Wednesday, June 27, 2018

O Death, where is your sting

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

One of the most ideal times to go sightseeing in a temperate country would be during Autumn. You would not just be confronted with the white snow-covered branches of the trees in winter or the various hues of green in spring and summer. The highlight of Autumn, a thing of great beauty, is to see the magnificent changing colours of the foliage. It is as if God Himself took His palette of gorgeous colours to paint His entire creation anew. But let’s not overlook the obvious. As the colours come alive, the reality is that nature is going dormant, even dying, and paradoxically, nature does not get any more beautiful than at the moment of its dying. This cycle of nature is foreshadowing our own deaths. Nature serves as an important reminder which funerals occasionally do, that “all things passes, only God remains.” (St Teresa of Avila)

Nobody has ever discovered a means to avoid death despite advances in computer-chip implant technology and blueberry super antioxidant nutrition. Even those in perfect health must recognise that their health can fail in a heartbeat. The best we can hope for is to somewhat extend our lives. But the blunt and painful truth is that we will all die, and the uncertainties surrounding how we will die, are disquieting. Death may be a perfect muse for poetry but when it hits too close to home, there is really nothing poetic about it. The prospect of death can haunt us like a bad dream. This is because the certainty of death brings with it another inevitability. We will be separated forever from the things of this world and death will seal our fate for eternity. The obituary section of newspapers awaits us all. So it is important for our peace of soul to consider these facts in more detail.

It gets one thinking: Why does God allow death, or why did God create a world in which death even exists? We can begin to search for an answer in today’s readings. The first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, addresses this concern: Why does Death exist? Did God make death? And if He didn’t, who did? The Book unwaveringly insists that “death was not God’s doing,” in fact, “He takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living.” In fact, we are reminded that we are made in the image of God’s own nature, that is, made “imperishable” or in some versions, “incorruptible.” No, death didn’t 'just happened'. Nor is it God's will. Death is the result of sin. At the end of today’s first reading, we read that “it was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world.” Death is the final victory of the devil, the result of his destructive activity. If man had not sinned, he would not have died. His body may have changed and evolved over great periods of time, but it would not have been separated from his spirit to return to the dust. This is the meaning of the sin of Adam; made in God’s image and inspired with His Spirit, and has chosen death instead of life, evil instead of righteousness, and so through defilement of his nature in rebellion against God, brought corruption and death to the world.

Even if God is exonerated of the crime of bringing death into the world, it still does not provide us with the answer to our painful experience of its existence in our lives. How can we fix the wrong? Who can set things right? We find ourselves stumped again. We have created incredible techniques and discovered miraculous cures and unbelievable interventions that have added decades to so many lives. And yet, there remains the final certainty that our mortal life will end in death. No, we do not hold the answer.  There is only one who can set things right. Only one who can reverse death and blunt its sting. The only one who can give something much more than longevity and good health, the one who can give us eternal life. The One who says to us, “Do not be afraid; only have faith.” And then He turns to the child, and says, “Talitha kum,” that is, “Little girl, I tell you to get up!”

The gospel reading therefore provides insight into this Truth that God stands for life and not death. It is made up of two tales, one of the healing of a woman who suffered from haemorrhage, and the other, the raising of a dead girl. Without having to state the obvious, the woman with the haemorrhage and the young girl both died eventually, as will we. This did not mean that Jesus had failed or merely postponed the inevitable. His healing of the woman and His raising of the child are signs of the Kingdom of God. As signs, they point to the kingdom’s ultimate plan, which is for union with God. These miracles told the people of Jesus’ time, and us, that God walks with us in our sufferings with great love and tenderness, and promises that our mortality is not the end of the story. For God is the God of life. The righteous are not destined for death but for an eternal and immortal existence. We are meant to be “imperishable.”

As strong as death may appear to be, as sudden and as tragic as it may seem to be, death does not have dominion, it does not have the final word. We are reminded that death is not the end of our story as the people of God. Through, His Passion, Death and Resurrection, Christ has revealed to us a very different ending, an ending that does not conclude with death as its final chapter.  He shows us the resurrection, the peace of immortality that awaits the righteous faithful, in Christ.  He shows us what God does for His friends.

As we grow older, frailer, and weaker, the nearness and reality of death will seem every more apparent to us. This is why we must never take our eyes off Christ and neither should we doubt the victory He has over death, if not, we will fall victim to despair. The Book of Wisdom reassures us that our brothers and sisters are not forgotten or forsaken by God. Their departure is not a true affliction, nor is it destruction. Wisdom announces that the death of God’s faithful is only a prelude to being held by God until the time of resurrection, when we will live with God in the manner God originally intended.

