Monday, December 28, 2009

Compliment Christ. Don't compliment the season.

In my many Christmas visits and in my meeting many people who come for Mass or leave the church after Mass, I hear this very common yet, rather disturbing greeting of ‘Compliments of the Season'. I have heard it from many people, and I must say that more and more, through the years, it rankles my Christian sensitivities.

When I ask people, and it is usually to Christians whom I know for sure are followers of Christ, why they use this phrase to greet one another, their reply is often “it’s only on Christmas day that we greet with Merry Christmas, and from Boxing Day onwards, it’s Compliments of the Season”. Now where did they get this idea from? Their teachers in school during 'Colonial days'? Could it be that many are not aware that liturgically, we are still in the season of Christmas right up till the Baptism of the Lord? Could it be that they want to be PC (Politically Correct) and not offend anyone by mentioning Christ and appear to be evangelical in their speech? My suspicion is that it is a strange combination of all of the above.

Could we be unthinkingly drawn into the disease that is currently sweeping over North America, where Christ is deliberately left out of Christmas? Anywhere you go in North America these days, you will be able to hear a very ‘safe’ greeting of “happy holidays” because of a more and more diverse population, where not everyone celebrates Christmas, but everyone enjoys the holidays. I suppose, if you bring that mentality to Singapore, we are a diverse population, a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, and not everyone is a Christian. But my being disturbed by this usage is not by the non-Christians, but by Christians.

Singaporean Catholics tend to be very shy when it comes to sharing their faith with others. While I certainly don’t recommend them to stand on street corners to should scripture passages to strangers, I do try to persuade and encourage all to try to take baby steps in being evangelical. Inserting Christ into your greetings during the entire Christmastide is a simple way of bringing Christ into your conversations, especially when your friends and business associates ask you the questions “but isn’t Christmas over?”

I hope that the people who read this blog entry will begin to take ownership of their Christian faith and heritage that they have been blessed with, and also begin to omit from their vocabulary the generic greetings of either Happy Holidays or Compliments of the Season, and truly bring Christ back at Christmas. At the first Christmas, there was no room for Christ at the inn. Could we be also leaving him with just as little room now, 2000 years later? If Christ is no longer the reason we are joyful at Christmas, there will be very little to compliment us as disciples of the Lord, will there?

God love you, and blessed and holy Christmas to all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Life's border situations

One of the great privileges of being a priest is that we get involved in peoples’ lives at a level and in a way that most people in any other vocation or profession usually do not. I call these ‘border situations’, where we stand almost at life’s borders.

I prayed at the death bed (literally) of one of my parishioners yesterday. This lady had been suffering from cancer and had reached her final stages, and I went to her home to anoint her and give her Holy Communion just last week. Then yesterday, I received a call from her husband, asking me to go to their home as his wife was dying. I obliged immediately. I prayed this wonderful prayer that very few Christians get to hear at the deathbed of their beloved. It goes like this

“Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you, go forth, faithful Christian. May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the angels and saints.”

In my 8 years as a priest, this was only the second time I had the opportunity to pray this prayer. It is meant to be prayed when the moment of death seems near. Most of the times, we priests are asked to pray at wakes, long after the event of death. But it struck me yesterday, that the words of this prayer are really beautiful and powerful. It almost seems like a sending off or commissioning of the person for a journey. It doesn’t seem at all like a death prayer. In fact, death is not at even mentioned in the prayer.

Perhaps this is where most of us get it wrong about death and life. About death, that it is the end, and that it signals a terminal point. Our faith constantly reminds us that this life is but a preparation and a readying for entering into eternal life. The words of this prayer remind us that we are meant to continue on this journey. It’s as if this life ‘commissions’ us, and ‘missions us’ to move on from this life into the next. There is interestingly no mention of rest as well. Instead, we are reminded that we are entering into life. It throws out of whack our preconceived ideas that we are not going to work anymore in the next life. What is far closer to the truth, I strongly suspect, is that we will most likely be finding such joy in living and working in the next life that we will not even crave for rest.
Another of life’s border situations is when life begins. A couple I have come to know are awaiting the arrival of a child anytime now, and the season of Advent seems to put a new perspective towards the whole waiting and anticipating for the baby’s birth. The couple has courageously decided to not induce the birth, but rather, choose consciously to let God’s time be their time.

