Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Food! Glorious Food!

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Last year, Tourism New Zealand, in a survey, found that eight in ten (80%) Malaysians had ranked 'indulging in a country’s local delicacies' as the activity they enjoyed doing most when on holiday in another country. The survey merely confirms what we Malaysians already know – we love food. There are many divisive elements in this country; race, religion, political affiliation – but we all seem to be united by our passion (or some would venture to say ‘obsession’) with food. It does seem that all divisions end when we eat. That is why the one word in Bahasa Malaysia that foreigners will frequently hear is ‘Makan’. Yes, eating is meant to keep humans alive but not for most Malaysians. For us, it is more than survival! We eat at will and not because of a hungry stomach. Not satisfied with just three meals in a day, we enthusiastically add brunch and high-teas. Just done with dinner? Why stop? Let’s go indulge in some late night supper!

So today’s readings can certainly resonate with us. It’s all about food, the basis for most of our comments, complaints and adulation. But before we consider these readings, let us find out what scripture says about food. It certainly agrees with what most Malaysians believe – it’s more than just a matter of survival. Food was used as a symbol of God’s Providence as well as a source of temptation. From the very beginning of time, when God first created the universe, His intention was that we would all come to Him to receive the grace, wisdom, and strength we needed. Genesis uses the image of the two fruit-bearing, food-providing trees in the Garden of Eden to convey this central truth: The tree of life held all the treasures of His divine plan, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil supported the philosophy that we could decide for ourselves what was right or wrong — we didn’t need to be fed and sustained by God.

The first reading takes us back to the Sinai desert. The Israelites had been set free from slavery in Egypt, and they were now headed for the Promised Land. The journey was hard, food and water were scarce and the people began to complain. But here in this lifeless wilderness, God gave His people water from a rock and manna from heaven. The Jews of Jesus’ day believed that in the coming age, the miracle of the manna would be repeated. And they believed that this miracle would be performed by the promised Messiah, the One who would take Moses’ place as Israel’s new redeemer.

Many centuries later, our Lord fed thousands of people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. This is what we heard in last week’s gospel. At the beginning of Chapter 6, St John is quick to point out that this miraculous feeding took place just before the feast of Passover (6:4). It seems that this is intended to help the reader make the link, the connexion to the past and pointing to something far greater in the present. Christians see this miracle as pointing toward a new Passover, one that was not grounded in deliverance from physical slavery but in deliverance from slavery to sin and death. Expanding their hopes even more, our Lord tells His audience that whoever comes to Him, will never hunger and thirst any longer, and that His bread would bring eternal life, while the manna in the desert could only sustain and strengthen their mortal lives. Jesus, the true bread from heaven, is even greater than manna, the bread from heaven, since it is His “flesh for the life of the world.” Our Lord assures us: “Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

The great Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Ambrose, wrote the following: “What is greater, manna from heaven or the body of Christ?  The body of Christ, of course, for He is the Creator of heaven. In addition, he who ate the manna died but he who has eaten this body, it will become for him the forgiveness of sins and he ‘shall not die forever’.”

The manna from heaven given by God to His people in the desert during the Exodus and the miracle of multiplication in the gospel are clearly anticipation or foreshadowing of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is “the new manna.” Unlike the old manna which fell from heaven, this Eucharistic bread is different, however, since it is the Bread of Life; it is Jesus, His flesh that gives life through the Holy Spirit. The “new manna” of the Eucharist is the food for our journey to heaven. That is why the Eucharist is called “Viaticum,” a Latin word that means “with you on the way.”  As the manna provided bodily nourishment for the Israelites in the desert, the “new manna” provides spiritual nourishment for us, satisfying our hungry hearts.

There is more. The connexion between manna and the Eucharist is found in several places in our liturgy. In the newest English translation of the Second Eucharistic Prayer, we hear the words of consecration spoken by the priest at the very beginning: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” During the Exodus, dew fell upon the camp of the chosen people in the desert and, when it evaporated, the heavenly manna was there on the ground. The dewfall yielded food from heaven for the Israelites on their pilgrimage. For us, in the Eucharist, the dewfall of the Holy Spirit yields the Body and Blood of Christ for our pilgrimage to heaven. Another parallel between the manna and the Eucharist is that the Israelites conserved the manna in the Ark of the Covenant. This foreshadows the tabernacle in our churches where Christ is adored in the Eucharist. The consecrated hosts are kept in a golden ciborium, reminiscent of the gold jar in which the manna was kept in the Ark of the Covenant.

