Wednesday, May 30, 2018

O God who in this wonderful Sacrament

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ 2018

Today’s magnificent Collect, or opening Prayer of the Mass, the prayer that is usually said by the priest at the end of the Eucharistic hymn, Tantum Ergo, before the Benediction, begins with the word “Deus”, “O God”. Usually in a Collect the first word “Deus” would refer to God the Father, whom we address through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord. But today is no ordinary day. Last week, the Church’s liturgy invited us to meditate upon the awesome and magnificent mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. But this week, the Church invites us to contemplate something which may seem more outrageous and astounding than the former – the Omnipotent God, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty God who reigns over the living and the dead, now hides in the “work of our hands” under the form of bread and wine. Thus, the one being addressed as ‘God’ in the opening prayer is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Today, we call Jesus “God” very deliberately, because if He were not Himself God, the Holy Eucharist would have no meaning.

In a world that craves and demands accessibility, few are able to appreciate the infinite gulf that separates us from God. This explains the contemptuous familiarity we so often witness at mass. We behave as if God is our best buddy, and what do we do with our best buddies? We insult them and we take them for granted. But in relation to God, we must honestly ask once again, “Who are we?” Let us never once forget that we are limited, created beings, made out of clay, mortal creatures doomed to die. God by contrast, is eternal, uncreated, unconfined; all holy, all wise, all good, all powerful. In the words of St. Anselm, God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”. He lacks nothing whatever; He is the infinite source of all that is. He has no need of us, of our unworthy service or miserable praises. We, on the other hand, are absolutely in need of Him. Without Him, we would not be here. But in Jesus Christ, the gulf that separates us from God is bridged. In Jesus, God has stepped across that abyss, and come to us, in order to draw us to Himself and here He is truly present in the Holy Eucharist.

“O God, who in this wonderful sacrament”, the first words of the opening prayer, so beautifully summarises the heart of today’s feast. The Blessed Sacrament is wonderful because the mystery is so rich; richer than our minds could ever fully comprehend and yet so simple and readily accessible that God should hide under the appearances of bread and wine. How does the Lord dwell in the Eucharist? The Cure D’Ars, St John Vianney gave this answer, “In an invisible manner, hidden under the species of bread. He accommodates Himself to our weakness. In heaven, when we will be triumphant and glorious, we shall see Him in His glory. If He showed Himself now before us with this glory, we would not dare to approach Him, but He hides Himself as someone in prison and says to us: You do not see Me, but this does not matter: ask Me all that you wish, I will give it to you.”

Then the Collect continues, “who have left us a memorial of your passion”. The Holy Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s saving passion for it makes all the power of the Cross efficaciously present. Let us just note that the Mass is not a memorial of the Passion in the same way as Mel Gibson’s film is. On the contrary. Our senses are not assaulted here by images of horror; there is no violence, no blood; there are no grotesque scenes of sickening brutality or depraved cruelty. There is no need to embellish the mass with drama. As Fr Dominic once told me, “What do you call a dramatic Eucharistic celebration? Answer – Dra-mass!” No, we do not need “dra-mass.” Instead we are confronted at Mass by order, dignity, reverence, beauty; there is silence; there are noble gestures and simple ceremonies; God’s word is proclaimed; prayer is offered; an assembly is united around the Altar of Sacrifice in love and in worship. The Church says that the Holy Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s passion because the Last Supper and the Passion of Christ cannot be separated. At the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus as our great High Priest took His death into His own hands, made of it a holy sacrifice, and through it offered us Himself. “This is my Body, given for you; This is my Blood, poured out for you.” As Jesus at the Last Supper was looking ahead to Calvary, so we in the sacrifice of the Mass, look back to Calvary.

“Grant, we pray, that we may so venerate the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood.” Here we come to the petition of the Prayer: what it asks for. We are asked not to worship mere food. This petition is pointing to the heart of our Eucharistic belief. The bread and wine of the Mass that we see, handle, taste, and consume, once they have been duly consecrated, become in very truth, Christ’s own Body and Blood. Of course this mystery eludes our full understanding, but our faith tells us that Jesus is here; God is here; and so we offer the Blessed Sacrament the homage of our adoration; the adoration which is due to God alone. And, the Church gives us today’s Feast precisely, in order to help and encourage us to worthily venerate these sacred mysteries. God forbid that we ever forget how great the gift of the Holy Eucharist is! God forbid that we ever become casual in our reverence for the Blessed Sacrament! God forbid that we ever fail to acknowledge the Real Presence of Jesus here!

