Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dressed for the job

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

A couple of weeks ago, someone noticed a little strange gesture made by your Parish Priest but it took him another week to pose the question to me. “Why did you remove your stole during the mass?” It was Thursday and I had invited Fr Esmond to be the main celebrant at the Thursday weekday mass in Kristus Aman. That was fortuitous in more ways than I knew at that time. Not only did it relieve me of having to preside at mass and preach, but Fr Esmond saved me from an awkward and embarrassing situation of not being properly attired. As I was leaving for Kristus Aman, in my excitement and carelessness, I had grabbed my cotta (choral attire meant for the Holy Hour), but had forgotten to take my alb – the long white gown which a priest is supposed to wear when celebrating mass. To make a long story short, I wore the stole to proclaim the gospel and distribute Holy Communion because these were ministerial roles but I had to take it off during the Eucharistic Prayer, because I could not be a con-celebrant as I was not appropriately attired. Make sense?

If clothes make the man, then surely vestments make the priest! This may seem to be an outrageous claim coming from a man of God who is expected to shy away from all displays of vain-glory. But it expresses a sacramental truth about the vestments of a priest.  The vestments of a priest do actually reveal the mystery of who he is – the priest acts and stands in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. 

Of great significance and yet something which is seldom noticed since it is often not visible to the congregation, is the stole – a long narrow band of material worn around the neck of priests.  The stole has ancient origin.  Rabbis wore prayer shawls with tassels as a sign of their authority.  The crisscrossing of the stole also was symbolic of the crisscrossed belts the Roman soldiers wore.  In this sense, the stole reminds the priest not only of his authority and dignity as a priest, but also of his duty to preach the Word the God with courage and conviction. Though the stole is a sign of a priest’s authority, it is properly worn underneath, indeed hidden beneath the chasuble, the outer garment of the priest. The chasuble is a symbol of the charity or love of Christ. Taken together, the stole beneath the chasuble reminds the priest that authority is never to be flaunted but always exercised under the cover of charity. 

But the common perception of authority is anything but charitable. One tragedy of our time is that “authority” has become almost a dirty word in the Western world, while opposition to authority in schools, families and society generally is cheerfully accepted as something that is at least harmless and perhaps rather fine. “Authority” is a word that makes most people think of law and order, direction and restraint, command and control, dominance and submission. Authority in all its incarnation is often regarded as the denial or suppression of our personal freedom. Many hate the very idea that anyone or any power could ever tell them what to do. The problem that we face today is not that we attempt to hide authority under the cover of charity, but that we choose to bury it altogether!

Perhaps, the real reason for this widespread dislike and suspicion of authority is that we often equate it with power. Yes, authority is related to power, but they are two entirely different concepts. Power is the ability to influence the outcome of events. Power- may be correctly used power, when it is tied to authority; or it may be incorrectly used power; it may be power exerted by sheer force and coercion. Authority, on the other hand is rightful or legitimate power. Therefore, someone with authority does not only have power, but can legitimately and rightfully weal that power. It is power without authority that spells trouble. If authority speaks about our dependence on and relation to the one who confers it, blind power often suggests independence from any source. This is the crux of the problem today – we want power but have little regard for real authority.

In today’s gospel, Jesus exhibits power in driving out a demonic spirit. We can often get lost in paying undue attention to the exorcism performed by Jesus. But more significantly, this gospel reading highlights the connected themes of “authority” and “freedom.” The people recognised the authority of Jesus’ teachings but they did not fully understand that authority. At this stage of the gospel, only the demon is able to recognise Him, for the power of evil knows its adversary, it knows that the time of its defeat and destruction has come. The demon understands that Jesus comes with the authority of God. The story reflects the great cosmic battle between the power of God and that of evil, where God proves to be triumphant. The authority of Christ is one which frees man from enslavement to sin and evil. He shows us that there is no false dichotomy between freedom and authority. Freedom without authority will ultimately lead to enslavement to one form of addiction or another, or to man’s own intrinsic tyranny. Authority, which does not facilitate freedom, will also lead to the abuse of power and authoritarianism. When power is separated from authority, it descends into authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is authority corrupted, twisted. Authoritarianism is never accountable.

