Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A New Commandment, A New Standard

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C

One frequent objection to Christianity is that, it isn’t very original. Now, this is not targeted at the historical ties between Christianity and the Hebrew-Judeo faith, which we Christians make no apology for.  Rather, the argument is that the teachings of Christianity comprise of stitched-together parts of other religions. The Golden Rule is a prime and important example. The rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is found in many religions and philosophies. The Golden Rule is a maxim of the law of reciprocity that essentially holds that people ought to treat others how they themselves want to be treated. Ultimately, self-interest or self-preservation is the yardstick for such a rule.

But the argument that Christianity merely restates the Golden Rule and therefore does not offer anything new falls apart in the light of what our Lord proposes in today’s gospel passage. In fact, our Lord insists that He has something supremely novel to offer. We are brought back to the scene of the Last Supper, just after the Lord had washed the feet of His disciples. In fact, it is this very statement which gives Holy Thursday its traditional name, Maundy Thursday or Mandatum Thursday – from the Latin word for “commandment.” “I give you a new commandment: love one another, just as I have loved you!” To underline the importance He will repeat this two more times during the Last Supper. He speaks like someone who wants to leave an inheritance: “I give you … I bequeath you”.  

Technically, loving others is not a new command per se. It was already there in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) and our Lord reiterated the same in His formulation of the Great Commandment recorded in the Synoptic gospels. In a way, this commandment is an adaptation of the Golden Rule, with love as its motivation. “Do good to others as you want others to do good to you” now becomes “love others as you want to be loved.” But there is still an element of reciprocity. You only love others because you wish for them to love you in return. Such love remains self-serving. It is not spontaneous for people to love those who do not deserve it or cannot reciprocate.

In Christ’s new command, the significant words are “as I have loved you.” The novelty introduced by this commandment – perhaps justifying its designation as New – is that our Lord introduces Himself as a standard for love. The commandment isn’t new; but the extent of love, the standard of love is new. The usual criterion had been “as you love yourself”. However, the New Commandment goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity and states “as I have loved you”, using the Love of Christ for His disciples as the new model. Pope Emeritus Benedict sheds light on the mystery: “This commandment has become new because Jesus makes a very important addition to it: “just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” What is new is precisely this “loving as Jesus loved.” All our living is preceded by His love and refers to this love, it fits into this love and is achieved precisely through this love… “Jesus gave Himself to us as a model and source of love, a boundless, universal love that could transform all negative circumstances and all obstacles into opportunities to progress in love.”

In this New Commandment Our Lord makes Himself the pattern we live by. Now, one need only look at Him to know and carry out the single, all-sufficient commandment He gives. In Christ we discover the grandeur, the height, the depth and the perfection of love. Our Lord did not replace or change the commandment, “Love your neighbour, as you love yourself.” Rather, He filled it out and gave it the best illustration ever – not just by washing the feet of His disciples, but more importantly by dying on the cross. The model of true love is Christ crucified and the commandment of love is finally actualised and perfected on the cross. This depth of love takes the Christian to a whole new way of expressing love for others. Self-love no longer becomes the criterion, but Jesus’ love for us is. The Lord sets Himself as the new norm and measure of Christian love. Our Lord demonstrates His love by showing what it means to love His own ‘perfectly - He loved them ‘to the end’. Therefore, to love one another as He loved is to give oneself wholly and fully to the other. It is in this totality of self-sacrifice and self-giving that the new element in the commandment of love is to be found.

The disciples’ love must therefore not depend on the worthiness of the ones who are loved since Jesus did not love His disciples because they were lovely or loveable. Therefore, what is required of us is not just about getting from giving, the basis of the Golden Rule. Our Lord loved His own without expecting anything in return. He loved them despite their faults and failures. He loved even Judas, who was going to betray Him and Peter who would deny Him and the others who would turn their backs on Him. Likewise, we are called to love even those who may have failed or wronged us before, and to love even those who are our enemies.

We must recognise that all human beings despite their fallen state are capable of showing ordinary love and care for the needy and impoverished. In times of disaster like famine, tsunamis and earthquakes, secular organisations will rally to provide aid and humanitarian support within a short time. And philanthropists will give of their billions to ease the sufferings of their fellow man. But if all that we do as Christians is merely to emulate this love we would be no different from non-Christians who love one another. The love that is required of us in the new commandment is meant to distinguish us from others. It is living out this commandment which makes us recognisable as Christ's disciples because it exhibits the love of Christ Himself. This commandment would be the epitome of Christianity: “By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  

Therefore, the second reading reminds us that heaven, depicted in the Holy City which descends from heaven to earth, is nothing other than the realisation of this love between God and man, “Here God lives among men.” Men can never establish this perfect dwelling by themselves. They can never erect a paradise on earth even with their most altruistic efforts.  