Some Catholics think, that we can share in the Eucharist and only gain grace from the Eucharist in the Mass by receiving Holy Communion. This idea greatly limits the power and the love of Jesus.  Certainly, 'participation in the sacrifice of the Mass and receiving Holy Communion' is the most powerful source of grace for us, but it is not the only source of Eucharistic grace. After the sacrifice is completed, the sacrament continues on. Our Lord, in His sacramental body and blood remains here with us as our friend, just as He promised. The Holy Mass and Eucharistic Adoration seamlessly flows into each other. This is why Eucharistic Adoration is so important. I like the way St Teresa of Kolkotta puts it. She said, "When we look at the cross, we know how much Jesus loved us. When we look at the tabernacle, we know how much Jesus loves us NOW". 

Finally, we consider the last petition: “Grant that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruits of your redemption”. What are the fruits of Redemption? It would be hard to draw up any sort of exhaustive list. It would certainly include the forgiveness of our sins; adoption into the divine sonship; possession of the Holy Spirit; incorporation as living members into Christ’s Body; growth in virtue and sanctification, fellowship already with the citizens of Heaven. But there is so much more. Our Lord came to give us life: the fullness of life; eternal life; resurrected life; life triumphant over death; His own life with the Father.

At every mass, when the priest or the deacon is cleaning the vessels, he prays another beautiful prayer sotto voce, in a subdued voice. The words are not audible to the congregation but are so deep that they are meant to pierce the heart of the priest or deacon and remind him of the great mystery that he had just partaken. “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of hearts, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.” These words get to the heart of the mystery we celebrate at every mass. Now we dwell in time, and receive the gift of the Eucharist here, in this church, on this particular day, but we pray that this moment of grace will extend into eternity, as we draw from the Lord ever more abundantly the life He wants to give us; the life that endures forever. In the Eucharist, we get a taste and a glimpse of heaven, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived, the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Mystery of Love

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity 2018

Our liturgical celebrations throughout the entire year is a participation in the Paschal Mystery, the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s easy because we have the stories of scripture to guide us. But our celebration today is unique. The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity is an invitation to enter into the mystery of God. That’s a tall order – to attempt to contemplate the Invisible Deity, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to penetrate the mind of the Impenetrable mystery of God. Seems impossible and it is humanly impossible but this is the wonder of God revealing His true nature to us. How could we love that or whom we do not know? So, God goes out on a limb and takes the risk of revealing His inner life to us, fully aware that our tiny brains will never be able to fully grasp the breath and length and depth of what He wishes to tell us. No wonder, the doctrine of the Trinity has been described as a mystery pure and simple – probably the most profound mystery of Christianity…most confusing and misunderstood.

The doctrine or dogma of the Most Holy Trinity is not just one teaching among many. It is the Christian teaching of the very nature of God… the core belief, the essence and that great mystery of the Christian faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is a distinctively Christian doctrine of God, something that separates Christians from other religious traditions. People don’t realise how radical this teaching is, that this is completely contradictory in the mindset of the Jews and which led to the opposition against and subsequently the execution of Jesus. Everything a Christian does flows from this teaching, is centered upon this teaching, and leads back to this teaching. Catholics, among all Christians, should understand this. From the moment we were baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – and over and over again throughout our lives, we Catholics continually re-dedicate ourselves to the Trinity as we make the sign of the cross. We profess and in so many ways express it in our liturgies, and daily in our home prayers, day-to-day activities and even sports events whenever a player blesses himself as he steps into the field or when he scores a goal.

Theists, those who believe in God, have traditionally believed that the existence of God can be reliably inferred from the natural world, from arguments based on causality, order, contingency etc. However, the idea that this God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is not at all like that. No amount of logical reasoning, outside-the-box thinking, or star gazing could discover this truth unaided. That’s the thing that, even if true, would have to be revealed. Apart from this revelation, we will never come to know of it. And the reason why the Church is convinced that God is in fact a Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is because she is convinced that God has disclosed this information to us. Furthermore, she is convinced that God has done so unambiguously and overwhelmingly, first, within history; second, within the Scriptures, and third, in the life and experience of the Church from Pentecost to present day.  As St Paul so confidently writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (Rom 1:19)

