Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Inflamed by a Tremendous Yearning

All Saints 2017

It would seem totally unfair for me to single out one particular saint when our feast calls for us to contemplate the whole plethora of them – the entire sanctoral pantheon of heaven. But, the reason for this special mention would soon become obvious. I would like to introduce you to one of my personal favourites, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century abbot and reformer, a pastor and Doctor of the Church, celebrated for centuries as a man of great intellect and greater holiness. If you have a fascination about the mysterious Knights Templar (perhaps for the wrong reasons, due to the ridiculous associations with the Free Masons as popularised by that piece of literary hogwash, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code), you may be interested to know that St Bernard was instrumental in the foundation of that order of military monks. Though largely unknown to our present generation of Catholics, he has left us a legacy of writings and homilies and one single Marian prayer that continues to be part of our treasure trove of Catholic prayers – the Memorare.  Although he may not have been its author, he is certainly its greatest promoter.

He deserves special mention today because I would like to begin with the blunt and perhaps unexpected question he asked in a homily given on the occasion of the Solemnity of All Saints. “Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honours when their heavenly Father honours them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them.’’ St. Bernard provides this beautiful answer to his own list of rhetorical questions, “when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.”

What is this ‘tremendous yearning’ which he speaks of? St Bernard explains that this ‘tremendous yearning’ is twofold in nature. With regards to the first level of yearning: “Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints …”

When we commemorate the saints, we are also inflamed with another yearning: “that Christ our life may also appear to us as He appeared to them and that we may one day share in His glory… When Christ comes again, His death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with Him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and His glorified members will shine in splendor with Him, when He forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to Himself, its head.” St Bernard reminds us that we do not simply honour the saints from a distance like dotting fans. No, that would not be enough. By contemplating the saints, we ‘yearn’, we long, and we aspire to be with them, to be in their company, but most importantly, we yearn to ‘become’ them, to be united with Christ who is head of this glorified body, for that is what a saint is meant to be. If Beauty is the compelling power of Truth, then the Beauty of the Saints draws us not to themselves but into the presence of Divine Truth Himself.

When we pause to consider the lives of the saints, it inspires us to long for holiness in our own lives, and the path of holiness. But the path of holiness isn’t something sterile and saccharine. As Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have always reminded us, the path of holiness always passes through the Way of the Cross. Today, on this Solemn Feast of All Saints, we are standing with John the Seer and seeing what he saw, the huge number impossible to count, of people from every nation. We are seeing all those believers who have gone before us and have arrived at the heavenly goal, which we’re still travelling to. And then the question comes, “Do you know who these people are?” This question isn’t really concerned about naming each and every one of those saints arrayed in the presence of God. Rather, the question is, “Do we know what a saint is?” “Do we know what it means to stand before God in everlasting life?”

And here’s the answer, “These are the people who...have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).  What does it mean?  It’s worth trying to understand. Let’s say this: the robe is our humanity, the blood of the Lamb is the power of Christ’s passion, His suffering and death, and white is the colour of closeness to God. So a saint is someone whose humanity, whose life, has been brought to God, been made god-like, by the power of the Cross, by the power of the self-offering Christ the Lamb made on the Cross. There, on the Cross, the naked Christ gave us back our robe and covered our nakedness wrought by sin. On the Cross, He showed us our truest and deepest vocation as human beings.

But apart from showing us the Cross, the saints also remind us of things that are changeless, timeless.  Things we need to remember and hold onto right now.  Things like Courage, Sacrifice, Holiness and Hope. For all the trials and hardships that the world has known, through the centuries, ordinary people have stepped forward to live out those ideals.  Now, many of you may protest that most Christians will never get the privilege of becoming a ‘red’ martyr, one who gives his life for his faith. But then, all are called to be ‘white’ martyrs, martyrs in their own right, in living faithfully the vocation of holiness in their own respective circumstances. Daily life, the demands of family and work, marriage and parenthood, tending to others’ needs, dealing with the things that go wrong: it’s through all that, most usually, Christ’s love is to be lived. We can either chose mediocrity or we can choose the same path by living it with heroic acts of faith, humility and fidelity. That too, is the path of holiness.