But here on earth, we can already make this paradise visible in a somewhat imperfect manner. No other characteristic of the Church can convince the world of the rightness and necessity of Christ’s person and teaching. Radiant love lived by Christians is the proof of all teaching, dogmas, and moral precepts of the Church of Christ. This was the kind of love that the first-century Christians became known for (Acts 2:44-47) or as Tertullian (who lived in the 2nd century AD) records what the pagans of his time were saying about the Christians: “See how they love one another and are ready to lay down their lives for each other.” This is the kind of testimony that has caused many to turn to Christ for salvation. The most powerful and convincing apologetic for the Christian faith is the love among Christians, and of Christians for others.

Christianity does not claim to be the first religion to use the Golden Rule, but it is fair to say that Christians have (or at least should have) a superior appreciation of it and something new to say about it. The value of Christianity is not novelty. The value of Christianity is the Incarnation – God became man so that men may become gods. The golden standard of men will no longer be the benchmark. It would be a supremely higher one. Man’s standard would now be pegged against God’s.  To Love as He did, that would be the ultimate yardstick of love.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Shepherd and Warrior

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C

Every year, this Sunday’s liturgy offers for our meditation a passage extracted from the lengthy Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel, where our Lord presents Himself as the “true shepherd.” The four verses which I just read this year are taken from the last part of the speech and helps us foster a deeper understanding of this beautiful biblical image. But do you pay attention to the portrait of the Good Shepherd that is painted here?

Firstly, it dispels a widely held myth about the Good Shepherd. Whenever we think of this, what does it remind us of? For most people, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd may come from pictures in children’s books or in stained glass windows: Jesus as a benign shepherd in long flowing robes, surrounded by cuddly lambs and golden-haired children in a soft grassy field on a perfect day.  Perhaps, the image painted by St Luke in his parable of the lost sheep may have something to do with influencing this portrait (Luke 15:4-8).

But the image of the shepherd in St John’s gospel has nothing to do with this nice and pleasant picture. Our Lord is not presenting Himself as the one who lovingly caresses and coddles the wounded sheep like a doting mother whilst giving its ego a therapeutic massage. St John paints a picture of a seasoned battle-worn shepherd, strong, courageous, who fights off bandits and wild beasts like David (another shepherd-warrior-king). Here is one who is not afraid to risk everything and even lay down His life for the flock He loves. Here is one who stands in the face of danger, holds his ground and issues this warning, “no one can steal from the Father.”

We tend to overlook the fact that shepherds are also fighters. Shepherds must be prepared to kill to protect the sheep in their charge.  For of such is the “Good Shepherd.” The shepherd does not flee the scene at the slightest indication of danger or risk to himself. The shepherd does not sit down for a meal over roasted lamb with a bandit who has only one intent in mind – the stealing and killing of his charges. The shepherd does not hand over his flock to the wild beasts in order to appease them and to save his own skin. As “nice” as the image of a benign and friendly shepherd may be, he does not have his sheep’s best interest in mind. His job is to protect and guard them from their enemies. His job is not to invite the enemies in, to feast on his flock.

No, the life of a shepherd and his flock is one marked by danger and strife. In fact, all life is a struggle from start to finish.  At no time is life not in the conflict of struggle.  And the struggle to survive is a fraction of the total struggle in which life is engaged at all times and places.  The heart struggles to beat, the lungs to function, families to love, enterprises to exist. Man’s ineffable, ineluctable and interminable destiny in this world is conflict (war as Heraclitus puts it).  Someone once said, “Time is war.  Space is conflict.  Land is violence.”

And that is the reason why we speak of the Church as Church Militant, with Christ as our Warrior-King, Shepherd cum General. It is not our intention to be belligerent, that is to pick fights and to sow discord and violence. Rather, it is others who often pick fights with us, who sow discord in our midst and eventually intend our destruction. And so, our destiny has already been written by the perennial condition of a fallen humanity hostile to Christ and His mission. The Catechism of Trent, Article IX, puts it very succinctly: the Church “is called militant, because it wages eternal war with those implacable enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.”

