Monday, February 29, 2016

Resurrection is newness - the essence of Jesus' message from the empty tomb.

I must admit with some hesitation that I used to view the approach of Easter with a certain tepidity when I first became a priest almost 15 years ago.  Not that I didn’t believe in the Resurrection and all that it holds for us.  But looking back at my first few years in ministry, I realise that I had a rather weak and almost vapid appreciation of the depth and power of the Resurrection.  I must have preached the garden variety of “God-has-vanquished-sin-and-death-for-us-at-Easter” homily, and hopefully, my words had some positive impact for the person in the pews.  But I must also admit that just a few weeks into the lengthy liturgical expanse of Eastertide (50 days to be exact), the intensity of this truth and its impact would wane somewhat when the humdrum and monotony of the daily grind set in.  Did my words of relishing the Resurrection vaporize with the onset of life itself? 

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our humanity seems to set itself for short-term celebrations rather than long-term observances.  The onset of the age of the Internet doesn’t make it any easier to retain important experiences such that they truly make a lasting impact on our lives either.  Just apply this to something as simple as telephone numbers.  We used to remember so many peoples’ phone numbers in our heads.  I know I did.  But with the advent of the mobile phone where each of us carries in our pockets a fully working computer, the memory in our heads have largely been replaced with the memory in our pockets.  We seem to have become very passive in the retention of anything of significance, and live only for the moment.  Perhaps this could contribute to our inability to hold on to something truly significant, and to see it played out in bits and portions over an extended period of time, like the span of our lives.  The narrative of wanting this ‘short and snappy’ seems to inoculate us against this.

I am quite certain that we have a pressing need to always try to see the resurrection of Jesus in ways that are new and different.  In fact, what the resurrection of Jesus promises us is precisely that – that there is always a chance for a newness restored, and a chance to start over, and to be reset.  As long as we live, hope is not empty, because neither was the tomb.  No betrayal is final, and every sin can be forgiven when the heart is set right.  There is no unredeemable loss.

I think we have a lot of trouble believing in the ultimate reset.  Resurrection is not about one day’s rising, but a daily event that sees it being played out in a myriad different ways.  Part of the other problem, I believe, is that we have immunized ourselves against surprise, newness and any vestige of freshness.  As a race, we humans have a shared tendency to fall into cynicism, depression, and general malaise.  The resurrection gives us the possibility and the energy to rise from all that, again and again. 

I like what Gilbert Keith Chesterton (a.k.a. G K Chesterton) was very fond of saying:  Learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again.  There is a lot of wisdom in this. 
Actually, I would say that gratitude and familiarity are strangers, but I couldn't find this from any stock images, so this had to suffice - Fr Luke
A similar but less punchy phrase that could refer to the same truth is that familiarity breeds contempt.  This phrase isn’t half as good because it only states the problem. It doesn’t provide a solution. 

What we need to do is to find new and innovative ways to ensure that we spot and shatter the illusion that is before us, and Chesterton is spot on to say that familiarity is the greatest of all illusions. 

It is imperative that we slowly admit to and give up the illusion of familiarity in our lives, and this pertains especially to those who we are in constant or regular contact with.  When we do this, we keep at bay the cancer of ingratitude and disrespect.  It is this cancer that eats away at marriages, friendships, communities and the nucleus of the family.  When each person is no longer seen as a respectable and respected individual, but someone who is just there.  This is evident when we think we know everything about the other person, his or her quirks, likes and dislikes, preferences and pet peeves. 

This is evident too, when titles of respect are dispensed without much thought.  Perhaps I need to explain a little here.  I have a dear priest friend from New Zealand who has told me that he has dispensed with his parishioners calling him ‘Father’.  I have heard his explanation of this – he feels that this title separates him from his flock, and that he wants to be seen to be on familiar terms with those he leads.  It breaks down barriers.

Perhaps.  Yes, to a certain extent, I can see his point, and I respect his views.  But in the light of what I have just written about familiarity, I also have seen that it has its blind side, which is an over-familiarity.  When I relate to my parishioners, the very reason that I do not tell them to ‘drop the ‘Father’ no matter who they are is really for the benefit of both – theirs and mine.  For them, it reminds them that I have a vocation in their lives other than being ‘one of the guys’.  This is especially true when we realise that nothing destroys relationships more than a contemptuousness born of familiarity.  It reminds us of our roles in society and in life.  It is also for myself – to remind myself that my insertion into any community and family has a spiritual dimension too, and this reminds me to respect boundaries and keep things healthy and whole. 