There was a time when immoral behaviour was seen as a form of social rebellion. But today, immorality has become the new ordinary, the new norm. Today, it is saintly behaviour which is counter-cultural and even considered subversive in our society. There is a quiet rebellion by many courageous and heroic men and women who strive to live lives faithful to the gospel and to the dictates of their conscience.   However, they are thrown against a whole bulwark of mockery, ridicule, hatred, and even persecution from a society who believes that they have lost their minds. It’s not hard to understand why. As the erudite Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “The wicked fear the good, because the good are a constant reproach to their consciences.” 

Today’s feast throws a challenge to all of us, “Don’t go with the flow,” for as Fulton Sheen reminds us, even “dead bodies float downstream.” More than ever we shall have to be strong in the faith. We hear the rallying cry of St Bernard on this great solemnity, “Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.”

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

We should be bothered!

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Recently, I’ve been watching YouTube videos of "Dame" Lauren Alesha Masheka Tanesha Felicia Jane Cooper, or just Lauren Cooper for short, a fictional character played by the versatile British comedian and actress, Catherine Tate. In her 16 year-old-school-girl persona, Lauren displays impossibly obnoxious behaviour and attitude, and has a penchant for disregarding authority and annoying her teachers to the point of madness. In the class, she’s the student which every teacher abhors and wish they could get away with murder. When placed on a spot, or when she’s feeling angry or embarrassed, she hits out with her most widely known phrase “Am I bovvered?” (i.e. bothered - the “v” takes the place of the “th”). In other words, “Why should I care?”   Not surprisingly, when we are either in a fit of anger or generally feeling indifferent to the plight of others, that same question becomes our popular anthem too.

So, why should we be bothered? Why should we care? Well, today, the Lord gives us the Great Commandment which is formulated in two parts: Love God above all else but equally love of neighbour too. No matter how often we hear these words, we are struck by the demands they place upon us. Our Lord brings together the love of God and love our neighbour as something inseparable like two-sides of the one coin. The first verse Our Lord quotes is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, a standard answer which even a young Jew could recite by hard, but the second is from Leviticus. How did loving our neighbour get tied to loving God?

Quoting the Roman historian, Sallust, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI shows us what the authentic content of love is: “To want the same thing, and to reject the same thing was recognised by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to community of will and thought” (Deus Caritas Est, 17). To love God would be to identify our will with His. And His will is for us to love others. So, how do we love God perfectly and totally? It is through loving our neighbours. One cannot exist without the other: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20-21).

But loving others is not easy, especially in a world that highly esteems individualism and permits stepping on others to get ahead. Leviticus 19:9-18 actually provides us several ways, though the list is not exhaustive, as to how we could love our neighbour.
“When reaping your harvest, you should not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
You shall not oppress your neighbour or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbour: I am the LORD.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD”

It is clear from these examples that ‘loving your neighbour’ means more than just being nice. At the heart of such love is justice!

There is another thing that needs to be stated about the second part of the commandment. Our Lord tells us to “love your neighbour as yourself.” This seems to sit well with many of us. Unfortunately, the saying has morphed from “Love your neighbour as yourself” to “Love your neighbour because you love yourself” to “Love yourself so you can love your neighbour.” Instead of reflecting the one who gave the command it has descended into a twisted, nasty, self-focused, inverted mantra. We have made ourselves the focus of the love. You don’t have to be an obnoxious character like Catharine Tate’s Lauren Cooper. I guess many of you watch reality TV. It could be America Got Talent, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor, or something else. But no matter which show it is, there is a good chance that you will hear something to the effect of “You must learn how to love yourself.” It’s the mantra that claims to lead us to real love but really offers no love at all. Just look at Whitney Houston, who sang that the greatest love of all is to love yourself. Obviously, she didn’t believe in her own message when she spiralled down the path of drugs and a mysterious death, perhaps even, a possible suicide.

