Tuesday, August 29, 2017

You have to choose

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Everyone has their fair share of high and low points in life. No one is spared and yet, nothing can compare with what St Peter experienced. Just last week, St Peter having declared through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that the Lord is the Christ and Son of the Living God, was in turn proclaimed by the Lord to be the rock, the foundation stone, the building block from which the church would take shape. No greater honour could be paid to any of the apostles. That was his high point!  But this week, in a swift turn of events, the mood changes entirely.  St Peter is now the agent of Satan, the stumbling block to those who might come to profess the same faith. Just like Satan, Peter is cast down from the heights. This unexpected transformation from building block to stumbling block, from an instrument to an obstacle, comes quickly – so quickly, in fact, that the two passages occur back to back in a continuous narrative of events.

What brought about this turn of events? Having been identified as the Messiah, the Lord in today’s gospel begins to spell out how He is planning to accomplish His work of salvation. The nature of His mission would entail suffering, rejection and death. It was clear to the apostles that Jesus was the Messiah. The notion that He was the suffering Messiah was much harder to digest. It required frequent repetition from Jesus to make real to their minds the thought that their Lord had to suffer and be killed. It is no wonder that St Peter, who had just confessed that Our Lord was the long awaited Messiah, now pleads with Him to cease His madness, “Heaven preserved you, Lord,” or “God forbids!” “This must not happen to you.” The disciple who is meant to listen to the Master, now seeks to instruct the Teacher. St Peter found the cross offensive because he could not bear the thought that the Messiah, from whom he expected national deliverance, should be killed. The Jews thought that the Messiah would be a conquering king who will restore David’s throne in a temporal way. It was inconceivable to them that He should die at all. Therefore his reaction is quite understandable, quite normal.

What Peter failed to realise is that the death of Christ was necessary, as the text tells us that “He was destined to go to Jerusalem.” The words ‘destined to go’ imply a constraint, an imperative, a divine necessity. His death had been planned and willed by God through all eternity. The prophets had predicted it and He must fulfil it. The Servant of God Pope Paul VI wrote: “In a mysterious way, Christ Himself accepts death... on the Cross, in order to eradicate from man's heart the sins of self-sufficiency and to manifest to the Father a complete filial obedience” (Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete in Domino, 9 May 1975). By willingly accepting death, the Lord carries the cross of all human beings and becomes a source of salvation for the whole of humanity. Peter couldn’t quite get it. None of the disciples could.

Our Lord’s reaction to Peter’s attempt to give Him guidance was as sharp as it was instantaneous:  He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s!” As one of my seminary formators once told a group of us, “If you are not on the Way, you are in the way!” By failing to follow the Master, the stepping stone had now become the stumbling block.

Critics of the dogma of papal infallibility would be quick to point out that this passage supports their contention that the Pope is a fallible individual, quite capable of making mistakes like every other person. In this matter, to the surprise of many, we Catholics fully agree. For Catholic doctrine does not proclaim that the pope can never make a mistake in personal judgment. Infallibility does not extend to impeccability, the immunity from error. The Church does not deny and has acknowledged that Popes can make mistakes. It is only when he fully engages his authority as successor of St Peter speaking from Peter’s seat of authority (ex cathedra) in matters of faith and morals that the Church guarantees him to be acting under the charism of truth given by the Father through the Spirit.

So, when St Peter publicly proclaimed “you are the Christ,” Jesus pointed out that this was not from him, but from the Father. This was an exercise of infallibility. But when Peter privately said, “Heaven preserved you,” the Lord notes that the source of this was from Peter himself.  What’s worse, is that this human opinion was being used by the devil to tempt the Lord to choose comfort and honour, over suffering and sacrifice. Of course, He will have none of it because He knew that glory comes only after sacrifice. And His own sacrifice will not make things easy for His disciples, rather it will blaze the trail of sacrifice that they too must walk. The sacrifice that He will offer will be Himself. The sacrifice they will be called to offer will be similar.

The fate of the Master must now be the fate of the disciple, for this is what it means to “follow” Christ. After rebuking Peter, our Saviour called together all the disciples, and made it clear that not only was it necessary for Him personally to pass through the mysteries of His Passion, Death and Resurrection, but that anyone who followed Him would have to do the same, if he wanted to be saved. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is what makes the cross equally offensive today, even for those who call themselves Christians, followers and disciples of Christ. Why would the cross remain offensive?  The answer lies in our taking up the cross. The cross becomes an offense when Jesus says, ‘You, take up the cross and follow me.’ You see, the cross was not only for Jesus. The cross of Christ means your death and my death.

