Monday, November 26, 2018

Advent is for adults

First Sunday of Advent Year C

Advent hardly gives cause for excitement to our otherwise mundane lives, except that it reminds us that Christmas is just around the corner.  But as the Church frequently reminds us in what often seems to be a “wet-blanket” “party-pooping” sort-of-a-way: ‘not yet!’ No, all our excitement is geared towards Christmas. To the secular world and to many of us Catholics too, it marks the time for holidays, family trips, exhausting our annual leave at work, family reunions, decorations and carols, and of course, all the shopping to be done for the festive season. It’s the season of the year when we get to relive our childhood. But there is something about Advent that is so essential to our Catholic faith, our adult Catholic faith. You see Christmas may be (ideal) for children, but Advent is for adults. It is a realistic time when we adult Christians have to take stock of our lives, and admit and confess the shoddiness and second rated nature of much of our living as Christians. In our on-going pilgrimage of faith and hope and love, all three have flickered and faltered. Yes, Advent is for adults.

One of the most common temptations that we face as adults is to adopt a position of self-reliance. This is not unusual because our personal goal is to become financially self-sufficient. This spills over to other areas, including our social, moral and spiritual lives. But when it comes to religion or God, modern writers have described this phenomena as practical atheism. Although actual atheism is the conscious rejection of the existence of God, practical atheism is living as if God doesn’t exist. The externals continue, but man becomes the central thrust of devotion, as the attention of religious concern shifts away from man’s devotion to God, to man’s devotion to man, bypassing God. The “ethic” of being Christian continues in a superficial way, having been ripped from its supernatural, transcendent, and divine foundation. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who wrote and taught extensively on this temptation, practical atheism. While actual atheists often think deeply about God before rejecting belief, practical atheism “is even more destructive … because it leads to indifference towards faith and the question of God”. In other words, atheists care enough to argue against the existence of God, but practical atheists don’t even bother. God is totally irrelevant.

Thus the apocalyptic writings that mark today’s readings are meant to shock us and shake us out of this self-induced lethargy. For some, this is strange weird language and yet it is the only language which we can use to describe the apocalyptic world we live in. What sort of world is it? It is a world of atomic bombs and global meltdown, a world of terrorist massacres and extermination camps, a world where people attempt to redefine themselves based on their sexual orientation and perception of gender identity, a world where what was once wrong is now considered right, what was deemed abnormal, is now regarded as perfectly normal. It is a world which brings fear and anxiety. Or as the gospel says it is a world ‘of men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven are shaken’.  When things are going well in our lives, we have little time or motivation to think of God. But when the end is imminent, when all that we cherish and hold dear are threatened with destruction, we are wakened to an urgent need for a solution, a solution that cannot be found in our current resources. That solution must lie elsewhere. But where? Who can save this world? The God who created it, who created the sun, the moon and the stars and who has the power to shake again these heavenly elements. He will be the one who will provide the solution and He does.

The answer is clearly spelt out in both the first reading and in the gospel. After a period of tumultuous chaos, we see the answer to our deepest longings, “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory!” He comes to establish a new creation. He comes to establish justice, honesty and integrity. This image of Christ is an important one for our adult faith. Christ is not just a personal Saviour as the Protestants rightly state, but He is also the cosmic Christ who will bring God’s purpose for His creation to fulfilment.

So the end of the world is not a time to cower in fear, or abandon ourselves to mindless libertinism, but rather a time to stand erect, with heads held high because now our liberation is near at hand. This is the perspective with which we begin Advent. What does it mean to “stand erect” with our heads held high?  It is a call to rediscover, to rejuvenate and to reignite our faltering and sometimes infantile faith. The faith of our childhood may be a good foundation, but it is insufficient to face the many challenges of adult life. Faith is not just going through the motions of empty rituals or half-heartedly professing creeds but it must be an encounter with God who speaks and acts in history and which converts our daily life, transforming our mentality, system of values, choices and actions. Faith, is not as the atheists claim, an illusion, escapism, a comfortable shelter, sentimentality, but, is the involvement in every aspect of life. Christianity, before being a moral or ethical value, is the experience of love, of welcoming the person of Jesus.

