Monday, May 27, 2019

Why the Ascension of Jesus is of primal importance to us.

Every year, toward the end of the season of Eastertide, I get both excited and even a bit on edge as the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord approaches.  It is something that so many Catholics either fail to see its great significance of, or something that few deem necessary to comprehend with depth and seriousness.  I remember going to Mass on this Solemnity in my very young and impressionable days, but for the life of me, I cannot bring myself to recall anything theologically or spiritually significant about this feast that was the result of a clear and applicable preaching.  Perhaps most of the reflections only centered on the physicality of the ascension, but little was spoken about the reason for it.

The Ascension of Jesus cannot be understood and discussed outside of what is known as the Paschal Mystery. This term embodies and includes the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  If the Paschal mystery stops only at the resurrection, then the saving dimension of Jesus’ life simply isn’t complete because it lacks its important universal and eternal dimension.  

The Ascension of Jesus has its scriptural basis in the gospels where we are specifically told that Jesus physically ascended to beyond where the physical eye could not see him any longer. Before that happened, the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus had the disciples physically seeing him, touching him and sharing food with him.  He was still bound and limited to the confines of time and space, though substantially, there was something different about him where he could walk through locked doors and walls.  But he was not at different places at the same time.  There were still limits to his being.  

In order for the effects of Jesus’ salvation to encompass the entire universe, and to effect all time that includes the past, present and the future, the removal of himself out of the confines of this existence as we know it had to take place.  Having risen from the dead, death was no longer going to be the way he leaves this world.  His ascension was therefore his necessary exit path through which he would transcend the space and time limitations that are imposed on every material substance that is created.  

Moreover, Jesus himself made it clear to Mary Magdalene when he appeared to her post resurrection, to not hold on to him as he had to ascend to his Father.  His mission was not yet complete, as his saving effect had still that one important part that was yet to happen.  In John’s farewell discourse, he gives a hint as to why he had to go. It was so that the Advocate could come. With Jesus still physically around, there was not going to be much reliance nor dependence on the Holy Spirit. His departure was going to be the reason that we believe in the Holy Spirit, and why we need to trust in the Spirit’s presence and power in the world.  

I remember how I learnt to ride the bicycle when I was young.  I had a bicycle that had training wheels attached to it on either side of the back wheel.  My reliance on them was there as long as they were attached, and I was rather gung ho in handling my bike knowing that if I shifted my balance on either side of the bike, I would not fall.  

But as the days went on, the angle of the training wheels was adjusted such that the wheels went progressively higher and higher, forcing me to find and maintain my balance without those additional wheels.  It was only when they were finally taken away that I found my balance and rode with the bike with confidence.  They had to be taken away.

I seem to have moved from the sublime to the ridiculous with this analogy, but I hope it served its purpose. Jesus’ ascension was necessary so that our true confidence in him could begin.  If Jesus had not ascended, our physical dependence on him was not going to give us the ability to mature and develop as it should, and more importantly, I am certain that we would not make any efforts in being missionary and evangelical.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Marian reflection for the month of May.

May has traditionally been called the Marian month in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  Above all, it is a month to honour Mary as the Mother of God, with connections that can be made to the time of the ancient Greeks where the May was dedicated to the god of fecundity or fertility.  In different eras, like the medieval and the baroque periods, there had been different ways of giving Mary the honour she deserves as both the sinless one, and the Mother of Jesus who is the second person of the Holy Trinity made man.  It is no coincidence that Mother’s day always falls in the month of May.

Here in Singapore, May has always been the month where special home rosaries are organized where parishioners meet at one another’s homes to pray the rosary and to show their love to our Blessed Mother.  Behind all Marian devotions is the doctrine that Mary, being the mother of Jesus is also then the mother of God.  And because Jesus from the Cross gave her over to John to behold her as his mother, gave her to all of us as well.  As our Blessed Mother,  she is eternally caring for her beloved children with not just a maternal love, but a maternal love that is heavenly, and as our earthly mothers care for us in ways big and small, so too does our Heavenly Mother.

