Monday, December 25, 2017

Thoughts on Christmas Day

It has been said quite aptly and theologically correctly that God may save us unilaterally, but he chooses to respect our decision to want to cooperate and accept this great un-deserved offer of salvation with our free will.  All attempts at explaining why there is evil in the world despite there being a God who loves and wants to save ultimately comes back to this principle. 

Christmas is a lavish display of how small God is willing to be and the extent he goes to show his love for us.  He diminishes himself in order for us to be engulfed and enveloped by his mercy and love, the effects of which are not unlike how an earthquake caused by the slight shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates miles below the surface of the ocean may result in the tremendous force of a tsunami later on.  The only difference is that unlike a tsunami which causes untold amounts of chaos and destruction, this tsunami of God’s love that began as a tiny spark in the womb of Mary, is set to become the tidal wave of love that wants to wash over and envelope the entire human race in order for it to truly live, grow and flourish.

Tsunamis don’t give you a choice.  Tsunamis do not respect anything.  Everything it is path is obliterated and subject to its tremendous force.  This is where the syllogism ends.  God’s love, incarnate in Jesus Christ at Christmas, gives us a lot of room for choice and is utterly respectful of human freedom.  The only thin God’s love is interested in obliterating and rendering powerless are the effects of evil and sin.

Looking that the infant Jesus at Christmas, it hardly invites us to consider this aspect of Christianity’s awesome reality.  We are too easily distracted by the bucolic sentiments that surround the Christmas crib or Nativity scene.  This is the wonder of Christmas, which seems to be easily missed by the millions throughout the world who observe Christmas with nostalgia or a “happy holiday” event.

I’ve written reflections in the past on my sentiments about celebrating Christmas merely on a superficial level with it being a mere holiday event, or wishing each other the non-descript greeting of “compliments of the season”. 

It could be because I’m getting on in years, or it could be that I am beginning to truly believe that God does write straight with crooked lines that I am not so uptight about these things as I was in my more earnest and younger days as a priest of God.  As longa s one isn’t a naysayer, or an outright atheist who angrily dismisses the existence of a loving God, but if one allows goodness to thrive and promotes this in and through one’s being, I am convinced that there is really no saying how much God can do to enlarge one’s heart from a spark of goodness within.

This was something that dawned upon me recently when I was visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral in the city of Paris, France.  I was blessed to be able to vacation in the city, and went into the church one day for my evening prayer, also known as Vespers, the official prayer of the Church.  This Cathedral is probably on every visitor’s must-see list, and that evening, Notre Dame was really ‘packing them in’.  I joined in this long queue in the cold winter night air that made its way past security to enter the nave.

The Catholic Priest in me made an immediate beeline to the Blessed Sacrament chapel, which was not really easy to locate.  I had to encircle the nave twice before I realized that I had passed it on my initial attempt. 

When I had completed praying Vespers, still seated in my pew, I realized that all the while that I was praying there, I was the only one in that small chapel.  Meanwhile, hundreds, if not thousands of tourists were walking around with mouths agape, some craning their necks to take in the awe-inspiring interior of this behemoth of a church.  Others had their noses buried in their guidebooks, taking selfies, chatting with one another, and some had their earphones in their ears that provided a guided commentary explaining the features and significance of what they were seeing.  But for the most part, they simply filed past the Blessed Sacrament, oblivious to the fact that the true awesomeness of the Cathedral lay not so much in the physical structure of the building, but that the Lord himself is truly present there in the Tabernacle of that Chapel.

“Was God offended with what was happening?” I asked myself quietly.  Probably not.  He took a great chance at Christmas to come to us in such a hidden and under-appreciated form – a tiny infant that was so dependent on human care.  This was something so easily bypassed by anyone walking by that manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone then if people are strolling by a Blessed Sacrament chapel in something as majestic as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris if they too pass him by once again. 

It’s probably a macrocosm of what has been happening all over the world, what with Christmas being celebrated as a holiday more than as a holy day. 

The first persons to hear the message of the truth of the Bethlehem baby were shepherds.  As a priest of God, I too, am a shepherd, and I see with a renewed vision my task to bring God’s love in a new and real way to those who in life are like those thousands of tourists in the Notre Dame – looking but not really seeing, and living lives oblivious to the fact that God is indeed in the world and among them.

As you read this, dear reader, I wish you a most blessed Christmas, and may real Christmas joy be in your heart.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving – there is always a reason and a season for us to be grateful.

Every fourth Thursday of November, a holiday called Thanksgiving is observed and celebrated in the North American continent (and a few other countries).  Originally, this holiday was set aside to be grateful for the harvest of the preceding year.  Through the passing of time and the advancement of technology, this spirit of gratitude has been, with good reason, broadened to include being thankful for all the experiences of goodness, kindness and love that one has been blessed with as well.