It is not un-Christian to fight, on the contrary, Christians are called to fight the good fight. But how can this spirit be compatible with the commandment to love? Everything a Christian does should be motivated by love, but this does not conflict with the spirit to strive and fight. Rather this spirit should be a fruit of love. Love presupposes sacrifice for the one who is loved. Without sacrifice, there is no true love – only sentimentalism. If a man loves his wife and children, he is ready to defend them. If he loves his country, he must be ready to fight against all attacks. Likewise, he too must defend his faith and his Church. True love is proven under such difficult circumstances. Love is ultimately determined when self-sacrifice is called for. Our Lord who sacrificed Himself on the cross is the greatest example of the militant spirit as the fruit of love.

But unfortunately, modern society, mistakes our fundamental convictions as intolerance and extremism which breeds violence. We live in a society that is more concerned with providing self-help therapies which affirm us in our error than it is with challenging us with the Truth in order to change. In fact, this is a generation which can’t handle the Truth. Living a lie is so much less threatening and comfortable. That is why the world tries to convince us not to enter into battle. “Do not waste your life fighting for abstract ideals, enjoy the pleasures life has to offer,” is its message. Yet the Catholic spirit should be the exact opposite – “Do not waste your life on the pleasures of this world, fight for ideals that are worth living and dying for.”

Sadly, the church is too often simply a mirror of the wider culture on this issue. This plays out in how church leaders sometimes compromise the most basic values and beliefs of the Church in order to appease the world. We want to make peace with the world, even at the risk of offending God. We insist on “listening” to the world and even conforming to the values of the world, forgetting that the primary duty of the Church is to teach prophetically. And so we end up dumbing things down in an attempt to be catchy or popular. We fail to realise that our kids can actually understand the big doctrines of the Christian faith, if they are given the opportunity and the forum to do so. But we often believe that they are too dumb to handle these things.

But the Church of the living is ultimately the Church Militant. This is what the Church is meant to be. Catholicism is meant to be active and not passive. It's where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you. The longer you are in it, the more you realise its demands of you. The Catholic Church is not a mall or a spa. No, the Catholic Church is a gym, a battleship ready for war. Yes. The Catholic faith is difficult. It is demanding and it’s meant to be so. It is about mercy, but it is also about overcoming oneself.  We are challenged in a deep way, not just to “feel good about myself” but to become holy. 

In times of war and in the heat of battle, obedience is paramount. That is why the Lord tells us, “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.” This is what ultimately defines us – our obedience. He makes the judgment call, we merely carry it out. In the midst of a culture of mass information, relativism and individualism, in which there are so many competing voices, we must learn to listen to the only voice that matters, the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd. Failing to listen to His voice only ends in chaos and conflict within the ranks of the flock.

So who are the sheep of His flock? Are they those docile, pacifist creatures who only know how to pray, pay and obey? Hardly. His “sheep” are those who have the courage to follow Him and the humility to obey Him. His “sheep” are those who are prepared to fight in His army and die for Him. If our Shepherd King is a Warrior, we His sheep must be ready to wage the “eternal war with those implacable enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.” Indeed, following His example, pious Catholic men and women throughout the centuries have brought tremendous acts of daring and bravery to the battlefields of life and steadfastly faced innumerable situations of danger and conflict. Nothing could be more Catholic than this.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Quo vadis?

Third Sunday of Easter Year C

The Fourth Gospel ends with the appearance of the Lord at the Sea of Tiberias where St Peter  is installed by the Lord in his pastoral office. The rest of St Peter’s story, as far as scripture is concerned, is told in the Acts of the Apostles. But even there, St Peter seems to disappear from the pages of recorded history after the ascendance of St Paul who takes the mission of Christ to the Gentiles. What happened to St Peter after this? Many can only speculate. We have a clue in today’s gospel where the Lord predicts Peter’s own ending. Well, where scripture is silent, tradition fills in the blank spaces. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, and just like how he abandoned Christ after His arrest, Peter flees from persecution in Rome as he abandons his flock, and along the road outside the city, he meets the risen Lord. In the Latin translation, Peter, shocked to see Jesus in the flesh, asks Him, “Domine, Quo vadis?”(“Lord, where are you going?”) and the Lord replies, “Romam eo iterum crucifigi” (“I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”). Peter, shamed by His master’s answer, then gains the courage to continue his ministry and returns to the city, where he is martyred by being crucified upside-down.

A beautiful and poignant ending to the tale of the Prince of the Apostles and our first pope, but let’s return to our story in today’s gospel. A lot of things seem to be happening before our Lord entrusts this crucial pastoral ministry to St Peter. Everything that precedes this preparatory: failed fishing venture, then the outstanding miraculous catch which would not be possible without the Lord’s intervention, after which Peter swims to the shore to meet the Lord and stands beside Him on the bedrock of eternity, then the simple breakfast that prefigures the Eucharist; prepares us for the final scene where the Lord interrogates Peter and Peter gives his answer. The crucial question, asked not just once but three times. If we cast our minds back, we will remember that we watched Peter deny Christ three times. Here, he makes three professions of love, three confirmations of his faith.