I applaud people who dare to live in a way that allows them to surrender control to the one who is in charge of life. The world seems to forestall God’s acting when he deems fit, and the widespread use of contraceptives, birth-inducing procedures (for non-medical reasons), to euthanasia attest to inability and unwillingness to give up control. Terminally ill patients who refuse euthanasia and parents who don’t choose dates for a baby’s arrival into this world become for me, great and courageous defenders for God to lead in life’s journey. They become Adams and Eves who choose not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Is this a somber reflection for the Monday before Christmas? To many, I guess it is. But isn’t Christmas - the real meaning of Christmas-, the celebration that even the life of God in Jesus was something that had a long waiting, that couldn’t be hurried, that didn’t allow for the people involved to live in a certitude, and that involved inconvenience aplenty? Realising this, Christmas must give us all a new hope – yes, in all of life’s border situations.

Blessed Christmas to all, and God love you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Readying ourselves for the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Most of you reading this blog will be preparing for Christmas by going to either a penitential service or confession. Many seem to have the idea that this sacrament is something to be dreaded or feared, when in reality, it is a joyful celebration, bringing wholeness and healing. It could be the result of insufficient or forgotten catechesis or even a negative encounter with a confessor in the past, but holding onto such views of a sacrament just falsely promotes the belief in a wrathful and vengeful God who is more bent on inflicting pain and punishment rather than offering the soothing and healing hand of divine love and compassion.

This week, I’d like to help many out there who may have a ‘problem’ with this wonderful sacrament of love and healing, where we truly encounter God’s forgiveness in a sensorial way. The story that I am going to relate here in this blog is something that I have used at penitential services before, to prepare the penitents for a meaningful encounter. After all, aren’t the best teachings often those that come from within a story? It is not an original story of mine, but I can’t seem to find the source of it. Well, whoever wrote it, I trust that it is far more important THAT this story is shared with this purpose, than WHO wrote it. I shall call it “Sally and the pearls”.

Little Sally went to the corner store with her mum and saw a glittering string of fake pearls that caught her eye. She really wanted that bracelet and asked her mum for it. Her mum said that since she had some savings, Sally could use her money to buy it. She searched in her little purse and took out the $1.25 that she had been saving for several weeks now. She was so happy be the owner of a piece of jewelery.

Sally wore this everywhere she went. She would sleep with it, bathe with it, and she’d also swim with it. Soon, it began to lose its shine, and even began to leave green marks on her wrist. One night, her father came up to her and after reading her bedtime story, asked her if she would give him the bracelet. She looked at her father strangely and said “You don’t want my bracelet. You can have my toy horsey. It’s very pretty.” Her father smiled at her and said “it’s ok, honey – you can keep horsey.”

The next day, after reading the story at bedtime, he said “Darling, can daddy have your bracelet?” Sally looked puzzled again, and said “You can have my dolly. She can talk and she closes her eyes when she lies down.” Her father softly said “it’s ok dear, you can keep dolly.”

On the third day, at the same time, her father asked once more “Dearie, can daddy have the bracelet?” This time, Sally was quiet. She looked down, and was so sad, and a tear was beginning to roll down her soft cheek. She reluctantly removed the bracelet from her wrist, and handed it to her father silently. “Here daddy, you can have the bracelet.”

At this, her father took out of his pocket a little pouch and handed it to Sally. Inside was a string of cultured pearls that gleamed in the soft light of the room. Daddy helped Sally put it on, and said “I had this with me all along and wanted to give it to you, but only after you were willing to give me your fake and discoloured pearls which you were so attached to.” Sally couldn’t believe her father’s generosity.

At penitential services and confessions, we face without any pretentions and excuses the reality of sin in our lives which we may be holding on to stubbornly – a bit like Sally’s string of fake and discoloured pearls. There are sins that we are not willing to let go, habits that we fear to identify and give up. Perhaps we are looking at it from the wrong angle. Don’t see what you are giving up, but see what you stand to gain – a right relationship with God your maker who loves you in a way that is beyond your understanding. In the light of the Tiger Woods saga that is unfolding before our eyes, I suppose it is akin to Tiger's realization that if it is his family that he wants to save, it is golf that he has to give up. It's not that golf is a sin here (we all know what is), but that the family and his marriage are far more important. Tiger isn’t just giving up golf. He’s gaining back his life and his family, and his sanity. It could well be that he has reached that proverbial ‘rock bottom’ that all those in Alcoholics Anonymous programmes are so familiar with.

I usually do try to remind penitents to be less concerned with what they are going to say, and instead, focus on what they are going to receive and encounter – the God of love and compassion. God wants to free us from any kind of slavery that we may be in now. And some of us are heavily shackled without even realizing it.