It is to be almost expected that when one has a love of a family, when one has health, and a life that is generally free from turmoil, that one should be grateful.  It is relatively easy to take these for granted, especially if one had been experiencing these throughout one’s life.  These things are then easily seen as the norm.  But when thanksgiving comes around once a year in our lives, it provides a good platform and reason to be extra mindful about these norms, and realise how these are not normal at all for so many other lives in the world.

Perhaps what is hardly ever done in life, and especially at such occasions as Thanksgiving, is to be thankful for the ways that life has been challenging for us.  The Christian is especially blessed in this regard because when we were baptized in Christ, we were also made his disciples.  And Jesus was very clear when he said that no one could call himself his disciples if he does not take up his cross and follow him. 

Crosses therefore are signs and evidence of our discipleship of Christ.  It is only when we see our challenges and struggles in life from the viewpoint and perspective of the cross that we can be bold enough to be thankful for both our blessings as well as our struggles and challenges in life.

Otherwise, our thanksgiving can be rather superficial, and even pallid, flat and lacking in depth, or removed somewhat from reality.  A painting of one colour, with no variance in shade and colour will only be a sheet of a single tone and not a picture.  Only when there are dark shades and differences in colour and tone can it be a picture or a portrait.  So too in life.

Maybe the reality is that we tend to complain too easily about our crosses in life and hardly give thanks to God for them.  Perhaps it is because we have a great predilection for what consoles and comforts us in life, and reject what causes us any form of suffering and trial.  But if crosses are necessary for meaningful discipleship, it must then mean that crosses are good in some way.

As I was meditating on this, I tried picturing myself as the very same block of marble that ended up being the finished masterpiece of Michelangelo’s Pieta.  If I hadn’t allowed the master sculptor to chisel and remove parts of me that were blocking or hiding the Pieta in me, this masterpiece would not have materialized.  I would only end up existing as a block of marble – with unrealized potential and hardly worth a second glance, and definitely not giving God nor the master sculptor the glory that I am capable of now as a carving of exquisite and stunning beauty.  Of course, a block of marble is inanimate, and doesn’t feel pain when being chiseled. 

But we are human, and we do feel the pain when we experience suffering and most experiences of carrying the cross.  Only faith allows us to see that these challenges as not only necessary but also good for us and our ultimate calling to holiness and sanctification.  Perhaps we need to augment our usual prayer of thanksgiving to God in a way that we haven’t before.

Thanksgiving is good and necessary for the things that delight and give us joy.  But if we are people of faith, and if we are aware that cross carrying is a sine qua non for discipleship, we should give thanks for them as well.  These will ultimately mould us, shape us, and form us into our best selves as God’s beloved.  Thanksgiving therefore should be something that is not just a day, but something that is celebrated throughout our lives and for everything that we have in our lives – both the good and the bad. 

Nota Bene:
This blog will take a much needed hiatus as I take some time away to recreate.  I always believe that there should be some periods of time in our life where we are unable to be reached.  The advancements of technology have almost demanded that we be contactable and in communication 24/7.  I would like to experience being incommunicado and hence this choice I am making.  With your prayers, and God-willing, my next post should be the week of Christmas.  God bless.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The main ‘problem’ with our Masses may lie in ourselves, rather than in what we see and hear.

There is a common lament that is oft heard, almost ad nauseam, that our Catholic Masses are boring, lame and dreary.  Our homilies preached by the clergy, are broad ranging both in topic and in delivery.  Whilst some preachers are clearly gifted with the oratory skills of Lacordaire, the renown and highly acclaimed pulpit orator of nineteenth century France, there are far more who struggle to make their weekly homily substantial and engaging, causing many to gripe about the quality of priestly formation and homiletic training.  Apart from the preaching of homilies, the other common complaint is that the music, which is an essential part of the Eucharistic celebration, just isn’t ‘engaging’, especially to the generation so used to a daily diet of Spotify and iTunes.

While these may be valid comments or complaints made about the way the Eucharist is celebrated, it may be revealing something else – not about the Eucharist, but about ourselves as Catholics.  It could be indicating that we are hardly bringing ourselves into the celebration in a real way.

Let’s just take a celebration of someone’s birthday for an example.  How much love we bring into the celebration very much makes or breaks how good or how uninteresting the celebration is.  The more we love the person whose birthday we are celebrating, the less we will allow the externals of the celebration to determine the quality of the celebration.  It is not that the externals are not important, but if we do not have much love in our hearts for the person whose life is being celebrated, those tangibles will be the only thing that we will evaluate the event’s significance by.