“For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will a man gain, if he wins the whole world and ruins his life? OR what has a man to offer in exchange for his life?” In the midst of the many voices clamouring for our time, our money, our allegiance and our attention, we are called to choose the cross, we are called to choose Christ to the complete dispossession of all else. The life you long for, the changes you want, come only through the cross — no other way! If you will live at the cross, the cross will take care of the rest. This is a great challenge for each of us.

In the midst of our chaotic lives, Jesus stops and says, “You have to choose.” We all struggle with this.  We struggle with choosing safety over risk, comfort over sacrifice and self-interest over caring for others.  And yet, we are called to share, to forgive, to be merciful, to be obedient, to be righteous, even though these things may not profit us as the world defines profit.  We are to pick up the cross and willingly sacrifice everything for others. In His call to authentic discipleship, Christ challenges our most precious loyalties. As there can be no other gods before the God of Israel, there can be no other loves before Christ. Thus, there is a cost to following Jesus, and the curious and half-hearted should take notice. Discipleship may cost us everything, but it will gain for us all that will ever matter.

In the words of Thomas A’ Kempis in that classic spiritual treatise of his, “Why do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom? In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.”

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Lord does not abandon His Church

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One of the weirdest movies I’ve ever watched is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglas Adam’s trilogy of books. The setting of the story is simple, the planet Earth is faced with destruction by an alien race as it wants to make way for an inter-galactic super-highway. At the beginning of the movie, we are treated to a strange commentary of dolphins being the most intelligent beings on Earth. Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending demolition of Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger.  The funny thing was that most of their communications were misinterpreted, and as a result, you see amusing attempts to punch footballs, or whistle for titbits, so they eventually gave up and left Earth by their own means - shortly before the aliens arrived. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double backwards somersault through a hoop, whilst whistling the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.  The simple message was, in fact, “So long and thanks for all the fish”.  In short, “It’s farewell and goodbye!”

Many Catholics who seem to have an apocalyptic bent in reading the signs of the times may feel like the dolphins. There is no doubt that we live in troubled times: times that can challenge our faith. It is wearisome to be constantly reminded of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, terrorism, uprisings, wars and rumours of wars and so on. In recent years even the spectre of schism and new apostasy has been added to this litany of woes. The faithful are abandoning the Church in droves! The number of priestly and religious vocations are plummeting! Let us not forget the two shafts of lightning that had struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica just hours after the previous Pope announced his resignation. These doom-sayers have been trying to communicate their concerns about the imminent destruction of the Church to their fellow Catholics, but their feeble attempts have come across as hysterical rantings and over-exaggerations about the actual state of affairs. Thus, many are on the verge of bailing out, if they have not already done so, before the barque of St Peter, the Catholic Church capsizes.

Recently, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI paid tribute to his friend, the late Cardinal Meisner, one of the four dubia Cardinals, in a message read out at the latter’s funeral mass. “He learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” Many had latched on to the last part of the quotation, about the Church capsizing, whilst conveniently ignoring the rest of the message. Some take it as a subtle slap-down of the present administration of the current Pope, whilst others see it as an admission that the Church is indeed in trouble, and we are all threatened with a sinking ship. What most Catholics fail to recognise is that throughout its 2000 years history, the Catholic Church has always been threatened with the risk of capsizing. And yet, with all the odds stacked against it, she has somehow miraculously remained afloat!  In paying so much attention to this last part of the message and in giving it an ominous interpretation, these commentators failed to give due attention to what I believe to be the most important statement in this message, “The Lord does not abandon His Church.”

This resonates with the promise given by our Lord to St Peter in today’s gospel, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” Saint Ambrose said: “The Church is like the moon; it may wane, but never be destroyed; it may be darkened, but it can never disappear.” Another great saint, Saint Anselm said that the barque of the Church may be swept by the waves, but it can never sink, because Christ is there. When the Church is in greatest need, Christ comes to its help by miracles, or by raising up saintly men to strengthen and purify it. It is the barque of Peter; when the storm threatens to sink it, the Lord awakens from His sleep, and commands the winds and waters into calm: “Peace; be still!” Yes, the Lord does not, and will not abandon His Church because the Lord always keeps His promises.

