Monday, December 26, 2016

The Incarnation is a celebration of God saying "Let there be Love"

When the writer of the book of Genesis depicts God as the one who is responsible for all of creation, he makes it clear that the very word of God is creative.  Before anything comes into existence, it is preceded with the phrase “and God said”. 

He makes it clear that God did not create evil.  Though as do see the serpent already in the garden, God did not speak it into existence in a deliberate way.  It was the writer’s way of imparting a theological truth – that evil was never a direct creation of God.  Evil has always been understood as a result of the freedom that God gave to his creation to turn away from the good that he had always intended for it. 

The gospel writer John is well known as the evangelist with the most developed theology of the four gospel writers.  It is in John’s writing that we see him defining God as Love.  It has to be grounded in the fact that as he lived and walked with Jesus in his lifetime, and heard Jesus talking about God and how essentially he is love, and that he came to the conclusion that Jesus shared this essence of God being Love.  It was thus revealed to him.

What makes the incarnation such a truly epic event in history is that God had entered it in a deliberate and definitive way.  While the writer of the Genesis creation story had the correct notion that God’s word was not only creative but also life-giving, he still had little notion that God in his essence is Love.  Christmas is really then the celebration of a dimension of God’s creative initiative but on a whole new level.  Christmas is where God speaks once more and effectively says, “Let there be Love”. 

It is in Jesus that God defines what love should look like.  It has to be other-centered, it has to be selfless, it has a certain sacrificial dimension to it that makes it stand out from humanity's flawed and conditioned way of loving.  Love as God demonstrates in Jesus may break barriers, but still manages to know where boundaries ought to be maintained.  Significantly, Jesus shows us how love has to embrace forgiveness in a most radical way.

When we realise anew that Christmas is essentially a celebration of God’s divine, creative and saving love, it gives us all a lasting hope that neither wanes nor dims.  Emmanuel is the reason for this because it truly means that God-is-with-us. 

I wish all of my readers a most blessed and love-filled Christmas.  Indeed, let there be love.

Monday, December 19, 2016

When honesty and truth is based on love, their worth is infinitely enhanced

The priests of this diocese have been busying themselves this past week every night hearing confessions of our laity to prepare them for Christmas.  It’s an annual feature that sees scores of Catholics coming forward to dispose themselves to the sacrament of reconciliation.  While it always pleases me to see a penitent leaving the confession with his or her sins behind and walking in a state of grace, I do wonder how it is that so many of them simply do not avail themselves more often to celebrate this outside of the twice yearly seasons of Lent and Advent.  After all, most Catholics would know that for about 15 minutes prior to the start of each Sunday’s Mass, there would be a priest sitting in the confessional awaiting penitents who wish to encounter God’s mercy.  A necessary part of the Rite always has the penitent telling us when it was that they last celebrated the sacrament.  Among other things, giving us this bit of information helps us in ministering well to our penitents.  It does give us an indication of their sense of sin. 

Some of you reading this may be wondering what is a ‘sense of sin’.  When a person has a good sense of sin, he also has a conscience that is sound, alert and sensitive to the ways that God is calling him to a life of holiness and love.  A dulled sense of sin, on the other hand, is one that has been insulated and desensitized to God’s prompting to lead a life that is conformed to God’s image in which each of us is made.  Generally speaking, one’s sense of sin becomes lessened with the increased period of time between confessions.  Availing oneself to the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation only once or twice a year tends to see many a penitent only recalling things that had happened in the last two weeks, or at best, a month ago. 

There are many human reasons for not going regularly for confession.  One never is proud of one’s transgressions and because of that, one tends to put away dealing with how one has hurt another person.  Besides, these times see one justifying or excusing oneself with far more latitude and license, and the ego doesn’t easily accuse itself with honesty.  But it is the honesty of self-accusation that makes the confession so valuable in God’s eyes. 

But what is this honesty predicated on?  What should it be predicated on?  I loved this quotation about truth and contrition, which a directee of mine introduced me to very recently.  It states that “The difference between juridical contrition and sincere contrition is this – juridical contrition is when I am sorry that I broke God’s laws, whilst sincere contrition is when I am sorry I that I broke God’s heart”.

Yes, I know that it may seem a tad ‘sentimental’ for some of my readers of this weekly reflection.  Yet, it undoubtedly speaks of an essential truth - that if our coming to confession is only out of a sense that we have broken a law or a rule, it may not have us realise why the commandments were given in the first place.  They were given out of love.  But if we understand that the laws and rules given by God were fundamentally because he loves us, our contrition and compunction that fills our hearts, drawing us to the confessional, and our raison d’etre for coming to encounter God’s mercy has a totally different predication.  We come because we know that a broken heart needs mending. 