So many of us fail to realise how “eating” such heavenly food adds an additional and radical dimension to our spiritual lives. In St John’s first epistle, we are reminded that the apostles and the first generation Christians were with Jesus, they saw Him with their own eyes; they heard Him preach with their own ears; they touched Him with their own hands (1 John 1:1-2). But one vital sense was missing: tasting. The apostles saw, heard, and touched Jesus. But they had not yet grasped what it meant to eat Jesus’ flesh as the Bread of Life. At the Last Supper, when the apostles ate and drank with Jesus, a new dimension was opened up for them, and they were able to enter into a far more intimate relationship and connexion with the Lord; they would literally be transformed into what they ate. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “Material food first of all turns itself into the person who eats it, and as a consequence, restores his losses and increases his vital energies. Spiritual food, on the other hand, turns the person who eats it into Itself, and thus the proper effect of this sacrament is the conversion of man into Christ, so that he may no longer live for himself, but that Christ may live in Him.”

Today, we can encounter the tree of life every time we eat the body of Christ and drink Jesus’ blood in Holy Communion. Today, we can partake and “eat” of the true manna, not the perishable bread which the Israelites ate in the desert, but Christ who gives us His own Body and Blood for consumption so that we might gain eternal life. When we feed on this heavenly food, the Lord Jesus comes to dwell within us and make us like Himself. In the Eucharist, we truly become what we eat. All these may seem too lofty for us to fully grasp. That is why the great Cure D’Ars, St John Vianney reminds us, “We shall only understand it in heaven. What a pity! If we could conceive a little of the grandeur and happiness of Communion, we would desire life only to have the happiness of making Jesus Christ our daily bread. All created things would be as nothing.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Bread of Life ... Work of Human Hands

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

We just concluded our parish feast of Corpus Christi at the beginning of last month but we can never have enough of the (“topic of the”) Eucharist. We are indeed blessed to know that the liturgy treats us this Sunday with a prefiguration of the Eucharist in the miracle of the multiplication and on the next four Sundays of August, we will hear the great discourse of our Lord in the synagogue of Capernaum in which He reveals Himself as the Bread of Life.

But before we consider the familiar story in the gospel, let us take a look at the first reading which is taken from the Old Testament. The great doctor of the West, St Augustine taught that the New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is made manifest in the New. We see this in the two narratives found both in the First Reading and the Gospel. Our Lord was not the first to miraculously multiply loaves. The prophet Elisha worked a similar miracle. The first reading describes a hungry crowd, someone bringing forth barley loaves, and another objecting that the bread is too little for the large crowd. In both accounts, all the people were able to eat their fill; there was a multiplication of the loaves and there was bread left over. Of course the juxtaposition of these two parallels is meant to highlight that our Lord’s miracle is superior to that of Elisha’s. While Elisha had 10 barley loaves, our Lord only had 5 loaves and 2 fish to work with. The crowd in the first reading was only about 100 whereas the multitude in the gospel story would have exceeded five thousand, not counting the women and children. In the first reading, there was just a perfunctory footnote that “they ate and had some (left) over,” whereas the left over from Jesus’ miracle filled twelve baskets.

In the Gospel miracle, Scripture scholars have identified another level of meaning in the multiplication of the loaves and fish: a Eucharistic meaning. The early Christians definitely recognised the connexion between the multiplication of the loaves and the Eucharist. In second-century catacombs, we find artistic representations of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves to symbolise the Eucharist. Already in the four Gospel accounts of this miracle, we see a strong Eucharistic motif. We find the same verbs used describing Jesus’ action at the miracle, as are used in the account of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper: He “took the loaves (bread), gave thanks, and gave them out (distributed).” The verb in Greek for giving thanks, “eucharistein”, became the word the Christians used for the sacrament: Eucharist. When the people had their fill, Jesus told the disciples to gather the fragments that were left over so that nothing would be wasted. There was also in the early Church, great care taken with the Eucharistic fragments that were left over. Unlike many Protestant churches, the consecrated host left over from Holy Communion is never just simply discarded as if they no longer have any significance. They are carefully and reverentially conserved and reposed in the tabernacle of the Church, because they continue to be truly, really and substantially, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

Today, I would also like to draw your attention to a little point made in both multiplication narratives. Both Elisha and our Lord worked with material offered by someone, an anonymous man hailing from Baal-Shalishah in the first instance and an anonymous boy in the second. Their anonymity may be a clue pointing to the fact that they are representative of any person willing to make a small humble offering to the Lord. In other words, both Elisha and Jesus did not just conjure the original substance of their miracle from thin air. This should also draw our attention to something said in the course of our celebration of the Eucharist. During the part of the Preparation of the Gifts which begins the Liturgy of the Eucharist (popularly and inaccurately known as the Offertory), the priest takes the bread and recites these words (quietly if an Offertory Hymn is being sung), “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life” and similar words are used when he raises the chalice.

