Tuesday, September 25, 2018

It's Christ's Church

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Some have called it a schism (a sin that breaks the unity of the Church). Others have called it a civil war. Call it what you may, it is quite clear to many, both within and outside the Catholic Church, that she is deeply split and fragmented with not just a binary but a multifaceted factionalism, made out of various factions who often adopt irreconcilable positions that are diagonally opposed to each other.  Modern and secular commentators often see it as a rift between left and right, liberal and conservative. To those who believe that they are defending the Sacred Tradition of the Church and her Magisterium, it is a fight between orthodoxy and heresy, plain and simple. To progressives, it boils down to either supporting or opposing the reform of Vatican II. It is indeed painful and saddening to witness the Body of Christ wounded by this, a Body that has been further scarred by the sexual abuse scandal, with various camps blaming the other for the mess.

Some say that it all boils down to the question of what can or should be tolerated and what is intolerable. Now the word “tolerance,” though quite common in modern parlance, is hardly featured in any official Church teaching. Furthermore, the modern concept of tolerance is also problematic, being a kind of oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. For example, tolerance seems to suggest accepting without judgment “all and sundry”, but that isn’t the case. Tolerance stops at the point where someone else disagrees with my idea of tolerance. Thus, the many factions within the Church often tolerate a great deal of nonsense by those whom they judge as either allies or who share their own ideological positions, but would tolerate nothing from the other camp even though the “other” side is capable of doing something objectively good. It is not too far from the truth to state that the Gospel of Tolerance is often quite intolerant, especially to those who do not share similar sentiments, preferences, and theological positions.

It would be easy for the various camps to spin today’s readings in their favour, but then a complete, instead of cursory reading of the texts, would soon reveal that both positions are incomplete if they fail to take in the opposition’s perspective. You see, the gospel passage has not one but two parts. The first part speaks of the permissible and the tolerable, the second of the unbearable.

St John is featured in today’s gospel as the complainant. In the Fourth Gospel, he’s known as the Beloved Disciple but his remarks in today’s Marcan account does little to endear us to him. He goes to the Master and complains, “We saw a man who is not one of us casting out devils in your name, and because he was not one of us we tried to stop him.” Notice his choice of words, “not one of us.” Interestingly, he did not say that this man was not a disciple of the Lord. He was simply “not one of us.” The point of reference, the grounds of this judgment, is that this man does not belong to their faction. It didn’t matter whether he was a disciple of the Lord or not. Neither does the passage, as so many commentators have attempted to say, speak of this man as being representative of non-Christians. The apostles are worried and annoyed because somebody is able to do good without being part of their group. Their monopoly over all that is true, good and beautiful is being threatened by this “outsider”.

But then the Lord reminds them, as does the first reading, that the Spirit is not the exclusive property of any particular individual or group. The Spirit blows where it wills. It is also good to remember that the Church does not belong to any faction. The Church is the Church of Christ, it belongs to Him. The point of reference is “Christ”, not “us.” Thus, it is tolerable that someone who does not belong to this group of Apostles does something good in our Lord’s name. The group needs to know that we do not have a monopoly over what is good. God is powerful enough to let a good deed – for example offering a cup of water – occur outside the group and to reward the benefactor. The story in the first reading is an explication of this first part of the gospel. Two of the seventy men singled out by God who were not part of Moses’ original choice also received the gift of the Spirit. Can you fault God for His generosity?

The readings here invite us to rethink the parameters within which God works. God is indeed a God of Surprises. He often works outside our familiar categories and beyond the parameters of expected normalcy. But we must avoid making the simplistic conclusion that this means that there are no basic differences between truth and falsity, between one ideology and the other, one religion and another, one denomination and the other. Notice that Christ’s words do not admit all and sundry but contain a caveat, only those who are “not against us is for us.” In other words, the recognition of the parallel ministry is posited on the fact that there is no contradiction between the teachings of Christ and the Church and that of the other. Immediately after challenging the narrow mentality of His disciples, Jesus begins to draw clear parameters and impose heavy penalties, including excommunication, for any infringement of the limits which He had set. The God of Surprises is not the God of confusion or chaos or “anything goes.” 

