Monday, April 30, 2012

The call of the Good Shepherd

One of the struggles that we have to go through as Christians in life is to handle the imperative given by Jesus to go out to the whole world to proclaim the Good News and to baptize in the name of the Trinity.  In many Christians’ minds, this is something that is better left to the ministers who are specially appointed, chosen and ordained.  So, that imperative, becomes a rather selective imperative, and is somewhat conveniently by-passed or skipped over in life.

True, discipleship is far more than just preaching and baptizing.  We only need look at the 25th chapter of Matthew to see that discipleship entails either a knowing or unknowing feeding of the hungry, clothing of the naked, giving drink to the parched and the visiting of the incarcerated.  So, the issue of active Christian living is thus an all-round awareness of our very being, which should permeate all levels of our human existence.  It should be like bringing in a scented rose in full bloom into a room, and everyone in the room becoming aware of the presence of the flower either by detecting its perfume, or being attracted by its physical beauty. 

It is something that becomes challenging though, when we become aware of the kinds of forces that we are up against in our proclamation, especially when it is an active and intelligible proclamation.  We come up against resistances on so many levels.  There are of course the hard-core atheists who will say that we are wasting their time and that they have so much proof that there is no God.  There are also those parties who are staunchly anti-religious, who will say almost with vitriolic that the only thing religion has done is to cause wars and strife.  The fact that almost every country is multi-religious makes us have to tread with great caution when we preach and share that Jesus is the only way towards eternal salvation.  Some Christian sects do this with far less ‘Politically Correctness’ than others, and will even say that it is because they have Christ behind their imperative, that they almost have a right to be direct, offensive and even conceited in their approach and stance. 

Personally, I find that in my role as a possible future teacher of doctrine, this is something that I have to have at the forefront in my approach towards my teaching.  As I look around me in the classroom situation that I am in currently, I can almost sense the kind of teachers we will turn out to be.  Some are fiery in their approach towards Catholicism.  Perhaps it was the kind of situation that they were brought up in that caused some priests to carry with them an air of certitude that can be (mis)interpreted as arrogance and moralistic.  Maybe I have been tempered by a decade of parish encounters, that I can see where high-handedness and unrestrained ‘in-your-face’ preaching are sure-fire ways to prevent one’s listeners to receive a truth in their hearts.  If there is one thing that has been somewhat seared into my mind from the exposure to the Dominicans here, is that if our words and works are not filled with the grace of charity, it often becomes ineffective and could end up as negative witnessing.

Why am I ruminating on this topic?  Principally because it is Good Shepherd Sunday.  It has been the Church’s traditional day to speak of and promote vocations to the priesthood (and often with the call to the religious life thrown in for good measure).  Our call to the priesthood is, as one homilist put it, a call and an invitation to be in the privileged moments of the lives of those who we are called to serve.  He cited how, as ministers of the sacraments of the Church, we have been given the grace to enter into the sacred and often very privileged moments of our people.  We carry them as infants to the waters of new life at baptism, become conduits to their reception of God’s forgiving words and action in the sacrament of reconciliation, help them to be ministers to each other in the sacrament of holy matrimony, and very significantly, to be greatly privileged to be called to the bedside of one who is in his or her dying moments to receive Christ for the last time in Holy Communion before meeting him in person in eternity.  These are all moments of grace and great privilege. 

Each shepherd has a duty, as the gospel of today reminds us, of bringing others into the fold as well.  But this is where the analogy has its limits.  No shepherd expects his sheep to go out to bring in other sheep into the safe pen.  But this shepherd does.

There are many who do need to know, that though they may be grazing on some good pastures elsewhere, there is a greater, greener and more nourishing pasture that can only be given through the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  No priest can do this alone.  It takes a whole community who works and prays together to get this news to those who need to hear it, and with words and actions soaked and laced with huge amounts of love and charity.  It is thus, a call to all. 

The Good Shepherd calls.  Can you hear his voice?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mercy and justice – only in God do the twain meet

Whenever we encounter issues of injustice or in any instance where we ourselves have been wronged by someone else for whatever reason, there is almost always a battle that wages on inside of us at our deepest level.  The more we are living in a state of grace, the more aware we will be of this battle going on within.  The more easily we have been giving in to sin, the less we will see signs of this ‘fight’.  What is this battle, struggle or fight?  It is to decide at that moment whether we want to show mercy to the person who has wronged us, or to demand for justice and some form of recompense. 

Either/Or?  Both/And?

The more we are living in a state of grace, where we stay as close as possible to the divine image of God that we are made in, the easier it seems to be to give mercy a chance, even if it means that this was the 7 times 77th time.  But if we have strayed far from the state of grace and have either tarnished or defaced the image of God that we are made in, it becomes so much easier to deny mercy yet another chance, and to cry out for revenge, retribution or some form of recrimination. 