In our adult years since our baptism, we have tried to walk in His paths, stumbling, going astray, and drifting off course. Now is the time to heed the advice of St Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, who too lived during a time when they believed the end was imminent. “May the Lord be generous in increasing your love and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you.” St Paul continues: “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus strengthen your hearts in holiness.” “Finally,” he adds, “we urge you in the Lord Jesus to make more and more progress in the kind of life you are meant to live and are already living.”

So, as we welcome a new liturgical year, as we welcome this holy season, let us remember that Advent is a hopeful season: not just being optimistic, not trusting that matters will somehow turn out all right. Rather, it is a time to renew a passionate faith in God and in all that God gives us in order to live in hope and charity. It all begins with our willingness to repent and change. If there is anything that we should be excited about, it is this – our salvation. Only then can we “stand with confidence before the Son of Man.”

No doubt there is evil in the world; and we cannot pretend that it does not exist nor have a strangle-hold over us. And often, we appear powerless and hapless and unable to resist its power. The world around us may seem a very dark place: inter-racial and inter-religious tensions, economic crises, unemployment, sexual immorality abounding and even the Catholic Church does not seem to be spared from this rot. It is almost a picture of the apocalyptic ending described in todays ‘gospel. But we are called to be children of hope and faith and, above all, charity. We are not to be submerged by anxiety, bowed down by despair. “Hold your heads high”, the gospel tells us. “Stand erect”. We must affirm our belief that evil will not have the final word. The Son of Man will come in glory, “In those days, Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell in confidence.” With confidence in His cosmic saving power we can face an apocalyptic world with hope.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Thy Kingdom Come

Solemnity of Christ the King

The most familiar Catholic prayer that we’ve been taught from young is the Pater Noster, the very prayer our Lord taught His disciples. Right after addressing God as Father and affirming the holiness of His name, we make this petition: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). I strongly believe that few truly understand the intent and gravity of this simple petition. It pleads with God to act, to enter into our circumstances and to bring about His reign. It hopes for the day when God would end war, bring good news to the poor, bind the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives, bring justice to the oppressed, comfort the mourning, create a new heaven and a new earth, and gather all the nations to worship Him.

But the Lord’s Prayer guides us through a world where ideal seems different from reality, where heaven and earth can seem really far apart. Wars are still fought. The poor still experience injustice. The broken-hearted still suffer. People are still captive to sin, death, the devil. We live in a world that either sees no need for God or is callously indifferent to His existence. But, despite our everyday experiences, the Church continues to proclaim as she did from the very beginning until the very end of time, that our Lord is King. She continues to proclaim confidently that our Lord Jesus Christ reigns, and because He reigns as King of the Universe, death is a defeated foe, sin is being subdued, the hearts of the broken-hearted are being bound up, the poor are hearing the good news, justice is coming to the oppressed, communities and individuals who mourn are being comforted, the new heavens and new earth are being re-created. Of course, in the midst of gloom, it is hard to perceive any of this. Is God’s Kingdom still an unfulfilled and distant dream? Well, today’s gospel reminds us that His Kingdom is not of this world and it can only be perceived by those who do not belong to this world.

The gospel gives us the encounter of our Lord with Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judaea. What an extraordinary scene! The representative of the world’s greatest empire at that time stands in judgement over the King of the Universe, the Supreme Judge of both the living and the dead, the One who will judge the world, and confer eternal life or death on each individual, including Pilate. The Jewish leaders had already questioned Jesus at a trial conducted in the darkness of night; a farce and travesty of justice, and apart from any real evidence, they found our Lord guilty of blasphemy and sentenced Him to death. The problem was that the Jewish leaders were not able to execute criminals found guilty in their courts because the death penalty was the sole prerogative of the Roman authorities. Thus, the Jewish leaders brought our Lord before Pilate for questioning, sentencing, and execution. There is, however, no onus on Pilate to interfere in religious questions, but because the accusation levelled against Jesus had to do with politics and public order, he begins his interrogation naturally by examining Him on the main charge: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

By replying with another question, Jesus is not refusing to answer Pilate: He wishes to make it quite clear, as He has always done, that His mission is a spiritual one. And really, Pilate’s was not an easy question to answer, because, it failed to fit into the categories of our Lord’s interrogators. To a Gentile, a king of the Jews meant, simply a rebel and political subverter of the Empire; whereas, to a Jewish nationalist, the King-Messiah was a politico-religious liberator who would obtain their freedom from Rome. They had that much in common. But the true character of Christ’s messiahship completely transcends both these categories.

