Tuesday, April 24, 2018

We are all branches of the same tree

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

The Irish poet W. B. Yeats said, “If what I say resonates with you, it is because we are both branches on the same tree.” Hopefully something said today resonates with you reminding you that we are a branch on the same tree, the tree of our Lord Jesus Christ. And more importantly, hopefully something that Christ has said resonates with you on this day and on many others, reminding you that you are a branch of His tree. In today’s gospel, our Lord employs a readily accessible image in Israel during His time. In the final of the 7 “I am” sayings of Christ we have perhaps the most visual and poetic – “I am the Vine.”

The metaphor is not entirely new. As we can see in the Old Testament, Israel was often depicted as a vineyard (cf., Isa. 5; Jer. 5:10; 12:10-11), sometimes fruitful, sometimes not. Our Lord also used this imagery in parables to describe the Kingdom of God (Matt 20:1-16; Lk 13:6-9). But His use of it in John 15 is unique and notable for its intimacy: “I am the true vine,” Our Lord provides the key to that relationship as He exhorts the disciples on the eve of His Passion, “remain in me as I remain in you.” It is not just sufficient to know Christ or to encounter Him in an intimate way. The secret to that relationship is to “remain”, to “abide.”

One of the apostles, of course, did not remain in Christ; the danger of cutting oneself off from the vine and eternal life is real. It can happen; tragically, it does happen. It is why we have recourse to Confession, which restores us to full communion with Christ and the Church. Remaining in Christ includes remaining in the Church. So anyone claiming that he is committed to Christ but have wishes to distance himself from the people of God do not know what they are talking about. To say that one only needs the former and can dispense with the latter is an outright lie. Commitment to Christ entails commitment to His Body, the Church. We need both the church and Christ. They’re mutually inclusive - you can’t have one without the other. Our faith is not just personal or individual, as many modern Christians would claim today, but rather fundamentally and essentially communal and ecclesial. Being part of Christ means being attached to the Church, the Body of Christ. When we grow in intimacy with Christ, we must necessarily grow in intimacy with others. So, when people stay away from the community of the Church, from the BEC, from any fellowship with other Catholics, and yet protest that they are disciples of Christ, are living a contradiction.

There is another point apart from intimacy, that is put forward by the image of the vine and its branches – it is anonymity. In an age that idolises individual self-expression, in a culture where everyone hopes to have their five minutes of fame whether on a talentime show or on social media, where everyone seems to be fighting for the right to be different and unique, the parable provides a stern critique. In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another, it  is  impossible  to  determine  where  one  branch  stops and where another  branch  starts.  They all run together as they grow out of the central vine. What the vine image suggests about community is that, there are no free standing individuals in the community.  This metaphor of the vine and the branches is stark in its anonymity, that is, the visual image of the branches lacks any and all distinctions in appearance or character of gifts. What is essential is not isolated individuality but rather anonymous connexion with the Vine – apart from it we have no identity, we cannot have life!

So when we are genuinely and humbly connected to Christ so too are we intertwined with others in Christ, such that, by our very nature we bond into a community that seems inseparable, organic, woven together in love. So much so that who has what gifts and abilities is secondary - what matters is not who has or who does what, what matters is what we do as part of the whole and what we are together. Because when a branch is cut off, of course, it ceases to be fruit-bearing. When we break away and go our own way, we ultimately cease to be fruit- bearing.

But no one can ever claim community life is easy. Just ask the religious and priests who live in communities. We will be the first to tell you how hard it is to live as a community, and how humbling it is to be in a community. One may shine outside the community, but the community is the true litmus test of discipleship. Thus, the parable speaks of the need of pruning. Our Lord speaks of His Father, the vinedresser, doing two things that require a knife. Every branch that doesn't bear fruit, the Father removes, cuts away; and every branch that does bear fruit the Father prunes, so that it may bear more fruit. Likewise, we have to be pruned, bits and pieces, certain practices, vices, or habits or ways of being or ways of speaking need to be trimmed  up and off, in order for us to be able to grow in Christ. And more often than not this can be painful, the clipping and cutting, the fraternal correcting, the forgiving and reconciling, the changing of behaviours and attitudes. Pruning is always a painful process. It is a form of loss or death. But, paradoxically, the vinedresser is never more intimately involved than when wielding the pruning-knife! As any good gardening enthusiast will tell you, “Getting roses to bloom means cutting back the canes.” Growing pains. Pruning pains. Changing pains.