On the human, personal level, it does often seem that the two do not meet.  It’s either mercy or recompense.  One or the other, and they seem to be mutually exclusive.  I don’t think that I am painting with a broad brush to say that a great majority of the human population will demand for the latter most of the time.  The fact that there are so many lawsuits, demands for compensation and good names to be cleared easily gives the impression that there is something inherent in our human DNA that insists on restitution.  And when we do encounter real stories of extraordinary displays of forgiveness and mercy, we get so surprised about it that we often act as if we have come across something as extraordinary as a triple humped camel.  Why is this so?

Perhaps it comes down to this – that the showing of mercy and forgiveness appears to be a very dangerous thing.  It means that we are giving those who have caused our pain, sufferings and discomforts another chance to inflict them on us again.  The issuers of justice would stand up against this and say that giving them mercy is an injustice in itself, and that we are sending out the message that it is ok to hurt and steal, and to cause untold sufferings to others.  Of course that would not be the rationale for mercy at all, but we have to acknowledge that this could very well be the message that this could send out.  Truth, justice, morality, orthodoxy and virtue are all noble and good.  We must never treat these with any degree of flippancy.  Putting these on hold and allowing mercy to surpass them in importance is a risk that many of us do not like to take.

Does not God do this in a divinely analogous way when he forgives?  That unforgettable phrase uttered by Jesus on the Cross seems to put it across, albeit succinctly – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Our human reckoning will say that they will do it again and again if they do not know what it is that they are doing.  But the mercy of God looks at things with a different eye.  It gives the ignorant a chance, over and over, until it truly knows what it is that it is doing.  Then, the moment that enlightenment comes to the person, that becomes the tipping point of conversion.  Not just a superficial conversion, but a deep seated and life-altering one. 

In this way, there is no problem speaking of God’s mercy and justice in the same breath.  They are not opposites.  In fact, one cannot be experienced without the other.  The problem with many of us, when it comes to mercy, is that we dole it out with much calculation and in portions smaller than smidgens.  We want the recipients of our mercy and forgiveness to deserve it.  Indeed, one of the great insights that Jesus gives is that God’s mercy just cannot help but go out to everyone.  It is a universal embrace that covers all, scandalously beyond custom, ideologies, rubrics, nationalities, political boundaries, and surprise, surprise, even sin itself. 

If God takes that risk with such seeming abandon, and if we ourselves have received over and over again such divine forgiveness and have experienced how great it is to live in a state of grace, we need to be purveyors of this joy without charge. 

In God, mercy and justice do meet.  If we meet God daily, we too can be conduits so that others can experience God as well.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Divine Mercy is God’s not-so-secret ultimate weapon

When Blessed Pope John Paul II declared the second Sunday of Easter to be Divine Mercy Sunday, it gave liturgists and theologians all over the world quite a lot to talk about.  Some said that this was something that was unheard of, and felt that this was inappropriate, as it might obscure the celebration of Easter, or worse, set a precedent of a Pontiff establishing feast days for all the other attributes of God.

One should also take into consideration though, that through the revelations of our Lord to St Faustina, Jesus had himself asked for the Second Sunday of Easter to be named the Feast of the Divine Mercy.  The Church had always (prudently) made the distinction between “private revelations” and “prophetic revelations”.  The former are those given to souls, usually for their own benefit and sanctification, whilst the latter are given to chosen souls to communicate a truth to the whole Church, for its sanctification and to draw the Church back to a truth if it had neglected it.  To put the entire controversy in a nutshell (which would always be problematic for any theologian because it means that a whole lot of miniscule details will have to be either put aside or left out for the sake of brevity), the Church was on a road of recovery of the more biblical perspective on God  (without contradicting the philosophical perspectives on God), enabling Catholic thinkers to appreciate the revelations of God’s merciful love given through St Faustina.  It’s not that God’s other divine attributes pale in comparison to his divine mercy, but rather, from our point of view as recipients of God’s attributes in our being, it is God’s mercy that is his greatest attribute for his creatures. 
What this celebration does is to draw us to look at and appreciate in a deeper and deeper way on this day, just how much we need God’s mercy in our lives, and that it really is his mercy at work that is allowing anything at all to happen in our lives and in our world.  We simply take too much of God’s mercy for granted, and it is, as it were, the concerted effort of the Church to hone in and tap upon this great gift which is pure grace, something so undeserving for us human beings who are so prone to sin and selfishness.