So too is this truth just as pertinent when seeing the resurrection.  Familiarity is really an illusion, and one way to look at things familiar till they look unfamiliar again is to overcome an illusion of having seen it all.  Easter is really about seeing that there is freshness, and that there is surprise even in the mundane, and that even people who are alive anew can be mistaken as mere gardeners.  Easter showed us that even familiar gardeners need to be looked at again and again till they too become unfamiliar – so unfamiliar that it is Christ we eventually see.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Cross bearing - a necessary task for all Christians

An intrinsic part of our Christian culture that is hardly taken seriously nor understood in a healthy way is that of cross carrying in life.  Jesus himself makes this clear in his instruction to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily and to follow him (Luke 9:23).

To willingly take up a burden, an icon of shame and denigration is either counter-intuitive or counter-cultural or both.  In an almost self-deprecating way, Catholics of old used to be proud of the way that they would carry a Catholic guilt in their lives, and wouldn’t even mind to be labeled as masochistic for it.  Shades of this could be seen in feeling guilty when partaking excessively in forms of raucous revelry, perhaps nursing a vice like smoking gambling or unrestrained drinking, or even reading books which were on the Index.  These days, however, the guilt pendulum has been swinging right to the other side where just about everything is deemed kosher and the narrative is “if it is scandalous, it has to be good”.

But how do we understand in some constructive way Jesus’ difficult instruction?  I am quite certain that so many of us can readily identify the many crosses that we face in life.  Some of us are even married to them for life!  Naming these is not the problem.  What can and should we do with them is the crux (pun definitely intended) of the problem.

James Martin, S.J., Jesuit priest and author and editor at large at America, The National Catholic Review, wrote a book entitled Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  Here, he offered six bold and very practical and relatable ways in understanding how to face the challenges of daily cross bearing to help one to go deep in life.

Firstly, cross carrying means that one has to accept that suffering is a part of our lives.  Many of us, I believe, are not even there yet.  We are in huge denial about this truth, and when we see the crosses in our lives, we try to pray them away, or that they would take on other forms which we think will be much more manageable.  Martin says that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune and ultimately, death are all a part of our lives and they need to be accepted without bitterness.  If we have the false belief that pain in our lives is something that we need not accept, we will always be bitter for accepting and carrying crosses.

Secondly, bearing crosses means that we must fight the urge to pass bitterness on to those around us.  I have come across many people struggling with caring for their aged parents who have siblings who are not willing to pitch in to share in this loving task.  Their unhappiness in doing this, often with a grudge in their hearts, seems to be only eased if they see their siblings going through this ‘suffering’ with them.  Some of them subtly try to make others unhappy because they themselves are unhappy.  Healthy cross bearing doesn’t give us permission to thrust sadness and burdens on others, but is marked when there is no self-pity, no bitterness issuing forth from our hearts nor lips.  Jesus on the way to Calvary bore none of that in his heart.

Thirdly, when we follow Jesus in his cross carrying, we are also invited to let some parts of us die.  When Jesus gave Simon and his friends a preview of his passion, he was showing them that he needed to die in order to truly live.  But for us, the deaths are more metaphorical.  As we live our lives, we need to name our deaths, learn to mourn our losses and to let go of what has died, and in so doing, receive a new energy to live the lives that we are now living.  These are daily deaths that we have to go through.  A death to what is seemingly enticing and attractive, but leads to brokenness and falseness if we give in too easily.  A death perhaps to promote the false self that requires one to further build up upon another lie so as to prop up what was false to begin with.  We need to let these die and to live anew.

Fourth, carrying of our crosses means, Martin says, to wait for the resurrection.  It was his fellow Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner who once said that all symphonies in life remain unfinished.  In our lives, the experiences of frustration, terrible injustice, any forms of pain that requires toleration or a building up of a resistance, sees us longing for someone to come along to change our situation.  Apparently, we spend 98% of our time waiting for some form of fulfillment.  When we hear Jesus telling us to carry a cross to follow him, he also means that we need to wait, or nurture the virtue of patience, to accept these unfinished symphonies of our lives.

Fifth, cross bearing means seeing as gift the things that we do not expect.  Much as we expect bread when we ask for bread and not get stones, and fish when we ask for fish and not get snakes, our faith tells us that God doesn’t give us what we really need, rather than what we think we need.  We may have our notions as to how resurrections should be experienced in our cross-carrying challenges, but the real test of whether we are carrying crosses well is to see whether in doing so, we are open to surprise.