There is another theme that emerges from this metaphor - being overly presumptuous about our salvation. Such presumption is a sin against hope. It is basically saying that once a person has been baptised, his entrance into heaven upon death is guaranteed. It is what some Evangelical groups would term as the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. But the truth is that we may lose the sanctifying grace we have received through the Sacrament of Baptism by committing a mortal sin. The story of Holy Week leaves us with an important reminder that we should not ignore. One of the apostles, did not remain in Christ; he shared in the first Eucharistic meal but his heart had already been set to betray Christ. Thus, being committed to Christ means continuously being committed to the life of holiness, of personal sanctification, throughout our entire lives and not just be contented with a single moment of grace or conversion. It means remaining in the Church. It is not just enough to receive grace. We are called to remain in the state of grace and if this is not so, we should immediately make use of the sacrament of penance to be reconciled to God and His Church.

The call to abide in the vine should never be taken lightly or superficially. It calls for something quite radical and life changing. It is a call to a personal and intimate knowledge of Jesus himself, not an idea, but a living person. It calls for us to be “plugged” into Jesus, grafted onto His life, allowing His very presence to pulsate through our minds and hearts. It calls for us to be immersed in the life of the community and the Church, no matter how painful and challenging this may be. It is a call to be intertwined with others to the point that the whole becomes greater than the parts. To abide in the vine means always being committed to grow in the life of prayer and sanctification and never feeling complacent with the bare minimum or whatever is mediocre. Abiding in Christ, as St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, requires the wholehearted and transforming “confession of piety.” Finally, as the second reading emphasises, mere words are not enough when it comes to demonstrating a right relationship with God. Talking means nothing if, as the old saying goes, we don’t walk the talk. Rather, we must examine our hearts and “keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wiithout the shepherd, the sheep would be nothing

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, and it is customary in most parishes to speak of the qualities of the Good Shepherd and make the link with the priesthood. But this year, I’m going to take a little departure from this theme and instead say something about the sheep. No one can be called a shepherd without sheep. One of our Pope’s most immortalised phrases is the one where he makes references to pastors, bishops and priests, having to “smell” like their sheep. I am going to take that cue today and attempt to smell like the sheep.

Why sheep? Well the Bible often tells us that we are sheep. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. That word picture is at the heart of the best-loved Psalm–Psalm 23. And in Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel, our Lord Jesus self-identifies Himself as the good shepherd, and we His sheep. In order to gain a better appreciation of why God saw fit to tell us that He is our shepherd, we need to understand what it means to be sheep. I will admit I am not the world’s foremost expert on sheep. I grew up in the city and have never lived on a farm. I lived all my life in a country where the human population is not outnumbered by life-stock. Thank God for that.  In place of first-hand knowledge, I spent some time reading about sheep. It was funny, and kind of humbling. If our Lord refers to us as His sheep, was He making this connexion?

Do a little bit of reading about sheep and you’ll soon see that they are not survivors. They are not strong and independent creatures, not proud hunters or fierce predators. They’re actually kind of pathetic, entirely dependent upon a shepherd for at least three reasons.

The first reason why sheep need a shepherd is because sheep are dumb. Spend some time with enough of them and you’ll soon see that they aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, they are one of the world’s daftest animals. Sheep will follow one another. That’s part of their non-questioning herd mentality. But the problem is that they can follow another even over a cliff. They are scared of anything and get spooked by their own shadow. Without a shepherd, they may soon end up dead before ending up on someone’s dinner table.

And here’s a second reason why sheep need a shepherd: they are directionless. Sheep are prone to wander. Even if you put them in an absolutely perfect environment with everything they need (things like green pastures and still waters), sooner or later they will just wander off. Thus, the parable of the lost sheep is not an anomaly to anyone who is familiar with sheep behaviour. It may actually be a daily affair, and not just affecting one recalcitrant rebellious creature but sometimes, the entire flock, in the absence of a shepherd. If a shepherd doesn’t manage them, and keep them under constant surveillance, they’ll wander off and be lost.

Sheep are dumb and directionless. They are also defenseless. Left to themselves, sheep will not and cannot last very long. Just about any other domesticated animal can be returned to the wild and will stand a fighting chance of survival. But not sheep. Put a sheep in the wild and you’ve just given nature a snack. Fortunately for them, they are not staple meat for the poor and shepherds do not eat their own sheep. Only the rich could afford them and usually eaten as pie. Makes you wonder why they were called “shepherd’s pie.”