It may seem to be a judgment, but it really is a question – are most penitents merely contrite in a juridical sense, and that is the prime reason they only make their confession at most twice a year?  I am very sure if there is a shift in their consciousness of confession being a celebration of love, that there will be a corresponding shift (akin to a paradigm shift) of God’s loving presence in their lives.  It has also very much to do with honesty and truth.

I recently learnt that in the world of chemistry and pharmacology, sodium thiopental is also more commonly known as the ‘truth drug’ or ‘truth serum’.  Administered into the veins, it affects the brain bit by bit, and when the patient is at that ‘twilight zone’ halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness, the patient has an overwhelming urge to tell the truth.  Some patients say that telling the truth with that drug in the system is quite cathartic, and that they feel so benign. 

One would think that this would be the perfect state to come to confession.  On the contrary.  If our being honest and truthful about our actions and ourselves is only because there is a part of us that has been inhibited, rendering us incapable of being dishonest, it would also render a vital part of our humanity immobilized – our freedom.  God loves us too much to control our freedom to turn from him and to want to sin.  But this also then makes our coming back to him so much more valuable and priceless.  Especially when it is predicated on our love for him. 

For those of you who have yet to make your Advent reconciliation, after reading this reflection, consider making a beeline for a confessor’s time.  And when you do, be embraced in God’s love once again. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Nurturing a grateful heart wakes us from our slumber and reminds us that we are in God's presence.

I was once at a food court with my plate of food before me and before heartily tucking in, made a reverent sign of the cross and thanked God for the gift of appetite and food, and proceeded to eat thereafter.  I happened to share the table with a stranger, as is rather common whenever one eats alone at such places.  He must have noticed what I did, causing him to ask me pointedly if my prayers before eating made the food any tastier, and whether it made any difference at all.  Obviously, this stranger wasn’t a believer in God or in ritual, but I wasn’t quite ready at that point in my life to engage with him in any form of spiritual discourse.  I was only barely twenty at that time, long before I became a priest.

Why do we pray before eating?  Why do we pray upon waking in the morning?  Why do we pray at all?  Routine in life can often end up making us unthinking automatons but it really should not,  especially where our faith life is concerned.  Knowing why we do what we do makes us aware of our existence and of life’s purpose, which for us believers has to be about glorifying God and becoming his images in which we are made.  Most of the time, however, we find ourselves wrapped up within our own little world, and find ourselves having hearts that are too small and loving in ways that are narrow and limited.

One of the very common things that many Catholics seem to struggle with is the love of God.  Whenever people tell me (oftentimes in the confessional) that they have not said their prayers, or have missed Mass, my response is to ask them why they pray at all.  Hardly have I ever received the answer that they pray because they love God.  If we only pray in order to get God’s attention, or to get him to answer our requests and needs, or only in response to having had received what we had asked for, perhaps we have yet to realise that prayer should first and foremost be predicated on our love for God.

Let me state that it is not wrong to ask God for our needs to be met in prayer.  But if that is the predominant reason we seek God and want to communicate with him, our relationship with him may be far from mature and life giving. 

Jesuit writer Paul Coutinho wrote with much insight on one paradigm of prayer, which sees one making the movement from talking to silence.  He says that there are four stages here.  The first sees us talking to God and believing that he listens to us.  At this stage, we are confident that we can bring all our needs to God, and that it is he alone who can provide for us what our loved ones are unable to.  At this stage, we talk and God listens.

The second stage is when we listen to God, and behave like young Samuel as we say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  At this stage, we are keen to carry out what is willed for us by God, and where we can change and become stronger in faith and overcome our weaknesses.  At this stage, God talks and we listen.

Then comes the third stage where because we are in a relationship, both God and we are doing the listening.  There is little use of words that feature in prayer, and neither is there much requests made.  Heart begins to speak to heart in presence.  One can compare this to how lovers find words superfluous and in the silence of each other’s presence, one tries to anticipate what the other is saying without words.

The final stage in this paradigm of prayer is where no one talks and no one listens.  Here, both perceive a silence that does not have any agenda at all, neither in listening nor asking.  One just is in the other’s presence and one is in a direct union with the Divine.  Obstacles are non-existent, and one is enveloped by God.  It is rare that we experience this in our prayer life, and I believe this is a mystical experience.  Scriptural representations of these are like Mary being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in her life, and Moses being drawn and enveloped by the cloud and transformed, emerging from it with a brilliance emitting from within him. 