Lastly, Martin says that cross carrying means that we believe that nothing is impossible for God.  No matter what kind of suffering we are facing, be they in form of others or burdens that we are facing within our personal struggles, faith in wanting to carry the cross with a Christ-like energy necessarily means that we accept that God is greater than our feeble human imagination.  To be able to live in trust even in these dark moments is to believe in the resurrection. 

If we do not reflect from time to time these aspects of cross-carrying that are a very real part of life, we will easily drop all efforts in truly following Jesus as instructed by him, and end up having a notion that the true Christian life is one where all crosses should be removed or taken away, and that if we have them in life, it erroneously means that God has abandoned us. 

The Christian life is definitely not a panacea from pain, but a most effective way to grow in life through a healthy approach when faced with these realities of life. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Our inner resistance to true genuflection

As a presider at Mass, it is very easy to observe the way in which Catholics enter their pews to pray.  After all, the presider’s chair is positioned in a place that is most visually accessible, and just as my body language and eye movement is subject to everyone’s observation and scrutiny, the reverse is just as true.  The facial expressions of persons in solemn and fervent prayer or those that are flitting in between consciousness and comatose, or just demonstrating with no intention to mask their boredom and impatience are all open to survey from my chair.  But it is the observation of the way that people genuflect before taking their seats that I would like to reflect on today.

Many other churches in the Christian tradition have pews in their prayer halls or places of worship.  But it is only in the Catholic Church that we have a tradition of placing one knee on the floor before actually sitting down to pray.  Very much connected to our belief that in the Catholic Church, the consecrated host reverently housed in the Tabernacle in each church is the very presence of God, it is to this Real Presence that we go on bended knee, signifying not only our belief, but perhaps far more important than just that, reminding us of the need to embrace humility in our hearts.

I have a feeling that many of us Catholics have somewhat lost the deep significance of mindful genuflection.  What a mindful genuflection is, is really a combination of how truly God is present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist with how badly we need to live lives of true and genuine humility, which is at the core of the call to holiness.

Genuflection is in itself an action that the human body naturally resists.  More often than not, it requires a mindfulness of one’s balance, and many Catholics will use the support of one hand on the pew to do this action without being clumsy, and to be able to get back on their feet thereafter.  Effort is indeed required, and I have seen many versions of the genuflection’s related cousins – the curtsey, the half squat or even the half body bow.  There are also many who simply jettison any gestures of deference and respect to Jesus’ real presence in the Tabernacle, and simply saunter into their pews as if they were taking their seats at a concert or a movie theater.  I do need to state that I am quite aware of parishioners who have weak or unstable knees, and that if a genuflection is not possible due to one's physical limitations, one can and should make other forms of respect and adoration in place of the tradition bending of the knee.

It won’t surprise the reader of this blog that I am a huge advocate of the genuflection, and that I truly believe that this action should never be overlooked or discarded.  In fact, I believe that it will be to our utter detriment if we stop this noble practice that has been with the Catholic Church for centuries.  We will be much poorer for it if we stop genuflecting in our churches.

Humility is something that all of us struggle with in so many ways.  Embedded in the action of genuflection is the acknowledgement that we are not ultimately only accountable to ourselves, and that we are willing to submit ourselves to a power that is above us in every way.  Many will say that God is not just ‘above’ or ‘in front’ of us, but is omnipresent, giving excuse and justification to do away with this kneeling action.  However, my response would be that in mindful genuflection, we also acknowledge our own finitude and limitations, something that the current narrative of the self-serving and self-promoting culture militates strongly against. 

There is another thing about genuflecting that we misunderstand and fail to benefit from.  It is the mistaken notion that when we genuflect, we make ourselves small and weak, and no one likes this, so we stop doing this, or at least we tell ourselves to do it in a perfunctory way, hoping that others do not notice us. 

In fact, the opposite is much truer – that when we are doing this action mindfully, and let ourselves be immersed in the majesty of God that we live under, that we actually become larger and stronger.  Genuine adulthood and maturity is when we know ourselves for who and what we are, and not live in some sham confidence.  A truly humble person knows true greatness when he sees it, and surrender to the ultimate power is seen as a large person in God’s eyes, and not a small person as the world sees him or her.  It is a truly strong person who knows his or her true limitations in life.  The small person lives as if he has no flaws or imperfections, and is loath to confront them.

It will be to our discredit and loss if we abandon such actions that remind us of the need to place God at the highest position in life. 