Pilate then asked his second question, “What have you done?” Our Lord answered, “Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.”  After the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves in St John’s account, our Lord resisted the crowd’s insistence to proclaim Him king because the people were thinking in terms of an earthly kingdom. However, our Lord did enter Jerusalem in triumph, and He did accept the acclamation as Messiah, a Davidic title. Now, in the passion, He acknowledges before Pilate that He is truly a King, whilst making it clear that His kingship is beyond these earthly categories. Those who expected the Messiah to have visible temporal power were mistaken. ‘The kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 14:17). As the priest will pray in the Preface of today’s feast, His kingdom is “the kingdom of Truth and Life, the kingdom of Holiness and Grace, the Kingdom of Justice, Love and Peace.”

Then Pilate proceeded to ask Him the third and final question, “So you are a king then?” To which our Lord answered, “It is you who say it … Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.” The word “truth” refers to something more than just the veracity of Jesus’ testimony. It is used 25 times in John’s Gospel to refer to divine revelation. Jesus Himself declares, “I am the truth”, because He is the revelation of the Father. Jesus bears witness to the truth that He is from God the Father, sent to serve and save mankind, by making God known in Jesus’ own person, by His words and actions and by gathering about Him those who freely respond. His greatest act of witness to the Truth is about to be fulfilled on the Cross. By His death and resurrection, our Lord shows that the accusations laid against Him were false: it was He who was telling the truth, not His judges and accusers, and God confirms the truth of Jesus–the truth of His words, of His deeds and of His revelation–by the singular miracle of His resurrection. To men, Christ’s kingship may seem paradoxical; in fact, it is the supreme paradox: He dies, yet He lives forever.  He is defeated and is crucified, yet He is victorious.

Back to considering our disordered and dysfunctional world? Dare we hope that things will get better? I can’t be certain of this at this present moment or even in the near future, but I can safely say that we dare to pray. We continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer and plead with the Father, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are confident that our prayers have been answered and are being answered. You see the Kingdom which Christ established is not some ephemeral immaterial reality. It is not just an idea or an ideal to be realised in the future. The culmination of the Kingdom may lie ahead of us but it is even now present in our midst, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “it is brought near in the Word incarnate, it is proclaimed throughout the whole Gospel, and it has come in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst. The kingdom will come in glory when Christ hands it over to his Father.” (CCC 2816)

So, why does God continue to tolerate wicked people and their wickedness if indeed the Kingdom is upon us? Now, God delays judgment to give people time. Our Lord is not indifferent to our suffering nor is He late. On the contrary, He is patient, very patient. As St Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).But let us not take His patience for granted. At Christ’s return He will judge sin, death, the devil, and the people who choose to align themselves with evil. For now, we wait and hope. We recognise that we will not find a solution to all our troubles in our own human resources. We must look for the answer in the Kingdom of Christ. Here is our hope against all those experiences of death, suffering and evil. For this Christ was born, and for this Christ came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to His voice.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Lord Jesus Come in Glory

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

This has been a dramatic year for Catholics around the world. As Pope Francis faces mounting pressure almost every day, to address the spiraling clergy sex-abuse crisis, bishops facing off other bishops, accusations of confusing teachings, has brought some new revelation or declaration. Many are predicting, thankfully some only tongue-in-cheek, that these things are pointing to the end of the world. The encircling gloom of the moral and spiritual decay we see in the world and within the Church, lends weight to this argument. But whenever doomsayers abound, unapologetic optimists abound the more with what sometimes seems to be a weak assurance: “It's not the end of the world… yet'” There are all sorts of ways of using that phrase. For example, it can be a way of saying that it isn't as bad as it seems. But the point of using this phrase is because we believe the “end of the world” to be a supremely bad thing. So we try to trivialise it or to postpone the end as far as possible and perhaps even avoid it altogether.

It may come as little consolation to some of you to know that the belief that the world was quickly coming to an end, was the basic sentiment of many Christians, and in fact most people, in the decades following the death of our Lord. In fact, our Lord, even predicts this moment without disclosing the exact date or time, “In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”. This certainly conjures a frightening image of cataclysmic destruction of cosmic proportions, that all that we know will cease to exist; all that sustains us is coming to an end. But this type of “doom speaking” is actually a style of speaking and writing that is today described as “apocalyptic.”

