Sunday, December 30, 2018

Seeing through the Heart of Mary

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God 2019

Everyone's heard someone say, “We'll sit down and have a heart-to-heart.” Are they about to have a casual conversation about nothing important? No, they're about to have a very serious conversation about something that matters a great deal. So the heart is very important. But what is it? The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a truly beautiful definition of the “heart” in its section on prayer. “The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the ... Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden centre, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant” (CCC 2563).

In a special and deep sense, the heart is the person. Mary’s Immaculate Heart is Mary. Jesus’ Sacred Heart is Jesus. But the heart is also the place of covenant — the place where relationships are formed in the human person, where we become fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, Catholics and children of God. The heart is the place where we remember our love for our families and friends, where love abides. The heart is the place where our loved ones live.

On this day, the first day of our New Year (although the Church had already begun her liturgical year on the First Sunday of Advent), the Church invites us to enter into the heart of Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom we honour today with the most august title of Mother of God. To be drawn into the heart of Mary, is to learn how to contemplate and love her Beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, whom she bore and whose nativity we celebrated eight days ago.

In very few words, our Gospel reading tells us much about our Blessed Mother. With great serenity she contemplates the wonderful things and the difficult things that surround the birth of her Divine Child. St. Luke tells us that she “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She studies them, ponders them and stores them in the silence of her heart. She contemplates: she contemplates the good, the confusing, the unknown – everything about her Divine Child; she contemplates. As one gazes into her immaculate heart, which does not only represent the heart of a mother but indeed of the whole Church, we will soon recognise a deep pedagogy of love. To enter in the School of Mary, St John Paul II tells us, is “to put ourselves in living communion with Jesus . . . through the heart of his Mother” (RVM, 2).

Today, much of the love that we know and encounter is external. Love is seen demonstrated by the expensive and opulent gifts which we heap on each other. This kind of love depends constantly on strong emotions, passions and of course, lots of money. This is a love that only appreciates external beauty. But Mary teaches us that much of true love lies hidden and mysterious. Even though the fire of passion cools, the beauty of youth fade, the happiness bought by wealth disappears, love remains. It takes prayerful contemplation to recognise what seems invisible to the eye. The Blessed Mother teaches us the art of love which is contemplation.  To contemplate is to look with the heart, to look with love.  It is only if we contemplate with love can we discover both the tenderness and the greatness of God’s love.  This is the reason why we need to contemplate with the Heart of Mary: to read, understand and penetrate the mysteries of Jesus with the love of Her Heart.  So what does Mary teach us of love through contemplation?

The first fruit of contemplative love which Mary reveals in today’s gospel is this ‘Love means letting go.’  Though, parents have the right and privilege of naming their child, Mary and Joseph took the name given by God through the angel Gabriel, “Jesus”, “God saves.” In her contemplation she recognises that this child does not belong to her. He belongs to God. Mary understood from the very moment the angel announced his conception in her womb, she would not be able to force or manipulate the direction of his fate. This child comes from God, he will live a life in accordance with the will of God and when his earthly mission is accomplished, he will return to God. Mary’s love would provide space for her Son to fulfill his mission, even though this would mean breaking her heart at the end.  Letting go doesn't mean we don't care or that we’ve given up.  Letting go means we stop trying to force outcomes and make people behave. It means we stop trying to do the impossible--controlling that which we cannot--and instead, focus on what is possible for God. 

Mary also shows that ‘Love risks wounding.’ At the presentation, Simeon’s contemplative gaze penetrates the inner depth of Mary’s heart and prophetically foretells the pain which she will have to endure for her son. By doing so, the story links the love of Mary with the passion of Christ right from the very beginning. There are times we wish to shield our hearts from injury and wounding.  We enclose ourselves in a cocoon hoping and desiring that our hearts will not be broken. But as much as we try to shield ourselves or our loved ones from pain and suffering, wounds are inevitable when one takes the risk of loving. In his book, ‘The Four Loves’, C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.”