Notice the harshness of our Lord’s words in the second part of the Gospel passage. In contrast to the tolerant spirit in the first part of the passage, the Lord insists that it is unbearable when someone outside or inside the Church misleads those who are spiritually or morally weak (“one of these little ones”). Clear examples of the sexual abuse scandal come to mind. Leading the simple believer astray is satanic and merits merciless annihilation. But man can seduce himself: his evil desires lie in his hands, feet, and eyes, and he ought to move as mercilessly against these as against the seducer of others. Whatever leads astray, should be destroyed; in graphic terms, the members that stimulates one to evil should be hacked off and cast into hell.

These principles of tolerance and intolerance are most certainly relevant in the context of our current sexual abuse scandal. For far too long, the cover ups of these sexual crimes under the misguided guise of mercy and tolerance, has resulted in further injustices and continued perpetration of the abuse. As the Pope had said, there must be zero-tolerance for these crimes. This cannot mean that we should demonise certain individuals and groups. From a Christian perspective, all persons deserve unconditional respect and love for the simple fact that they are persons. But this does not extend to behaviour that is sinful and ideas and thoughts that are erroneous. Evil and falsehood should never be tolerated. It is intolerable to call evil good.

The Church continues to founder from the sexual-abuse crisis, and, she needs all the support and prayers she can get to steer the faithful past the shoals. The Body of Christ is already wounded by these despicable crimes committed by wolves in sheep clothing against members of their flock. She does not deserve to be further wounded by division, factionalism and in-fighting. More than 40 years ago, Venerable Pope Paul VI gave his great first encyclical the title, Ecclesiam Suam, which in Latin means “His Church.” It is always important to remember this simple truth. It is a reminder that the Catholic Church does not belong to the bishops, or to the priests or deacons or nuns or laypeople, let alone the Pope. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ.  It is His Church. This is what we can be certain of. This is what will save us in the end. What else is there to say? Let us take this opportunity to renew our faith and trust in Christ, who will continue to protect His Church, who offers her lasting peace and guides her safely through the storms of temporary difficulties to the glory of eternal life.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Who's the Greatest?

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

If you have been a fan of world class boxing back in the 60s and 70s, there can only be one answer to the question: “Who is the Greatest?” Spontaneously, you would have shouted “Muhammad Ali!” Who could forget his personal tag-line which rhymed with his name, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?” “The Greatest” had become this three-time heavy weight boxing world champion’s self-styled personal accolade.

Few of us may have the size of Muhammad Ali’s ego to even claim to come anywhere close to being “the Greatest,” but this question continually lurks at the back of our minds as we ponder and assess the power dynamics of those around us and our own little spot therein: “Who is the greatest?” When you walk into a room, look around. Who has the most power? Who gets the best seat? Who has the right to speak first or interrupt? Who sets the agenda and has the greatest ability to turn their will into reality, change intent into action? Jesus was aware of power dynamics and had a very specific approach to them. We should too.

“Who is the greatest?” This question might seem delusional to some and childish to others, but for those who first followed the Lord it was a very real question. Being Asians, we can probably somewhat grasp how deeply status is ingrained in so many cultures, and certainly this was the case of the culture from which the gospels come to us. Your standing affected how you lived your life from day to day, how you related to other people and they to you. It was of utmost importance to a person’s self-worth in terms of how he was regarded by his community. Working out the appropriate honour and respect due to an individual was a constant task whether in worship, or in discussions, or in eating family meals, or receiving guests and seating them, or greeting people in public and so on. The disciples were no different to anyone else in asking such a question. The real difference comes with what the Lord has to say on the subject. Christian culture would have to take a radical departure from this cultural norm of placing rank and status as values to be sought and pursued.

It is understandable that at this point in the narrative the issue has arisen. Shortly, before the Lord had singled out the three of them, Peter and James and John, and they were led up a mountain to witness His transfiguration; not long afterwards the brothers James and John were asked to sit on His right and His left in His glory. Jesus’ actions seem to portray Him as a power player, someone who appreciated the significance of an inner circle – it was not strange for them to suspect that He was playing some intriguing elitist chess game with them. No wonder, the question plaguing them, though until now unarticulated, is “Who is the greatest?”

During His public ministry, the status and reputation of the Lord had grown from that of someone unknown to that of a great prophet, teacher and healer. But now He is alone with His disciples minus the crowds. It’s obvious that His message is not meant to please the audience.  He then delivers this bombshell “the Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise." The way Jesus puts it, there is no question of it not being true. It will happen. Moreover, Jesus doesn’t just say it once. He goes on saying it to them. But the disciples cannot understand Him.

