Monday, April 19, 2021

Why Psalms 23 and 26 are particularly difficult and challenging psalms to pray.

Many people, including non-Christians, are familiar with Psalm 23. It is also known as the Shepherd’s Psalm.  It begins with “The Lord is my Shepherd”.  Very often the psalm of choice for a funeral Mass or service, it is evocative of how a soul, like a tender, weak and even injured lost sheep, is cared for and guided by a very loving and nurturing shepherd.  It is guided through rough and dangerous terrain to verdant pastures.  One doesn’t need to have been a scripture scholar to see how a recitation of this psalm brings comfort to those who gather to send off a loved one after their time on this earth ends.  As a presider at many a funeral, I have seen those who have lost loved ones become emotional as they let the consoling words of the psalmist touch their hearts.


But there is a very challenging verse that forms a part of the response to this psalm that everybody in the congregation repeats and this is when we say “there is nothing I shall want”.  It is challenging because if we really mean it, it has the power to alter our reality and challenge our ultimate values.


What does it really mean to say “there is nothing I shall want”? At its core, it is the idea that when we are convinced that the Lord, who is God, is indeed the shepherd of our souls, nothing else matters.  He and he alone gets to be placed at the top shelf of our life’s needs, and it is a very bold statement to not just say it, but mean it as well – that there is NOTHING else that I need or NOTHING else that I want, and NOBODY ELSE’S approval or support that I need to give me a sense of well-being.  Not riches, not health, not family, not a job, not friends, not popularity, not success, not glory, zilch. 


I suspect that many who pray or say this prayer don’t go far enough with this response to realise that the words are really an invitation to have that much radical faith, trust and total reliance on God.  Whenever I come across this psalm, I am prompted to make a quick examination of conscience to see if I mean what I am saying.


Another less familiar psalm is found a few chapters down from the 23rd, and it is in Psalm 26 (or 27 depending on the version of the bible you are using).  The response that the congregation is often invited to repeat is the 4th verse which has us say “There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord.”


ONLY one thing!  That’s a very challenging thing to say, let alone to truly mean.  This statement is loaded. And it prompts one to activate one’s faith in a very conscious way.  One is really saying that out of the many things and needs that we may have in life which we seek God to provide us with, only one is truly needed, and this is that we live forever with God in his eternal dwelling.  But is this true and something that we are willing to stand by?


For most of us, we have MANY things that we ask of the Lord.  If we are truly honest, there is never ONLY one thing we ask of the Lord in prayer.  We are often asking a ton of other things, some of which could even be harmful for us.  But this psalm, just like Psalm 23, is inviting us to constantly reflect on how central and essential it is that we seek God as our highest end.


I am quite sure that those of us who are blessed to be conscious until the last moments of our lives on this earth will have many thoughts flitting through our minds about how we have lived our lives as we lay on our deathbeds.  And at that liminal point in our life, one thought that stands out would be if we are ready to face our maker, judge and redeemer.  


What does readiness at that point consist it?  Among the many things, one of the most important would be how deep, loving and effortful was the relationship that we had with God.  Relationships in this life with any human persons are deep and loving when we communicate often, when we make effort to contact the person, and when he or she isn’t far from our daily thoughts.  Deep relationship with God isn’t all that different.  The only difference is that with God, we give him worship and devote everything that we have to him (or we should), and we give him our ultimate deference.


Reciting meaningfully psalms like 23 and 26 are, I believe, good and necessary reminders for us to recalibrate our priorities if God isn’t the receiver of our greatest devotion as yet.  

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Wounds of Jesus

It is without a doubt that the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are the fundament of our Christian faith.  This is seen in the way that these four elements or aspects of Jesus’ life are featured in all four gospels of the New Testament.  But what is outstandingly unique about John’s account of the resurrection is that he gives a lot of emphasis on the wounds of Jesus even after the event of the resurrection.  The Gospel text of the Mass which we see on every second Sunday of Easter, regardless of whether we are in year A, B or C in the liturgical cycle, it is from the resurrection account of Jesus from John’s gospel that we read.  


Why does John feature so prominently the wounds of Jesus?  One reason could be because John makes a case for this deliberate show of Jesus’ wounds through the conditions that Thomas made in order for him to truly believe that it was Jesus who truly rose from the dead.  He saw Jesus nailed to the Cross on Good Friday, and for him, it was going to be the deal breaker for him to come to believe that it was the very same Jesus, and not some imposter, who appeared to his fellow disciples.


John’s account of Jesus’ appearance before Thomas does bring him to being 100% sure of Jesus’ resurrection. John writes that Jesus walked through those locked doors of the upper room where the disciples were huddled in fear, and as Thomas demanded, Jesus did show him his hands and his side.  