The third fruit of contemplating Mary’s love is that Love purifies or to be more accurately, it sanctifies. To be worthy to become the Mother of God, Mary had to be the Immaculate Conception, the true Ark of the Covenant unsullied by original sin, the bearer and temple of the Lord, her son Jesus. Her holiness finds its source in the love of God that had consumed her from the moment of conception. St Augustine tells us that Mary’s love first conceived in her heart and then in her womb. So what is the single most important sign of sanctity? It is love. Scriptures constantly remind us that the beginning of love does not lie with the individual man or woman trying to be more altruistic or caring. The beginning of love always begins with God’s love for his people even though they remained sinners. The love of God divinises the beloved and thereafter the beloved transforms the world and sanctifies it through this same love which he had received.

As we begin our New Year with this beautiful feast, let us contemplate the profound words of St Anselm’s homily on the role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation, “To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary. God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Saviour of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.” Ave Maria!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Running Away "To" God

Feast of the Holy Family 2018

Have you ever felt like you were trying to run from something? When I was young, the thought did enter my mind to run away with the circus. Even if I may never be accomplished enough to swing on the trapeze or tame the lions, at least I could still muster enough courage to play the Clown. (Come to think of it, being a priest sometimes feels like playing the clown) Statistics show that the majority of missing/runaway children do so due to family conflicts and peer pressure or influence. Whatever pain or suffering a young person may have had to endure to compel him to run away from home, can never match the pain, loss and guilt of those who are left behind. One of the greatest traumas imaginable is when parents have to deal with a missing child. But running away or the temptation to run away, is not just confined to kids or adolescents. Adults do it too, or at least contemplate the possibility of being able to run away from either an unhappy marriage, from financial crisis or insurmountable debts, from responsibilities, and even from God. It is true that you can run away from almost anything. But when it comes to God, I'll let you in on a little secret. It doesn't work!

It is interesting to note, that the gospel passage chosen for this year’s Feast of the Holy Family deals with a crisis that threatens both the sanity of frantic parents over the prospect of losing a child and the possibility of tearing the very fabric of family life apart. But like any other crisis, this story shows us that a family crisis does not need to end in disaster.

The story of our Lord being lost in the Temple is different in a number of significant ways. First, let us remember that this is the only recorded incident in the youthful years of our Lord. Other than this incident at the temple when our Lord was 12, there is no other biblical record of any incident in the growing-up years of Jesus. Second, in this account are recorded the very first words of our Lord Jesus. Many of our Lord’s words were recorded from His later ministry. But the words of our Lord in this text are His first recorded words, and very important words they are indeed. Third, this is the last time St Joseph is ever mentioned in the life of our Lord. It is commonly felt that St Joseph must have died sometime after this incident, before our Lord began His public ministry. Finally, the actions of our Lord, in the minds of His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, appeared to be wrong. If this child were any person other than Jesus, we would all agree that He deserved a spanking.

The story weaves together several threads. The first thread can be found in the context of this story – it is a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem indicating the faith and devotion of the Holy Family and how our Lord was nurtured and instructed in faith by His parents to observe not just the precepts of the Law but to live up to the demands of loving God with all His heart, mind, soul and being. Next, we are given a glimpse into a family crisis – the prospect of losing a child. I am convinced that this was not the only crisis in the life of the Holy Family. They too were not spared the turmoil, troubles and crises that affects all our families. Finally, we see the misunderstanding that takes place between the earthly parents of our Lord and His mission. It ends up with Mary rebuking, albeit gently, Jesus, and Jesus also mildly rebuking her in return. Mary (along with Joseph) remains perplexed. All she could do was to place these things alongside the others she had previously experienced, waiting for that day when the meaning of all this would become clear. So, our Lord went with them, back to Nazareth, to live with them, and in submission to their authority. Nevertheless, things would never be quite the same.

