Monday, December 26, 2011

The Soul's worth shown by the Word made Flesh

As members of the human race, we share a lot of common experiences and emotions. We have our moments of joys and triumphs, our moments of happiness and elation. On the flip side, we also do know that we have encountered sadness and sorrow as well. One of the most damaging things that a human person can go through in life in terms of feelings is to feel worthless and without value. This is when a person’s dignity is stripped away and left with little or nothing to cherish or love.

I hope that it has never happened to you, but maybe there have been times when you were told by either your parents or your teachers, in their moments of anger and fury, that you are useless or hopeless as a person. Hearing these things does nothing to see ourselves as persons of value and worth. But the truth is that each one of us is of great value and has an immense worth – not for the things that we can do, but for the persons that you and I are.

What we are celebrating today – the incarnation of God, where God became one of us, is precisely this. God is not telling us that we have worth. God is showing us this in concrete, physical, tangible form. My Christmas reflection has been partly inspired by something I came across when I read something from a spiritual great, Fr Richard Rohr.

It was back in 1847 in France, that a parish priest asked a wine merchant and poet by the name of Placede Cappeau to write a poem for Christmas. He came up with a poem entitled “Midnight, Christians”, and it was later that these words were put to music by Adolphe Charles Adam, another Frenchman, to become immortalized as the Christmas Carol “O Holy Night”. One of the most theologically and spiritually sound lines in the hymn tells us what happened when the incarnation took place – Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. Some translations have it as the “spirit” felt its worth. They essentially mean the same thing.

You see, none of us is worthless and without value. Cappeau must have had a deep sense of this. No matter what we may have been told by angry parents or disenchanted employers and no matter what we may have done in our stupidest of times. And all of us have met them in our lives.

A lot of us have been told by stores, advertising agencies and misguided friends and relations about what they think Christmas is about. Some songs have even done that rather successfully. It’s not about giving or receiving gifts, it’s not about reindeer, or snow (especially not in hot and humid Singapore), and it’s certainly not about mommy kissing Santa Claus. These have been added on through the years and for various reasons, and what they tend to do is to take away or mask the one reason for Christmas, and if we don’t strip that all away, we can end up thinking year after year, that Christmas is about those things. Well, if you want a good reason for coming to Church on Christmas day, it is to be able to take away all those trimmings and décor, take away all those layers and layers of added meanings, to come to the one main reason for Christmas so that we can leave Church with something that is basic, something that is at the very heart of the Christmas message.

And that message, that story, that truth, is that God wanted our humanity which we share in a broken and sinful way, to know that it is worth loving, that it is worth saving, and that it is has worth. Now if that present that you were given tells you that message, then it has done what it’s supposed to do. If that Christmas hug that you give, or have received imparts that message to you or from you, then you have given or have received Christmas. But do remember that it all started first with God giving us himself, embracing our humanity with his divinity on a very holy night, slightly more than 2000 years ago. This is the marvel of Christmas, and this is what we need to remember not just at Christmastime, but hopefully, every moment of our lives.

The incarnation was inconceivable before Christmas. God mixing right in with humanity was simply unheard of. But that which was unheard of, that which was so silently hoped for, was something that was made possible only by the grace of God when the Word, the hitherto silent Word, was made flesh. Back in 1947, when US Air Force test pilot Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time, many thought that it was something to be marveled at.

What many don’t realize is that long before that, when the Word was made flesh, the sound barrier was broken by the Word himself - in a more incredible, inconceivable and, yes, silent way.

Blessed and Holy Christmas everybody.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What to do when there is no love

Love makes the world go round. This can be a mushy sentiment carelessly tossed out by hopeless romantics, but it does have a certain truth in it.

Of course, they way that many people choose to define “love” can also be the cause of a lot of the world’s troubles and turmoils, but I won’t get into that in this blog reflection. But on many levels, the seasons of Advent and Christmas are indeed the seasons of love. However, I wonder if there are many out there who think this way.

After all, what was the world waiting for when it was being prepared for the coming of the Messiah, but arrival of someone who would change the world. Change what? Among many things, the way the world loved before. It needed a model of selfless love that would be the ultimate overturning of sin and selfishness that was the root cause of mankind’s miseries in life.

It was St John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrated sometime last week who said one of the most poignant things that one could say about love. In one of his writings, he said so profoundly “where there is no love, put love, and then you will find love”.