This is the meaning of the doctrine “indefectibility”, a term which does not speak of the Church’s lack of defects but confesses that, despite all its many weaknesses and failures, Christ is faithful to His promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The First Vatican Council declared that the Church possesses “an unconquered stability” and that, “built on a rock, she will continue to stand until the end of time”. The Church's indefectibility, therefore, means that she now is and will always remain the institution of salvation, founded by Christ. This affirms that the Church is essentially unchangeable in her teaching, her constitution, and her liturgy. It does not exclude modifications that do not affect her substance, nor does it exclude the decay of individual local churches or even whole dioceses.

Historically, when the Church was just beginning, the Roman emperors vowed to destroy it. Nero, Domitian, Diocletian and others tried to exterminate the Church. It could have died. In the early Christian centuries and throughout history, there have been so many heresies and schisms that had threatened to destroy the unity and integrity of the Church, but they failed.  Many of these heresies and schisms still continue in different forms today. In the 16th century, the Protestant reformation seemed to have succeeded in diminishing the Church’s numbers and even sucking life out of it.  In the same century, it spread to America and Asia.  In the 18th century, the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution was aimed at destroying the Church in France. The Church survived and the French Revolution is now history, though Enlightenment ideas are still here with us. In the 20th century, fascist, communist, socialist, secular regimes have tried to ban and destroy the Church, but in many of these countries, the Catholic faith continues to thrive in spite of the persecution and widespread restrictions.

So please, my fellow Catholics, the proper response when reading headlines about the corruption or destruction of the Church due to the mismanagement by her leaders is not panic or rage or despair, and definitely not to join the chorus of dolphins in singing, “Farewell, so long and thanks for all the fish.”  Rather, it’s a yawn, an eye-roll, and a resigned sigh and to be reminded once again of the greatness of Our Lord’s promise to St Peter. Catholics should not allow distress over the present situation, to shake their faith in Our Lord’s promise to preserve the Church from damnable error and to provide a trustworthy barque for the salvation of souls. They mustn’t succumb to the temptation to turn their frustrations, with fellow Catholics and even Church’s leaders, against the Church of Christ herself. Every Catholic should resolve to live as a saint, growing in charity of words and behaviour, keeping faith in the midst of a godless society and never letting go of the hope that looks to the return of Our Lord in all His glory to judge the living and the dead. Finally, they should never cease or slack in praying for our Holy Father, the successor of St Peter, and for the unity of the episcopate, the successors of the Apostles.

Perhaps, it’s good to remember the words of the late Cardinal Meisner in his Last Will and Testament. The words are beautiful, powerful and timely:
"Christ gave the Petrine office to the Church in order to give an orientation and support to the many people in the different times. That is my last request to you all for your salvation. Stay with our Holy Father. He is the Peter of today. Follow his guidance. Listen to his word. Peter wants nothing for himself, but everything for the Lord and for his brothers and sisters… I do not desire the grace which the Apostle John received, nor the forgiveness with which You pardoned Peter. I only desire the words which You said to the robber on the Cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”"

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You are of my tribe

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we often fall into the act of setting up barriers between ourselves and others. I think,  if we’re honest, we have to admit that we are basically ‘tribal’– we belong to ethnic and linguistic groups, families and classes; and each ‘tribe’ to which we belong has its own boundaries and limits, rules and expectations–and quite honestly, "we like that"! There are many alluring benefits of our ‘tribalism.’ We find strength and safety in our ‘tribe:’ we know exactly where we stand. It’s good to know there are people who think and believe as we do. However, there are some problems: We get pretty defensive about our ‘tribes’. We believe we’ve got it right, we’ve got it all figured out, we’re convinced that God is on our side and we can’t imagine anyone not thinking or seeing things the same way we and our ‘tribe' do! So, we refuse to open our ‘tribe’ to include anyone outside. You are welcome to be part of us – but, only on our terms!.

When God was setting up a people for Himself that would transmute to the universal community of God’s people, He began with the twelve tribes of Israel. This universal dimension was part of the promise made to Abraham: “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3); “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Genesis 22:18). Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations. However, history shows that they failed in this. Because of their special undeniable election as God’s chosen, Israel as a people had developed an aura of uniqueness and distinction. They began to think that they were the only favoured ones and that God does not care about other people.

