Monday, April 30, 2018

Remain in His Love

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year B

What links last week’s gospel passage and this week’s is the word “remain”. In this week’s gospel, we find the word ten times. To some, this appears unnecessarily repetitive. Whereas for others, the oft used word is capable of leading us into a more profound reflexion on the topic of ‘love. Just as the branches must remain a part of the vine in order to bear fruit, remaining with the Lord is the fundamental first theme of this week’s gospel. But to remain where? In love, in the love of Christ, in being loved and in loving the Lord.

To understand the meaning of the word ‘remain’ and its context, one needs to return to last week’s gospel, where Jesus presented the parable of the vine. The vine is an Old Testament image which has a double meaning: it refers both to God as well as to His People. But here emerges the second meaning: the vine is a symbol of spousal love, an expression of the joy of love that springs from fidelity.  “Steadfast love” and “faithfulness” are two qualities that are often found together in the Old Testament to describe God. God enters into a covenant, a relationship of no meager proportions, and an unprecedented union with His People. What we have here is not just some flitting superficial relationship, but one which will survive the test of time and tribulations, one which will endure across the centuries, one that will not be rescinded even in the face of infidelity.

But then, we all know the story of the Bible. As much as it is a tale that eulogises the fidelity of God, the Bible is equally a story that indicts the people of their infidelity. Man chooses and attempts to break the bond which is unbreakable. He wants a life that is autonomous and independent of God. And due to sin, the vineyard is devastated, the wild boar and enemies invade and violates its parameters.

But God does not give up: God finds a new way to arrive at a free and irrevocable love, to the fruit of this love: God becomes man, and thus, he Himself becomes the root of the vine, he Himself becomes the foundation of the vine which is indestructible. The people of God cannot be destroyed because God Himself has entered into their experience and existence.  He implanted Himself on this earth. Thus, we come to understand that fidelity in any relationship, whether it be friendship or marriage, is not a personal moral choice but derives its efficacy from its true source, the God who is ever faithful. In order that one remains faithful in loving, one must remain in love, in Jesus who is God’s Love Incarnate.

To “remain” is not the only imperative we find in this passage. ‘Remaining’ leads to the second imperative - to “observe.” It must be noted that "observe" is only found at the second level - the first is still "remain," the ontological level. It is not we who must produce this great fruit called love. We do not create love through our observance of the commandments. On the contrary, the ability to observe the commandments flows from our fundamental relationship of ‘remaining’ with God. God’s act of loving us precedes our action of loving Him. In the second reading, St John eloquently speaks of this divine initiative of love – “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” Love is not defined by our feeble attempts but by the fundamental act of God towards us. He loved us first, unconditionally, even when our love for Him was weak, tenuous and conditional.

The second imperative to “observe” all the commandments seems oddly out of sync with the first one, which calls us to “remain” in Christ’s love. We often associate the observance of commandments or the law, as restrictions unnecessarily and unjustly placed upon a person, and thus appears to be the ante-thesis of love, which we associate with freedom. How often have I heard this mantra: “We should be a Church of love not a Church of laws.” And if one were concerned about keeping those laws, one may risk being labelled a small-minded Pharisee. And yet here, Jesus, by juxtaposing these two imperatives, reminds us that observance of the law is a natural consequence of remaining in love. One flows from the other. One demonstrates the other. Failure to observe laws does not demonstrate that one is more loving. On the contrary, it may actually expose our lack of love.  Just have a look at all the people who flaunt traffic laws – speeding, beating traffic lights, double-parking; no one would dare claim that such behaviour displays exceptional love. Rather, it may be easy to conclude that such behaviour reveals a callous and insensitive attitude to the welfare of others.

Thus, morality is not just a set of obligations and rules that derives its authority from outside of us. We do not have to obey a law laid down before us, a law that is external to us, but we only need to act in accordance with our identity. As beings rooted in the love of God, it is in our very nature and purpose to obey His commandments. Thus, it is no longer obedience, an external thing, but a realisation of the gift of our new being. To truly love, one finds no contradiction in observing commandments. Disobedience, on the other hand, denies this identity. St John confronts the real contradiction in our lives when we profess to love God but refuse to obey His commandments; we love God but hate our neighbor. It is tantamount to claiming that one can bear fruit whilst living apart from the vine. For Christ, loving God is synonymous with observing and obeying His commandments.

