Monday, January 25, 2021

Word of God Sunday and what it ultimately should do to us.

Pope Francis decreed through his Apostolic Letter Aperuit illis issued in September 2020 that the 3rdSunday in Ordinary Time be observed as Word of God Sunday throughout the world in every diocese.  Before this decree, it was left up to the different Bishops’ Conferences to decide when they would observe this within their regions.  However, with this decree, the universal church would do this on the same Sunday.  


Do you find yourself, like many most probably would, asking what is the aim and purpose of such a decree?  If so, then it shows that the centrality of the Word of God has in your life needs some rearrangement.  As Catholic Christians, it is truly imperative that we centre our lives on being motivated and defined by the truth and power that lies in the Word of God.  The phrase “Word of God” has meaning and depth that is more than meets the eye. It isn’t only the printed words that form what is known as the Bible or Sacred Scripture, though for most it is limited to this definition.  John’s Gospel has a prologue which many find to be deep and esoteric, and here we are told that the Word of God is also the logos, who is Jesus himself, the second person of the Holy Trinity.  


When we understand this, then by saying that as Catholic Christians when we are called to centre our lives on the Word of God, we are in fact saying that our lives have a very strong need to be formed, shaped, moved and given purpose by BOTH the sacred words of Scripture, and the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Word made Man.  


The Church wants us to cherish the Word of God.

At every Catholic funeral, be it a Mass or a service, we have the option of placing Christian symbols on the casket of the deceased.  The funeral pall is the white cloth that covers the casket, symbolic of the baptismal garment that we wore at our baptism.  The other symbol is the Cross of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who saved us by his own cross on Calvary, and who calls each one of us to carry our crosses after him.  The third one is the Bible.  


I have little hesitance when placing the first two symbols on the casket, but the third symbol of our faith, the Word of God, is one which I sometimes wonder if I should leave out after having a chat with the survivors of the deceased.  This is because the words in the official Rites that accompany the placing of the Bible are “In life, (name) cherished the Gospel of Christ. May Christ now greet him/her with these words of eternal life:  Come, blessed of my Father!”


Of course the words are beautiful and touching.  Who doesn’t want to hear Jesus telling our beloved deceased relative or friend “come, blessed of my Father”?  It’s not that part that I struggle with.  I would want very much for every deceased to hear Jesus telling him or her that.  But it is what comes before those words that I fear may have a very hollow ring to it.  To say that in life, so-and-so CHERISHED the gospel of Christ is certainly not a throwaway phrase.  


At the celebration of any liturgy, the words that are used are very important, and don’t just lend themselves to aesthetics and pleasantries.  They need to mean what is said; otherwise they should not be said at all.  It has to therefore be true that in life, that there was evidence that the person had truly cherished the Word of God, and that includes frequent, if not daily appreciating the Word, pondering over the Word, and wanting to live life having been influenced and formed by the Word of God. We don’t cherish the Word by leaving it unopened with the spine uncracked and pages stuck together due to years of being left on the shelf.  While it doesn’t mean that every Catholic should be a scripture scholar, we do have a need to have some degree of familiarization with the Word of God. 


I always make a visit to the wake of the deceased before the day of the funeral to pray for the deceased, as well as to have a chat with the family members.  It is there that I find out a bit more about the spiritual life of the deceased, and whether he or she had, in their living days, demonstrated that the Word of God was indeed cherished.  Oftentimes, the family members cannot say with any degree of confidence that the deceased had been seen poring over the pages of the Bible or praying with the Word.  Of course, this may not mean that the person never did pray, but that there was no evidence of it taking place.


While we should never pray in order to be seen praying (Jesus does warn against this in the gospels), I am certain that if there was evidence that the person’s life was driven and shaped by gospel values and being steeped with the Word of God, it would have been easily detected.  


Pope Francis, by decreeing Word of God Sunday to be observed by the entire universal church, is in essence reminding us to have our lives shaped and textured by the words of Sacred Scripture. When we do this clearly and assiduously while we are alive, we not only leave a good and lasting legacy for our loved ones after we part from them in this life.  


At our funerals, our lives will make the words of the Rite truly meaningful, and give peace and real comfort to our loved ones. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

The one without a name in the gospel story isn’t just anonymous. What is missing could well be our own name.

The Gospels in the Bible are the heart and source of the Good News for us Christians, and there are many ways that the Gospels can be used to help us to grow and develop in our spiritual lives. As well, there are some codes or signals that are often found in the gospels, which can be little and seemingly insignificant to even take into prayer but when tapped on and used in prayer, can contribute to the opening up of the narrative that we are praying with to allow God’s word to surprisingly relevant to our lives in a way that we have never allowed it to before.  One of these ‘codes’ is right there whenever a person or individual is mentioned without his or her name stated.