Today, the readings serve as an important reminder that we should not confine and limit God to our myopic vision of things. He cannot be placed into a pigeonhole of our making. Though, man often draw boundaries, put up barriers, and group themselves into ‘tribes,’ God refuses to be limited in like manner. He crosses the line. In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah attempted to explode and expand the insular and parochial mentality of the Israelites by reminding them that God extended salvation and deliverance to foreigners and indeed to all who would come to Him in worship on His holy mountain, in His house of prayer. In the Second Reading, St. Paul takes the discussion further by assuring the Gentiles of God’s mercy which is open to everyone. He does this by reminding both Jews and Gentiles that all have sinned, all have been guilty of turning against God, and therefore, all are in need of salvation. God’s divine activities, His justice and mercy, His gift of salvation are not exclusively reserved for a privileged few, but for everyone irrespective of race or religious background. You are part of His tribe as long as you acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of His saving.

In the gospel, we find our Lord Jesus Christ crossing such man-made boundaries and divides. He moved away from the Jewish region to the region of Tyre and Sidon; the ancient Phoenicia (present day Lebanon), an area outside Jewish boundaries. The questions asked could be, why and what did He go there to do? Well the answer can be found in the Gospel story. The story reinforces the point that though Our Lord’s mission had come first for the people of Israel, it was not confined to them. He came as a Saviour for the entire world. The Lord who is not limited by barriers and boundaries encounters another – a woman who also looked beyond the boundaries. She saw beyond the limits. There is crossing of a great divide taking place here: from the chosen people of Israel who have a sense of entitlement to God's favour, to this woman of no standing, now showing faith in the Lord by paying Him homage.

Altering St Mark’s story of the Syro-Phoenican woman, Matthew depicts the story of a Canaanite woman, Israel’s ancient archenemies. It is an understatement to say that Canaanites were despised by Jews.  The Canaanites actually returned the favour and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation, this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her! She is able to see beyond her tribal prejudices and hate. But she does more than that. She behaves as someone who has radical faith in the Lord. She called upon the Lord by His messianic title, “Son of David,” the very man and king who had fought with her ancestors, deprived them of their ancestral land and reduced them to landless refugees.

The gospel about the Canaanite woman sounds unusually harsh. At first, the Lord appears not to want to acknowledge that He hears her imploring request; then He says that His mission has to do only with Israel. His third statement underlies the second: the bread He offers belongs to the children, not to the dogs. Now comes the marvellous phrase from the woman: “Ah, yes” or to paraphrase it, “Yes, you are right.” She sees the point of the Lord’s argument and even concedes to it, but she adds, “but even the house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” This, the Lord cannot resist, any more than He can resist the Gentile centurion of Capernaum: this humble, trusting faith in the Lord conquers His heart and her request is granted. In Capernaum, it was “Lord, don’t trouble yourself; I am not worthy”. Here, it is a willingness to occupy the lowest position, under the table. In each case there was faith, and so Jesus pronounces His judgment: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.”

In speaking about God’s universal plan of salvation, it is easy to overlook the fact that the earthly mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ really has to do with Israel: He is the Messiah of the chosen people, Israel, around which the Gentile nations are to flock, after it has been made whole and come to true faith. The first reading says this clearly. The Lord cannot make an end run around His messianic mission; He can act only by fulfilling it. This mission is accomplished on the Cross, where rejected by Israel, He suffers not only for Israel but for all sinners. Yes, the Lord came to save everybody. He is the Jewish Messiah as foretold, but He had come to offer salvation to everybody. The Messiah was to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6). He died on the cross as payment for all our sins, and He rose from death in resurrection, and He was the Good Shepherd and He predicted that His flock would be greatly expanded: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). He is the Messiah of the Jews, but He is our Saviour too.

We are living in times when there is an even greater fear of those who are different. There is a great impatience with those who do not speak our language; with those who have fled their country and sought refuge here without going through the proper channels. There is no denying that we live in a world marked by boundaries, and we cannot pretend that it is otherwise. And yet, we recognise that we worship a God who lives across boundaries, a God that does not belong to any tribe, and with no barrier, save except man’s wilful rejection of His offer of love that can keep Him from His goal of saving us.  The good news that Jesus brings to us again in this Eucharist, does not erase all of the distinctions that we find in our world. But it introduces a new principle—faith in the God who desires “to have mercy on all”, who desires to save us — that unites us across all our human divisions. It is now faith in God’s goodness and mercy, not any ethnic or national identity, that makes one an “insider” in His kingdom. It is our common faith in His abundant providence, that when we gather around the altar of the Lord, we can honestly look each other in the eye and say, “You are my brother. You are my sister. You are of my tribe.”