The claim of increasing one’s self-love in order to love others more, is rubbish. Increased self-love impedes loving others; it is an obstacle.  In fact, the reality of self-love is a twisted, idolatrous worship. We love ourselves because we seek to be our own god. This is certainly not what the Lord intended. Our Lord knew the reality of human nature, that we value ourselves above anyone else. So He used the human commitment to our own well-being and comfort to set the bar for love of others. In one simple phrase He called us out of ourselves and into an others-focused life. The reality of self-love ought to be a constant reminder of the need for real love – the love of others. As Christians, we know that the origin of genuine love does not come from within. We love others because we are loved, because God loved us first even though we were sinners. From Him comes our true worth.

Make no mistake, our religion can become an escape and our holiness pretence if we pray daily, go to church on Sundays, yet cut ourselves off from the people who are worshipping under the same roof as ourselves. So, should we care about others? Most certainly because God cares about how we treat others. There is no denying that to love one’s neighbour can be challenging especially when the people next door are inquisitive and their children downright bad-mannered.   Not to mention the obnoxious colleague at work or in the school or even in the parish who often seems hell-bent on trying our nerves. To show love in such circumstances is dreadfully difficult and demands great effort and yet, more often than not, we meet God in such an encounter. It is also good to remember that sometimes the obnoxious one is, none other than, us!

Today, we are being asked to have a good look at those shadowy nooks and crannies of our lives which are sealed off from God and others. To profess that we love God while remaining indifferent to the plight of others or worse, despising them, is a contradiction. We are asked to move away from our self-centred, selfish love to love others. We should be “bovverred!” We are called to love God whom we cannot see by loving others whom we do see. The gospel which Our Lord preached is not an ideal to be admired from a distance but a way of life to be lived. As the old Jewish midrash reminds us, “How do we know that the night is over and the day has begun?” The answer is profound as it is simple: “when we recognise other people as our brothers and sisters.”  May a new day begin in your lives!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Our Faith and Public Witness

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

When I began writing this homily a month and a half ago, I wasn’t sure whether it would be preached before the National Elections or in the aftermath. It did seem at the time, that the timing and outcome of the elections would have a significant bearing on my homily. But since I am neither a prophet nor a political pundit, I felt inspired to write a homily that would transcend such specific alignments.  You see, it is not the gospel that must be accommodated to suit the political climate and contemporary situation of our country; on the contrary, it is society and us that must constantly seek to live up to the demands of the gospel.

I know that many suffer from a distaste of politics. Many of you are even tempted not to cast your ballot at all. The options are not very promising. It often feels like we are faced with an almost impossible decision, like having to choose between the devil and his henchman. And yet, we should take solace in God’s providence and His ability to write straight with crooked lines, but it still leaves us wanting. The word crooked has been used quite a bit to describe our political system and politicians in general. I am sure many of you may think that it is too mild a word to describe the present line up of candidates, politicians and parties in general.

How should we Christians view our role in politics today? If the Lord walked among us today, what would He say? Well, the Lord did walk among us when Caesar was the ruler of the Roman Empire. And the very subject that occasioned this discussion then remains the same issue that continues to trouble many of us today – taxation. Caesar presided over a corrupt and unjust system of government that exacted oppressive taxes and resources from colonised nations, including the Jewish people. These taxations made daily life almost unbearable.  There was the income tax: one percent of one’s income was to be given to Rome, and then, the ground tax or property tax: one tenth of all grain and one fifth of all oil and wine were to be paid in kind or in coinage to Rome.  Finally, to further humiliate the colonised, there was the poll tax: a denarius or a day’s wage was to be paid to Rome by all men ages 14-65 and all women ages 12-65, to remind of them of their subjugated status. The method of taxation alone had the extra twist of usurping money through the agency of the Jews’ own people, who were allowed to tack on additional amounts that were over and above that due to Caesar.