Despite the divinity of the adolescent Jesus, and the saintliness of His earthly parents, their experience is not very different from ours. Just like them, God intertwines the human and the divine in our own experience. There is a kind of incarnation which is going on in the life of every Christian. You and I have the same struggles. And so we can derive some important lessons from this strange, but all too human and yet mysteriously perplexing episode in the life of the Holy Family.

The first lesson is that growth takes time. Our Lord, though He was fully God, went through the same period of childhood and adolescence that we must. Sometimes our young people are in so much of a hurry to get on with life, or as parents you expect your child to grow up as if it is as easy as making instant noodles, that we are tempted to skip the growing up part. Yes, it is true that sometimes, our teenagers look like they are “twelve going on twenty.” But remember, God is not in such a hurry. He is ever patient. He is more interested in the process of spiritual growth than just its eventual achievement. Patience too must be an important virtue that parents should possess when mentoring their children, training, parenting and helping them to grow “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men.”

Secondly, we will always experience a tension between our responsibilities to God and to human authority. Sometimes those responsibilities conflict so much that we must choose one or the other. Our Lord experienced the same tension and there were times He had to choose to serve God rather than man. Jesus reminded His parents that He was, first and foremost, the Son of God, in obedience to Him, and called to carry out “His Father’s business.” If God is our Father, then our ultimate obedience must be to Him, and not to any earthly authority, when the two are in conflict. Ultimately, Jesus makes it very clear where our ultimate allegiance must lie: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life -- he cannot be my disciple” (14:26). It means that those of us who have children must, like Mary and Joseph, recognise that God may be leading them in a way that is painful and even costly to us, but which is nevertheless His will. As such, we should not stand in the way of our children following God.

Thirdly, family life can be humbling. Sometimes we must often listen and even submit to those who are apparently our inferiors. It is rather amazing that Jesus would return home to Nazareth and submit to His parents who, though they loved Him, had no real grasp of who He was and what He was called to do. Yet He did submit and obey them because that was God's plan for the present. Don't be surprised if you are called to submit to an employer, a parent, a spouse, a teacher, a colleague, or a co-worker who is your spiritual, mental, or moral inferior or sometimes even to your own child. That, too, is part of Christian discipleship. Sometimes obedience is easy. But, majority of the time, let’s just be real: It’s very, very difficult.

Finally, family life would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, if God is not part of the equation. As the prayer of St Teresa of Avila affirms, “He who has God lacks nothing. God alone suffices.” That is why it is so important that we are always in need of God's grace. There’s a famous saying attributed to Father Patrick Peyton, the founder and promoter of the Family Rosary movement, “The family that prays together stays together.”  Ultimately, we are not dependent upon our skills or our wits, but God's grace.

Yes, family life comes with its many challenges, pains and troubles. And let’s be honest that we would be tempted at times to just walk out hoping to run away from the pain and responsibilities. But notice, that our Lord was not trying to run away from His earthly parents. On the contrary, He was running to God, always running to God. So, whenever we are tempted to run from something, let us always run to God.

Monday, December 24, 2018

True God of true God

Christmas Day 2018

Considered to be one of the most widely sung Christmas carols (technically it is a hymn) and a vastly popular one, is “Adeste Fidelis” or better known by its English title, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Unlike so many other hymns and carols, this was originally written in the 18th century (in Latin, nonetheless) by an English Catholic layman, John Francis Wade, who lived in exile in Douai, France, when Catholicism was proscribed in the English Isles. Eventually, this hymn found its way back to the English shores and was translated by an Anglican clergyman, Frederick Oakley, into our English text. Eventually, Oakley was received into the Catholic Church in 1845. The lyrics he wrote into the start of this hymn, may reflect his own personal faith journey into the Catholic Church, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

The original Latin text consisted of four stanzas. The first calls us to visualise anew the infant Jesus in Bethlehem’s stable. The second stanza is usually omitted in most hymnals, but it reminds us that the Christ-child is the very God Himself. The next stanza pictures for us the exalted song of the angelic choir heard by the lowly shepherds. Then the final verse offers praise and adoration to the Word, our Lord, who was with the Father from the beginning of time. But it is to the usually omitted and unjustly ignored second stanza that I wish to draw your attention to:
True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created.
O come, let us adore Him.