But what was it about the wounds that gave Thomas that assurance?  Wounds themselves are but injuries made to a mortal, physical body that is capable of being damaged.  And because our skin has within it a multitude of nerve endings, when the body is afflicted with injury and trauma, it is also capable of feeling pain.  More to it, because of the healing properties that are inherent in the human body, when parts of it are injured, it is also capable of healing through the complex immune system within it, but in the process of healing, will almost all of the time leave scars that are evident of a past injury or trauma.


In John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas, although Thomas conditions his belief in being able to place his fingers into the wounds that the nails made in Jesus’ hands, and being able to place his hands into the wounded side of Jesus, we are not told that Thomas actually did this when Jesus appeared to him.  What Jesus does say to Thomas is “you believe because you see”, and not “you believe because you touched”.  Too many of us read too much into the text and come to the conclusion that Thomas had his conditions fulfilled by touching the wounds, but nothing of this is said in the gospel account.  If we take the bible literally and seriously here, we cannot assume that Thomas actually did touch the wounds and this is an important point, because if it is the sight of the wounds of Jesus that made him utter that fundamental declaration of faith in crying out “My Lord and my God”, we need to explore what it is about seeing the wounds that gives Thomas this assurance that it is Jesus who is God. 


If it is just the sight of the wounds that made Thomas make this momentous declaration of ultimate adoration and exaltation, what did Thomas see?  The sight of bodily wounds do not in themselves lend anyone to such an exalted exclamation.  Therefore it has to be something that Thomas saw in and through the wounds.  I am quite certain that what Thomas saw was the love of his God, and this was what the wounds revealed, without even the need to touch them.  In fact, Thomas was touched by the sight of the wounds, and that was the true game changer.


If there is anything that changes us from within, and if there is anything that can cause any degree of serious conversion in our lives to want to live with more courage, more hope and with greater effort for the betterment of others, it is that we know we are loved. People in romantic love are powerful people because they will go to the ends of the world to want to demonstrate that this love is not wasted on them, but that they want to return this love with a certain profundity.  If this is true of romantic love, it is infinitely truer when we know that we are loved at our core, in the pit of our very being by God, because God doesn’t need to, but chooses to do this out of pure goodness.  This is the love of which Augustine wrote about when he said “thou hast made us for thyself O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”.  


Even before Augustine wrote that in verse, the Thomases of the world knew this truth in their hearts.  


Yes, it is true that what Thomas’ exclaimed that day was brazen and bold.  It is also  something that every disciple of Christ needs to boldly echo in life. I have seen it embroidered in gold letters on banners adorning Altar frontals on which stands the Eucharistic Lord in beautiful monstrances in many churches.  Whilst declaring Jesus is Our Lord and Our God is objectively true, if we have not come anywhere close to realizing that this God has a real and sacrificial love personally for me, then the God that I am worshipping is still a very distant God. 


The incarnation is a bold demonstration of how much God wanted to close this distance between him and us. The wounds of Jesus show how high the price of love was, and how far he was willing to go to pay it.

Monday, April 5, 2021

What the empty tomb means for every human being, not just Christians.

Alleluia!  The Lord has risen indeed!  


This is the joyful exaltation that should be on the lips of every man and woman waking up on Easter Sunday morning.  I say “every” and not just Christian men and women, because of all things that give us hope in the dark moments of our lives, it is the promise of an eternal life of heaven that gives every man, woman and child the greatest hope that we can ever have.  


This hope is more than just the hope than whatever pain or anxiety or hardship that we have in life will be alleviated.  It is a hope that even though these forms of strife that we have in life will not be taken away, that disease and illness is not cured and healed, that we will even succumb to them in a most painful and horrible way, that there is the hope of coming out at the other end in a perfect, whole and healed way. 


But this hope is something that comes to us with a very high price – a price so high that it was paid in nothing less than the very life of God himself. 


And because it was paid by God, and could only be paid by God, it behooves every human person to respond to it in a fitting way that is expressed by a total devotion and worship of this incredibly generous and unconditionally loving God.  If God willed himself to love us to the extent of giving his life up for us so that we could have life, the very least response from us would be to want to do the same, which is why Jesus said that the first and most important law is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, spirit and strength.  


Wanting the promise of eternal life and having this incredible hope in life will be cheapened if we think that we can live willy-nilly and for ourselves and what we think is best for us, and in the end, still want heaven and all that it stands for.  


And this is where I think many cannot see that what they actually want in life is cheap grace – that we can somehow have heaven without any need to, in this life, conform our lives to be lived with a sense of holiness, which includes a life of moral rectitude and righteousness.  We want what Christ gives us without living as Christ lived.  In short, many may want to have their cake and eat it, which isn’t possible.  This idiomatic proverb describes just how one cannot have two incompatible things simultaneously in life.  