Finally, Christ now presents the Commandment which summarises the themes of “remaining” and “observing” and all others – the new Commandment of love - "Love one another as I love you.”  Christ presents His catechesis on love not by outlining a structure of actions, obligations and duties. If it was so, it would be pure moralism. He presents His catechesis in the form of personal testimony. What is so radically new about this new Commandment is not the level of heroic action that a Christian must do, but what Christ Himself has done. It is Christ who has given us Himself, took on our human nature, and finally given His life on the cross for us. As the gospel tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." The novelty or newness of the Commandment transfers the standard and point of reference from the individual Christian to that of Christ Himself.

Let us thank God for the greatness of His love, let us pray that He may help us to grow in His love, and truly remain in His love. For this is love – not our gift to Him but His gift to us. This is love, not just some passionately feverish moment of altruism but one that is characterised by fidelity and obedience; one that prepares us to lay down our lives for our friends, one that readily submits to authority and not live in dereliction of it. We can do so only because Christ has first done this for us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

We are all branches of the same tree

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

The Irish poet W. B. Yeats said, “If what I say resonates with you, it is because we are both branches on the same tree.” Hopefully something said today resonates with you reminding you that we are a branch on the same tree, the tree of our Lord Jesus Christ. And more importantly, hopefully something that Christ has said resonates with you on this day and on many others, reminding you that you are a branch of His tree. In today’s gospel, our Lord employs a readily accessible image in Israel during His time. In the final of the 7 “I am” sayings of Christ we have perhaps the most visual and poetic – “I am the Vine.”

The metaphor is not entirely new. As we can see in the Old Testament, Israel was often depicted as a vineyard (cf., Isa. 5; Jer. 5:10; 12:10-11), sometimes fruitful, sometimes not. Our Lord also used this imagery in parables to describe the Kingdom of God (Matt 20:1-16; Lk 13:6-9). But His use of it in John 15 is unique and notable for its intimacy: “I am the true vine,” Our Lord provides the key to that relationship as He exhorts the disciples on the eve of His Passion, “remain in me as I remain in you.” It is not just sufficient to know Christ or to encounter Him in an intimate way. The secret to that relationship is to “remain”, to “abide.”

One of the apostles, of course, did not remain in Christ; the danger of cutting oneself off from the vine and eternal life is real. It can happen; tragically, it does happen. It is why we have recourse to Confession, which restores us to full communion with Christ and the Church. Remaining in Christ includes remaining in the Church. So anyone claiming that he is committed to Christ but have wishes to distance himself from the people of God do not know what they are talking about. To say that one only needs the former and can dispense with the latter is an outright lie. Commitment to Christ entails commitment to His Body, the Church. We need both the church and Christ. They’re mutually inclusive - you can’t have one without the other. Our faith is not just personal or individual, as many modern Christians would claim today, but rather fundamentally and essentially communal and ecclesial. Being part of Christ means being attached to the Church, the Body of Christ. When we grow in intimacy with Christ, we must necessarily grow in intimacy with others. So, when people stay away from the community of the Church, from the BEC, from any fellowship with other Catholics, and yet protest that they are disciples of Christ, are living a contradiction.

There is another point apart from intimacy, that is put forward by the image of the vine and its branches – it is anonymity. In an age that idolises individual self-expression, in a culture where everyone hopes to have their five minutes of fame whether on a talentime show or on social media, where everyone seems to be fighting for the right to be different and unique, the parable provides a stern critique. In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another, it  is  impossible  to  determine  where  one  branch  stops and where another  branch  starts.  They all run together as they grow out of the central vine. What the vine image suggests about community is that, there are no free standing individuals in the community.  This metaphor of the vine and the branches is stark in its anonymity, that is, the visual image of the branches lacks any and all distinctions in appearance or character of gifts. What is essential is not isolated individuality but rather anonymous connexion with the Vine – apart from it we have no identity, we cannot have life!

So when we are genuinely and humbly connected to Christ so too are we intertwined with others in Christ, such that, by our very nature we bond into a community that seems inseparable, organic, woven together in love. So much so that who has what gifts and abilities is secondary - what matters is not who has or who does what, what matters is what we do as part of the whole and what we are together. Because when a branch is cut off, of course, it ceases to be fruit-bearing. When we break away and go our own way, we ultimately cease to be fruit- bearing.