The great thing is that when we ask for forgiveness from God, He not only forgives you, but He doesn’t store much in his memory with unnecessary things. It may be a tad simplistic to say this, but God much prefers to remember things worth remembering, and our sins are not one of them. Perhaps, when we truly realise this, we too, will be like little Sally, unable to believe in our Father's utter generosity.

May you have a most meaningful encounter with a forgiving and merciful God. God love you.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What is left, if we don’t have rights?

A few days ago, I had a most frustrating, albeit enlightening encounter with a dear friend. We were in the same room, just the both of us, and suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, he whips out his mobile phone, and begins to fidget with the buttons. I thought it was a message that he was replying, but it was taking unusually long. Then I asked him if he was playing a game. He said he was. At that instant, I made a beeline for the exit of the room, and couldn’t help but feel offended by what had happened. Throughout the remaining part of the day, I was rather disturbed. My initial reaction was to label my friend as rude, requiring some major remedial lessons in Manners 101. But as I cooled down and reflected on my reactions, I realized that this encounter had something to teach me, not about my friend, but more importantly about myself. I am a firm believer that it is not the joys and successes in life that mould and shape us, but what we feel offends us, and upsets us that bring us to the doorstep of true and converted living.

Most of the world’s problems actually have their genesis somewhere along these similar lines. Someone had either done or said something that made us feel either insignificant or unimportant. And we reacted simply because we felt that we deserve better. We feel that our rights had been violated, or our territorial boundaries trespassed, or our hard earned degree and diploma undervalued and under-appreciated, or our contributions ignored or worse, put down and denigrated. Think of the time when a motorist cuts into your lane, and you get all riled up simply because you felt that you had the RIGHT to that lane. What we do, in most cases, is to give back in a way that hurts the other person. And of course, this can cascade into a spiral of violence that ends up with our turbulent and troubled world. But the question remains – where and why did this all begin? Simply put, we feel that our “rights” had been violated and ignored, and we deserve better.

But is this something that is objectively true? Do we have rights, let alone inalienable rights, as the North Americans are wont to put it. Do we really own anything, is anything really ours to possess? Does everything that we have earned and worked for become ours for all time? If we really come to think about it seriously, and if we are truly and painfully honest, we will come to the conclusion that nothing that we have is our “right”. The writer of the Book of Genesis points this out when he shows how Adam and Eve “took” from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, all is grace, and all is gift, and not a right.

The problems of the world stem from the mistaken notion that what we have is our ‘right’, and that we ‘deserve’ things like love, respect, honour, forgiveness, and even patience from others, and instead of receiving them with gratitude, we ‘take’ or even ‘grab’ them.

The Beatitudes of Christ when he began his ministry had as its fundamental teaching that no one truly has rights and no one deserves anything. And that is because everything and everyone is gift. When we realize this, then yes, blessed are we when we know how to weep and mourn when there is death, either of dreams or of people, because at that moment of true weeping, we come to see that what we had was gift, and that it was all so undeserved. How can one not weep at the knowledge that one has been so graced in life?

The poor are the ones who are blessed because to them, everything is gift, and nothing is deserved. Same for those who hunger and thirst, the meek, etc. The true happiness and blessedness is hidden in plain sight when we mistakenly think that we deserve anything and have rights.

Perhaps there are some reading this blog entry who are shaking their heads, thinking that I am an idealist and don’t know a thing about how the economy is driven. The legal industry seems to be heavily based on what seems to be each human person’s rights. Would all this then be seen as redundant and my sharings a tad simplistic? Perhaps. But then, so was Jesus at his inaugural at the Sermon on the Mount. Most of us just don’t know what to do with those statements that seem to turn our world in a tizzy. Certainly, this blog is not meant in any way to promote or justify bad behaviour, but if all we can think of is protecting our rights, and doing as we please, we easily end up becoming not instruments of change, but agents of violence.

As we enter into the second week of Advent, perhaps we should take this seriously to prayer – that we had no right at all to expect God to do what he did – to come and live like one of us, to show us how to live, how to love, how to die, and from that, how to rise. Even the powers that be at the time of John the Baptist thought they had rights due to their power and position, but note that in Luke’s gospel, the Word of God (pure gift), came not to Tiberius Caesar, not to any of the Tetrachs, the governors or the chief priests, but to the beatnik-like person at the fringe of society, at the Jordan River.

And when we truly see that it is all gift, then even if good friends do things that may end up with us feeling unimportant, we can become thankful because at the incarnation, God himself became unimportant for us, making us SO important.