Three times our Lord will pose this question to Peter, “Do you love me?” Although they read the same in English, they are actually different in the original Greek. While the English language has only one word for “love,” there are quite a few in Greek. In this very passage, the Lord uses the verb form of agape in the first two of His three questions and the verb form of philos in the third, while Peter responds with the verb form of philos in all his three replies. What’s happening is this. The Lord firstly asks Peter if he loves Him self-sacrificially “more than these others do.” To paraphrase this, “do you love me more than the Beloved Disciple who stood under the cross there or these other apostles over there, who gave everything to follow me?” Instead of addressing the comparison, Peter answers by claiming his love for Jesus as a friend. After having betrayed Jesus, there was no way that he could claim anything more than that. Jesus then drops the comparison and asks Peter if he simply loves Him self-sacrificially. Peter sticks to his claim of friendly love. With His third question, Jesus drops the level of love down to Peter’s, and there’s a match. Jesus will start working on us with whatever level of love we have for Him, because at the end of the day, as St John so rightly puts it, “Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent His Son to expiate our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

Without this confession of greater love, the Good Shepherd, who gives His life for His sheep, could not entrust His flock to Peter’s pasturing. For the office our Lord has received from the Father is identical with His own loving sacrifice of His life for His sheep. Ever since our Lord bestowed this office on St Peter, this unity of love and office has been unconditionally required. This unity is then sealed by the prediction of Peter’s own passion, his crucifixion, the gift of completed discipleship. Just like the Master, the servant too must lay down his life for his sheep. The cross will be bound up with the papacy from this point onward, even when it is given to unworthy popes. That is the reason why Popes have traditionally worn red shoes. It is hardly a fashion statement as many would sarcastically comment (especially when Pope Benedict restored the tradition). But those red shoes are a reminder that this is the vocation of the one who sits on the Chair of St Peter. He must be willing to give his life-blood for his mission and his sheep, and that blood runs red till it covers even his shoes and the toes of his feet.

It won’t be easy for St Peter to accept this proposal. Let’s be honest, it won’t be easy for anyone of us. We want the frills without paying the cost. We want the prestige and power that comes with the position, but not the responsibilities. We want glory without the cross. Peter will still for a long time stick to his convictions, hopes and dreams of glory. Only after years will he be converted completely and if the tradition regarding his last encounter with the Risen Lord and his death are true, he would finally concede to be taken where he would rather not go.

Leadership has often oscillated between the temptation to accede to popular demands or face the painful prospect of rejection. Anyone can be a leader. Anyone can be equipped with leadership skills and learn the basics of management, communication, conflict resolution, planning and decision making. But the Christian leader is challenged to go further. He must, like St Peter in the First Reading, be ready “to suffer mistreatment for Jesus’ name.” We see a very different Peter in this scene before the Sanhedrin, the High Council of the Jews. He is no longer the cowardly and timid Peter who flees from the scene of the charcoal fire when threatened with discovery. Here he does not run but instead gives one of his most inspiring speeches, “Better for us to obey God than men!” Peter and his brothers refuse to be cowed into silence. Instead “they rejoiced that they had been judged worthy to suffer mistreatment for Jesus’ name.”

Peter and his brothers stand with so many others in the history of the Church. The Church on earth has always known various tribulations, in the likeness of her Lord. She experiences betrayal, calumny, torture and finally martyrdom. Are we shocked and horrified by the hundreds that were killed, maimed and injured in Sri Lanka last Easter? We should be rightly so but let us not forget that the Church takes the same path as her Lord. For her too, it is necessary that she suffer these things, and so enter into her glory. This is the brilliant vision painted in the second reading. As the Church had suffered the fate, mission, and mistreatment of her Master on earth, now she will share in the glory of the Master who reigns supreme in heaven. This is because the Cross can never be separated from the Resurrection.

St Peter will carry the mission entrusted to him by the Lord to Rome eventually. As an old man, he will be girded by the soldiers of Nero, and made to climb. He will be crucified with his feet upward - his own request, being so unlike his Master! His face will be low to the ground: the dust of men! In his heart ... the shore of Galilee, the voice of Christ speaking to him, yesterday, today, and forever. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And with his dying breath, Peter finally answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you. I have fed your sheep.”