Monday, March 26, 2018

Is our Passion weak on Passion Week?

As human beings, I believe that all of us are made with a certain capacity to be people of passion.  There’s a certain fire that burns inside our core that makes us give ourselves, our energies and our attention over to things or people with a certain focus and drive.  You see it in the ways little children are so fixed in their gaze at when they are playing with their toys or these days, their internet driven devices.  The world could be falling apart around them and it wouldn’t tear their attention away from the object of their desire.  Adults are really no different in the ways that they can be so attuned to what delights, fascinates and thrills them.  As well, many in life are just as bothered, worried and filled with anxieties with their problems and issues, causing them to be so focused on them that it adversely affects the way they live and the relationships that they have.  In good ways and in bad ways, we are invariably passionate people.

It is no coincidence that the week before Easter has another name, Passion Week, apart from the other more used nomenclature of Holy Week.  Passion week starts from Passion Sunday, which is also called Palm Sunday.  It marks Jesus’ final and strangely triumphant entry into the beloved city of Jerusalem.  It is strangely triumphant because although he arrives as a leader, his status and mode of transport is so understated that it seems strikingly counterintuitive.  Not riding proudly on the back of a regal Stallion or a majestic elephant decked out in the colours of royalty, but rather on a back of a beast of burden and one that is not known for any semblance of intelligence – a donkey or an ass.  This choice is deliberate because it underlines the attitude of humility that is sine qua non for the way Jesus leads, loves and overpowers the hitherto unconquerable bastion of sin, evil and death.

I much prefer the name Passion Week over that of Holy Week because it gives us an entry point as Christians into the heart of Christ - something that we don’t do often enough and seriously enough.  If we do not regularly take time to peer into the heart of Christ, our hearts will not be beating in tandem with his.  When we are only hearing the beat of the drums of the world, they will be beating out of sync with the heartbeat of Christ.  Where was Jesus’ heart at?  What was his Passion?  What drove him to be so dedicated to His cause?  What was his cause?  What was he enamoured with?  Whom was he enamoured of?

These questions are not only good to ponder, but also very necessary if we truly intend to be the disciples of Jesus, and not contented to merely pay him lip service.  Wanting what Jesus has and truly being besotted, beguiled and captivated by this is what is going to change the way our entire world pivots.  It is one thing being attentive to the laws of God and ticking all the boxes of the teachings of the Church.  But it is when we love what Christ loves with his entire life (causing him to go to the Cross for it) that we truly raise the bar of our faith.  The gospel text that featured the rich young man’s encounter with Jesus becomes then the paradigm of most of us in the way that we live as Christians.  As far as the commandments went, he was probably an All-Star player.  But he lacked one thing – complete commitment to God.  This was articulated by Jesus in asking him to divest of himself of his material wealth.  We need to interpret this with care though – at the heart of this was Jesus’ silent question  - “Where is your deepest passion?”  At that point in time, the young man knew that his love for God was not as strong as his love for his possessions, causing him to turn around and walk away.  But notice Jesus’ response to his turned back – Jesus looked at him, and loved him.

God’s love for us is truly unconditional no matter how many times we turn our back to him.  But he continues to beckon, to invite, to draw, to entice and to call.  The core of Passion Week’s purpose is this - to show us how incessant and deep Jesus’ love for his Father was, so that we watch not just as passive by-standers, but that we somehow get ‘infected’ and smitten by the same way Jesus was for his Father.  After all, if this love was what saved the world through his fidelity to His Father, being similarly enamoured of and passionate about not just the same thing, but the same Person will align our hearts with Jesus’. 

Passion Week is a very apt time for us to tune in to what we are passionate about in life, and what truly drives our hearts’ desire.  Our journeying with Jesus on Good Friday ought to imagine him asking us, like the way he asked that rich young man, if we are willing to let go of what owns us, take up our cross, and follow him.  He was asking that man if his love for God went beyond mere commandment adherence. 

Only we will know if we are truly passionate about loving God or if we are only passionate about what this loving God can do for us.

Monday, March 19, 2018

To the many Elect who are going to be a part of the Body of Christ this Easter – welcome to the imperfect Church.

