Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You are of my tribe

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we often fall into the act of setting up barriers between ourselves and others. I think,  if we’re honest, we have to admit that we are basically ‘tribal’– we belong to ethnic and linguistic groups, families and classes; and each ‘tribe’ to which we belong has its own boundaries and limits, rules and expectations–and quite honestly, "we like that"! There are many alluring benefits of our ‘tribalism.’ We find strength and safety in our ‘tribe:’ we know exactly where we stand. It’s good to know there are people who think and believe as we do. However, there are some problems: We get pretty defensive about our ‘tribes’. We believe we’ve got it right, we’ve got it all figured out, we’re convinced that God is on our side and we can’t imagine anyone not thinking or seeing things the same way we and our ‘tribe' do! So, we refuse to open our ‘tribe’ to include anyone outside. You are welcome to be part of us – but, only on our terms!.

When God was setting up a people for Himself that would transmute to the universal community of God’s people, He began with the twelve tribes of Israel. This universal dimension was part of the promise made to Abraham: “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3); “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Genesis 22:18). Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations. However, history shows that they failed in this. Because of their special undeniable election as God’s chosen, Israel as a people had developed an aura of uniqueness and distinction. They began to think that they were the only favoured ones and that God does not care about other people.

Today, the readings serve as an important reminder that we should not confine and limit God to our myopic vision of things. He cannot be placed into a pigeonhole of our making. Though, man often draw boundaries, put up barriers, and group themselves into ‘tribes,’ God refuses to be limited in like manner. He crosses the line. In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah attempted to explode and expand the insular and parochial mentality of the Israelites by reminding them that God extended salvation and deliverance to foreigners and indeed to all who would come to Him in worship on His holy mountain, in His house of prayer. In the Second Reading, St. Paul takes the discussion further by assuring the Gentiles of God’s mercy which is open to everyone. He does this by reminding both Jews and Gentiles that all have sinned, all have been guilty of turning against God, and therefore, all are in need of salvation. God’s divine activities, His justice and mercy, His gift of salvation are not exclusively reserved for a privileged few, but for everyone irrespective of race or religious background. You are part of His tribe as long as you acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of His saving.

In the gospel, we find our Lord Jesus Christ crossing such man-made boundaries and divides. He moved away from the Jewish region to the region of Tyre and Sidon; the ancient Phoenicia (present day Lebanon), an area outside Jewish boundaries. The questions asked could be, why and what did He go there to do? Well the answer can be found in the Gospel story. The story reinforces the point that though Our Lord’s mission had come first for the people of Israel, it was not confined to them. He came as a Saviour for the entire world. The Lord who is not limited by barriers and boundaries encounters another – a woman who also looked beyond the boundaries. She saw beyond the limits. There is crossing of a great divide taking place here: from the chosen people of Israel who have a sense of entitlement to God's favour, to this woman of no standing, now showing faith in the Lord by paying Him homage.

Altering St Mark’s story of the Syro-Phoenican woman, Matthew depicts the story of a Canaanite woman, Israel’s ancient archenemies. It is an understatement to say that Canaanites were despised by Jews.  The Canaanites actually returned the favour and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation, this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her! She is able to see beyond her tribal prejudices and hate. But she does more than that. She behaves as someone who has radical faith in the Lord. She called upon the Lord by His messianic title, “Son of David,” the very man and king who had fought with her ancestors, deprived them of their ancestral land and reduced them to landless refugees.

The gospel about the Canaanite woman sounds unusually harsh. At first, the Lord appears not to want to acknowledge that He hears her imploring request; then He says that His mission has to do only with Israel. His third statement underlies the second: the bread He offers belongs to the children, not to the dogs. Now comes the marvellous phrase from the woman: “Ah, yes” or to paraphrase it, “Yes, you are right.” She sees the point of the Lord’s argument and even concedes to it, but she adds, “but even the house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” This, the Lord cannot resist, any more than He can resist the Gentile centurion of Capernaum: this humble, trusting faith in the Lord conquers His heart and her request is granted. In Capernaum, it was “Lord, don’t trouble yourself; I am not worthy”. Here, it is a willingness to occupy the lowest position, under the table. In each case there was faith, and so Jesus pronounces His judgment: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.”