The same would apply, perhaps even more significantly so, where the celebration of the Eucharist is concerned.  It is not that good preaching or well-thought out liturgical music are not important.  They are, and I am all for homilies that are sound, theological and relatable, with relevant points for reflection.  But we may be missing the proverbial forest for the trees if we are only going to Mass to ‘get’ a good homily.  What happens at every Mass is a monumental and cosmic event that changed the entire course of history for humankind – God, in the Eucharist, has come to us in the most unimaginable form, in man and in food, to give us something that we could never dream of ourselves – a share in His own Divine life.  For this, we need to be ever grateful, which is what Eucharist means – a thanksgiving.  One can only be truly thankful if one has love in one’s heart.  The more love we have, the more grateful we will be.  It’s really as simple or as challenging as that. 

Besides bringing our love to the Mass, what many miss out in celebrating the Eucharist is the way that they often aren’t bringing their lives to the Mass.  The Mass isn’t only about what is joyful and mirthful and delightful.  The Mass, because it is really the life of Jesus celebrated, inclusive of those elements of Jesus’ life that are sorrowful, mournful and sad.  Our connection with what is going on at the Mass is therefore predicated on those similar elements in our lives that we are bringing together with us when we are at Mass.  The more we are aware of this, the more the Eucharistic celebration becomes something we can personally identify with. 

Ronald Rolheiser was astute when he said that “Worship must not just celebrate the heart that people feel they should bring to religious places, but the heart as it beats in ordinary places”.  This means that we bring our own experiences of not just joy and gratitude, but also the experiences where we are filled somewhat with what partially paralyses the joys of our hearts.  We then stand around the Eucharistic table with the wounds that we share with the other tables of our lives.  It requires of us to also be vulnerable before each other and so that there can also be healing. 

I don't think we are aware of this latter dimension of our worship enough, and that is why we are only critical of what lays at the surface, which comprises what we hear – the preaching and the singing. 

The next time we find ourselves critical about the liturgy, perhaps it is good to ask ourselves what we have brought to the table of the Lord, and how much love there was on our part.

Monday, November 6, 2017

How can one improve as a Catholic if one hasn’t infringed any of the 10 Commandments?

I was asked recently by someone who wrote to me via my blog this rather interesting question – “How can I improve as a Catholic if I haven’t transgressed the Ten Commandments?”  As I read the question, I imagined myself in Jesus’ shoes when he was approached by the rich young man in the Gospel of Luke, who asked him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is indeed a good question, and especially so if the intention is not to trip me up, but to really want to get to the heart of what being a Christian is.  I say this is a ‘good’ question partly because I suspect that it is a question that exists in some nebulous form in the minds and hearts of so many Christians, both Catholics and non, but few get to articulate it in such a concise and clear way.

There exists in so many of us moderns the need to be performers.  I’m sure this doesn’t only apply to folk living in the First World, but generally speaking, this ‘performance principle’ is very evident in First World countries.  After all, many, if not most, are running on some form of meritocracy.  We are told from a very young age that we need to prove ourselves and to work hard in order to achieve ‘anything we want’.  While this may have its merits in instilling a sedulous work ethic, we may easily and falsely apply this to our spiritual lives, where we forget that our salvation in Christ has nothing at all to do with merit or achievement.  It is pure grace, and none of us deserves to be saved, no matter how virtuous and noble our lives may be. 

To think of the Christian life only in terms of a ‘performance’ of not sinning may reveal that we are missing something so intrinsic to the Christian life.  What may be missing could be the most important thing, which is the love that we put into everything that we do. 

As a confessor, I often hear penitents admitting that they aren’t faithful to their prayer life.  My next question often stumps them because I like to ask  them “when you pray, do you pray with love?”  I am used to getting silence as a reply, followed by “I am not sure what you mean, Father”.

Our prayer life cannot just be prayer that we are reading off a prayer card or the mere mumbling of a series of phrases that we have committed to memory.  If so, then we could be ‘saying’ our prayers, but we may be quite far from actually praying.  Prayer is, after all, an act of loving communication with God.  Love has to be the motivation for our prayer for it to be something that conveys our love for God.  Love changes and transforms the words, making the link between our heart and God.  And because we are so prone to distraction and having our attention pulled in 100 different directions all the time, love is then the act of the will to bring our attention to God as the object of our affection.  This moving of the will has very little to do with our feelings and sentiments.  In fact, love becomes purified when despite there being no feelings and sentiments and emotions, we activate our wills to love.

Why I am taking pains to expound a little about the need to love with our wills is precisely because our not infringing any of the Ten Commandments cannot be the only gauge we use in our lives when we are examining our spiritual lives.  A much better gauge or means of self-evaluation is to ask ourselves if we have put in much or any love into our relationship with God and with our neighbour.  This is concretely how we can improve in our spiritual lives despite not having transgressed the Commandments.

When this becomes our checklist and spiritual KPI, we will not fall into the mistake of merely being interested in whether we have broken laws, but more importantly, whether we could have loved and lived in more Christ-like ways.  This should give us plenty to bring to the confessional and at the same time, giving us a lot of indication where we can improve in living out our call to be the sons and daughters of God our Father.