Hence, to want heaven, and to also want the things that doesn’t conform to God’s being of truth, goodness and beauty is to want a unicorn, to use a current-day phrase.  To want heaven’s promise without giving up sin and being contrite and truly sorrowful for our sins is just not possible.


The empty tomb’s promise of our hope to overcome life’s final and biggest bastion, i.e. death, came with such a price that we will do it little justice if we don’t frequently call it to mind.  This is where Protestantism and its many off-shoots differ in varying degrees from Catholicism.


This is quite clearly seen in the way that Catholics observe Good Friday as compared to the way our separated brethren do it.  While both churches value highly the prize of the resurrection of Easter and the empty tomb, Catholics have it very much ingrained in our liturgy and overall psyche to never leave our eyes off from the Cross and the call to die to the self.  And one of the ways we do this is by always having the image of the crucified Lord on the crucifix.  Most, if not all Protestant crosses are just crosses with no corpus attached to it, largely because their emphasis of their theology is biased very much on the promise of the post resurrection event and effect on life and all of creation.


The difference appears to lie in the fact that Catholic theology is often one that equally emphasizes the price that was paid, as well as the prize that was gained.  But when this is not clearly understood (both by Catholics as well as by those who are not Catholics), it can give the wrong impression that we are just over focused on the cross, without a balanced appreciation, hope and joy of the empty tomb.  


Our liturgical observance in the Catholic church actually shows this balanced approach through our having 40 days of serious Lent pre-resurrection, and 50 days of Easter post resurrection, culminating with the celebration of Pentecost.  These numbers of 40-pre and 50-post, which lean heavier on the post, should reveal how we do give a high emphasis on the promise and power of the resurrection in our faith, and that it is not true that we are just about dwelling on the hard truth of the Cross in life.


As we enter into the prolonged celebration of the Easter hope of the empty tomb, may we pray for the grace to see how important it is that we truly live with the heartbeat of the resurrected Lord beating in tandem with ours.


A happy and blessed Easter to all!

Monday, March 29, 2021

How we understand the symbol of the Palm can greatly help us to attain spiritual greatness.

If you are reading this blog entry on the Monday of Holy Week, and have managed to go for Holy Mass over the weekend, you probably have a palm branch that was given to you at the Mass of Palm Sunday.  


I have always wondered if the laity really appreciate the deep significance of this blessed palm.  There are many Catholics who don’t really know what to do with these palm branches when they bring them home from church.  Some place them on their home altars, but aren’t quite certain of what purpose they serve, and it’s a pity.


Sure, we hold them aloft and wave them at the beginning of the liturgy of Palm Sunday to commemorate how Jesus was welcomed by the people of Jerusalem so jubilantly into the Holy City for the last time before Good Friday.  The waving of palm branches and even laying them on the ground was a sign of a hero’s welcome, often given to soldiers and warriors returning from a victory over the enemy.  Jesus was given a hero’s welcome, because many did think that he was the Messiah who would overcome the Roman occupiers of Palestine. 


It is for the same reason that many of the martyrs of the early church featured the symbol of the palm branch as well, signifying that they heroically died for their faith, and did not cave in to the pressure put on them to commit apostasy.  


All of us who are disciples of Christ are called to live with the same kind of heroism and courage.  Whilst not all of us may be called to die a martyr’s death, each time we die to sin and die to the self is a mini form of martyrdom.  We forget this easily because the ways of the world are always making this choice for God and for holiness a less attractive choice.  We need something that serves as a reminder to live our Christian lives with effort, and we can get this help from the way we display the blessed palm branches in our homes.


Placing the palm branch behind or near to the Crucifixes that adorn the walls of our homes serves to be a strong and symbolic reminder to be heroes of our faith in the big and small ways of our everyday lives.  Every refusal to give in to sin is a demonstration of how much we love God more than we love ourselves.  Looking at the palm branch together with the crucifix before we leave our homes each day will remind us that we are about to step onto the stage on which our Christian lives are on full display.  And this will apply to whether we are stepping out of our homes for work or for leisure.  


I have often overheard comments as the parishioners receive their palms in Church, and a common one is “please give me a small one”.  If these prickly palms are only something that we use as a prop for Passion Sunday, asking for a small palm is understandable.  No one likes big and cumbersome props.


But if the palms serve as a year-long reminder to live our Christian lives with a deep sense of purpose and sacrifice, we really shouldn’t just settle for ‘something small’.  We are called to imitate our Lord Jesus who went to the Cross out love for us, and it certainly was not ‘something small’.  


If we are having trouble with dying to sin and dying to the self each day, we really should be looking out instead for the larger and more visible palm fronds to speak louder to us to want to live our Christian lives with greater heroism.