We are reminded through these words that these gifts of bread and wine which we offer are first and foremost gifts in themselves which we have received through God’s goodness.  But both bread and wine are also “the work of human hands” always remembering that we would have nothing to offer apart from His goodness. Now, in expectation, we speak of what this bread and wine will become: the bread of life and our spiritual drink. God will take this thing that we offer and will change it yet again, this time into something that we could never make it: the body and blood of Christ. This prayer reminds us that we are collaborators with God in His work of creation, but more so in His work of redemption.  He has given us this world and filled us with the grace to care for it and develop it, turning potentials into beautiful realities as we turn grain into bread and grapes into wine. But both these things remain perishables.  However, there is one way in which the fruit of our labours can be eternal; we can offer them to God. They will remain perishable, unless God takes the work of human hands and once again makes it something better, imperishable food. Our efforts can only be brought to perfection, to heavenly fulfilment, if we place them back in the hands of God.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (which for all purposes seems to have been forgotten), “Sacramentum caritatis,” speaks about the presentation and offering of the gifts in number 47: “This humble and simple gesture is actually very significant: in the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father. In this way we also bring to the altar all the pain and suffering of the world, in the certainty that everything has value in God's eyes. The authentic meaning of this gesture can be clearly expressed without the need for undue emphasis or complexity. It enables us to appreciate how God invites man to participate in bringing to fulfilment His handiwork, and in so doing, gives human labour its authentic meaning, since, through the celebration of the Eucharist, it is united to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.”

The miracles of Elijah, indisputably the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, were surpassed by his protégé, Elisha, and the miracles of Elisha were surpassed by the one who is greater than all the prophets of old and in fact the fulfilment of all prophecies, Our Lord Jesus Christ. And yet none of them (not even our Lord’s miracle of multiplication) can compare with the miracle of our Lord dying on the altar of the Cross in atonement for the sins of mankind, and the gift of everlasting life that the miracle of His Resurrection promises to everyone who accepts Him as Saviour and Lord. This is the great ‘miracle’ that we witness daily, and every Sunday during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist, which re-“presents” that great atoning sacrifice of the Cross. Yes, what you are about to witness here at the unbloody altar of the Holy Mass is a far greater miracle than the miracles of multiplication performed by Elisha and Jesus when they fed the multitude. Let us therefore offer our humble gifts of bread and wine, “fruit(s) of our hands” knowing that it will become for us “the bread of life” and our “spiritual drink.”

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Come Away and Rest Awhile

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to pray the Divine Office. Before you think of applauding my seemingly pious efforts or think that I’m attempting to elicit some positive appraisal from you, it would be good for you to know what I have to struggle with almost every day. First, I have to fight off the grogginess and sleepiness; being alert in the morning isn’t a strong point for me. Second, I have to fight off the temptation to check my emails, my messages and of course, my diary. Already, a whole bucket list (an endless one) of things-to-do is racing through my mind and anxiety begins to build up. Third, I know that if I put off praying in the morning, I would simply neglect it and forget all about it in the busyness of the day. I can resonate with the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland as he shouts, “I’m late! I’m late!” No time to be wasted. Sometimes I feel like telling God, “Lord, you’re wasting my precious time.”  For some people wasting time is a source of guilt (I would fall into the “heavy guilt” category), for others it’s a way of life. You know what I'm talking about.

But today, our Lord invites His apostles and all of us to simply waste time with Him. Time with the Lord is never wasted time. We can imagine the apostles tired and weary after a long day of preaching and ministering, coupled with the emotionally draining news of the death of St John the Baptist. They must have been overwhelmed by the mobs that thronged the place. The gospel tells us that they were so busy, the “apostles had no time even to eat.” How many of us relate to that? I know I do. Or, mothers know how it feels when your little ones don’t even give you two minutes of peace to use the bathroom. Or it could be the non-stop interruptions you have when you are trying to finish a project before the deadline.