But true authority is sacrificial and giving. Such authority is a matter of service rather than one which lords over others. It is an authority that liberates rather than one which subjugates and enslaves. And just as a priest wears his stole beneath his chasuble, there can be no true exercise of authority unless it is exercised with charity. And when true authority is abdicated, so is love abandoned.

Today, modern man fails to recognise the irony of his predicament. He believes that the rejection of any external authority, especially in the area of moral authority, will guarantee his personal liberty and freedom. On the contrary, the drift from the authority of Truth – indeed from acknowledging any external authority at all, whether it be the authority of God or of the Church, is producing disintegrated, distracted and self-absorbed individuals and a disordered and anarchic society. We are indeed possessed by demons of a different kind, waiting for emancipation that can only come when we recognise the authority of God. Real freedom is only ever found under authority — God’s authority in Christ and that same authority now exercised by the Church. It is freedom not to do wrong, but to do right; not to break the moral law, but to keep it; not to forget God, but to cleave to Him every moment, in every endeavour and relationship; not to exploit others, but to lay down one’s life for them.

When the Church and its leaders exercise authority today, it does so at the service to Charity and Truth. When the Church and its leaders continue to teach, to sanctify and to govern with authority, they do so in the name of Christ, Our Teacher, High Priest and Shepherd. When they act with authority, they make present the voice of Christ who continues to proclaim the timeless gospel message: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and Believe in the good news.” And so when these leaders abdicate their authority in the name of misplaced democracy or as a cultural compromise, they set aside more than just their own personal power. They act not under their own authority but that of another, of Christ. This is the reason why their stoles are worn under their chasubles. It is no simple fashion statement, but a reminder that the hallmark of the priesthood, in fact the hallmark of all authority is pastoral charity.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

It's Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Time is elusive. We have measured it since ancient times with the sun and the seasons, and as our minds developed, so did our timepieces. As much as we have fantasised about the day when man would have control of time, whether it be in stopping time or time travelling, time eventually slips through our fingers. Everything we do is marked by the steady march of time. We lose moments to the past, never to be regained, leaving us with regrets and missed opportunities because no one can turn back the clock.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. The first is the more popular of the two, and in terms of etymology, it has found its way into modern English words like chronological and anachronism. It refers to clock time – time that can be measured – seconds, minutes, hours, years. The Greeks have personified chronos as a weary, bent-backed old man with a long grey beard, carrying a scythe and an hourglass. His resemblance to the Grim Reaper is not accidental. Chronos, is the stuff that kills you. The wrinkles etched on my face and the grey hair sprouting out of my scalp are visual reminders of it. It takes away everything.

If Chronos was commonly depicted as an old man, Kairos, on the other hand, was a young man, lithe and handsome. Where chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative. The latter measures moments or opportunities, not seconds. Kairos refers to the right moment, the opportune moment, the perfect moment, the moment for decision. Let me give you a concrete illustration of these two perceptions of time. For example, you look at your watch at 8 am this morning. That’s chronos showing up on the face of your watch. And then you ponder and realise that it’s time for mass in an hour. You finally make a decision to come to church for mass. That’s Kairos. How wonderful it would be if our mass timing follows Kairos instead of chronos? Instead of the standard hour, everyone should be here till you all get the message.

When Our Lord came into public ministry, it was a fulfillment of promises past, a cosmic collision of chronos and kairos. It was a perfect moment, the right moment, the opportune time.  In today’s gospel, we see the consequence and conclusions stemming from Jesus’ declaration that “’kairos’ (not chronos) has come.” This moment is bursting forth with meaning, a moment pregnant with possibilities. In that very announcement of the gospel of Christ, we see the God-given moment, the floodtide of opportunity, the moment when heaven touches earth and the earth is aligned to heaven in a conjunction that will never be witnessed again. Since that “time,” our experience of time will no longer be the same.

If Kairos is the moment of decision, the moment of action, the moment of change, what is that decision, that must be undertaken? The words that follow immediately after the announcement of kairos time sets out the path we must follow, “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Pope Paul VI observed: "These words constitute, in a way, a compendium of the whole Christian life."  They are the sum and substance of being Christian. The Gospel in a nutshell. To repent and believe the good news is nothing less than a spiritual revolution. It is the divine turning point, God turns to man in a way that was unprecedented and never anticipated, inviting man to turn to God in the most radical of ways. The Greek word “metanoia” expresses this reality.