But sheep were not just eaten, they were also used as a common sacrifice under Levitical law. God commanded that the firstborn of every flock was to be offered to Him as a tithe and sacrifice, and sheep were the primary animal used for burnt offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. You’ll also remember that on the high feast day of the Passover, a family would gather together in their home, sit down and consume a sheep together. Sheep weren’t just eaten and sacrificed, but were appropriated for all kinds of uses. Sheepskin was turned into containers for wine and water, clothing, covering and parchments to write upon. Sheep bones and horns were made into writing utensils. Being a sheep wasn’t such a great thing. You either ended up on someone’s dining table or sacrificed in the Temple or made into someone’s accessory or stationery. It was no fun being a sheep, especially when you didn’t have a shepherd to protect it.

Sheep are dumb and directionless and defenseless. So, I guess when scripture tells us that we are sheep who need a shepherd, it is not meant as a compliment to us. It is just a very realistic assessment of who we are and what we need. Yes, it may be true that we have free will but more often than not, we do go with the herd mentality. As for intelligence, we have Albert Einstein’s infamous statement, “There are only two things which are infinite – the universe and stupidity and I’m not too sure about the first.” The stupid seldom admit their stupidity. In fact their stupidity is built upon the assumption that they are clever.

Yes, whether we would wish to admit it or not, we are sheep who are completely dependent upon a shepherd. To say that the Lord is our shepherd and we are His sheep, is to humble ourselves, admitting what is true about us. When you say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” you are saying that He must be in-charge. To declare that He is your shepherd is to allow Him to set the direction in your life, to call the shots, to set the terms and conditions of the relationship. To proclaim Him as our shepherd is to recognise that He is the very reason not only for our survival but also, our salvation. We would be nothing without Him.

Sheep do not have a reputation for being the most brilliant of animals. But what they lack in individual intelligence is compensated by their extraordinary sense of community and they can make excellent followers. The smartest thing a sheep can do is to be loyal to a good shepherd. Nature did not give sheep any good personal defenses like claws or wings or venom. But nature gave them something else, the instinct to stick close to a top-of-the-food-chain ally, someone who can throw a rock or build a fire or protect them from wolves and other predators and force them to go somewhere they would never choose to go, but which turns out to be a green pasture near restful waters.

More importantly, the sheep also have an additional quality, they know their true shepherd. “I know my own and my own know me.” What scripture knew over 2000 years ago, modern science has confirmed. Sheep, ridiculed for a non-questioning herd mentality, possess a sharp sense of individuality and can recognise the faces of at least 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least two years. Once they have that skill to recognise the true shepherd and listen to the right voice, they cannot be deceived because they have learned the sound of their own shepherd’s call.

“I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep,” says the Lord. Too often, we experience a cacophony of voices competing for our attention, for our obedience. And because it is very easy to fall prey to the many noisy and loud voices other than the one true voice of our Good Shepherd, we stray from the fold and get lost in the thickets. And when we feel lost, incapacitated, incapable of carrying on with our lives, let us spend time with the Good Shepherd, listening intently to His voice and accustoming our hearing to His invitation to an ever-deeper relationship with Him. For it is only through our obedience and trust that He can be a Good Shepherd to us and we the sheep of His fold.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Wounds are His Trophies

Second Sunday of Easter Year B

During the Middle Ages popular piety focused with increased intensity on the Passion of Christ and therefore held in special honour the wounds inflicted upon Him in His suffering.  Although some say that there were as many as over 5,000 wounds, medieval popular piety focused upon the five wounds associated directly with Christ's crucifixion, i.e., the nail wounds on His hands and feet as well as the lance wound which pierced His side (the five wounds of Christ corresponds to, and heals the five wounds inflicted by Original Sin). In our modern sanitised, anaesthetised, panacea craving society, a devotion to and meditation on the five wounds of Christ “may sound a bit medieval,” but according to our Holy Father, Pope Francis, “anyone who recognises he or she is wounded will find mercy and healing in the passion of Christ.”

For those of us who have an aversion to blood, gore and open wounds, the action of Christ displaying His more-than-just superficial scars would indeed be disturbing. Why would He choose to do so? The answer is actually quite simple. It was to establish his identity, that He was the very same Jesus whom they had followed, whom at last they had deserted, whom they had beheld afar off crucified and slain, and whom they had carried to the tomb in the gloom of the evening; it was the very same Christ who was now before them, and they might know it, for there was the seal of his sufferings upon Him. The same Christ who died on the cross is the same Christ now truly risen. He was the same person. He was not a phantom or a spectra. It was truly Christ’s same body but it was also a glorified body: He could appear and disappear at will, walk through closed doors, be somewhere at one moment and elsewhere the next.