But no one can ever claim community life is easy. Just ask the religious and priests who live in communities. We will be the first to tell you how hard it is to live as a community, and how humbling it is to be in a community. One may shine outside the community, but the community is the true litmus test of discipleship. Thus, the parable speaks of the need of pruning. Our Lord speaks of His Father, the vinedresser, doing two things that require a knife. Every branch that doesn't bear fruit, the Father removes, cuts away; and every branch that does bear fruit the Father prunes, so that it may bear more fruit. Likewise, we have to be pruned, bits and pieces, certain practices, vices, or habits or ways of being or ways of speaking need to be trimmed  up and off, in order for us to be able to grow in Christ. And more often than not this can be painful, the clipping and cutting, the fraternal correcting, the forgiving and reconciling, the changing of behaviours and attitudes. Pruning is always a painful process. It is a form of loss or death. But, paradoxically, the vinedresser is never more intimately involved than when wielding the pruning-knife! As any good gardening enthusiast will tell you, “Getting roses to bloom means cutting back the canes.” Growing pains. Pruning pains. Changing pains.

There is another theme that emerges from this metaphor - being overly presumptuous about our salvation. Such presumption is a sin against hope. It is basically saying that once a person has been baptised, his entrance into heaven upon death is guaranteed. It is what some Evangelical groups would term as the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. But the truth is that we may lose the sanctifying grace we have received through the Sacrament of Baptism by committing a mortal sin. The story of Holy Week leaves us with an important reminder that we should not ignore. One of the apostles, did not remain in Christ; he shared in the first Eucharistic meal but his heart had already been set to betray Christ. Thus, being committed to Christ means continuously being committed to the life of holiness, of personal sanctification, throughout our entire lives and not just be contented with a single moment of grace or conversion. It means remaining in the Church. It is not just enough to receive grace. We are called to remain in the state of grace and if this is not so, we should immediately make use of the sacrament of penance to be reconciled to God and His Church.

The call to abide in the vine should never be taken lightly or superficially. It calls for something quite radical and life changing. It is a call to a personal and intimate knowledge of Jesus himself, not an idea, but a living person. It calls for us to be “plugged” into Jesus, grafted onto His life, allowing His very presence to pulsate through our minds and hearts. It calls for us to be immersed in the life of the community and the Church, no matter how painful and challenging this may be. It is a call to be intertwined with others to the point that the whole becomes greater than the parts. To abide in the vine means always being committed to grow in the life of prayer and sanctification and never feeling complacent with the bare minimum or whatever is mediocre. Abiding in Christ, as St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, requires the wholehearted and transforming “confession of piety.” Finally, as the second reading emphasises, mere words are not enough when it comes to demonstrating a right relationship with God. Talking means nothing if, as the old saying goes, we don’t walk the talk. Rather, we must examine our hearts and “keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wiithout the shepherd, the sheep would be nothing

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, and it is customary in most parishes to speak of the qualities of the Good Shepherd and make the link with the priesthood. But this year, I’m going to take a little departure from this theme and instead say something about the sheep. No one can be called a shepherd without sheep. One of our Pope’s most immortalised phrases is the one where he makes references to pastors, bishops and priests, having to “smell” like their sheep. I am going to take that cue today and attempt to smell like the sheep.

Why sheep? Well the Bible often tells us that we are sheep. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. That word picture is at the heart of the best-loved Psalm–Psalm 23. And in Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel, our Lord Jesus self-identifies Himself as the good shepherd, and we His sheep. In order to gain a better appreciation of why God saw fit to tell us that He is our shepherd, we need to understand what it means to be sheep. I will admit I am not the world’s foremost expert on sheep. I grew up in the city and have never lived on a farm. I lived all my life in a country where the human population is not outnumbered by life-stock. Thank God for that.  In place of first-hand knowledge, I spent some time reading about sheep. It was funny, and kind of humbling. If our Lord refers to us as His sheep, was He making this connexion?

Do a little bit of reading about sheep and you’ll soon see that they are not survivors. They are not strong and independent creatures, not proud hunters or fierce predators. They’re actually kind of pathetic, entirely dependent upon a shepherd for at least three reasons.

The first reason why sheep need a shepherd is because sheep are dumb. Spend some time with enough of them and you’ll soon see that they aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, they are one of the world’s daftest animals. Sheep will follow one another. That’s part of their non-questioning herd mentality. But the problem is that they can follow another even over a cliff. They are scared of anything and get spooked by their own shadow. Without a shepherd, they may soon end up dead before ending up on someone’s dinner table.