In speaking about God’s universal plan of salvation, it is easy to overlook the fact that the earthly mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ really has to do with Israel: He is the Messiah of the chosen people, Israel, around which the Gentile nations are to flock, after it has been made whole and come to true faith. The first reading says this clearly. The Lord cannot make an end run around His messianic mission; He can act only by fulfilling it. This mission is accomplished on the Cross, where rejected by Israel, He suffers not only for Israel but for all sinners. Yes, the Lord came to save everybody. He is the Jewish Messiah as foretold, but He had come to offer salvation to everybody. The Messiah was to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6). He died on the cross as payment for all our sins, and He rose from death in resurrection, and He was the Good Shepherd and He predicted that His flock would be greatly expanded: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). He is the Messiah of the Jews, but He is our Saviour too.

We are living in times when there is an even greater fear of those who are different. There is a great impatience with those who do not speak our language; with those who have fled their country and sought refuge here without going through the proper channels. There is no denying that we live in a world marked by boundaries, and we cannot pretend that it is otherwise. And yet, we recognise that we worship a God who lives across boundaries, a God that does not belong to any tribe, and with no barrier, save except man’s wilful rejection of His offer of love that can keep Him from His goal of saving us.  The good news that Jesus brings to us again in this Eucharist, does not erase all of the distinctions that we find in our world. But it introduces a new principle—faith in the God who desires “to have mercy on all”, who desires to save us — that unites us across all our human divisions. It is now faith in God’s goodness and mercy, not any ethnic or national identity, that makes one an “insider” in His kingdom. It is our common faith in His abundant providence, that when we gather around the altar of the Lord, we can honestly look each other in the eye and say, “You are my brother. You are my sister. You are of my tribe.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Domus Dei et Porta Caeli

Solemnity of the Assumption 2017

During the formative years as Seminarians, one of our regular pastoral assignments was to engage in corporal works of mercy at the Holy Family Home for the Aged at Batu Lanchang, Penang, which is administered by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Many of us looked forward to this particular assignment, not because of the ignoble work of having to bathe, feed and attend to the daily needs of the elderly, but for a less altruistic reason. The Sisters served one hell of a breakfast and lunch! Apart from this culinary feast as motivation, the highlight of the day’s work was to assist at the Sunday mass celebrated in the quaint Art-Deco inspired chapel. Prominently placed above the arch of the main western door of the chapel is this Latin inscription: “Domus Dei et Porta Caeli”, House of God and Gate of Heaven. To anyone unfamiliar with the titles accorded to Our Lady, these words seem to be obvious titles for a Church, offering consolation to both the elderly residents and nuns who cross the threshold as they enter into this house of prayer.  However, these titles are not just meant for the Church, but titles most suitably assigned to Our Lady.

So why and how is Mary the “Gate of Heaven”? First, Our Lady is the Gate of Heaven because Our Lord Jesus chose to come to us through her. Blessed John Henry Newman tells us that “it was through her that our Lord passed from heaven to earth.” Blessed Newman saw our Lady as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel, “the gate shall be closed it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it—and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.” Christ, is the long awaited Prince and the closed gates must now yield to Him. Eve’s decision in the Garden of Eden closed the door to an earthly paradise. That gate is forever barred. But now the barrier between heaven and earth has been breached when Christ Himself chose to come into the world through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and His death and resurrection renewed the promise of salvation. It was Mary’s fiat, her total, complete willingness to act as the handmaid of the Lord, which provided the means through which the gates to a Heavenly Paradise would be reopened.

But Mary is not just the gate that Our Lord chose to pass through to get to us, she is also the gate by which we must enter to go to Him. Therefore, it is no exaggeration for St. Bonaventure to say that, “Mary is called gate of heaven because no one can enter that blessed kingdom without passing through her.” Furthermore, St. Bernardine of Siena says the following, “As every mandate of grace that is sent by a king passes through the palace gates, so does every grace that comes from heaven to the world passes through the hands of Mary the Gate of Heaven.”

It can be difficult to understand just how Mary acts as a means to our redemption.  She is not God, nor did she die in reparation for our sins.  But here’s the thing; Mary’s fiat, her unconditional ‘Yes,’ it is absolute perfection, the embodiment of God’s plan for the human race, had necessarily provided the occasion for God to breach the gap, overcome the barrier, and heal the wound of sin separating us from Him. It is the surrender to God’s will by this woman that brought forth the Saviour of mankind.

Since Our Lady’s holy submission to God’s will had reopened the gates of heaven, it is only logical and reasonable that she should be the first of our race to directly imitate the mystery of Christ’s resurrection and Ascension into heaven in her Assumption, and enter through that very same gate. Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold her body or soul. And so, the Church declared in the dogma of the Assumption that at the end of her earthly pilgrimage, Our Lady was assumed body and soul to heaven without knowing corruption.