Perhaps it is timely here to make one thing clear – it was not the intention of Our Lord to ask for the afternoon devotions which are common these days (especially on Divine Mercy Sunday), but instead, wanted us to focus on reaching out to weakened souls to bring them to the feast of his mercy so that he can heal and strengthen them. 

So is it wrong to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet on the afternoon of the second Sunday of Easter?  Of course it is not.  Is it necessary?  Again, of course it is not.  Should we do more than just pray the chaplet?  Unquestioningly, we should.

One changes most when one is faced with the prospect of a new life, a new way to live and received a renewal from within.  This is what Divine Mercy ultimately gives to all of us.  When we face God’s mercy, knowing the kind of things we have done that really prevent us from an eternal union with him, we will be so thankful that we are given that all important second chance by God.  In short pithy statements then,

Divine Mercy is our opportunity to admit to our own stupidity without worrying that we will not be able to make any comeback. 

Divine Mercy is about knowing that we could never have made it on our own to heaven, no matter how holy or saintly we may think we have lived our lives. 

Divine Mercy is being able to say that heaven is all about Him, and not all about us. 

Divine Mercy is allowing God’s forgiveness to be balm to our wounds, and for us to become healing salve to others when asked for it.

Divine Mercy is being unwilling to hold any grudges against others for their transgressions against us because God never holds ours against us.

Divine Mercy results in our willing to go the extra mile because God went the distance for us.

Divine Mercy is wielding forgiveness as the greatest weapon in the fight against evil, because in exercising it, God shows where real strength and power lies. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

The silent beauty of Easter joy

Easter has come upon us!  Alleluia!  Darkness and death is vanquished forever and the last bastion has been overcome.  God has had the last laugh, and it is the sweetest greatest laugh of all.

That is what our faith holds, and as Church, the resurrection of Christ our Saviour is the lynchpin of our faith and forms who we are.  Yet, it also is one of the most controversial events in the history of the world, because it also requires the grace of faith to hold steadfastly to it.  One of the greatest challenges that a preacher can face is to give a rousing, clear and resounding homily on Easter Sunday.  There are various factors that can contribute to this. 

The first is that the entire church would have just culminated in three long days of deep, soul-searching and very heavy liturgy, and a lot of them are rather ‘exhausted’, even if just at the physical level.  Secondly, the joy that Easter gives is actually not a joy that is experienced at the physical level, and the general human experience of joy tends to be only on that level.  Thirdly, in order to see joy at a spiritual level, it necessarily means that the preacher was/is in touch with his own spirit in order to bring out something that speaks of that Easter joy that is beyond the tangible and empirical.  I believe that that last hurdle is also one that is most challenging. 

The real hope that Easter resurrection gives is precisely beyond the hope that this world can give.  It is metaphysical, because it literally is beyond the physical.  But that is not to say that Easter hope is a false hope and an empty promise.  The fact that hope is something that we cannot see but still something that we cling on to in life means that it is something that we are just unable to grab a firm hold on in this life.  Mary Magdalene wanted to cling on to Jesus, and he told her not to.  It's not about clinging onto.  It is not about proof.  But it is also neither irrational nor intelligible. 

The forces that were against Jesus at his crucifixion taunted and challenged him to ‘come down from the cross’ to prove that he was who he said he was.  These are the same forces that instigate us to ask for great signs and proofs of the resurrection within our own categories and limited mental framework.  Jesus knew that if he were to come down from the cross on Good Friday (which he obviously could if he had wanted to), it would also limit the powers of God to merely overcoming difficult situations and painful moments, rather than being the supreme power that can overcome the last bastion of any form – which is death. 

But it has showed one thing very clearly – that God is in no particular hurry to show his powers of vindication and strength, even though he holds all the cards in his divine hands.  There is something in doing the good, the holy, the true, the morally right, and the upright that holds out in the end.  But often, its fruit is not immediate nor its power a brash and in-your-face display and arrogance.  Easter is what I’d call silent beauty and quiet power.

Anything more and good would have played into the hands of evil, and God into the devil’s.  That simply won’t happen.  The entire painful and long unfolding of the events of Calvary attest to that, and it also shows that God is in no hurry to show his splendour that he is.  In fact, it is in enduring the suffering, staying in the woundedness and beholding the pain that allows the beauty, good, morally right and truth to prevail in the end.  And that always takes time, without much exception. 

Is this easy to preach?  Do we all have the capability to hold on to the crosses in life in the way that Jesus endured the suffering he had to undergo?  Can we all appreciate that often in life, God seems to work with the speed of flowing molasses?  Probably not.  That alone makes the Easter message such a challenge for any preacher worth his time spent in his study of homiletics, and that is why I am also inclined to believe that at any given congregation gathered on Easter Sunday, in order to hear a meaningful and uplifting message of hope, it is important to see what it is that we are bringing with us in our hearts to Mass on Easter Sunday. 