It is sometimes said, especially by those who reject Christianity, that the Trinity is unscriptural: that it was an invention of the Church, without any genuine biblical support. If you are speaking of the word “Trinity”, this is true. The word appears nowhere in the Bible (and nor for that matter, does the word “theology,” “Bible”, “creed”, etc appear). Furthermore, nowhere does it describe Father, Son and the Holy Spirit as being homoousios (“of the same nature” translated in the new edition of the Nicene creed as “consubstantial). Just because a particular word is not mentioned in the Bible, it does not mean it is unscriptural. The word “Trinity” is merely a shorthanded way of making three simple theological statements:
1.      There is only one God.
2.      The Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God.
3.      But the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Father and the Son are not the Holy Spirit.
Each of these claims are deeply scriptural, and countless of references from both the Old and the New Testaments can be cited in support of them. There is no way of getting around these propositions unless you wish to change the text of scriptures itself. These three propositions, each of which is firmly embedded in the testimony of Holy Scripture, are, in essence, what Christianity understands by the word “Trinity.”

While the Holy Trinity might be difficult to explain, God invites us to delve into His depths and discover the immensity and incomprehensibility of His love for us. While I can’t fully comprehend the incomprehensible, I can be loved by it. That is why Love itself is a mystery. Only the lovers themselves would understand their own motivations whilst family members and friends continue to be perturbed. We are loved by the Father, eternally generating his Son in a shared breath of the Holy Spirit, who spreads and creates wherever He comes from and wherever He goes. In every moment, the grace of the Most Holy Trinity calls to me to breathe in the gift of belonging to a family of love whose presence in my life transforms every thought, action and word into a moment of grace…if I have the courage to say yes. The Holy Trinity becomes the very model of marital life, family life, community life, church life, and finally societal life. Yes. Where even a gesture as small as tracing the sign of the cross, can remind us that God has created us for our own sake so that we might share in the exchange of His self-giving love and live as a gift with others. We live not only for ourselves but always for others.

The joy of today’s feast lies not in fully understanding, but in fully accepting that we are no longer slaves, but sons and daughters. We are no longer poor, but heirs to the promise. And we are no longer without a purpose, but sent on a mission. Our gift is receiving His love, which leaves an effect on every part of our life and gives meaning to even the most trivial and mundane moments. It is through us, living out our relationships in this mutual self-giving, that the divine mystery is made visible to the world. Perhaps, the world continues to reject the revelation of the Trinity, precisely because we have been bad witnesses – our lack of love and care for the other, our penchant to be selfish and individualistic, our tendency to be overly ambitious and to come out tops. How wonderful it would be if we could only reflect the life of the Holy Trinity instead? That would be our most powerful way of evangelising – not merely through words, concepts and arguments, but simply through the way we live our lives.

Today, we should stop and contemplate how God has shared His life with us through the simple things that have the capacity to reflect His glory. “God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (CCC, 221). Everyone (and everything has the capacity of mediating the call to the family of the Triune God. And if we don’t lose heart, or our nerves, this call will lead us to a world whose depth of meaning and joy will only grow deeper and correspondingly, we can lead the world to God as He had intended.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Babel has fallen

Pentecost Vigil 2018

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. But no one can truly rejoice in this feast without recalling an incident that took place long ago on the plain of Shinar, which we had just heard in the first reading. Back then, men attempted to build an ancient skyscraper, up to the heavens. “Come, they said, let us build ourselves a town and a tower reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) This massive engineering feat was not motivated by the desire for development nor for the welfare of the people. Needless to say, they were not building a temple to God. The text clearly states that they were doing this to make a name for themselves. It was a monument to their ego. Pride, was the drive behind this project. They sought to establish a unified society. They thought that by means of technology they could continue to live in sin and impunity without having to suffer the divine punishment of another flood. If the waters start rising, just start climbing!

Here we see clearly what St. Augustine would describe later as the “city of man” as opposed to the “city of God.” According to Jewish tradition it was Nimrod who organised and oversaw the building of the tower of Babel. Nimrod is a prototype of the Antichrist, the ruler of the city of man, i.e. those who seek to live as if man is God. Every despot and dictator follows the same mould. Nimrod and those following him wanted to build a city and a tower, to make a name for themselves in order to preserve their man-made projects, to exalt themselves to heaven while living in opposition to God. God saw that, when so unified, the city of man would be capable of unrestrained evil. Just as He had mercifully driven man out of Eden to prevent him from eating of the Tree of Life and so living forever in his sinful condition; so also at Babel, God acted mercifully in confusing man’s language, to prevent the city of man from carrying out the great evils it would do if united together in opposition to God. God delayed judgment of the city of man to allow man to repent. It was an act of mercy, not a punitive one.