Ronald Rolheiser once made a reflection on Mary where he made an interesting distinction between the Mary of Devotion and the Mary of Scripture.  The Mary of Devotion is held fondly in the hearts of Catholics, and she is the one who we show love to in the recitation of the rosary, in the installation of her statues in our churches, homes and in the different types of novena devotions that are extant.  She is the one who prays with us while we are still ‘mourning and weeping in the valley of tears’, a phrase many of us are familiar with when we pray the Hail Holy Queen prayer.  It is always interesting to see how every time there is a Marian apparition, it is always to those who are meek, humble, lowly and nobodies in society.  Mary has never appeared to a bigwig investment banker, a captain of industry or a leader of a country.  She has never been documented to have appeared before a Hollywood A-lister or anyone remotely famous.  Her choice has always been for children, many of whom were uneducated (at least theologically), and those who had trouble in conveying her messages to the authorities.  Indeed, her predilection is for the poor, and she is indeed a mother of the poor and the humble.

But the Mary of Devotion cannot be just reduced to pure sentiment and romance.  If so, we Catholics can end up being very theologically sloppy in the way we hold Mary in such high regard.  Devotion to Mary has strong theological foundations that we must never abandon and forget, in preference to the way we show her our fond devotion. Pure sentimentality runs the risk of being reduced to superstition that is feeling or fear-based, and can end up making Catholicism more cultish than a religion that is reasonable and rational.

It is to the Mary of Scripture that we need to seek to always get our grounding right.  The writers of the gospels give us good reason to maintain our healthy Marian devotion and she helps us to become true and proper disciples of Jesus, and show us that she is indeed the model disciple.  But we have to be very attentive to how her character reveals her ideal discipleship qualities in the gospels, as these are subtle. For example, this is revealed when Jesus says that those who listen to God’s word and obey it are his mother, brother and sister.  Mary never took umbrage at these words, which any earthly mother easily would.   Marian theologians have always called her the second Eve whose pure and unconditional ‘yes’ contrasts so clearly against the ‘yes’ of the first Eve when she chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  The first Eve didn’t want to live in mystery, whilst the second Eve welcomed mystery and showed a readiness to live in an unknowing.

Mary’s model discipleship is shown by her willingness to carry her cross with great love all her life.  And the way she carried her cross mirrors the way her Son carried his.  Neither of them was bitter about it, and neither of them sent anyone the bill for it either.  Mary’s stance at the foot of the cross exemplifies humility where we don’t see her shaking her fist to heaven and screaming out for vengeance for her innocent son’s death. Her agony at Calvary mirrors her son’s. Her son’s agony opened heaven’s gate for us, and I see this agony as her labour pains, akin to a mother’s pains when she undergoes the incredible pain of childbirth.  Calvary needs to be seen as humanity’s labour ward, where the result of the pain resulted in her being the mother of all humanity.  

It is this Mary that May’s devotions honours, and it is this Mary who is crowned the Queen of Heaven and Earth. How blessed we are to be able to call her Mother.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Vulnerability may be counter-intuitive to us, but it is so necessary for real love to happen.

There is a strong ideology in our shared human DNA that believes that we will only be loved and respected if we are impressive and strong.  From a very young age, children are taught, not without good reason, that they need to grow up to be strong and even supreme in some way, so that they will have the upper hand in life.  Apart from health reasons, it easy to see that there are people who frequent the gym and resort to inject steroids in their bodies in order to project a very impressive appearance to the world.  The subliminal projection of this message lies behind the glossy covers of the many health and fitness publications that line the shelves of bookstores and newsstands.  Even if it is not physical strength that one seeks, being impressive to the world comes in other forms, like popularity and physical beauty, and having a huge following on social media.  