Each year on Easter Saturday night and on Easter Sunday itself, thousands all over the world become baptized Catholics after their journey in the RCIA process (Rite of Christian Initiation).  Every person has his or her own personal story of their journey into faith, and some have even taken to the social media to really put it ‘out there’, loud and proud, that they are so happy that they have taken that step to respond to the grace that called them to conversion and baptism. The primacy of Grace ensures that no one person really takes the first step to conversion, as it is always the Grace of God that starts the process of conversion.  Otherwise, it could give one the false notion that one’s own motivations and goodwill is sufficient for our ultimate union with God in heaven.   Baptism is a very special moment in any person’s life, because it is a public testimony that his or her life had reached a turning point, and they see a great necessity to declare Jesus as their savior and Lord. 

But something is also very commonly experienced in these Neophytes after their baptisms.  Like most marriages, there is the honeymoon phase where one wakes up after the wedding day to a lovely experience and it is so easy to be in love.  While on this blissful vacation period, life is good, largely predicated on the fact that things are done for you.  You don’t lift a finger and your room gets cleaned merely by hanging a “please make up room” when you leave it.  The air is delightful to breathe in and there is no need to work.  Things are going swimmingly well.  The fantasy that money creates seems to be working.

Then the honeymoon ends and reality lands with a thud.  To want the honeymoon all the time is not reality.  To expect that things are going to be this way as you live the challenges of a shared life with someone outside of yourself is a sure way to recoil in the shock that this may not be what you were married for.  The same sentiments can be equally applied to coming into the Church at baptism.

As much as one is baptized into the Body of Christ, one is also baptized into an imperfect and broken Church.  A healthy understanding of the term Body of Christ is essential to all Christians of all denominations, but of supreme importance particularly to the Catholic Church mainly because this term is layered, very nuanced and the appreciation of some of its deep implications often only emerge much later in one’s being a part of it. 

There is no such thing as a private baptism.  To be sure, films have often portrayed baptisms to be private affairs, where one single baby is brought to the font with the adoring eyes of the family members looking on wistfully.  But this actually runs contrary to the reality that this baby is baptized into a community, and that it really does take that proverbial village to raise a child.  The baptism of a group of babies or adults gives a much better sense of the reality that one is entering a community. 

The phrase “Body of Christ” is perhaps best known to be used as a synonym for the Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.  But this is only one of the many ways that this phrase is used by the Church, although supremely so for the Eucharist.  John’s gospel has a very interesting Greek word used and this is the word sarx.  Essentially, sarx is not a perfect, spotless and pristine body that doesn’t get decayed and sick.  There’s another word in Greek that refers to a body that is good and neutral, with nothing pejorative or negative.  That would be soma.

John’s understanding of Community was deep and rich, and the fact that he had Jesus use sarx to describe his body is clear that as long as the Church on earth is still on the way to their heavenly glory, it is always going to be one that isn’t perfect, gritty at times, filled with hypocrites and self-centered folk, with the ability to be injured and who can in turn injure others, make mistakes, have lots of sinners who struggle with holiness, and in a word, pretty messed up.

The RCIA process or journey may not show the church with its flaws and imperfections, though I have known some catechists who do prepare their catechumens to expect a less-than-perfect church.  As much as we are a redeemed Church, we are also a group of pilgrims bound for heaven with some running with the stamina of a Kenyan marathoner, and some dragging their feet and shuffling along. 

My great concern goes out to the Neophytes who will find this out the hard way – when the reality of a flawed church dawns on them, and they feel either hoodwinked, let down, and walk out. 

Remember -  the God who is incarnated is one who has repeatedly said that anyone who says that he or she loves an invisible God in heaven and is unable or unwilling to meet with, encounter and live in community with a visible brother or sister on earth is as good as a liar because no one can love a God who cannot be seen if he or she is unwilling to love a neighbor who can. 

Would that it be that each member of the Body of Christ is to the Body as the Eucharist is – giving wholeness, forgiving, nourishing, sanctifying and life-giving.  This is the quest for holiness that each person making up this Body should be striving for.  It’s probably not a matter of ‘if’ you, dear Neophyte, gets to see the Church and her flaws.  It’s a matter of ‘when’.  But to leave is going to be the worst thing that you can do for yourself because no one gets to heaven alone.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Have you ever heard yourself say “I don’t like the God of the Old Testament”? This blog is for you.