I was asked by a catechist after Mass yesterday how one can effectively teach young children in Catechism class what a Doxology is.  The word is made up of two parts – doxa is glory in Greek, and ‘logy’ as a suffix usually denotes a teaching, a theory or a science, related to work.  Thus, the Doxology is the praise and glory that is due to God at the high point of the Mass, which takes place when the consecrated bread and wine which have become the body and blood of Christ is offered up to the Father just as the way that it was done on Calvary, the very action that caused our undeserved salvation from sin and damnation.

When one removes from one’s consciousness the need to kneel in humility before God, it will also make understanding a term like doxology something extremely challenging and relatable to life.  Maybe this is why explaining what a doxology is to anyone, not just young children in catechism class, is going to be a challenge in itself, and it is lamentable.

Maybe what is much more lamentable is the fact that in so many other areas of our lives, there is much more doxologia given to mammon, and we find ourselves genuflecting obsequiously before false gods instead. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

When ashes are deliberately smeared on our foreheads once a year.

There are many rituals that we have in the Catholic Church which may seem strange or even bizarre to the uninitiated.  Looking from the outside, some of these rituals can perhaps come off looking a tad peculiar and almost anomalous to anything that proclaims to be rational and sound.  One of these may be the imposition of ashes on our foreheads once a year, when the liturgical season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

The very action of accepting with a willingness to have our faces smeared and smudged with dirt militates against all that the human person does and ensures to have an appearance that is pleasant and presentable to the world.  As a priest who has presided over this rite and have marred the visage of so many of my parishioners over the years each Ash Wednesday, it never fails to make me ponder over the significance of this action.  After the last parishioner walks back to the pew, and after I have washed my hands and turn to face the entire congregation, I am always a little startled and astounded to see each face looking at me, with a face carrying a blot of dirt.  Every person, baptized or not, young or old, geriatric or infant gets to come up to receive this smudge on their foreheads during this Mass.  It has a meaning that goes deep.  Symbolically, it reminds each one present that no matter what rank, status, title or background, we all share a commonality that we hardly care to acknowledge, but when we do, will go a long way towards our spiritual maturity.  It is the revelation that beneath all the fanciness that we use to cover up our shared inadequacies and insufficiencies, we are all made of dust, as we remember that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’. 

It makes me call to mind something that a Japanese Catholic priest I got to know many years ago shared with me about his culture.  Many of you readers may know about this, as I am sure you are well travelled and some have been to Japan to experience this firsthand.  I am referring to the ‘Onsen culture’ so prevalent in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

In Japan, the prevalence of public baths is well known.  From big cities to rustic and charming villages near natural and picturesque thermal hot springs, the Japanese people love these baths.  And one thing that no outsider or visitor is spared or given exception is that one has to go into these baths with not a stitch of clothing on.  Most of these, apparently, have specific areas for male and female bathing.  And the Japanese will willingly tell you that once in the baths, without a stitch on to hide behind or to give any false sense of superiority or rank to another human being, all persons are the same.  One could be a garbage collector and be seated in a large hot tub next to a high court judge or the chief of police, or even the Mayor of the city, but there is a shared commonality that levels rank and status. 

If nudity achieves this, my reflection is that so does the placing of ashes on the faces of every person at the Ash Wednesday liturgy.  It makes it crystal clear that every person in the church, including the presiding priest in the sanctuary, is a sinner who is constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  At the heart of it all, each person, in big and small ways, has a predilection to pander to his or her own egos and selfish desires on so many levels, and it is a reminder to all that as a community, as a Church and as a people of God, we need to at least once a year to sit in those ashes to jolt us back to reality that we are really as good as our undiscovered sins due to our make-up and an outward appearance that shields our fragility.

The entering into the 40 days of Lent is not a time of maudlin melancholy either.  It is not a pity-party that starts right after Mardi Gras and ends when the Gloria bells are rung at the Holy Thursday Mass.  These days of penitence and simple living are really a retreat at a community level, a going-back to re-appreciate how our sins had given us the only chance of ever regaining entry into heaven through the passion and saving action of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.  As in wartime, retreats are times of reorganization and re-energizing to be enabled to make further advances later on.  So too does the season of Lent energize us for our constant battle with sin and evil.

Indeed, the Easter promise of the resurrection was, and is always going to be ours to share and enjoy, but it is also something that we must never take for granted either.  Lent readjusts our points of focus in life for all of us.  The ashes on our foreheads remind us that no one is exempt.  As St Paul said, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  Lent is a time of returning to humble beginnings and perhaps a reminder that for most of us, we may have been wearing too much make-up.