The human person has various reasons to do this, and it can be reduced to our desire for others to love us. In the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, we see a group of people who endeavor to do something rather strange – they set out to build a tower, attempting to reach the heavens.  This metaphor is deep as it is ridiculous. Behind it is man’s inner desire to make himself a stronghold that makes him tower over everything and everyone else. It is hubris in action.  Its antithesis is something that we humans have a tendency to reject and overcome, which is vulnerability and humility.  But in truth, it is vulnerability, seen clearly in the virtue of the practice of humility that really has lasting beauty, that does win not just friendship and real admiration, but also ultimately, love.  

But we need to be very careful to differentiate between the development of skills, talent and human gifts for true goodness and the building up of these same things, and for the building up of weapons that promote war, jealousy and a sense of superiority over others.  While one serves to endear ourselves in a good way to others and to society, the other only causes us to alienate ourselves from others, and to promote a sense of fear rather than love and healthy admiration.  This is indeed a fine art that few are automatically born or graced with, and its development lies within the purview of seeking spiritual maturity.  

This will only make sense if we begin to see both the wisdom and beauty of vulnerability, which is displayed magnificently on Calvary.  But without wisdom, vulnerability will only be seen as a stance in life that asks that we become doormats for others to step on, and sometimes repeatedly so.  In John’s gospel, which is the latest of the four gospels to be written, there is a very developed theology in its portrayal of the Son of God.  He is in total control of everything that happens right from the start with the Word becoming flesh, and we see him having power over all forces of the natural and the supernatural world in the fourth gospel. One interesting example of this is when Jesus is arrested in the Garden on the night of his trial, and John writes that when Jesus responds, “I am he” to the question who it is they are looking for, they “moved back and fell to the ground”.  There is a lot packed in this strange line.  John is reminding the reader that this Jesus the Nazarene is indeed the very same “I am who am” as revealed by Yahweh to Moses in the burning bush.  That omnipotent God and this Jesus are one and the same.  Ultimately, all creation will fall on its knees in worship.  It is at this revelation and reminder that the soldiers fall to the ground in a collective act of humility before the Divine.  

Yet, despite this, the events of the arrest, trial and eventual crucifixion take place.  The divine takes on the very important virtue of vulnerability in order for our salvation to happen.  It certainly isn’t to be confused nor associated with Jesus being a doormat at all.  

When there is a wrong or unhealthy idea of vulnerability, especially when it is confused with allowing others to know absolutely everything about us, it doesn’t become attractive either. We see this happening when there are ‘confessions’ at talk shows, where someone sits in front of an audience or on national television, and, as it were, lets it all “hang out”.  In a very twisted way, there is hubris in it because the person can be almost demanding that the world love and accept him and has used his “coming out” to buy their love and acceptance, almost demanding it in a crude way.  This isn’t love but a perverted trade-off.  This is so different from Calvary’s true power of vulnerability.

True vulnerability always needs to have a very clear sense of humility that has traits of honesty and tenderness at the same time, and this is where powerlessness gets its true power. It will always be a paradox that we have to struggle with in life.  

If you find yourself in a relationship that is very often in conflict with the other person, especially when you are perplexed by a lack of intimacy that is the fruit of honest and humble vulnerability, it could be a sign that there is still a lot to be learnt and discovered in the department where power in vulnerability is the motto.  It could be that you have been too busy building your own Tower of Babel in that relationship, and haven’t yet learnt how to be vulnerable in a godly way.

Monday, May 6, 2019

We may be self-sabotaging our efforts for holiness without knowing it.

I came across a story recently, which tickled my funny bone but had the amazing ability to satirize the way I see many well-meaning people struggling to live a holy life.  I’m quite sure it wasn’t true, but won’t be one bit surprised if it was.  The story follows:

My sister had been ill, so I called to see how she was doing.  My ten-year-old niece answered the phone.  

“Hello,” she whispered.

“Hi, Honey.  How’s your mom doing?”  I asked.