But God’s redemptive purpose was not merely to prevent man from falling into greater evil; He also set out to restore to man the true unity he enjoyed in Eden, a fellowship in the Divine Trinity. Only by this communion with the Divine Persons can men be truly united to each other; the true unity of men with men only comes about as a participation in the divine unity of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son with this ministry of reconciliation. After His death and resurrection, but before His ascension into Heaven, He commissioned His Apostles to “make disciples of all the nations.” Fifty days after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, and filled with the Holy Spirit they began speaking in other languages which they had not previously known. On that day, three thousand heard their testimony, believed and were baptised. On Pentecost Day, the Church was born.

One of the primary purposes for Christ founding a Church is to undo the division of the human family effected by sin. The Tower of Babel is the paradigmatic referent of Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” Pentecost is the supernatural redemptive reversal of Babel, and this is why the Church is the anti-Babel. The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to reverse that division by means of a divine ingathering. All the nations of the world are to stream into her doors, into one household, the household of faith. The Church is the house of the Lord, and because He builds this house, those who labour against it, labour in vain. Apart from Christ, man cannot form such a unity, though he thinks he can. A Utopian world without the need for heaven would eventually be a living hell. By his own power man attempts to recover each of the gifts lost or damaged by Adam’s sin. He attempts to gain immortality through genetic manipulation, pharmaceuticals and medical science; love through pornography, fornication, adultery and other forms of sexual aberrations, and wisdom through electronic technology, internet and news media. But he is only capable of “creating” a distorted parody of the original perfection.

Man continues to reach the heavens through his own devices in order to discover the answer to life’s problems. Little does he realise, that all such attempts will inevitably meet with failure. Ironically, there is no need for him to build a tower to find an answer. The answer chose to leap down from heaven, the Word of God descended and became flesh and after His ascension, the Spirit descended upon the Church at Pentecost. Unity is ultimately a gift from God. And this is why unity is the first of the four marks of the Church: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Life of the Church is the supernatural Life of the Trinity, not from man, but from the God-man, and not ordered to natural earthly bliss, but to the supernatural end, heavenly beatitude, which is the very perfect and eternal communion of the Three Divine Persons. In this way the Church reverses Babel, not by man’s own efforts, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ, to incorporate all men into that Body.

God wants all men to be united through being incorporated into the body of Christ, i.e. the Church: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism into one God. The true unification of man takes place only through Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Church. But modern men, who have no place in their hearts for God, always seek a substitute for the divine. And the city of man continues to seek peace and unity through political, economic, technological and military means. Yet the city of man can never find true peace and unity through these means. It can only wrought destruction as evidenced by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

Into that mystical Body, men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation are to this day still being incorporated, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Church and her sacraments. And that is the reason why we must never cease to reach out to our relatives and friends and invite them into the Church. Often, Catholics fail miserably in this aspect due to misplaced notion of respect for the other. The Church is meant to be a sign to the world of man’s original social purpose, the harmonious union of all men. In the mystical Body of the Second Adam, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the first Adam’s sin (i.e. division and strife and dissension and schism) are done away, the damage of Babel is healed.

When human pride drives us to build monuments to ourselves instead of to God, we repeat the sin of Babel. When we seek to sow seeds of discord and injure the unity of the Church in order to build our own little niche of the kingdom, we participate once again in the discord of Babel. When instead of being spiritually fruitful, we try to build our own material security, we repeat the infidelity of   Babel. When we refuse to hear God’s word, He sends us strong delusion — or a confusion like He had sent to Babel. When men are full of human pride, confusion always results. We live today in a world of religious “babble.” Only the spelling has changed. What can reunite men and end the religious confusion?  By simply listening to God and obeying His commands!  When we are attuned to the language of God, the language of barrier of men can be dropped so that God’s message of salvation can be heard once again with utter clarity.

Babel, the city of man, forever represents the confusion and division of humankind; but the city of God, the resplendent Church whom we call Mother, draws men and women of every language, colour, culture, and nationality into a kingdom where there is neither Greek nor Jew, bond or free, but where all are one in Christ Jesus.