Though the Bible provides no explicit account of Our Lady’s Assumption, we do, however, have tradition. According to Catholic tradition, Our Lady lived at Ephesus after the death of her Son, although her tomb was thought to be in Jerusalem. It is said that the Angel Gabriel, just like at the Annunciation, was sent to warn the Blessed Lady that in three days she would die and be reunited with her Son in heaven. The archangel gave her a palm, symbol of her victory over sin and death, and instructed her to carry it with her into her coffin. Upon learning of her approaching death, Mary prayed that the Apostles would come so that she might see them one last time. According to the ancient apocryphal text Transitus Mariae, the Apostles were miraculously transported from their various mission lands to Mary’s bedside on clouds. Then on the day of her death the Lord Jesus appeared and bore away His mother’s soul, and He returned three days later, when the angels took her body up into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Later, when her tomb was opened, it was found empty.

To the skeptics who are doubtful of tradition John Henry Newman pointedly asks, “If her body was not taken into heaven, where is it? Why are not pilgrimages made to it? Why are not relics producible of her, as of the saints in general? Plainly because that sacred body is in heaven, not on earth.” Further, it stands to reason that the Blessed Virgin Mary would follow her Son in His victory over death by Resurrection and be brought body and soul “to the highest glory of heaven, to shine as Queen at the right hand of that same Son, the immortal King of Ages.”

At the prospect of death many often recoil in horror. We fear that when we finally appear before the Gates of Heaven, our passage beyond the threshold would be barred. But today, we are reassured by the Church once again, that death does not mean the end, but merely a transition to another life, and that there is one who has passed through those gates. And she now stands beside her Divine Son to intercede on our behalf. Our certainty in her intercession is to be found in the beautiful words of that ancient and scripturally inspired prayer to Our Lady, the Hail Mary. The Church teaches us to call upon Mary – now, the present moment, which is in our power, and “at the hour of our death,” which is beyond our power, so that with the help of Our Lady, we may be given the chance to enter Heaven.

Mary is the archetype of the Church and our Mother. The Preface captures well this intimate connexion: Our Lady’s Assumption marks “the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people.” In the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Council in a very beautiful way described Mary’s assumption into glory: “Just as the mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth until the day of the Lord shall come as a sure sign of hope and solace to the people of God during their journey on Earth.” Our Lady now lives where each one of her children will live one day in our own resurrected body. When Christ returns in glory, He will command our mortal bodies to rise from the dead. Then our body and soul will be reunited, never more to suffer or die. Mary’s assumption is given to us to contemplate because it speaks to us of our glorious future if we remain faithful to God. Let us ask Our Blessed Mother, the Porta Caeli, who opens her arms, to her often wayward children, to intercede for us as we continue our journey towards heaven.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The god of convenience

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Every first day of Chinese New Year would mean paying a visit to the home of the matriarch of the paternal side of my family, my great grand aunt. I used to be fascinated by the images of the Buddhist and Taoist deities placed on top of and below the family altar. I guess its placement indicated the importance of the deity in the hierarchy of that pantheon. One particular year, I noticed a distinctive change in the altar arrangement. It was the placement of a strange looking ‘deity’ among the other more familiar personages. Surprisingly, it was a photograph, not a painting, of a chubby cheerful-looking Indian man with a large afro hair-style, placed at the very center of the altar top. It triggered my innate curiosity. My mother, being ever so intuitive, frowned and forewarned me not to ask any silly and embarrassing questions. My father, clueless as ever, blurted out, “Who is that man in the picture?” My great grand aunt quipped, “Oh, He’s Sai Baba. He’s a powerful miracle worker, a God worshipped by many of his devoted followers.” I must confess, he looked more like a cuddly teddy bear.

The following year, I noticed that the photo-portrait of this god-guru had been relegated to an ignoble spot beneath the altar and in the year thereafter, the photograph disappeared altogether and was never seen again. I guess this god-guru had proven to be a serious let-down to have been booted from great grand-aunt’s list of deities to be honoured and worshiped. This whole little episode got me thinking. How easy it is for people to look for a god that fits the bill, who meets their expectations for prayers answered, disasters evaded or financial crisis resolved. But the soonest they discover that this deity no longer serves their purpose, they are ever ready to change alliances; some even changing gods as frequently as they change their underwear.