When our prayer life is not predicated on our love of God, we will easily find ourselves loathe to pray.  It is only natural to avoid what we find a chore and a duty.  But if we see that our rationale for praying really has to come from our loving God, we will attach to it less and less any idea of  obligation or a task.  If lovers find loving a chore, in no time will they stop being lovers. 

I began this blog, recalling that incident at the food court.  I still do pray before my meals, and I can say that it does stem from my love of God.  I am put in a state of awareness that it is the love of God for me that he makes all things possible, and this includes nourishment for my body and spirit.  As to whether my food becomes any tastier, it really doesn’t.  I remember that in my convalescence while undergoing chemotherapy, nothing I ate was delicious and I went on for prolonged periods when my appetite was hardly there.  I still prayed before meals.  It never made my meals enticing, but it definitely made me more grateful for everything before me in life.  

Monday, December 5, 2016

Advent reminds us how much God is interested in our lives.

It always puzzles me to read about how one of the most common arguments that atheists have is that we Christians have created a God who is a control freak and is an ultimate moral police hovering over our every action.  Preaching about the contrary each time I ascend the Ambo at Mass to tell my congregation that this is a toxic and very erroneous view of God doesn’t quite reach the ears of those who need to hear the message, largely because if you are an angry atheist who believes in such a toxic narrative of God, the last place I would find you at is in a pew at Mass.  Sometimes, I must confess, it does seem like I am preaching to the choir.

This is when I remind myself that this blog has a larger purpose.  It not only has the potential to reach people outside of my congregation, but it also has the potential to reach atheists who happen to be relations or friends of regular readers of my blog. 

The very act of creation attests strongly to how much God is interested in us.  Why else would he create if he did not care?  Of course, we have some anthropomorphism going on here when we say this, but given the limitations that we human beings have, it is the best we can do.  When we humanly create, be it with our artistic talents or creative skills, we do it for a multitude of reasons.  Our ego could want our names to be immortalized, or it could just be that inherent need to see something of ours lasting beyond our own physical years.  But because God is love, he has no ego as such.  All he does stems from what and who he is.  In Thomistic philosophy, there is no distinction between what he is and the things he does, unlike us.  His essence is his act, and his act is his essence.  So, if he is love, then all that he does is predicated on this fact.  No ego needs, no hidden agendas.

But this God of ours who created us is not one whom many atheists make him out to be.  He is certainly not as some Deists see him – akin to a clock maker who winds up the clock and then distances himself from the very thing he created and lets everything happen without his personal involvement.  The Christian understanding of God is so amazing that this God who created everything out of nothing actually does get involved in its working, and the incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas attests to just how involved he is.  The Te Deum prayer puts it succinctly that he “took our nature to save mankind and did not shrink from birth in the Virgin’s womb.”

Advent always invites us to look both ways - with one eye looking back at the tremendous mystery of the incarnation each Advent is a reminder to each of us that our God has always been so interested and so involved in his creation, and the other eye looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s plan at Christ’s second coming.

At this time of the year, there are often numerous efforts made by various organizations to reach out in a special way to the poor and underprivileged.  In my own parish, something that began as an effort to help a cancer patient (who is not a Catholic, but lives within the parish boundaries) with very little means to meet the cost of his medical treatment has snowballed into a major makeover of his entire home when it was discovered that his home, in which his elderly parents live as well, is in a state of disrepair and neglect.  Various people stepped in and in a couple of weeks, these three people will go back to their completely renovated apartment newly fitted with fixtures that will enable both the elderly and those requiring palliative care to live more comfortably. 

I am so proud to see that the community has rallied round to be involved in the lives of people outside of themselves.  When understood correctly, the incarnation is God’s entering into the messiness of our lives and bringing the needed help humanity had been longing and aching for due to our fallen state.  Unable to help itself, it had waited patiently for God’s merciful intervention.  If we but realise that our stepping into the lives of others gives them the hope the first Christmas gave all of humanity, God will be made present and manifest.  Advent not only makes Christmas real, it also makes Christmas possible.

There is a common resistance to want to fast track the waiting that Advent puts us through.  The shopping malls and streets are already shouting Christmas in late October, and the radio stations are blaring Christmas songs so much so that by 25 Dec, we have head then ad nauseam.  It is sad to see so many rushing to tear down Christmas decorations on 26 Dec, when we are actually at the true beginning of Christmas joy.  We seem to be unaware that the ennui of Christmas in the air is directly caused by our own inability (or unwillingness) to wait until Christmas to truly celebrate appropriately.  I wonder just how much of our own sadness and frustrations in life are similarly caused by our inability to wait for what should be waited for without fast-tracking due to our own impatience.  Delayed gratification, unfortunately, hasn’t been humanity’s strongest suit. 