Ironically, the Pharisees and the Herodians, who were traditional enemies, ‘ganged up’ to set this trap for the Lord. This was the question posed to Him, “Master … Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” With a slight adjustment, this very question could easily be asked by any tax paying or I may add, tax evading Malaysian. A rejection by Jesus of the poll tax would have been reported as treason to Rome. On the other hand, if Jesus had agreed to pay it, the Pharisees would have accused Him of betraying His own people. Discerning a plot of entrapment, Our Lord cuts through the hypocrisy and political differences to the very heart of the matter, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

This saying does three crucial things. First, it acknowledges that Caesar does have rights; that a difference does exist between the concerns of God and the concerns of Caesar. But second, Jesus desacralises – in effect, he demotes – Caesar by suggesting that Caesar has no rights over those things that belong to God. Only God is God, which means that Caesar is not God. And thirdly, the Lord remains silent about what exactly belongs to either God or Caesar. Figuring all that out belongs to us.  Now, this can be hard work because no detailed map exists because while human nature doesn’t change, human circumstances change all the time.

This saying provides us with a framework for how we should think about religion and the state even today. The Lord reminds us that Caesar does have rights. Scripture tells us that we owe secular leaders our respect and prayers; respect for the law; obedience to proper authority; and service to the common good. But it’s a rather modest list of duties. And we need to remember that “respect” for Caesar does not mean subservience, or silence, or inaction, or excuse-making or acquiescence to grave evil. Sometimes, Christians suffer from a phony unwillingness to offend that poses as prudence and good manners, but in truth, this is only a guise for cowardice. It is true that human beings owe each other respect and appropriate courtesy, but, we also owe each other the truth!

In fact, the more we reflect on today’s passage, the more we realise that everything important about human life belongs not to Caesar but to God: our intellect, our talents, our free will, the people we love, Truth, the beauty and goodness in the world, our soul, our moral integrity and of course, our hope for eternal life. These are the things worth struggling to ennoble and defend, and none of them came from Caesar or anyone or any government who succeeded him. We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience. However, that obedience is limited by what belongs to God.  In reality, all belongs to God and nothing — at least nothing permanent and important — belongs to Caesar. Why? Because just as the coin bears the stamp of Caesar’s image, we bear the stamp of God’s image in baptism. We belong to God, and only to God. 

The Church is not a political organism and she has no interest in partisanship. Yes, our faith is never primarily about politics; but Catholic social action – including political action – is always a natural by-product of the Church’s moral teachings. The Catholic faith is always personal, but it’s never private. If our faith is real, then it will bear fruit in our public decisions and behaviours, including our political choices. Each of us has the vocation to be a missionary of Jesus Christ where we live and work and vote. Each of us is called to bring Christian truth to the public debate, to be vigorous and unembarrassed about our Catholic presence in society, and to be a leaven in our nation's public life. The “separation of Church and state” does not mean — and it can never mean — separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions. For to do so would mean denying who we are, “salt of the earth” and “light to the nations.”

In living out and exercising our public duties and rights, each of us needs to follow his or her own properly formed conscience. But the problem is that many people mistake their own preconceived ideas, opinions and prejudices as the voice of conscience. You see, conscience is not a matter of personal opinion or preference. It takes prayer, study and work. If our conscience has the habit of telling us what we want to hear on difficult issues, then we probably have a badly formed conscience. A healthy conscience is the voice of God’s truth in our hearts, and it should usually make us uncomfortable. The way we get a healthy conscience is by opening our hearts to the counsel and guidance of the Church that Jesus Christ left for us. As Catholics, if we find ourselves disagreeing with the teaching of our Catholic faith on a serious matter, it's probably not the Church that’s wrong. The problem is much more likely with us. The more authentically Catholic we are in our lives, our choices, our actions and our convictions, then will we contribute more truly to the moral and political life of our nation.

If you had participated in the last elections and went out to vote, kudos to you for having done your Christian duty. If the elections are just around the corner or still in the pipelines, I would like to strongly encourage you to go out and vote.