That is what God did in the incarnation. This is what Advent and the continuing season of Advent celebrates, if we want a succinct spirituality behind it. In our weak and selfish ways, we had been incapable of loving as God created us to love, and this required of God to show us just how to do it through an example par excellent. It was as if God was looking on in the world and could not find love in its pristine form. Dismayed and wanting to lead the world out of its mess, out of mercy, God decidedly put love into the world, and there found love.

While the world seems to be more intent on taking love, God reverses it and puts it in - in Christ. It’s as if the cogs of love were suddenly made to turn in the opposite direction, and it changed everything. The incarnation then becomes the love overturning everything that is the antithesis of love - hatred, envy, violence, revenge, selfishness, sloth, greed, and most of all, fear.

This then, has to be our shared quest as disciples of Christ. There are many places, I am sure, where you and I find little or no love. It’s far too easy to complain, criticize or to be cynical about it. If we do find love lacking there, our call is to, as John of the Cross said, put love in.

Then we will find love. Like God did. Have a blessed last week of Advent joy, everybody!

Monday, December 12, 2011

What happens when God keeps silent?

One thing that our faith has always assured us of is God’s constant and unceasing love for us, his beloved. The last line of Matthew’s gospel (28:20) has Jesus reassuring the disciples before the great commission that he is with us always, yes, to the end of time.

That God protects and comforts us in our moments of need is a belief that we grow up with all our lives, if we have been baptized from birth. The sacraments of the Church are our physical signs of God’s presence in our lives, giving us assurance that in our deep moments of need, he is there to heal, feed, forgive, strengthen, bathe and minister to us. And because we are physical beings, these forms of God’s tangible presence gives us the assurance that we need in our darkest moments in a very real way.

But what if these are not enough? How do we handle it when our weak faith begs and yearns for an overturning of evil that seems to overcome us, and in a way, God has not delivered? I have come across many who in their faithful Christian lives, have had God remain so distant, almost cold and uninvolved in their dark moments of need. These are the times when the God of assurance and comfort appears to be something that has been taught about well, but when the real time of need comes, when there is unexplainable darkness, and when left to fend for oneself alone, when fear is a gripping reality, when all the ‘chips’ are down, the God of Jesus Christ speaks in a deafening silence that can break the strongest of hearts. What happens then?

At these tumultuous moments, almost anything that one says will sound trite and platitudinous, with hardly much to show viz-a-viz comfort and solace. Can God be playing games with us? Have we been believing in someone or something that had been a figment of our imagination? How is it that so many claim to really experience his saving help in their moments of need, but when we need God to make manifest his mercy, power and love, he seems to have gone to the Bahamas for a very long vacation?

Perhaps that is why we need to be constant in our definition of “faith”. Faith in God and his power and mercy is not that he will show up when summoned, or that he will overturn and overcome evil when petitioned for, but that deep within ourselves, we know that God and goodness prevails. Faith allows me to see that it may not be right now that God will show his divine triumph, but that he will. Faith doesn’t make me demand for a showing of the power of God, but that I believe in the power of God, despite what I see happening before my eyes. Faith assures me that I don’t have to see great things happening in my time, but rather, that I allow God to make great things happen in his time.

It dawned on me as I joined the congregation to profess our faith in the Creed at Mass this morning, that nowhere in the Creed, is there a profession that we believe in God who makes our life smooth, or that we believe in God who comes to our rescue when in trouble, or that we believe in God who cures all our illnesses and removes all our pains and hurts. Yet, the strange thing is that so many of us actually seem to make these demands on God, either outrightly, or tacitly. When we are 'faithful' in the truest literal sense of the word, we express how we define and clarify our faith. I am sometimes inclined to see that for many of us, when we say that we are 'faithful', what we could mean is that we have confidence that God will deliver. Which is it for you, the reader of this blog?

What is faith after all, but the ability to go beyond and to look beyond – beyond the disappointment, beyond the pain, beyond the failure, beyond the broken heart, beyond the unexplainable retarded inaction of those in authority, and beyond results. Faith is actually then made unnecessary when we see things happening in our time and in our way when it is petitioned for.

We can be sure that this kind of exercise of faith is going to be one of the toughest things we can ever experience in life, because it runs counter to our nature to want results and proof. Just like building on rock, it’s going to take time. The ability to live in this large way does not come overnight. It sees its foundations laid when we are toddlers in our faith life, and strengthened day-by-day, bit-by-bit, through an assiduous and committed prayer life. Then, when the wind blows, when the lights dim and the ground quivers, we will have terra firma to stand our faith on. It has been built on rock. But it is when we have done very little to lay those foundation blocks, that when crises loom on the horizon, that we find it so hard to call forth a faith that had hardly been built.

