Tuesday, March 13, 2018

We want to see Him

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year B

Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we enter Holy Week. It is not surprising, therefore, that our gospel story brings us to the very threshold of the events which would culminate in the Holy Week. But many would be distracted by what they see or rather not see. But the Church does not intend for this to be a distraction. On the contrary, it is meant to help us keep focused. Of course, I am referring to the covering of the crucifixes and all the images this Sunday. Many are familiar with the wider practice of the veiling of the crucifixes and images that takes place after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday in preparation for the unveiling on Good Friday, but having these already covered on the Fifth Sunday makes no sense. Well, veiling the crosses and images on the Fifth Sunday of Lent is an option in our liturgical books but, why? What does this ancient practice mean?

In the old liturgical calendar before the reform, the season within a season beginning with the 5th Sunday of Lent was called the Passiontide due to the fact that the Passion account of our Lord was read on this Sunday, Palm Sunday and Monday to Wednesday of Holy Week. In the old liturgy, the Sunday’s gospel had this concluding sentence: “But Jesus hid Himself and left the temple” (John 8:59). The great nineteenth-century Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Gueranger gives a mystical interpretation to the veiling in relation to this gospel. Just as Jesus hid Himself from the Jews who wanted to stone Him, so by the veils He is now hidden from the world in preparation for the mysteries of His passion. How about the statues of the saints? Well, the statues of the saints are covered too since, if the Master Himself is covered, so should be His servants. Another spiritual interpretation of the veiling is based on the fact that in Christ’s passion, not only was His divinity obscured but so was, in a certain sense, His humanity. He was so disfigured by the blows and scourges that He was hardly recognisable as a human being.

Though both the season of Passiontide and the liturgical readings for this Sunday have changed, the veiling of crosses may well accentuate in a dramatic way, the thirst of the Greeks who wanted to see our Lord at the beginning of today’s gospel. They approach the apostle Philip and put this question to Him, “Volumus Iesus videre.” “We should like to see Jesus.”  

Why were these Greeks looking for Jesus? The gospel tells us that they had come to the festival for worship. They may have heard many reports about the Lord, including the recent news that He had raised Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. Different people looked for Him for many different reasons. The Scribes and the Pharisees looked for Him in order to trap Him in their theological quarrels. The Elders and the Chief Priests were always looking for Him to kill Him. Herod the Tetrarch longed to see Him, perhaps out of curiosity. The crowds looked for Him because they wanted some bread and more miracles. The sick looked for Him in search of healing and consolation. Mary Magdalene looked for Him in search of forgiveness. Are you also looking for Him?

The words of these Greek Gentiles mirror the desire to find some sort of “God” that is found in most if not all cultures throughout human history. There is in the heart of every human being a natural thirst for God, which nothing, except an encounter with Him, can ever totally extinguish. This thirst for God is felt by everybody, including those who claim not to believe in Him or those who have no name for Him. Notice how this thirst becomes more pronounced whenever we are in dire straits. In times of doubt, when we experience the darkness of prayer and the dimness of faith, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” In times of bodily or mental pain, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” In times of loss, when our grieving is unbearable, we pray, “O God, I would like to see Jesus.” Many of us want to see Jesus only because we want Him to solve our problems and, possibly, make our lives easier.

Very often we fail to encounter Christ either because we do not seek Him or because we seek Him in the wrong places or for the wrong reasons. If we are looking for Jesus for the wrong reasons, chances are that we will be gravely disappointed, because we may not find Him. It’s not as if Jesus has chosen to hide from us. But our inability to encounter Him is due to our own limited vision - He simply does not fit into our expectations of Him. The Jesus whom we are searching for is indeed the very image of the Compassionate and Loving God, but He is also the Law Giver of the New Covenant which raises the benchmark for discipleship, the Teacher who shows us the Way that is narrow, the Saviour who beckons us to follow Him on the same path of renunciation to Calvary, the Judge who passes sentence on both the living and the dead. Thus, in order to encounter Christ, we must do so on His terms and not on ours. And there is no other way of seeing Him unless we are prepared to follow Him and become “like the wheat of grain which falls on the ground and dies,” and then we will “yield a rich harvest.”