And here’s a second reason why sheep need a shepherd: they are directionless. Sheep are prone to wander. Even if you put them in an absolutely perfect environment with everything they need (things like green pastures and still waters), sooner or later they will just wander off. Thus, the parable of the lost sheep is not an anomaly to anyone who is familiar with sheep behaviour. It may actually be a daily affair, and not just affecting one recalcitrant rebellious creature but sometimes, the entire flock, in the absence of a shepherd. If a shepherd doesn’t manage them, and keep them under constant surveillance, they’ll wander off and be lost.

Sheep are dumb and directionless. They are also defenseless. Left to themselves, sheep will not and cannot last very long. Just about any other domesticated animal can be returned to the wild and will stand a fighting chance of survival. But not sheep. Put a sheep in the wild and you’ve just given nature a snack. Fortunately for them, they are not staple meat for the poor and shepherds do not eat their own sheep. Only the rich could afford them and usually eaten as pie. Makes you wonder why they were called “shepherd’s pie.”

But sheep were not just eaten, they were also used as a common sacrifice under Levitical law. God commanded that the firstborn of every flock was to be offered to Him as a tithe and sacrifice, and sheep were the primary animal used for burnt offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. You’ll also remember that on the high feast day of the Passover, a family would gather together in their home, sit down and consume a sheep together. Sheep weren’t just eaten and sacrificed, but were appropriated for all kinds of uses. Sheepskin was turned into containers for wine and water, clothing, covering and parchments to write upon. Sheep bones and horns were made into writing utensils. Being a sheep wasn’t such a great thing. You either ended up on someone’s dining table or sacrificed in the Temple or made into someone’s accessory or stationery. It was no fun being a sheep, especially when you didn’t have a shepherd to protect it.

Sheep are dumb and directionless and defenseless. So, I guess when scripture tells us that we are sheep who need a shepherd, it is not meant as a compliment to us. It is just a very realistic assessment of who we are and what we need. Yes, it may be true that we have free will but more often than not, we do go with the herd mentality. As for intelligence, we have Albert Einstein’s infamous statement, “There are only two things which are infinite – the universe and stupidity and I’m not too sure about the first.” The stupid seldom admit their stupidity. In fact their stupidity is built upon the assumption that they are clever.

Yes, whether we would wish to admit it or not, we are sheep who are completely dependent upon a shepherd. To say that the Lord is our shepherd and we are His sheep, is to humble ourselves, admitting what is true about us. When you say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” you are saying that He must be in-charge. To declare that He is your shepherd is to allow Him to set the direction in your life, to call the shots, to set the terms and conditions of the relationship. To proclaim Him as our shepherd is to recognise that He is the very reason not only for our survival but also, our salvation. We would be nothing without Him.

Sheep do not have a reputation for being the most brilliant of animals. But what they lack in individual intelligence is compensated by their extraordinary sense of community and they can make excellent followers. The smartest thing a sheep can do is to be loyal to a good shepherd. Nature did not give sheep any good personal defenses like claws or wings or venom. But nature gave them something else, the instinct to stick close to a top-of-the-food-chain ally, someone who can throw a rock or build a fire or protect them from wolves and other predators and force them to go somewhere they would never choose to go, but which turns out to be a green pasture near restful waters.

More importantly, the sheep also have an additional quality, they know their true shepherd. “I know my own and my own know me.” What scripture knew over 2000 years ago, modern science has confirmed. Sheep, ridiculed for a non-questioning herd mentality, possess a sharp sense of individuality and can recognise the faces of at least 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least two years. Once they have that skill to recognise the true shepherd and listen to the right voice, they cannot be deceived because they have learned the sound of their own shepherd’s call.

“I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep,” says the Lord. Too often, we experience a cacophony of voices competing for our attention, for our obedience. And because it is very easy to fall prey to the many noisy and loud voices other than the one true voice of our Good Shepherd, we stray from the fold and get lost in the thickets. And when we feel lost, incapacitated, incapable of carrying on with our lives, let us spend time with the Good Shepherd, listening intently to His voice and accustoming our hearing to His invitation to an ever-deeper relationship with Him. For it is only through our obedience and trust that He can be a Good Shepherd to us and we the sheep of His fold.