Nobody has yet discovered the “fountain of youth” although so many forget that the Church offers to us on a golden platter, the fountain of eternal life, the Sacraments of Christ and His Church. Hence, the worthy reception of Holy Communion and frequent Confession should be a habitual part of the life of every Christian. Every time we receive Holy Communion we renew our Covenant with the Lord. Every time we go to Confession, with God’s grace we repair our Covenant with the Lord. These sacramental habits of life do not indicate presumption, but a holy confidence in the Lord.

No one is exempt or immune from experiencing the Last Things. For kings and popes, priests and people, rich and poor, young and old —death, judgment, heaven or hell will come. But for Christians who live the life of faith, death is not the final absurdity in an insane world. Death in Christ is the narrow gate. As we face the jaws of death, His return is the answer to our prayers, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Death frees us from the things of this world so that we can be in union with the Beloved.  Death is our gateway to Heaven. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Prelude to the Incarnation

The Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

Birthdays are wonderful opportunities for gatherings, parties, great meals and celebrations. One could also find a Christian reason for celebrating your birthday – giving thanks to God for the gift of life. But did you know that it’s a pre-Christian practice? Such celebrations were meant to ward off the evil spirits the pagans believed lurked around the person on the anniversary of his birth. In fact, historically, many Christians in earlier times didn’t celebrate birthdays because of that link to paganism. Ironically, it was on the occasion of Herod Antipas’ birthday, that the daughter of Herodias, his brother’s wife whom he had illicitly married, requested for the head of St John the Baptist. The birthday of a secular political ruler became the occasion of the martyrdom of a saint.

But today, we take a little departure from the temporal cycle, the cycle of seasons, our Sunday liturgy in ordinary time and venture into a celebration of the sanctoral cycle of the liturgical calendar – a feast of a saint, a birthday no less. There has been a long established custom since the early Christian centuries of commemorating each martyr annually on the date of his or her death, or birth into heaven, a date therefore referred to in Latin as the martyr's dies natalis (“day of birth”). So, it’s not that the earthly birthday of a saint is not important, but the Church chooses to celebrate the death day of the saint to mark his or her entrance into heaven. What could be greater than a long, fruitful, and happy life? The answer simply is Eternal Life! The reason for this is when the Church celebrates the feasts of saints, it celebrates the victory of the Paschal event, that is, the eternal life that has been won by these men and women by virtue of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To this rule there are two notable exceptions, the birthdays of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of St. John the Baptist, not counting the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas.

Why the exception? Well, in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception provides the answer. She received the gift of salvation not at the moment of her death, but she among all women and the whole human race, was singularly privileged to be freed from original sin from the first moment of her existence in her mother’s womb. Thus the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a far more important feast than the Memorial Feast of her nativity. What about St John? Well, for St John the day of his birth, the day on which he began this mortal life is likewise sacred. The reason for this, is that it comes from the traditional belief that John was freed from original sin at the moment when his mother met the Blessed Virgin in the event of the Visitation. Saint Augustine mentioned this belief as a general tradition in the ancient Church. In any case, it is certain that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb” (Luke 1, 15) and, therefore, born without original sin.

How did we determine this date? More trivia but bear with me. Though scripture does not provide us with the dates, it does provide us with the length of months between one event and the other. The gospel of St Luke tells us that the birth of St John the Baptist comes three months after the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel told Our Lady that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. So that leaves us with a six months difference in age. Accordingly, the Church celebrates his natural birth by a festival of his “nativity,” assigned exactly six months before the nativity of Christ, since John was six months older than the Lord. The purpose of these Feasts is not to celebrate the exact dates of these events, but simply to commemorate them in an interlinking way.

The birth of Jesus celebrated at Christmas coincides with an astronomical phenomenon, the Winter Solstice, as the Sun begins to “increase” in day light and the day lights grow longer each day. The birthday of St John the Baptist, on the other hand, coincides with the Summer Solstice, as the Sun begins to “decrease” in day light and day lights become shorter. Summer Solstice has the longest day light and Winter Solstice has the shortest day light. These two great feasts fall on two days of great astronomical significance in regards to the movement of the sun, which affects the lamination and darkness of the earth. Thus, what St. John the Baptist says of his mission – is even reflected in nature – days become shorter after the feast of John the Baptist and days become longer after Christ’s birth – “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Except for Jesus, there is no other person that we get to know so intimately—from conception to death, and even what he wore and ate. No other saint in the New Testament is described so richly. The Baptist becomes like a member of the family because we witness very personal snapshots of his life. There is no Gospel that begins the story of Jesus' public ministry without first telling the reader about the life and mission of John the Baptist. The announcement of his birth and the event itself in the gospel of St Luke both made prominently parallel to the same occurrences in the life of Jesus. The reason for this parallel is because the Nativity of John the Baptist is the first joy sent down by God to the human race, the beginning of its deliverance from the power of the devil, sin and eternal death. In other words, today's feast anticipates the feast of Christmas. In a sense, then, we are celebrating the glorious prelude to Christ's incarnation today.