What apocalyptic writing always does is to resonate with the experiences of the people who hear it. Shortly before today’s passage, our Lord foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The audience for whom Mark writes his Gospel already knew that, the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD, and for many of them the destruction of the Temple was a momentous event that shook them to the core. The Temple, the House of God, Judaism’s centre of the universe, was destroyed in the Roman invasion. As far as the Jews and even Christians were concerned, this marked the “end of the world.” In fact, the Temple was seen as a microcosm of the universe, and astrological symbols representing the heavenly bodies in the universe were embroidered into the veil that formed a physical barrier that separated the holiest sanctuary of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, from the rest of the building. Was this what was meant by the “sun” and “moon” being darkened and losing their brightness? Probably.
And that's what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel. The Gospel can sound rather forbidding, because they are about the end of the world, in the sense of the end of time, the last days. But actually, they also refer to events that have already taken place, “I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place.” The end of the world has happened. And instead of being bad news, it’s tremendously Good News. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross at Calvary is the ending not just of an age, but of all the ages.

When reading today’s gospel, our attention would certainly be taken up by the cataclysmic signs mentioned, namely that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” With so much happening on a cosmic scale, one can certainly miss the point. But the next line gives us the clue. “When you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.” It’s just like the fireworks that go off before the start of an important event. People are often distracted by the pyrotechnic display in the sky, failing to see or forgetting for a moment, that this isn’t the focus of the celebrations, just the trappings; it isn’t the end, just the beginning. In other words, when reading today’s gospel, the focus is Christ, the Coming of the Son of Man in glory and victory, the one who is “near” and in fact “at the gates.”

To understand the Second Coming of Christ calls for understanding the Greek word ‘parousia’ (lit. ‘a being near’) used for this event. The choice of the word in Greek can speak of the reality of Christ having arrived (His first coming among men), His presence in our midst as well as His coming again in glory in the future to judge the living and the dead. Time and space collapses with this critical intervention of God in human history. We are living in the end times. The end is already here, but it has yet to be consummated. When is that going to happen? We should not be preoccupied with predicting the date of Christ’s Second Coming. “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”(Acts 1:7)

At the end of the day, we will never be certain when the world will really come to an end. We won’t even be sure that the signs are really signs of the end times and not just natural cataclysmic events arising from shifting continental plates and changing weather conditions or just the usual turmoil that the Church is experiencing and has always been experiencing in the past. All these may seem pressing but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us that these things should never distract us from three certainties which should always remain our foci.
1.      The first certainty is that Jesus is Risen and is with the Father and thus is with us forever. And no one is stronger than Christ. We are safe, and should be free of fear.
2.      Secondly, we are certain that Christ is with me. He is most certainly present in the Eucharist, the source and summit of my life. My faith in Him gives me the hope that the future is not darkness in which no one can find his way. Christ's light is stronger and therefore we live with a hope that is not vague, with a hope that gives us certainty and courage to face the future.
3.      Lastly, we are convinced that Christ will return as Judge and Saviour. Therefore, we must be accountable to Him for our every action and decision.

So, the cataclysmic signs that accompany the end should never be a reason for fear but always one of hope. The signs indicate an undoing of creation in anticipation of a re-creation. What these forces destroy is not goodness or life, but rather the power of evil and sin. Destruction has to come before perfection. When things look really bad, a glorious recovery is imminent. As the historian Christopher Dawson put it, “When the Church possesses all the marks of external power and success, then is its hour of danger; and when it seems that no human power can save it, the time of its deliverance is at hand.” History moves toward this steady goal - Jesus Christ. He is the central figure of all history. And so we as Christians should not cower in fear but joyfully welcome the day when Christ returns. This is exactly what we pray for at every Mass. 'Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory!' or 'When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.' At every Mass we are always praying that Christ will come again.

The end of the world is therefore a supremely good thing, and it is something that we Christians pray for and look forward to, not because we are fed up with this world, but because we love this world even as God loves it, and we long for it to be made whole and perfect, which God in His love for us will accomplish. He will return in triumph to fulfill God’s eternal purpose with all of creation. And that would be a marvel to behold. Until then, we pray, “Maranatha!” “Come Lord Jesus!” And to those who say, “the world is ending”, we reply, “Bring it on!”