This verse identifies the true subject of this hymn, the object of our devotion and adoration is none other than the one who is “True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal … Son of the Father, begotten, not created.” The beautiful and theologically profound words of this second stanza is what we proclaim at every Sunday mass whenever we recite the Nicene Creed and it is at the heart of what today’s Gospel solemnly proclaims. The beginning of St John’s Gospel is exceptionally poetic in its language. John establishes the divine origin of Jesus and then, he moves into the human origin of Jesus. But again, he does not tell a story as do St Matthew and St Luke. Whereas the gospel of St Luke, which we heard last night, takes us back to the beginning of Jesus's earthly life, St John in this morning’s text takes us not so much back in time as into eternity. He shows us the eternal relationship of the Word to the Father; he grants us, in other words, a glimpse of the very life of God, a glimpse of heaven.

First St John raises our minds to the awesome divine majesty of the Word of God. The Word is not just an instrument of creation, He is the creator. He is truly the eternal God, the creator of heaven and earth. Having raised our minds and hearts to reflect on the sublime glory of the Word of God, John then brings us down to earth. In the middle of granting us this glimpse of heaven, John also takes us into the human history of Jesus. He tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth, has become a creature. Now He is forever part of the human race, forever committed to us. God could not have paid us humans a greater compliment than by becoming one of us. That should bring us up with a jolt! This should wake us up to the reality we celebrate today. This child born in Bethlehem who grew up to be a man, who was executed on a cross and rose again on the third day, was no ordinary man. This particular child is the perfect revelation of divine love.  Indeed, this text should remind us that in the earthly life of Jesus, we see the eternal life of God. 

John shows us that Creation is not an event of the past, but the ongoing life of God with His people. He who is all-powerful, upon whom everything depends for its very existence, became a baby, dependent upon his creatures for his basic needs. Almighty God made himself weak and vulnerable to our love or our rejection. In Jesus the unapproachable God of majesty and glory could be embraced with love or nailed to a cross. Of course, that is what the last stanza of our carol is proclaiming and what Christmas is: “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.”  We cannot begin to appreciate the wonder of Christmas if we forget that the babe born at Bethlehem never ceased to be almighty God. That's why we adore baby Jesus.

Now that the Word has taken flesh and has dwelt among us, what should be our proper response? John then tells us that the Word incarnate came among His own people but they didn't welcome Him. Sadly, today many people are equally guilty of this. We are excited over the festivities of Christmas but seldom really interested in the birth of Christ. For many, Christmas has been reduced to an annual sentimental event shorn of any religious significance. He means little or nothing to them. Christmas festivities without Jesus become meaningless opportunities to have a good time, without celebrating anything in particular.

So, why do we celebrate Christmas? It is more than the birth of a great hero or prophet or leader or an excuse to party. Such an understanding of the significance of Christmas is not just severely impoverished but also grossly false. Christmas is no less than a celebration of God with us: Emmanuel!

Last night, many would have come for the night mass (thankfully it is no longer called the Midnight mass because of common practice of celebrating it at any time after dusk due to timing constraints) and would have made their way downstairs to worship the Christ-child in the crèche. You can still do so today and throughout the Christmas season. There was a tradition in the construction of the Nativity scene to depict St Joseph as having taken off his shoes, not because his feet were sore, but in remembrance of Moses doing something similar. When Moses was instructed to take off his shoes, it was a sign of reverence for God as He revealed himself in the burning bush, and promised to deliver His people from slavery in Egypt. Joseph, like Moses, realised that he was on ground made holy by Almighty God's saving presence - in the babe in the manger. This was no ordinary child that he agreed to foster. This is the Son of God, the Word Made Flesh. That is why the beautiful hymn “Come All Ye Faithful” is exhorting us to come and offer our worship to the one who truly deserves our worship – Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God, the Splendour of the Father, Our Saviour and Redeemer, “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” “O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!”