Christ wears these scars in His body in heaven not as evidence of His failure but as His ornaments. The wounds of Christ are His glories, they are His jewels and His precious things. Nor are these wounds only the ornaments of Christ: they are His trophies—the trophies of His love. Have you never seen a soldier with a gash across his forehead or in his cheek? Why every battle-scarred soldier will tell you that the wound in battle is no disfigurement—it is his honour. Now, Jesus Christ has scars of honour in His flesh but He has other trophies. He has divided the spoil with us, the Church: He has taken the captive away from our ancient enemies, Death and the Devil; He has redeemed for himself a host that no man can number. We are all the trophies of His victories: but these scars, these are the memorials of the fight, too. Likewise, as Christ shows us that wearing these wounds of suffering is an honourable thing, to suffer for Him is glory. The Christian religion teaches us that it is not humiliation but glorious to be trodden, to be crushed, to suffer for our faith. The highest honour that God can confer upon His children is the blood-red crown of martyrdom.

Just like photographs, certificates and trophies which serve as reminders, the wounds of Christ too serve to remind us of the price that was paid for our freedom. They are reminders of the extent of God’s love. If the wounds had been removed we might have forgotten that there was a sacrifice; and, mayhap, next we might have forgotten that there was a priest. But the wounds are there: then there is a sacrifice, and there is a priest also, for He who is wounded is both Himself, the sacrifice and the priest.

There is another terrifying reason why Christ wears His wounds still. It is this. Christ is coming to judge the world. As the whole of humanity, every generation in every age, are arraigned before Him, His own wounds are His witnesses and proof of our guilt. “Habeas corpus.” “Show us the body.” But this is no dead corpse of a pitiable victim of injustice. This is a body of the first born from the dead, once truly dead but now risen. This is the body of the one who will judge “the living and the dead.” At the Last Judgment our Lord displays these wounds so that it might be apparent to all, even to the damned, how just their condemnation really is, in that they spurned so great a redemption. A crucified Christ with His wounds still open will be a terrible sight for an assembled universe because His death was wrought by the hand of mankind, of all and entire humanity, present company included. Others did it for you, and though you gave no consent verbally, yet you do assent in your heart every day. As long as you hate Christ and everything which is holy you give an assent to His death. As long as you reject His sacrifice, and despise His love, you give evidence in your hearts that you would have crucified the Lord of glory had you been there. As long as you desire to usurp the authority of God, you hammer another nail into His hands and feet. As long as you hate and mistreat your neighbour, you crucify Him afresh and put Him to an open shame.

But there may be another reason why our Lord sports His wounds. It is the Incarnation, “the becoming flesh”, the divine condescension which allows God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity to enter into our frail, fractured and broken human condition. In becoming one of us, our Lord understands that He cannot be immune from the scars and wounds we bear in our daily lives. Christ in showing us His wounds also means for us to learn that suffering is absolutely necessary. We all suffer wounds of one sort or another, some physical, some mental, some spiritual. Some are self-inflicted; some are not. Some of us carry them with us through life. The vulnerability of Christ’s wounded flesh confirms that it is indeed human flesh, just like all human flesh which is prone to suffer injuries. At the same time, the dreadful paradox of that which reminds us of His humanity, is also a revelation of His divinity. Witness the reaction of St Thomas at the moment when Jesus invites him to touch His wounds. We hear the most profound confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” The wounds offer sight – a sight which may be hidden from our physical eyes. As a result of our Lord’s offer, Thomas moves from doubt to belief: from question mark to exclamation mark.

Today, as we contemplate the great mercy of our Divine Lord, we come to realise this impossibly consoling truth: poor, weak, and wounded though I am, He has not and will not discard me. His wounds are healed wounds, note that they are not running sores; and so, though we be the wounded parts of Christ, we shall be healed; though we shall seem to ourselves in looking back upon what we were, as only parts of a wounded body, still we shall rejoice that He has healed those wounds, and that He has not cast us away. Precious truth! The whole Body, His Body, He will present before His Father’s face, and wounded though He be, He shall not cast His own wounds away. Let us take comfort, then, in this; let us rejoice therein. We shall be presented at last, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing. Christ's wounds are no spots to Him, no wrinkles, but they are ornaments; and even those parts of His church on earth that despair of themselves, thinking themselves to be as wounds shall be no spots, no wrinkles in the complete and perfect Church above, the new and eternal Jerusalem, which receives its light directly from the glory of Christ.

The wounds of Christ are a dignity not a deformity, a sign of love not of loss, an indication of obedience not of waywardness. Let us now look up by faith and see our Lord, the Wounded Jesus, sitting on His throne. Through His wounds the Lord says to us, “Here is what the world did to me, and yet I live. Here is the cost of your redemption and the lavishness of my love.” And we reply without hesitation or doubt, “My Lord and my God!”