That last line in Matthew’s gospel is God’s assurance that he will be with us, not that he will show himself to us, and not that he will give us a life without trials and tension. Perhaps it is we who have read too much into it, and have made unreasonable demands on God.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Celebrating well requires great discipline

The Christmas lights are up in the malls (much more so in Singapore than here in the USA, I am sure), the carols are incessantly being played through the Public Address system, the radio stations are churning out familiar Christmas tunes, the Salvation Army personnel stationed at the entrances of shopping malls are already ringing that little bell asking for your Christmas contribution into that tin, and the streets are decked out in the familiar red and green. It doesn’t take much to detect that Christmas is ‘in the air’.

But are we really in the Christmas season? One of my annual lamentations at this time of the year is how we fail miserably at being a people who really know how to celebrate something meaningfully and deeply. By the time 25th of December comes round, most of us would already have been to quite a few Christmas parties, eaten our fill of Christmas festive foods, politely turned down offers of Christmas Fruitcake for the umpteenth time, sung many Christmas carols, and perhaps even opened up our Christmas presents, so much so that when Christmas really comes, we tell ourselves we have indeed overeaten, and need to fast in order to lose some of those dreaded added kilos or pounds. The irony that most of us do not see is that we have actually feasted when we should have fasted, causing us to fast when we should in actual fact be feasting.

The problem that I see perhaps stems from the fact that we have developed a very poor sense of healthy anticipation and adequate spiritual preparation. We may call ourselves disciples, but there seems to be very little ‘disciplining’ in our lives. And this is not just for Christmas, but for so many other things or events in life. We have this tendency to short-circuit the waiting, training, anticipating and ‘mystery’ period of life, and because of this, often we end up being the cause of our own undoing when we find ourselves underwhelmed at the moments that we should be overwhelmed, blasé when we should be in awe, and struck dumb when we should be dumbstruck. The Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 gives us a scriptural framework from which we should order our lives. Those of us who remember songs from the 60s should be able to recall the song Turn! Turn! Turn! by the group The Byrds. They based their song on these verses from Scripture, which remind us that there is a season for everything in life. A time for giving birth, a time for dying, for tears, for laughter, etc. When we respect the time that we have for the proper things in life, we will know how to live well. But it is when we have dispensed all too happily (and too hastily) with any form of proper and adequate preparation, we are the ones who end up suffering and wondering why we are out of sorts at certain junctures of our lives.

One thing comes to mind immediately is how couples very often are too eager to live as if they are already married when they are in fact still single and not Mr and Mrs. Play or make-believe consummation has much more far-reaching negative effects than meets the eye. I sometimes refer to this as the act of opening of Christmas presents in June. When couples make no effort at all in refraining from physical intimacy during their courtship days, it cheapens the delight and surprise and specialness that they should be celebrating when consummation should actually be taking place (after the wedding). When Christmas presents are opened in June, and in July, August, and September, right up till Christmas, what happens on Christmas day is at best, going to be a sham or mock celebration, a put-on specialness, and feigned delight, cheapening not only the other and the self, but much more than that, making a mockery of the delight that God wants the union of man and woman to be.

When so many things are done in anticipation and brought to fulfillment in advance, our progeny will only pick up and learn from example. One erudite spiritual writer once said “presence depends on absence, intimacy upon solitude, play upon work”. There is a certain pentameter or rhythmic pattern that once broken and disrespected, causes a jarring not just to our ears, but to the minds of our spirits and indeed, our whole lives as well.

Training in this ability to wait comes from our earliest days. Parents need to impart the importance of learning how to wait well, to fast adequately, to dare to enter into uncomfortable silence and to dare to teach our children delayed gratification by example. Only when this is imbibed well can we truly celebrate well when it comes for time to respond with a joy that wells up from within.

So, perhaps for the coming two weeks before Christmas should actually be celebrated, fight the temptation – have that Christmas party during Christmastide instead, open the presents only after 25th December, and keep doing that right up till we observe the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord next year, when Christmastide really should end. And show the world that we really know how to celebrate Christmas, simply because we have also learnt to prepare well.

We have to learn how not to empty the well before its time. Because if that well is being emptied, drunk from and delighted in way ahead of time, we will be hard pressed to present anything to the Lord for him to change so that it can be the best tasting wine.