As they were attempting to make sense of Jesus’ predictions, there was another undercurrent that added fuel to the confusion. These disciples who were in the constant company of Jesus, were factious and antagonistic towards one another, quarreling as to which of them was the most important and deserving in the group. When the Lord asked them what they were discussing they were shamefaced about it. And so the Lord speaks to them about status in His kingdom. He says, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." In effect He tells them that, contrary to cultural norms, they should seek to take the place of the lowest status. Of course He Himself is the first of them to do so when He endured the shame and humiliation of crucifixion. He would abandon Himself to the will of others, becoming the least in that He would put himself at the service of all, even going as far as dying for them. In that way, He would become the greatest, a paradox at the heart of Christianity. As His disciples, they too should emulate His example.

The Lord then took a child as a visual aid. The Aramaic word for ‘child’ is also the word for ‘servant’ and to understand the implications of this, we must realise that cultural view of children is quite different from our perception. Then, children were totally at the mercy of adults, unlike today where adults are at the mercy of children. Today’s children have been shaped by a culture of entitlement. But the children of first century Palestine were not demanding expensive toys from their parents or clamouring for the latest smart phones or tablets because everyone else at school had them. Children during Jesus’ time had absolutely no rights (human rights being a relatively modern innovation). The key point about the child is that, in that time and place, a child had absolutely no status whatsoever. A child was totally dependent on others and in this sense powerless. It is this kind of child that our Lord tells His disciples to receive.

By putting the unimportant child, the child which all the adults ignore, the child whose opinion has no value in their eyes, in the centre of the room, He gives the child the most important place. The one of no status is given the position of greatest honour. The last is placed first. Note here that unlike the other gospels, our Lord does not ask His disciples to become like that child. Rather, the invitation is to receive that child, which is to look after him. It is in receiving such a person, notwithstanding his or her total lack of standing or status or importance, that a follower of Christ will receive God the Father. Jesus turns their whole way of looking at themselves and others completely upside down.

Yes, we do live in a culture and society that gives great significance to status and rank. Perhaps, it is further compounded by the culture of entitlement. Entitlement creates an inward, self-focused, self-centred person. The heart of entitlement is that we deserve to be respected, to be regarded as important, our rights are to be safeguarded, benefits are to be accorded to us, and we deserve to be treated as “special.”  We come to believe that our parents owe us, our society owes us, the world owes us and the Church owes us. Why should God be exempted from this list?

Every now and then, it is good that something happens to shake our sense of entitlement and to remind us that we are not that special. The painful truth is that life doesn’t owe us anything. Our parents don’t owe us an inheritance. The government doesn’t owe us a subsidy for every commodity. God doesn’t owe us a blessing or even an answer to our prayer. Neither is our country the best, our race the most superior, our clan the smartest nor even am I the greatest. To be a Christian, to follow Christ, is to be consciously aware of our status and to willingly give up power to the least, the last, and the lost. And if that question were to pop up once again, either in our discussion or in our own personal rumination, “Who is the greatest?” Let us answer without a doubt and without any hesitation: “Jesus Christ is the Greatest!”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Cross will Shine once again

Exaltation of the Cross

To non-believers, to celebrate the feast of the Cross makes no sense at all. It is sheer lunacy. To those who don’t believe, it is a symbol of death, shame, and defeat. There is nothing glorious about the cross and the one who hangs on it. There is only shame. Shame stripped away every earthly support that the Lord had: His friends gave way in shaming abandonment; His reputation gave way in shaming mockery; His decency gave way in shaming nakedness; His comfort gave way in shaming torture. His glorious dignity gave way to the utterly undignified, degrading reflexes of moaning and groaning.

But for us Christians, the Cross is the greatest summary of our faith. St. Francis of Assisi used to call it his “book,” where he learned all of his wisdom. The Cross is also the key that opens the doors of heaven. St. Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas, said, “Apart from the Cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” If we wish to get to eternal life with God, we must climb up with Jesus by means of the Cross.