We only need to have a cursory glance at the Gospel narratives from a general perspective to realise that there are quite many pericopes (extracts from the text) where we see this.  Many lepers who came up to Jesus were unnamed, and so was the healed servant of the Centurion, the rich young man (and the one who isn’t ‘rich’ but just young), blind men, the woman at the well, the man with the withered hand, the prodigal father’s two unnamed sons, the unnamed other disciple who walked with Cleopas our of Jerusalem toward Emmaus, and the young man who fled the scene after Jesus’ betrayal to the authorities, leaving his loin cloth behind (a symbol of baptism).  


We can obtain a wealth of contemplation and lectio divina possibilities when we come across such passages featuring these unnamed personalities and simply proceed to place our name in their place, and with that, put our whole selves into that pericope. We can picture ourselves in the scene encountering Jesus and presenting him with what weighs most heavily on our hearts, and listen to him speaking to us in the words that he utters to those unnamed persons in the text. When we do this, we open up our lives to the Holy Spirit to allow God’s Word to be both affective and effective to us. I cannot count the number of times where I have gotten much insight into the Scriptures with this simple prayer technique, and how it helped me to see the world from the perspective of scripture. 


Of course, two things are required to do this, and they are an active imagination and a humble spirit. I don’t think the former is much of a problem for many, because many people do have imagination, maybe even too much of an imagination.  But it is the latter which I think can be more of a stumbling block.  I can see that it could be challenging for some to imagine themselves as covered with leprosy, or having withered hands, or being a person whom Jesus is asking to sell everything he owns, or truly being an ungrateful person who has been healed of leprosy without going up to Jesus to show profound gratitude in an effusive and extravagant way.  But when we are able to overcome the difficulty of becoming humble and really put ourselves into their shoes, we become vessels, empty for God to use us for his purposes as well.


Try this method of praying with the gospel narratives the next time you find yourself struggling to pray with scripture.  It may just open a whole new world for you.

Monday, January 11, 2021

What does it mean that we cannot see the face of God and live?

There is a rather mystical and perhaps even strange instruction that God gives to Moses in his discourses with him in the tent of meeting.  Moses asked God to show him his glory, and the Lord’s responses was “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live”.  This is found in Exodus 3:20. One has to wonder why this is so.  Isn’t the aim and purpose of the spiritual life to be able to see the face of God?  After all, after the incarnation, wasn’t God’s face seen in the visage of Jesus Christ?  Didn’t many people in Jerusalem lay their eyes on God?  Yet, they lived.  So what is Exodus 3:20 saying exactly?  


Firstly, the face of Jesus isn’t the face of the Holy Trinity.  It is only the face of the second person of the Holy Trinity, who is God made man.  Although in him is the three persons, and seeing Jesus is seeing the Father, it isn’t this physical seeing that is alluded to in Ex. 3:20.  It has rather to do with something that happens when we enter into contemplative prayer – something that many people struggle to practice regularly and even more struggle to understand.  


Secondly, it isn’t the physical eye’s seeing that the Lord was referring to in his communication with Moses.  To “see” is more than just to look.  It is to behold, to be gripped by, to be enchanted with and to penetrate and to pierce through.  It even has the dimension of being immersed with and enveloped by.  


Once we know this, then we can see the connection between contemplation and the very important need to learn how to die to oneself in the spiritual life.  Contemplation, if it is to be deep and sincere, has very much to do with the struggle that many of us have to die to the self.  Especially when contemplation is Christocentric, where we immerse ourselves into the life, death and resurrection of Christ, there is a need to also similarly die to our own imaginations of how God should work, feel or even look.  To allow God to be God in his own way in prayer is a death in some form, and it is painful.


Death of the self is always a painful experience.  The mystics have tried to give some description of what a mystical union with God is – it is like becoming lost in the very presence of God.  It becomes very difficult at the heart of mystical prayer to differentiate between where I end and where God begins. There is a melding of beings and hearts. 


And this is where it becomes even more challenging – in order for the I to get lost in God, the I needs to become selfless.  It is a purification that is being carried out by God, and I could use an image as an analogue, it would be like how in Malachi 3:2-4 describes how God purifies us like the way a refiner purifies gold in a fire.  This is done with great love and constant gaze by the refiner who looks continually into the fiery and hot molten gold to ensure that all the dross and impurities that rise to the surface is completely burned away, leaving the gold so pure that its surface is so shiny and pure that the refiner can see himself in its reflection.  God wants to see himself in our purified love for him, and this requires of us to die to sin and die to the self.  The self doesn’t disappear, but becomes pure in its love for God.  