“She’s sleeping,” my niece answered, again in a very whispered tone.

“Did she go to the doctor?” I asked.

“Yes.  She did, and got some medicine,” the little girl said softly.

“Well, don’t wake her.  Just tell her I called.  By the way, what are you doing?”

In a very soft whisper, she said, “I’m practicing my trumpet.”

Picturing just how sincere the little girl was in making sure she was not waking her sleeping mother by her conversation with her aunt, the girl had no idea at all how her trumpet playing is louder than her whisperings by many decibels.  

After my chuckling subsided, it struck me that this serves very well as a caricature of how I notice many penitents may be having good and even excellent intentions of leading holy, pure and virtuous lives, but can at the same time be sabotaging their good intentions by doing things that bring their efforts the opposite effects.  

If you keep confessing that you are not chaste in your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend, one of the most important things to not do is to bring yourselves to situations and places that invite you to take risks with improper behviour and activity. This necessarily means that you need to have that important but perhaps awkward conversation that deals with the issue of only meeting each other in very public and open places.  

If you find yourselves always tempted to look at inappropriate websites that you find arousing on the internet, one of the things that is a sine qua non is to use your computer in the privacy of your own room, and ensure that you only have access to the web when in the living room or dining room, where members of the house are in full view of what you are doing.

If you say you have no time to pray in the night when you come home from a busy day at work or in school, then nighttime is certainly not the correct time for you to pray.  You’d do well to set your alarm clock twenty to thirty minutes earlier, get up before everyone else in the house, and devote that quite thirty minutes to God as a morning offering, consecrating the coming 16 to 18 hours to God, telling God that you want to make sure that from this moment till the end of your day, you want to glorify him with everything you do, say and think.  That way, it doesn’t become such an issue if you do not manage to pray before you go to bed, because you had begun the day with that good intention, though of course, it would be good to hinge your day with prayer in the morning and in the night.

If you keep confessing that you don’t put God at the centre of your life, but make very little actual effort throughout the day to make an examination of conscience, and only do so while you are in the confessional line perhaps once a month, it shouldn’t surprise you that your good intentions didn’t bear much fruit.  This putting of God in the centre of our lives cannot be a reflection that we do every month or two, but rather, every hour or two. While I certainly don’t wish for anyone to become obsessed with scrupulosity (which is unhealthy and not something that leads to true holiness), we must not be so lax in our self-examination that it is only something that we do minutes before we enter the confessional and land our knees on the kneeler inside.

A habitual gambler will be putting temptation to the test if he keeps going to the casino even though he admits that he needs to stop gambling.  That crucial but painful decision to register himself on the exclusion list at the casinos needs to be something he has to consider and to finally actually do if his words of repentance are to mean anything.  

Is there a magic pill that makes one automatically holy and make the right decisions all the time?  Would that there were.  One thing that the existence of such a pill excludes is the very important aspect of freedom of the individual.  What is at the heart of every sin is the inordinate and inappropriate love of self, and the lack of love of God.  Sure, we may say that the devil made us sin, but for sin to happen, there has to be cooperation and consent on our part.  The more we apply ourselves to loving God, the less we will have the resources (or the desire) to want to apply ourselves to loving things that injure or lessen our love for God.  

That choice to want to do good and to be holy in all that we do is an expression of how deep and true our love for God is.  Every holy man and woman who is a saint in heaven shares this as a common thread in their lives, and have either lived lives that showed great love for God, or have been purified their love for God in purgatory’s flames of purification.  

The girl in the story may have been effortful in speaking in hushed toned on the phone, but didn't apply this effort to everything outside of a phone conversation.  We too may be careful in only certain parts of our moral lives, but have not been effortful in applying this to the other parts of our lives.  We need to apply ourselves with great awareness if we are not to end up like that little girl, blasting the trumpet despite being so careful in speaking in hushed whispers when on the phone with her aunt.