This little story is not intended to belittle non-Christian beliefs or dismiss them all as superstition. The purpose in telling this story is to highlight the point that it is often so convenient to make God fit our bill of expectations, to make Him in our own image and likeness. So many, “Christians” included, have created a god in their own image and likeness, a God that sounds like them, think like them, and even feels like them. This is a convenient God to worship, especially when he agrees with your lifestyle, when he tolerates and exonerates what the Church condemns as sin. Unfortunately, there is almost no end to this ridiculous god-making because there is always some new crime or sin that needs to be justified. This is a God who makes no demands of you and doesn’t expect you to change. Rather it is those who hold on to their antiquated scriptures and magisterial teachings who must change. How convenient?

However, the truth is that our God does make demands of us. In the call of Our Lord Jesus Christ announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, the clarion call to change is made, “Repent and Believe in the good news!” Being able to change is simply part of being a Christian! True, but it is too bad the vast majority of “Christians” don’t see it that way.

The truth is, it’s tempting to co-opt the Lord and His message. The re-envisioning of Jesus is most obvious when it violates actual historical fact, but there are countless subtler versions of the same distortion. There is the Jesus who welcomes sinners and celebrates their lifestyles without asking for change. There is the warm and fuzzy Jesus who only teaches love and mercy, a mercy that doesn’t require repentance. There is the self-help Jesus who came to motivate you to be the Best-You. There is also the Jesus who understands that your personal happiness is paramount, and others are secondary, when you choose to get a divorce or an abortion. And then, there is the radical social-justice orientated Jesus with a political economic revolution to lead. Not surprisingly, most of these Jesuses look much like the Christians promoting them.

It is good to take heed of the wise advice of St. Augustine, who said that “if you comprehend, it is not God. If you are able to comprehend, it is because you mistook something else for God. If you almost comprehend, it is again because you allowed your own thoughts to deceive you” (Sermon 52, 16; see also Sermon 117, 5). Our supposed knowledge and perception of God, which is freed from Divine Revelation, is often prone to self-deception.

In today’s first reading, we accompany Elijah, as he encounters the God of Surprises. Elijah had just won a great victory for the Lord on Mount Carmel but it proved to be a Pyrrhic one. No sooner had he defended the reputation and dignity of the God of Israel over the false pagan god of the evil queen Jezebel, the latter threatened to have him arrested and killed. He fled into the desert where through the ministration of an angel, he was led to this mountain, the scene that we had just heard in the First Reading.  He had confronted the false gods of the pagans on the other mountain. But now, he must confront his own demons, his own false images of God on this mountain. He has to silence all his internal voices and put aside all his presumptions that tell him what God is like so that he can receive God as God is. Once Elijah has met God on God’s terms, and not on his own terms, he is open to hear the truth, which sets him free from illusion. God sends him on his last mission to appoint a successor, the prophet Elisha.  

In the gospel, we have another incident of mistaken identity that needed to be corrected. The miracle of Our Lord Jesus Christ walking on the water, recorded in three of the Gospels, came on the heels of His miraculous feeding of the multitude. It was the miracle of Jesus walking on the water that, more than any other, convinced Jesus’ disciples that He was indeed the Son of God. But this recognition did not come immediately. In fact, when the disciples initially saw the Lord walking on the lake, they thought He was a ghost levitating above the surface of the sea.  Had they been waiting in faith, they would not have jumped to this conclusion. This may be the first but would not be the last occasion for mistaken identity.  After His resurrection, the Risen Lord was again mistaken for a ghost until He chose to allow His disciples to touch Him and to eat with Him. Ultimately, this challenged them to deeper faith, not just to take the leap of faith and walk across the waters like St Peter, but to accept the deeper truth of the Incarnation, that He indeed was the Son of God.

That is what makes the Incarnation both redemptive yet dangerous. On the one hand, God came near. He took on the frailty of human nature, making possible an unprecedented intimacy between Him and us. His resurrection made possible our resurrection. But there is also something dangerous about the Incarnation. The same humanity that enables intimacy can also become idolatry of the self. Instead of the true Jesus, we worship a ‘ghost’ of our own making. Each of us can recognise some aspect of our own humanity in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that is good news, but we can just as easily fixate on that reflexion and exalt it inordinately. When this happens, we are no longer looking at the complete person of Jesus, but only a mirror image of ourselves.

The beauty of the Incarnation is that Jesus resembles all of us while resembling none of us. That tension is the secret to really knowing Jesus. The Incarnated Word makes known to us the face of the Invisible God. By sending His Son into the world on Christmas, God upended everything. In revealing the Truth about Himself, He exploded all the false images based on speculation and human projections, overturned all our presumptions and revolutionise the way we should view the world. His Truth calls us to take a step forward in faith, to view things not from our perspective but from His. If this Truth does not change your mind on a regular basis, then the god that you worship is not God. Your god is the convenience of belief.