As Pope Benedict XVI puts it in his book Credo for Today: “Metanoia . . .  is actually the fundamental Christian act, understood, of course, in terms of one very definite aspect: the aspect of change, the act of turning, of becoming new and different.  In order to become a Christian, a human being must change, not merely in one place or another, but unconditionally, down to the very bottom of his being.” This can only mean that such turning is never a one-time event but a continual, constant, perpetual, habitual resolve to change one’s heart, to follow only one master, and one master alone. The person of Jesus is very clearly at the heart of metanoia.  The Christian metanoia hears but one voice--the voice of his or her Beloved- and that is not the voice of "everybody," of prevailing standards, of the majority, of a particular political party, of academia, of celebrities, of ever-shifting convention, or even laws.  When we encounter the Lord Jesus who calls us by name, we have two options: continue on our way, or metanoia.  We either follow our own path or follow Jesus on the way. There is no third way.  In metanoia, we can honestly say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” 

Understanding time from the perspective of Kairos also provides us an answer to the common frustration we experience over the seemingly lack of response we get from the Lord. When we ask for something right away, it might not always come. Or when we don't ask at all - but it shows up!  It can be frustrating, but it is a good reminder that He is God and we are not. We can’t control Him just as we can’t control “chronos” as much as we think we can. “Kairos” time, on the other hand, represents discontinuity, when an unexpected barrier forces one to move off a planned course and adjust to new realities. In the case of the disciples, though it was the appointed time and the right moment, the appearance of Our Lord and His invitation may have come at a time when they least expected it. They had one schedule in mind; but the Lord gave them another. That is why, we should always be on the lookout. We should live our days looking for those moments, those inexplicable times when His will and His way intersect with our daily walks. And they can happen anytime! Asking, “when is it going to happen?” is the wrong question. We should be asking, “Am I ready to respond when the time comes?” and the time is always “now”!

This new perception of time has deep implications for us. So many people are confronted with tremendous workload, impossible datelines and stressful work schedules, present company included. So often in our individual and community lives, in our various ministries, parishes and daily lives, we simply plod along from day to day, living with a sense of hopelessness, monotony or heaviness. There are two ways you can look at it. Chronos, or chronological time, doesn’t help at all, “I have so much to do and so little time and the time is just passing by!” Most time management books focus on chronos. We are locked into chronos time. If we Christians only manage our chronos time, it will result in well-organised lives. Unfortunately, well managed lives often miss out on Kairos. Or one may begin to look at everything from the perspective of Kairos, “I have two hours of my time, what is the best way I can use it. Should I pray? Should I take out my bible to read?” Perhaps, as followers of Christ, it would be good to begin to look at life through this second way. Let’s face it, the amount of tasks you have is probably never going to reduce. The backlog is probably full no matter how hard you try. And that is ok. Time (Chronos) can just pass by, but what happens to you can be Kairos.

At some time during a lengthy homily, you would look down at your watches, and ask yourself silently, “What time is it? When is this priest going to stop?” I guess, that’s the wrong question. In fact, it is the hour, it is the decisive moment, it is the opportune and most urgent time of decision. And it is not us who should do the asking but Christ. Today, Christ stands at the door of your heart knocking. It’s time to open the door and let Him in. Time to heed the call to repentance and to whole-heartedly believe in the Lord of Time and History. Time to stop walking away, but start walking in the direction of Christ. Do not delay!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What do you want?

Second Ordinary Sunday Year B

Christmas is just over. Christmas presents would have long been opened, the boxes and wrappings discarded. Some people would have been overjoyed whilst others disappointed with the gifts they had received. It seems ironic at times that our benefactors would often ask us the question: What do you want? It would be ironic because many would actually not get what they wanted. Our requests would often be out of the budgetary reach of the giver. That’s obvious – because if the object was really cheap, we would have gotten it ourselves! But the gift is received with a polite smile albeit veiling a secret wish that next year, we would get lucky and finally receive what we really wanted.

What do you want? This is the question which Jesus asked his first set of disciples in today’s gospel reading. Although this is one of the most frequently asked questions, many of us have a hard time answering it. We might know what we want in the grand scheme of things—perhaps some version of health, happiness, and prosperity. But what do we want right now, in this very moment?