If you would like to see God today, where can you find Him? There is no limit to the places and occasions where one may find Him. But the primary place for encountering God is in Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, the Primordial Sacrament of the Father, He who is the ultimate and perfect revelation of God. Today we continue to encounter the Word Made Flesh in scriptures and in the Apostolic Tradition. If you want to see Jesus, then read the Scriptures frequently and devoutly, for as St Jerome tells us, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” But most of all, we encounter Him in the flesh, truly, really, substantially, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. If you want to see Jesus, then celebrate the sacraments, especially that of the Eucharist and Penance, reverently and frequently, for as Pope Benedict wrote, “the liturgy is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond.”

Perhaps, there is another reason why so many can’t see Christ of God. We need to realise that it is we who are actually doing the hiding and God is doing the seeking. Due to the Fall, our likeness to that of God has become hidden and veiled. And because of our own personal sin and just like our first parents, we have often “hid from God” and not frequented the sacraments, out of shame. We hide ourselves from God because we wish to hide our shame and our insecurity. It is not Christ who hides Himself. It is us sinners who choose to hide from Him.

In a world that is losing its sense of purpose, these simple liturgical actions do have a rich mystical and spiritual meaning and purpose, pointing to a spiritual reality that is often hidden from a world that wears materialistic blinkers. Many continue to desire seeing. However, this desire may be felt in different degrees. In some, it is so ardent that it becomes a conscious daily longing. In others, it is so faint that it is hardly noticeable, because it has been suffocated by other worldly substitutes. The consoling thing is that Jesus also wants to see us too. That is why He came into the world. As we seek to encounter Him, He also seeks to encounter us. And so, we pray, we plead, we beg the Lord for this one request, “we would like to see Jesus.” And so we will. If you want to see Jesus, come to the table of the Word and the Eucharist, and you will find Him there. So, as the Church veils and unveils the Cross and sacred images, remember who it was who first veiled Himself to us, and then unveils us of our shame and sin.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Love is Free but it isn't Cheap

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B

You may have heard of this story. The man was at Hallmarks looking at a birthday card for his wife. One card had these beautiful words:
My love for you knows no bounds.
I would climb any mountain, pay any price, make any sacrifice
To show you the extent of my love. 
The man went to the sales clerk and said, “I love the message of this card, but do you have anything cheaper?”

I’m sure his wife and all the women in the room would agree, “Talk is cheap. Real love is costly,” and then add “Where’s my diamond ring?” The world is full of bargain hunters like this man. Among these are ever so many who hope to get something for nothing. But more often than not they get disappointed. This applies not only to material things but also to relationships. Just look at the underlying sentiment of a majority of modern-day love songs, what they say is that love is both pleasurable and free. Anyone remembers JLo’s chart topping hit in 2000, “Love doesn’t cost a thing”? Despite its falsity, modern culture doesn’t seem to let up on this mantra. Our culture worships at the altar of sexuality and the promise that doing what feels good will lead to fulfillment. Unfortunately, this is not true, and there is a wake of people with the costly wounds and scars on their souls to prove it. And so the search goes on and perhaps the goal would continue to be elusive unless one comes to accept that authentic love can only come at a great cost to our own comfort, convenience, and reputation.

But to say that love is free is not entirely false. Love is always free. It’s undeserved, unmerited and unconditional. But yet again, the paradox of love is that it comes at a heavy cost. True love demands sacrifice. Someone else has to pay for it. Yes, love involves great sacrifice. The great paradox of love is that though it may cost us nothing; it costs God everything. The German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reminds us that though God’s love is a free gift, it does not come cheap. It comes at the cost of God’s Son. “Nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.” The cost of our love has been paid by God. God’s love is not a sappy, sentimental, romantic feeling nor some warm fuzzy words that you would find in a Hallmark card. Rather, it is the love of self-sacrifice. He demonstrates this sacrificial love by sending His Son to the cross. “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” The cross is proof of the extent of God’s love.

“Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.”There is no doubt that this is a definitive statement about the extent of God’s love. But it also speaks to us of the true value and worth of our lives which we often discount.

Each one of us has a deep longing to be truly loved. But, in our desperation to be loved, we make compromises. To make ourselves appear loveable, we are quick to trade in authenticity for approval, and to sacrifice integrity for acceptance. In this bid for the approval of others, we fabricate for ourselves a façade to cover our hidden vices and dark addictions. We neatly present our lives in our carefully-curated social media posts, hoping to elicit affirmation, likes, more likes, and certainly love. We are narcissist who leach off the approval of others. But the truth is that Facebook likes can never be the measure of how much we are loved. It is entirely self-defeating and tenuous to feed our sense of self-worth through the borrowed compliments of others. One day, this façade will fall like a house of cards blown by a gentle breeze.

