wait in the “in-between’ times, between seeking and finding, between chaos and calm, between fear and courage, between endings and beginnings, between sunset and sunrise, between hopelessness and thanksgiving. In that waiting, let us choose to align ourselves with the love of God – our God who sometimes sneaks quietly in through the cracks of this world and sometimes shouts brazenly from the mountain top. May our waiting and our praying make us more open to receiving the Holy Spirit and more capable of showing the grace of God in all that we are and all that we do.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

His Body was not left behind

Ascension of the Lord 2017

Every Christmas Day, we hear the words: “The Word became flesh.”  Sadly, I think that these words often 'go in through one ear and out the other' and this happens for two reasons. The first is precisely because we hear them so often, it has become an empty formula commended to memory through rote repetition. The second is that those words are so profound, our brain generally shuts down when it is incapable of unpacking what it is attempting to comprehend. As our faith tries to grasp their meaning, their depth overwhelms our understanding. But for us to fully grasp the meaning of the Ascension of the Lord, we must first try to comprehend exactly what took place at Christmas.

Has Christ’s Ascension come to mean that Christ is now in a disembodied state? Has the event of the Ascension finally allowed Christ to shed His flesh so that He may return to His invisible pre-Incarnation spiritual state?  His Ascension seems to have established a further level of invisibility so as to remove Him completely from our terrestrial realm into a heavenly cloud that takes Him “out of sight.” But the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the Ascension of the Lord refers to “the entry of Jesus’ humanity into Divine Glory in God’s heavenly domain, forty days after Easter.” What does the Church mean when we speak of Jesus’ “humanity” or of His “human nature”?

By humanity, we mean the human body and soul that the Son of God united to His Nature as God, at the moment He took flesh in the womb of the Holy Virgin Mary, and it is this “human nature” that was exalted at Jesus’ Ascension into glory. In other words, the Ascension did not mean the dissolution of the Incarnation.  The Word became flesh, and in that flesh, He was crucified, died, rose again and now ascended to heaven. Christ did not shed His humanity nor His body in this returning act to God.

The fact that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven may seem strange to modern sensibilities. What more, to believers of other religions? Many religions reject the physical aspect of the human existence in some way. Many view the physical as something bad that needs to be overcome. Hinduism, for example, teaches that the physical world is all an illusion. Attachment to the physical and material world would lead one to eternal rebirth or reincarnation.  But if you let go or detach yourself, then you will become pure spirit and achieve perfect oneness with god in a state called “nirvana.” In both Islam and Judaism, believers are taught that God would never exist within flesh.  For God to exist in a body- that would be stooping too low.

If Jesus possesses glory as God, why would He need to bring His human nature or His body to heaven? Why does His human nature need to be glorified? This actually highlights the very significance and importance of the Ascension. It is at the Ascension that Jesus’ human nature – His Body and His Soul – are exalted.  And because His physical body was exalted and glorified, He can now pass that exultation and glory on to those who become “members of His Body,” the Church, through being united to Him by the Holy Spirit in Baptism! The Ascension expands the Incarnation to make it inclusive. So, by being exalted in His human nature, Jesus makes it possible for all of us who are baptised to be exalted and to share in His exalted glory.  Human nature has been exalted in Jesus! This feat of redemption was greater than God’s original act of creation. “God became man, in order that men may become gods.”

The Lord’s Ascension into heaven accomplished four things:
1.      He entered in to the exalted glory, to be “seated at the right hand of the Father”. But His exaltation is also “our exaltation” (Collect for the Vigil Mass)
2.      By ascending He could now send down upon us the promised Gift of the Holy Spirit.
3.      Having ascended He now acts as our Intercessor before the Eternal Father. We pray in our liturgy that Jesus, God’s “Only Begotten Son, our High Priest, is seated ever-living at [God’s] right hand to intercede for us” (Prayer over the Offerings at the Vigil Mass) and that He is “Mediator between God and man” (Preface I).
4.      Finally, He goes before us in order to prepare a place for us. As the Collect for today’s mass proclaims, His Ascension “is not to distance Himself from our lowly state but, that we, His members, might be confident of following where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before.” (Collect for the Mass During the Day, Preface 1).

The Bodily ascension of Our Lord demands a rethinking of how we view our human bodies. The Lord’s body was as real as yours and mine. It was real when He was a baby lying in a manger; and when His sweaty arm reached for a tool in the carpenter’s shed; and when He collapsed into a deep sleep on a boat in a storm. His body was real when He endured the hours of torture during His passion, when He took His last breath on the cross and it was real when He rose from the dead. At first, His disciples thought He was a ghost and that Jesus had been resurrected in spiritual form, but in the sharing of meals and the touching of wounds, His disciples came to know that their Lord had risen in all His humanity – body and all. And finally, it was in this same physical body of human flesh and blood, that Jesus ascended into heaven. In the Ascension, His body was not left behind. That God would embrace human flesh into the Godhead, shatters the perception of the Divine as distant and removed from our lives here on earth. God is intricately involved with creation. The creature now incorporated into the Creator.

The Word became flesh, yes, but also the flesh became Word. This also tells us a lot about ourselves as human beings. We are accepted and embraced not in spite of our humanity but within our humanity. Our bodies are not a “necessary evil” but the handiwork of the One who accepts them even in their imperfection. Let’s stop hiding and pretending, but rather, let us come to God in all of our humanity with the comfort of knowing that God, the Second person of the Trinity has holes in His hands, and is now bodily present in Heaven; the first born of all creation, pointing to the glorious, exalted future that belongs to us all.

Yes, the Word became flesh. Indeed! It is astounding that on that first Christmas Jesus came to earth and took on human flesh. It is just as astounding that at His Ascension, He kept it! In doing so, the Son of God tells us that He cares, not just for our souls, but for our bodies as well. He has redeemed both. He will save both on the Last Day.

Therefore, there is absolutely nothing belittling or flawed in existing as flesh and blood. The only problem with our existence is that human flesh has been riddled with sin since the Fall. But God took on flesh so that He could undo the damage sin has done to flesh. In the resurrection, He will give us a body such as the one He now enjoys. He will create a new heaven and a new earth—a new physical world.  And once again, His dwelling will be among us. Until that time, we demonstrate our love for the Lord by caring for people’s souls and for their bodies too. For Christ loves both. Until that time, we have the Eucharist, the body and blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ to “kindle in our hearts a longing for the heavenly homeland and cause us to press forward, following in the Saviour’s footsteps, to the place where He entered before us” (Prayer after Communion at the Vigil Mass).