Before we ask this pertinent question or make a request of another, we may want to take some time for reflection. For when we consider the question, “What do I want?” our first answer may be to ask for something that may just momentarily satisfy a thirst or desire. Having received what we had asked for, we may then have to live with regret for the rest of our lives for our folly and lack of far-sightedness. What we seem to want now may not really be what we want for the rest of our lives.

Our parents, our peers, and our culture have taught us that it is selfish to ask for what we want. Indeed, cultivating equanimity strengthens us when done as a spiritual pursuit. But if our “equanimity” is tinged with resentment or fear, then we are fooling ourselves. We would benefit ourselves and others by acknowledging the full range of our experience, and asking for what we want.

Whenever we ask this question, we may mean one of several things. First, we may be asking: “What do you want to have?” This is a question concerning possessions and things. Very often, God seems to be a big Santa Claus. We often think that God exist in order to meet our every need. We often pray for this or for that! When we don’t get what we want, we often complain and blame God for our predicaments.  This question turns on the functionality of our relationship with God. God is as good as He delivers. God is a big vending machine who is expected to dispense His goodies when we press the right button.

Second, the question could also mean “What do you want to do?” We often think that Christianity is about doing this or that. That is partially true but not entirely. Christianity refers primarily to who we are – to our identity. It is precisely because of our identity as Christians that we must do good and avoid evil. Therefore, our doing, our action flows from our identity – who we are. And this is who we are: “we are temples of the Holy Spirit.” We belong to God or as St. Paul writes in the second reading: “You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for.”

Therefore, it is very likely Jesus wasn’t asking His disciples what they would like to have in terms of possession. Neither was He telling them what to do. Rather, Jesus was asking His disciples and each of us today: “What do you want to become?” That is the fundamental moral question. We often think morality is the do’s and don’ts, about following a set of rules or disciplines. But at the heart of morality, the very essence of our Christian identity, in fact, is relationship and relationship is always about becoming. We are called to be better, to be deeper, to be stronger, to be more perfect. And the basis of that call is our relationship to Christ and to God. Ultimately, though we are already sons and daughters of God at our baptism, we are called to grow and become disciples of Christ, and that is an entire life’s project. We are work in progress. We are “becoming.”

Many of us do not really know what we want to become. We often think that it has to do with personal ambition. ‘I want to be rich.’ ‘I want to be successful.’ ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ‘I want to be an engineer.’ Is this what Jesus meant? Certainly not. Jesus was trying to challenge these first disciples to take a deeper look into the foundation of their identity – He was challenging them to ask the few most basic questions in life: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What does God want me to become? What is my fundamental relationship to Christ and to God?

The problem is that many people do not ask these questions. Many have not thought of it while others choose not to think about it for one reason or another. Perhaps, we fear the changes that must take place in our lives, if we try to find answers to those questions. We would certainly not be aware of these questions when our lives are cluttered by so many other noises and voices and other questions. 'What course should I take for my college education? Which house should I buy? Which man or woman shall I marry? What steps must I take to be more successful?' The temptations of the world, power, riches, popularity, if we allow them to do so, sometimes drown out the voice of God.

We must learn to listen to the voice of God in prayer. We must learn to discern His voice and distinguish this voice from those of others. We must learn to listen as Samuel listened and say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” When we are strangers to prayer, silence and reflection, we would allow ourselves to be consumed by our worldly ambitions and plans, define ourselves by work but fail miserably in preparing the most important thing which we all need – salvation of our souls.

In order to become the persons God intended us to become, in order to live out our dignity as God’s children, we must be followers of Jesus. We must learn to live and walk with Jesus. Jesus invites us each day to “Come and See” – to journey with Him, to discover His plan for us, and to learn from Him. If we want to see our parish become a more vibrant, faith-filled and welcoming community, we must first learn to become that.

As we have begun a new year, we are presented with a whole range of possibilities, adventures and new opportunities. If asked this same question, many people would certainly ask for wealth, health, peace and success. But as Christians, when asked this question, we are reminded of the same question posed to our parents at our baptism. The answer is certainly none of the above but simply, eternal life. To the question ‘What do you want?’ which is asked by the priest, our answer should always be – “Eternal Life”, that is, to know God, to love Him, to serve Him and be with Him in Paradise forever.