So we find ourselves alone - for no one knows us as we truly are; only as we have made ourselves to be. We find ourselves like scared children lost in a shadowy world of our making - a world of pretences and edifices. We long to be truly loved, and we long to be truly known. But we are constantly disappointed, constantly dissatisfied, because this is a longing that no finite, fickle and fading human love can satisfy. Yet there is one who looks into the depths of our hearts, who knows us intimately. And, keeping His gaze there, He says, “I love you.” This one is Jesus Christ. And His talk is not cheap. He had paid the heavy price of it on the cross.

He searches the deepest depths of us, our flickering virtue and devastating vices, our moments of triumph and our crushing insecurities - and He loves us. His gaze pierces through the façade of our imposter, sees us as how we truly are - and He accepts us. Through Him, we are truly loved. As St Paul tells us in the second reading with so much conviction, “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy, when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ…” And we know that we didn’t do anything, in fact we are incapable of doing anything to earn this love. St Paul assures us that this is an absolute “gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.” In this love, we are totally secure. Our identity is defined as children beloved by the eternal Father. No more striving. No more faking it. No more putting up a smokescreen just to appear loveable. God sees through it all, and in His Son, still loves us entirely and unreservedly.

This is the good news we rejoice over today. There's no such thing as a person God no longer wants. There are only people who haven't accepted His love. This is it: We are saved by God because He loves us. We are saved not because we deserve it. We don’t deserve it because we are sinners. St Paul in his letter to the Romans (5:8) teaches, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We are saved not because we have earned it. Love and salvation can never be earned. This is the extent of the love of God – that He saved us despite our sins and not because we were good. God came not to condemn us but to save us.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13). The Eucharistic sacrifice we offer at the altar is the same sacrifice of Christ, who lovingly laid down His life on the Cross for us. “In this way the love of God was revealed to us. God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him,” (1 John 4:9). We are shaped by God, and this divine love is life-giving, joyful, and transformative. This is the Christian image of God.

True love is sacrificial, costly, a love that no flawed human being can provide. God sent His Son to die on a cross as a substitution, to take the weight that we could not bear, to forgive us our wrongdoings and to bear upon His own shoulders our brokenness. Because of this precious, eternal sacrifice, God looks on us as He looks on His Son. We are given a place at His table, as beloved children - not because of what we’ve done but because of what the Son did.
The nail-scarred hands of God reach down to us; His nail-scarred feet run after us in love.
He alone sees through the imposter, sees the brokenness hidden behind the façade, and still loves us. He has done what we cannot do - that much is assured. He has paid the price, but we must acknowledge Him as our Saviour - as the only way to true love.
He confronts us with one burning question:
“Do you love me?”

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This is my programme

Third Sunday of Lent Year B

Pope St. Pius X was asked after his election, what would be the programme of his pontificate. He pointed to a crucifix and said, “This is my programme.” As the Lord began to instruct His disciples on the purpose and goal of His mission, it became increasingly clear that the cross lay at the very heart of His programme. In a similar vein, when we speak of Lent, we too can point at the crucifix and say with the same conviction, “This is my programme.” Today’s gospel leads our Lord closer to the very goal of His programme. Each trial which He faced and overcame, each revelation of His personal identity and mission, each action which resulted in the escalation of conflict with the powers-that-be, led Him one step closer to the goal of His programme – the Crucifix that awaited Him on Mount Calvary.

Of all four evangelists, the Fourth Evangelist alone records our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple at the beginning, not the end, of His ministry, during Passover. The scene the evangelists describes as taking place in the temple area is a common one. Merchants are actually conducting business in the Court of the Gentiles (the outer most courtyard of the temple complex). Some are selling animals for sacrifice (as a convenience for those traveling long distances and needing an animal for sacrifice upon their arrival). Others are moneychangers, there to exchange profane currency for the religious one so that the half-shekel temple tax can be paid (profane coinage have portraits on them believed by the Jews to be idolatrous and therefore are not allowed in the temple). All of the goods and services being provided are for the temple rites. The hustle and bustle of market life is compounded by the editorial note that this event took place during the Feast of the Passover, one of the three great pilgrimage festivals, which could witness the crowds swelling to phenomenal proportions. Imagine the chaos that must have descended upon the city when those crowds all hit the temple market. 