What is the dross in our lives?  These are what contemplation reveals to us.  They are the things that we are attached to in life, be it habits or fears or prejudices or parts of our hardened hearts when it comes to loving God and neighbor.  For many of us, these are crutches that we rely so much on to define ourselves, and the purification process that needs to take place is to allow ourselves to surrender these crutches to God.


We like to rate and judge the quality of our prayer by how our prayer makes us feel.  While this is not altogether wrong, there is a danger that we can be using the wrong standards to rate our prayer life.  Judging the quality of our prayer by the emotions that we experience means that I have still a long way to go before I become selfless.  It is still about me.


In our contemplative prayer, what ultimately needs to happen is that we come to that point to be able to turn our eyes away from ourselves and just be totally captivated, engrossed and taken up by God’s beauty, truth and love that we don’t even wish to look at ourselves and use our rating standards of prayer quality.  At that point, when we don’t make it about us, the self dies and we can look at the face of God, and live.  As long as there is an intense and crutch-like reliance on ourselves, our feelings, our sentiments and our emotions, we are still not fully gazing on the face of God.  


I believe that the purification that goes on in purgatory is what allows us to surrender those parts of us that are preventing us from fully gazing on God’s face which is what heaven is all about.

Monday, January 4, 2021

What’s at the heart of every resolution? God is.

Yes, we have made that crossing over from the dark and tumultuous year that was 2020 into the new 2021 last week. I am quite sure that many people all over the world were happy to leave 2020 behind, with everyone’s ominous encounter with COVID19 seared into our collective memory.  And if you are one who likes carrying on time-honored traditions, you would have inevitably made some form of resolution as the clock ticked past the stroke of midnight bringing us into the new year of 2021.

There can be very cynical reactions to resolutions.  I have heard many of them.  “What’s the use?  We always break them anyway”; “I don’t believe in resolutions as I want to live freely” or “resolutions are for losers”.  Whilst it is true that there is a very strong tendency to break resolutions made with the best of intentions, I believe that even the desire to want to make resolutions reveal something good inside of us, and it is rooted in God’s goodness and faithfulness.


Resolutions are most often virtues that one wants to embrace and live out in life, which one finds challenging. One realizes that one has in some way lowered the bar in life by the kind of life one had been leading, and that one should be doing better as a human being.  This takes humility to admit, and it shows that one is hopeful. It shows that one hasn’t given in to despair and given up in life.  


If only we realize that every penitent who meaningfully celebrates the Sacrament of Reconciliation emerges from the celebration with a resolution.  Those words of the act of contrition are not only words that express contrition and sorrow for having offended God through our sins.  They are also deep and sincere expressions of our intention to start anew, and to give holiness and our quest for sanctification another chance. No one comes out of the sacrament (or at least no one shouldcome out of it) being cynical and muttering under one’s breath “I don’t believe that I can cooperate with God’s grace to the extent that I won’t sin again”. Rather, the reality is that one wants to have more trust and hope in doing better to cooperate with God’s grace, and when one truly gives one’s entire heart, mind and soul over to God, one can indeed not sin in that way again.  It’s really a resolution that has a higher impact than a mere wishful thinking that happens at the stroke of midnight of Dec 31.  It is really a declaration of a belief in God’s grace and the power of faith.


As Christians, our ultimate belief is in the faith of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The power of the empty tomb of Easter Sunday is our basis for wanting to live life anew, to have fresh starts in life, and to be able to be less reliant on old habits that have kept us in their power and chains (which all addictions are prone to do).  


Qoheleth, to whom is attributed the Book of Ecclesiastes has a very interesting saying in 1:9, where he states “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”.  Taking it literally, one tends to become a cynic because this quote really does say that there nothing that is really new on the earth.  But it doesn’t mean that people should never try to improve themselves and better themselves.  


But even if we take that quote literally, it gives us a lot of hope, because God is not “under the sun”.  If he is the cause of the sun’s existence, and in fact, the cause of the entire universe’s existence, his power and his dominion is not under the aegis of the universe (and definitely not under the sun’s aegis!)  Our God is beyond the sun and beyond all that the universe can contain.  More to it, this very same God is even closer to us than we can dare to imagine.  


When we can fathom even a smidgen of this awesome reality, then it does make sense to make resolutions in life, especially when it is a direct expression in the belief in the power of God and the power of the empty tomb.


God bless you all in the bright New Year that 2021 will bring us.