God has always shown that he isn’t in any hurry.  Spiritual masters worth their wisdom are always imparting the need to live in patience and calm. 

At the first Christmas, God did not suddenly appear in the form of a fully-grown human being.  Instead, he came as a helpless tiny infant and this attests strongly to the truth that there is godly virtue in going through the challenges of human development. 

He wanted to be that involved in our human struggles.  Doesn’t this give us all great Advent hope?

Monday, November 28, 2016

When our ground quivers and quakes, what is our reaction?

I have just returned from a 12-day hiatus where I took a trip to visit with a brother priest in New Zealand.  It was my first ever trip to the land of the Kiwis and many surprises awaited me.  Many of them were very pleasant and some even had the ability to raise my otherwise regular and placid heart rate.  No, I am not referring to anything close to whitewater rafting or the craziness of bungee jumping.  I refer rather to the jolt and startle of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake that struck unceremoniously around midnight on the day I was in the city of Wellington, New Zealand.

I only felt about 5 seconds of the quake though some felt a significantly longer shake.  In some places, it had enough power to cause the authorities to issue a Tsunami alert to those who lived along the south coast of the North Island to seek refuge on high ground.  I was in such a place, and doing as we were told, moved to a safer higher altitude at 1am and stayed there till dawn.

Looking back at the whole event, I cannot help but view it through the lens of spirituality and how God speaks to us in and through the circumstances of our lives.  The spiritual writer and muser in me has a constant prompting to delve deeper at the things that affect us at the surface, opening up to the underlying truths and movements of that part of us which oftentimes are hidden even from ourselves. 

After about ten minutes after the quake, Fr Marcus my friend came rapping on my door to ask if I was fine.  I was very conscious of the fact that I was not in a state of panic nor perturbed.   It was only later on, upon reflection, that I compared it with receiving the news about three years ago from my doctor that I had cancer and that I was a Leukemia patient facing my mortality. 

When I shared this with some of my friends back home, they showed surprise that I could be phlegmatic about something so alarming.  While I must say that those who were in the same house were just as nonplussed, it could well be that being New Zealanders themselves, experiencing such jolts is not something novel.  But it came to me later on that our spiritual lives are really about a call to be ready for events and news that can cause the ground beneath our feet to move, albeit sometimes in a literal sense.  While it is not possible to prevent these from happening in our lives, the fact that we have built our houses on rock will put us in good stead when they show up on the horizon of our lives.
What makes the best firmest of foundations that one can have in life?  The Christian answer has to be one that is steeped in the belief that God loves unconditionally.  What’s God’s love got to do with it? I can almost hear a silent collective response to what I just wrote.  It has everything to do with it.

A big part of most peoples’ struggle with God and spirituality comes when something terrible and anxious occurs in life.  All of a sudden, the fact of our Christian belief that God is love is abandoned and forgotten, and the doubts begin to loom large in the minds of many.  The unspoken (and erroneous) thinking is that if God is love, there should not be any anxieties and adversities in our lives.  But if we are clear about God being our paramount lover, it has to also mean that nothing can happen in life that will displace nor dilute this redoubtable truth.  Faith is, after all, the belief that nothing is beyond the ken of God.  Prayer isn’t giving God a report of what has happened in life (as if he had been clueless all along), and prayer certainly is not about telling God what needs to be done in and to our lives.  Faith is about handing our lives in confidence into the hands of God over and over again, and giving God our greatest deference – not because he needs it, but because we need to. 

It was largely because I had already consciously done this with my life way before the leukemia came along, that I was so at peace when my doctors told me I was facing possible death.  I am certain that it was also because of this right ordering that allowed me to experience the earthquake with such composure. 

The reason I am sharing this with my readers is not as a boast of my faith, but to encourage every one of you to place just as much emphasis and priority in God if you want a similar unshakeable foundation in life.  Sure, insurance companies also offer us security when our world is shaken, but those types of assurances are limited and limiting.  Because God is infinite, so are his assurances.  Both assurances have premiums, but in the latter case, the only premium we pay is to align and orientate our lives toward him and his love.  Redemption is the premium that had been paid by God himself on Calvary.  The converted lives making up our ‘premium’ may be considered too high because we are overly concerned with what we think will limit our loves, our freedom and our ego-needs. 

It was surely no coincidence that only a few days later in another town in New Zealand that I went to the restroom and facing me on a wall above the toilet was a poster that said “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”.  Apparently, it is attributed to Franklin D Roosevelt.  As far as our faith life is concerned, neither does a life free of adversities and sufferings make us deep people of faith.  It is faith that allows us to welcome and live with the challenges of life.