What exactly did our Lord find objectionable, since those selling cattle, sheep, and doves as well as the money changers were providing a legitimate service for pilgrims to the Temple? There was a stated purpose to the outer court or the Court of the Gentiles and a veritable marketplace was not it. As its name indicates, the Court of the Gentiles was a space that everyone could enter regardless of culture, language, or religious profession. In a highly complex system that discriminated against those who risk contaminating the Temple worship, having a section of the complex dedicated to the Gentiles is fascinating and quite telling. Already, there is subtle hint that the Jewish religion was meant not just exclusively for the Jewish nation but for all nations. This space was where the rabbis and the teachers of the law gathered, ready to listen to people’s questions and to respond to these questions. It was a place for teaching and evangelisation, for stirring the embers that lay dormant in stone cold hearts and igniting the flames of faith, for drawing the crowds in to worship the One True God. But its intended purpose was vitiated, corrupted even by the market.

What was Jesus’ response to this scenario? The gospel tells us that making a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with all the animals. And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And He told those who sold the pigeons, “Take all this out of here and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.” The word translated “market” is the Greek “emporion,” from which we get our English word, “emporium.” The marketplace, rather than facilitating true worship in the Temple, had blurred its primary purpose – man’s primary purpose – to worship the One True God and anything that detracts or distracts from this, is neither worthy of God, nor of divine worship.

The prophetic and radical action of Jesus in today’s gospel invites us to an honest and careful examination of our own Christian worship. What brings us here?  Hopefully we are here to adore the living God who shares His life with us, and to deepen our life in Christ through our prayerful dialogue with Him, expressed through the living word, through sacred hymns and canticles, through receiving His true body and blood and through ancient rites expressive of the beauty of holiness. We are here to participate in the harmonious song of salvation. Hopefully, we have come here because we have a zeal for our Father’s house that makes us want to be here, not because we have to, but because we want to!

But the fact is that this is not always the case. Our culture of worship seems to have been so overtaken by the secular culture of irreverence. Today, irreverence is understood as something that is humorous or entertaining, which is the standard for acceptability, particularly when the irreverent defies any standards of decency or conventional mores. Holiness, on the other hand, is often viewed as a neurotic disorder. We can witness the invasion of the “market”, the “emporium” into the “house of prayer,” in the form of the loss of the sense of the sacred, both in how we pray the liturgy and the way we act or present ourselves within the church, in the clothes we wear, the music we sing, the casualness of our behaviour. We have forgotten that our fundamental vocation is to worship God. Whenever we play to the crowd and seek to be popular, progressive and even fashionable, we risk transforming the Temple once again into the emporium. It is as if we are auctioning God to the highest bidder. We risk peddling the Word of God, whenever we attempt to manipulate it to fit historical, political or ideological circumstances, for the purpose of pleasing men and acquiring a reputation of being avant-garde.

As a public figure, I often labour under various pressures to act as a spokesman for this or that cause. There are times, I have been told, that I do not say enough about politics, or about the economic and financial crisis of our times. There are other times, I have been accused of being a quietist, in not speaking up on the many issues of injustice and corruption that plague our country and society. Perhaps, the reason why I do not seem to provide commentaries about these things, is certainly not because they lack importance, but is because I’m reminded of the words of the holy and humble Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship, Cardinal Sarah, who said, “The economy is important, politics are important, many things are important, but if we lose God we are like a tree without roots: it dies.” Without God, the cardinal said, “we are nothing. Without God man doesn't know where he is, where he is going and therefore it's a testimony of faith. Without God we are lost.” Very wisely, Cardinal Sarah warns us that “without God, man builds his hell on earth. Amusements and pleasures can become a true scourge for the soul when it sinks into pornography, drugs, violence, and all sorts of perversions.”

The church must therefore be that singular place in our society where the focus can be kept on what is most important – God. It is our duty to preach the centrality of God and to call people back to His true worship. It’s high time we return the Temple to its rightful purpose and cease to bend and reshape it to the market forces of society. It’s time to restore God’s primacy in the hearts of men and of societies, to restore “the eclipse of God” in contemporary society. “To preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), this is and should always be our programme.