Yes, the Cross of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is a sign of contradiction to the values and principles of the world. The Cross summons us to change the way we see things. It shows how God can bring good out of evil, order out of chaos, meaning out of absurdity, and life out of death. It urges us, challenges us, and demands us to look at the world in a vision and in a way that departs from the vision we might have under a secular perspective. It calls us to look at our relationships with others, to look at life, and to see death in ways that are inside-out and upside-down from those who have no faith, and those who are forced to see them through the eyes of fear. Pre-eminently, the Cross is proof of how far it is that God our Father has gone to prove His love for you and me. Strangely and in a seemingly contradictory way, the Cross is a sign of Love. No!  It is not merely a sign or a symbol, it is the ultimate proof of God's love for us.

Death, under the Cross, is not an ending, it is a beginning. Suffering, pain and loss under the Cross, are no longer things that separate us from God, rather they unite us to Him. Tragedy under the cross is not ultimate, it is only temporary. Sin under the cross no longer alienates us from God, it occasions His coming to us in the midst of our sins in His merciful love. The humiliation the Church and her ministers must endure today, would not be a sign of her destruction, but rather of her purification.

What does it mean for the Church to walk in the path of our Lord? If the Church truly continues the ministry of Christ in the world, then she must embrace the Cross. And this ultimately leads to rejection, humiliation and even persecution. The Third Millennium has been called by many names, but perhaps one of the most apt descriptions of this new millennium is that it would be called the Age of Martyrdom. For indeed, we have seen the martyrdom of more Christians than in any of the previous centuries. The painful irony is that the persecution of thousands and millions of Christians who have to live and survive under the shadow of the cross are now overshadowed by the spectre of a new global wave of clerical abuse and cover-ups. These abuse scandals are doubly scandalous because they come at a time when the Church is entering a new era of persecution.  Although the scandals certainly demand our attention, they also serve to draw attention away from the plight of persecuted Christians.  Unfortunately, the story of immoral clerics and cowardly bishop is far more juicy than the plight and sufferings of persecuted Christians who continue to labour under the crushing weight of the cross.

It is sad to see Christians discouraged by the sins of other Catholics, and, yet, it seems that the greatest suffering of the Church comes from the wounds of her members. The Catechism quotes on this point a pope who personally embraced the suffering of the Church in himself: “The Church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for those offenses, of which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Pope Bl. Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, § 19). If the Church is called by God to sanctify the modern world, how else would this happen but on the Cross? The Church’s path is the path of the Lord: Calvary.

St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, or better known by her pre-baptismal Jewish name ‘Edith Stein,’ once taught on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: “More than ever the cross is a sign of contradiction. The followers of the Antichrist show it far more dishonour than did the Persians who stole it. They desecrate the images of the Cross, and they make every effort to tear the cross out of the hearts of Christians. All too often they have succeeded even with those who, like us, once vowed to bear Christ's cross after him. Therefore, the Saviour today looks at us, solemnly probing us, and asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.”

Every time when I am beset by anxiety and troubles, every time I feel the weight of my responsibilities, every time when I am overwhelmed by shame and failure and tempted to give up, I look at the Cross, it gives me courage and hope, more than anything else the world can offer. When I look at Our Lord hanging on the Cross, my heart is filled with all that is beautiful, even in the midst of the world’s ugliness, all that is bright, even in the midst of the world’s darkness and I’m reminded once again, that death will not have the last word, suffering and failure will not strike the last chord, darkness will not mark the end of the story, sin will not hammer the last nail, but it would be life. Love will have the last word. “For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not be lost.” More than ever before, today’s feast invites all Catholics, scandalised by the horrors of the clergy sexual abuse and the divisions within the Church, to look at the Cross.

We are, indeed, in the throes of an agonising trial, a trial which is the test of our Hope and of our Faith in the Church: the test of our Hope and our Faith in the Cross. So let us regain our courage, and as that great medieval spiritual work tells us: “We have begun: we may not go back, nor may we leave off.  Take courage brethren:  let us go forward together.  Jesus will be with us.  For the sake of Jesus, we have taken up this Cross; for Jesus’ sake, let us persevere in it.  He will be our Helper, Who is our Captain and our Forerunner.  Behold our King marches before us, Who will fight for us. Let us follow Him manfully, let no one fear terrors, let us be ready to die valiantly in battle; nor let us bring disgrace upon our glory by flying from the Cross!” (The Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chap. LVI)  Then, the Cross will shine once again, not as a symbol of our shame, but the Triumph of Christ over evil and darkness.