Our Lord called St John, the greatest of all those who had preceded him: “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John….” But St John would have agreed completely with what Jesus added: “yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). The “least in the Kingdom” was obviously a reference to Himself – Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who chose to empty Himself of His divine stature, to assume the role of a lowly slave, is the “least in the Kingdom.”

John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and of the human condition, and that way is Christ Jesus himself. As we celebrate this Solemnity, our testimonies too must join that of the Baptist, who points to Christ and away from himself.  Christ ‘must increase and I must decrease’ must be a constant life commitment!  In a culture that idolises the subjective self, where man has enthroned himself at the centre of his universe, the prophetic witness of John the Baptist reminds us once again that even the greatest among us must fall on our knees to acknowledge the One who is greater. Christ must increase and I must decrease.

As we pay heed to the voice of the Baptist, we are reminded to also heed the voice of Mother Church who points us in the same direction, to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote: “We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, ‘because it is only the voice of a man.’ And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is ‘not worthy to untie the shoelaces of its Lord who goes on before it.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Humble Beginnings, Surprise Endings

Eleventh Ordinary Sunday Year B

If you’ve been in ministry or worked hard to build up your BEC, or even tried to grow in your own spiritual and prayer life, what I’m going to say would most likely resonate with you. It always seems that whenever we are able to take one step forward, we end up taking two steps backwards. It is one of the severest trials of our faith, to go on day after day in the same struggle against sin and self; experiencing failure and setbacks with every project we undertake, facing opposition, indifference and hostility from others who do not seem to share our passion. There doesn’t seem to be any growth or progress and we begin to doubt whether any progress has been made; and, what further compounds all these obstacles is that we do not see any striking proof of God’s presence or work.  But is He?

The parables today allow us to have a glimpse of how God works, often imperceptibly and in ways that are most humbling. The Lord, of course, is giving us a lesson on the kingdom and not one in horticulture. The Kingdom of God, just like the tiny mustard seed has humble and small beginnings but will eventually end up with great mega results. The growth of the Kingdom, just like the parable of the man who scatters in the dark of the night whilst everyone is asleep, will remain largely hidden and mysterious. The scale of its expanse and magnitude would only be apparent when one examines the final result. 

These parables present several important lessons that we should take to heart.

The first lesson is that we should never despise nor overlook the significance of small things. The beginning of the Kingdom of God can be traced to humble beginnings. We are often tempted to believe that our ventures must be preceded by a great deal of groundwork and planning, massive promotions and advertisements, big rallies and spectacular shows. The Gospel Story did not begin in such manner. Our Lord was born in a humble manger among stable animals, with poor shepherds as His court retinue. His birth was not marked by dramatic accounts of the Son of God, being born in the most opulent palace of the wealthiest and most powerful monarch of the world. Great empires have crumbled, civilisations have become extinct but the Christian faith planted by the life, death and resurrection of this humble carpenter from an obscure part of the world would survive the test of time. Small and humble beginnings place the entire catalyst and mover of the narrative in the hands of God and not in the devices of man.

The parables are stark reminders that the Work of God is often unobservable or incomprehensible. Just because we are unable to detect or perceive God working silently in the background, it does not mean that He is inactive or insensitive to our plight. We are often tempted to look for major signs and portents, immediate results and easy answers to our questions and prayers. When these are not forthcoming, we descend into frustration and anger, especially directed against God. But the Lord wants us to know that what is observable on the surface may not be an accurate measure of the final outcome. The story of the seed reminds us of the inner dynamism of the Kingdom, a God who is constantly and faithfully at work even when man ceases to work, even when we have chosen to give up, even when everyone else has chosen to abandon this enterprise.

The third lesson is an important reminder that Christian life is ultimately eschatological. All things will become apparent at the end. The humble beginnings, the awkward and unplanned detours, the obstacles and setbacks, the disappointments and failures, the temporal success and victories do not mark the end of the story. What is definitive are the final fruits of the Kingdom which is not just a wild bet but a factual certainty – the harvest will come and the mustard seed will eventually grow into that large shady tree that will host all the array of heaven. This eschatological dimension reminds Christians that we must always live in hope despite our present difficulties. We may be tempted to give up and call it quits as all the odds seemed to be stacked against us. But then, there is the other reality – the hidden reality, the reality with humble beginnings but a cosmic-scaled ending. It is the reality of the Kingdom of God established by Christ's first coming and fully completed and realised at His Second.

The themes contained in today’s parable are best illustrated in the beautiful prayer popularly attributed to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero.  The real truth behind this prayer is that it was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled "The mystery of the Romero Prayer." The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him. Here I conclude with this prayer, which best summarises the parables we’ve just heard.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.