We need to bring with us our pains and struggles, our imperfections and our shared brokenness because it is within these that Easter joy and Easter hope becomes God’s ‘raw materials’ for the resurrection to be experienced in our lives. 

If we can truly to this without resentment and impatience, without anger and regret, we will slowly begin to appreciate the silent beauty and quiet power of the Easter resurrection hope. 

Blessed Easter to you, my dear friends.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The feat of washing feet

Every Maundy Thursday, Catholics who make it a point to go to the evening Mass celebrating the Supper of the Lord witness and participate in something that speaks volumes far beyond the action that is being carried out in front of their eyes.  They witness the priest washing the feet of twelve men, usually seated in the sacred space of the sanctuary. 

What is going on here?  Father’s foot reflexology?  Priestly pedicure?  Anyone not having a clue about our Church’s tradition and seeing this for the first time would be excused for thinking thus.   In actual fact, a sacred action is taking place, and it draws and invites a similar action on our part.  We are not to be mere viewers or spectators.  We are actually being instructed by example.

The “Maundy” of Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin mandatum, a noun meaning law, or command.  This is the root word of the English “mandate” or “mandatory”.  Jesus gives the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  And we must love one another in this way.  On that night of the Lord’s Supper, he began by doing something that was hitherto unseen and unthought of – the master washing the disciples’ feet. 

There is something that the Celebrant does before the foot washing at that Mass that one can miss if one don’t pay enough attention.  In front of the entire congregation, the priest removes his chasuble, and places it on the Altar.  It’s the only time in the entire liturgical year that this action is done, and the significance is deep and rather compelling.  It is not just for mere practical reasons.  Certainly, bending low wearing a flowing garment of sometimes heavy damask fabric to wash 12 men’s feet makes it just practical to remove as much as one’s outer garments as possible.  But its significance goes much deeper.

We are told that on that night of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus removed his outer garment first.  When the priest does this, he does this in imitation of Christ.  One notices the purposeful removal of one’s office, one’s outer accoutrements that signify rank or office, to do this very important task.  Theologically, there is something similar going on in the mystery of the incarnation.  The incarnation is a mystery that has such deep and profound significance.  One of the ways in which we can appreciate it is to refer to 2 Corinthians 8:9 where we are told that Jesus Christ, though he was rich, yet for our sake, became poor, so that you in your poverty could become rich.  Heretics have made the mistake to say that Jesus stripped himself of his divinity.  He did not.  Jesus never did that.  But there was a significant, deliberate and willingness to take on humanity on his part.  On that night, at the upper room, the disciples experienced what this meant in the humble act of foot washing.  Here we have a deliberate willingness to put aside position, status and any sense of superiority because the kingdom of heaven has a preference for the lowly and the meek.  Furthermore, love, as St Thomas would put it some 1500 years later, is defined as willing the good of the other for the other.

Apart from the deliberate removal of status and position in a relationship to convey love, this action also demonstrates the relinquishing of the deep-seated need to be right.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks to any relationship is the need to be right.  We only need to honestly reflect on our own lives to see that oftentimes, relationships and friendships have come asunder because we insisted stubbornly on the need to be right.  I recall having a retreat master telling us many years ago when we were in formation as seminarians, that one of the clearest signs of spiritual immaturity is to use the phrase “I told you so”.  There is great truth in this.  Whenever we use this phrase in our disagreements, isn’t our main purpose to thrust our superiority in the face of the other, ultimately to show them not just how wrong they are, but how right we are? 

In dispensing with rank and superiority, position and power, the act of foot washing becomes a lesson in dispensing with rightness in every way whatsoever.  The fact that Jesus emphasizes to the remonstrative Peter that this is something that he needs to be receiving shows that there is a residual effect in it.   It is later that Peter knew that by his very life of complete surrender was he carrying on the act of foot washing for the Church.  Notice though, that Judas also had his feet washed by the Lord, and his response was something that was totally different, because he went on to betray the Lord despite the foot washing.  The main difference is that Peter repented of his denial of the Lord, whilst Judas did not.  The offer of grace is totally gratuitous, and our response is one that is also totally free.  The responses of Peter and Judas being so completely different supports the teaching that the response to grace is never one that is forced and strips one of freedom.

I wonder how many minds bother to think so far whenever this scene is enacted out in front of them at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  If only every person who walks out of that Mass becomes so positively transformed to be a fellow foot-washer.  Spouses will love and serve with a new willingness; parents and children will love at a new level; work places will be less political and self-centered; the ego will slowly move from the centre to the fringe where less damage will be caused; life will be more fully respected and life will not just be lived. 

It will be celebrated.