I was leading a Day of Recollection over the weekend and I opened up some time for questions and answers.  One of these questions was something which isn’t really a new issue, but one that quite a few people seem to struggle with.  It usually goes like this - “the God of the Old Testament seems to be a different deity from the one that is portrayed or revealed by Jesus in the New Testament.  Why is this so?  Are there two different Gods portrayed?”    

Variations of this are statements like “I like the God of the New Testament, but I don’t like the God of the Old” or “God in the Old Testament is hard and demanding but Jesus shows God as merciful and loving”.  I’ve even heard one which says that “God in the Old Testament seems to have a need to smite people, but he seems to have stopped that in the New Testament.  He is a changed God”.  I often smile at statements like that last one, because saying that God has changed simply denies one of the most fundamental attributes of God that he is immutable. 

I have issues with these statements, even if one uses the phrase “appears to be” as a caveat for such statements made about God, largely because the questioner only takes selective verses from the Bible to support what they are saying, and often fail to do what is so important – read Scripture from a birds’ eye view and see Scripture as a collection of many books, written by particular individuals who were inspired by God.  Each had a particular encounter with God and each encounter needs to be seen as God revealing himself slowly and progressively. 

Just as there are statements or verses in the Old Testament that do show God’s wrath, anger, jealousy and predilection for a good smiting of his recalcitrant people, there are also numerous Old Testament references that show otherwise.  Nehemiah 9:17 reminds us that God is one who forgives, and who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.  Turning to Psalm 36, 69 and 17 will show that God’s people also saw him as God who compassionate, taking us in the shelter of his wings and Isaiah also highlighting God’s hesed, which is Hebrew for lovingkidness. 

Moreover, with tender images of God being the caring shepherd who tends to his sheep, a potter giving shape to and moulding clay, or that he is the rock of their salvation and a mother nursing a child at her breast, how can one say that the Old Testament images of God are only ones that show a wrathful and petty God?

So, it really isn’t true at all that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is so unlike and so different from the God who Jesus reveals in the New Testament.  What we must not forget is that from the time before the New Testament existed in its written form, the early Christians already believed that their faith in Jesus was rooted, based and steeped in the writings of the Old Testament.  So Jesus himself read and prayed the Hebrew Bible and he was certainly not oblivious to the God who is portrayed there.  This was the same God who he continued to worship and love as his beloved Father.   

The idea that Scripture is a meandering and slow revelation of God

Just as God writes straight with crooked lines in our lives, so too does he reveal himself to human beings in scripture.  Each of the prophets and writers of the Old Testament books had different facets and dimensions of God’s attributes and reality, like the way a diamond from different angles refracts different shades of brilliance, colour and light. 

Waywardness has consequences

It is undeniable that many of the prophets’ roles in the Old Testament were to be messengers of punishment.  But this conveyed a reality that all our actions, particularly those that were blatant flouting of God’s directions and instructions, had consequences, with some being more dire than others.  As much as God is a God who is full of mercy, God is also a God who is also the fullness of justice.  That Jesus only preaches and reveals a God of love who is going to permit anything and everything reveals not only a very shallow reading of Scripture, but a very selective one as well.  Parables like the rich man and Lazarus, the ungrateful steward, and Matthew 25 are rich portrayals of a truth that there are serious consequences that await those who are not willing to love their neighbor deeply.  I’m afraid that the God whom Jesus reveals isn’t the divine pushover that so many make him out to be.

God gives his people chance after chance to repent

The role of the prophets wasn’t only to be prophets of doom.  They were also called to show the merciful and tender side of God as well.  The call to repentance of his sinful people need to be seen as a revelation of his love as well.  In the Genesis story, the fact that the writer shows God making clothes to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness is his way of showing that God doesn’t just eject them from Eden with nary a care or concern.  The image of God as a Divine Couturier is a very tender one indeed.   As much as disobedience has consequences, it doesn’t in any way make God uncaring and in any form of a snit.

The ‘problem’ could be more ours than it is God’s

There is a Latin phrase that goes ‘quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur’, and it translates into modern day parlance as “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver”.  Could the problem of seeing God only as vengeful and wrathful be because we who read the scriptures have a predilection to be such ourselves, projecting onto God these negative traits and magnifying them, and in that way, justifying our own shortcomings? 

In truth, there are no two different Gods in both testaments.  They are one and the same, and overemphasis on either his mercy or his justice, with one at the expense of the other, will end with either a fickle God, a pushover God, or one who is simply a control freak.