The apostles had been busy ‘building’ the Kingdom of God, or at least, that was what they thought. In truth, they were building their own little kingdoms, behaving like mini-saviours, making themselves indispensable and now returning to the Lord to boast of their achievements (“all they had done and taught”), holding up their report cards whilst beaming from ear to ear, hoping to get some affirmation and approval from the Lord. But instead, the Lord seems to ignore all their efforts and cuts to the chase. What they need more than anything else is not a pat on the back or a certificate for a job well done, but away time, quality time with the Lord. In their busyness, in their incessant desire to perform and to please the Lord, they had forgotten that what is most crucial is their own spiritual well-being – their relationship with the Lord. They needed to empty themselves of their ego and pride in order to make space for the Lord.

Creating an empty space is one of the most daunting challenges we face. For most of us it takes both courage and discipline to do it. Wasting time with God goes against our nature. It doesn’t look so good either with other folks rushing around us! Just like the disciples in our gospel tale, we all want to impress. Our too busy lives leave us over-stimulated, sometimes anxious and often on edge.   We are always available when our cell phones are switched on and in our pockets.  We don’t have time to think, as we rush from one appointment to another.  When busyness isn’t our problem then often enough, entertainment is. There is a vast industry created to amuse and distract us; from mobile games to the internet.  I think many of us have experienced the near panic and meltdown when we lose our phone or when there is no internet coverage in our locality.    

That is why it is so essential to learn to waste time with the Lord. If we want to know how, let us take a closer look at the invitation of Christ. “Come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while!” “Come!”  His words almost shock us with its loving invitation and its powerful command. And we need to listen to Him. He will accept no excuses, no trying to get out of it!  The trouble is that so many of us do – we give all kinds of excuses for being too busy to pray, to spend time with Him. “No time” is a lame excuse. We always have time for what is important, for the things we value. When we say that we have no time for prayer, no time for God, it betrays His true value in our lives. “No time” equals “He’s not important!” All of us are busy, no doubt about it. Life isn’t slowing down, it’s speeding up. Yet that is precisely why we need to take time to pray.  Prayer is what keeps us going.

“Away!”  Our Lord even expands this concept and adds “to some lonely place.” I don’t think He meant for us to run away from our responsibilities and work. But there is always a need to create that sacred space away from the congestion, busyness of the world and all its demands. We priests have institutionalised the regiment of going away for days of recollections and retreats. The good news is that so may lay people have also caught on and the seriousness they give to these spiritual exercises would put us priests to shame. It is an excuse when we claim that our prayer is work. Ultimately when that happens, prayer is often neglected. Our lives are so cluttered that there is nothing left for God or even others. That is why we should “get away,” set aside time, prime time for prayer, for reading and reflecting on the Word of God, for spending time before the Blessed Sacrament. This “away” time for prayer and reflexion should interrupt our well-ordered and well-organised lives, to remind us of what is truly important and what is not. It should not just be occasional but habitual. A good disciplined habit of prayer is needed.

“Rest!”  The invitation is not to go out and do errands. It is a request to just rest. As simple as it sounds, it’s so much harder when you actually try to put it into practice. The guilt of wasted time often makes us feel like we need to scramble to make up for it. Or, we confuse rest and laziness. The Lord instituted the Sabbath rest precisely for the welfare of man. He understood that though work is good and sacred, there is a danger of running yourself to the ground if there are no pauses in your life. The Sabbath rest was intended to remind man that the fruits of our work ultimately proceed from God and though man ceases to work, God continues to work, the work of salvation never stops. At the end of the day, wasting time with the Lord reminds us that time is a gift, not an entitlement. And this helps us set our eyes on the things that matter.

“A While!” We all know that we cannot ignore our duties, especially to the ones we love. We are needed and we know what to do and what must be done.  So the invitation is only for a while, not permanent retirement.  Just enough time to regain our strength, our composure, our love and our compassion. Enough time to be rooted once again in the Lord who gives us the Water of Life, the Shepherd who leads us to green pastures and quiet waters, the Way who points us to Heaven. Then we can return, refreshed and ready to work and care again.

On the seventh day, God rested. When He got tired, Jesus took a nap on the back of the boat. When they were overwhelmed with crowds and the scope of their ministry, Jesus invited the disciples to come away to a quiet place, and rest for a while. Much as we try, we are not Superman or Wonder Woman. And God knows they needed rest too. We cannot do everything and we don’t have to do everything. Even Jesus took time apart from the crowds and His disciples -time to refresh and restore; time in solitude and silence; time to commune with God. Wasting time with the Lord is never wasted time. The beauty of wasting time with the Lord is that when we give Him our time, He gives us back so much more. We all need time apart to fill our cup and renew our spirits. May we take that needed time – time for solitude and prayer; and time with family, and with our spiritual family, the Church. May we emulate the God of rest, and remember the words of Jesus, who invited us to come away, and rest for a while.