Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Judge and King

Christ the King Year A

Dies iræ! Dies illa Solvet sæclum in favilla:
The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes …

Does this sound familiar to any of you? Well, if you had listened carefully to the English translation, you would have realised that this Latin poem evokes a frightening image of the Day of Judgment – it describes it as a Day of God’s wrath, a day when the world will be dissolved into ashes, a day when God sits as judge firmly and strictly investigating everything. Nothing will be hidden from his sight, no evil will remain unpunished. This frightening image of the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, would obviously not sit well with many today. In fact, this medieval Latin hymn, Dies Irae, which was a characteristic part of the Catholic Requiem Mass before the renewal of the liturgy after Vatican II, was removed from the present Catholic funeral liturgy, because some felt that the hymn was saturated with negative spirituality inherited from the Middle Ages. They felt that the song had overemphasised judgment, fear and despair whereas the funeral liturgy should actually be focusing on the hope and joy of the resurrection. So, the song got the boot!

But, the issue does not just boil down to a song. It is the idea or the image of God that lies behind the song. An image that would obviously not sit well with a crowd of Catholics today, who would be expecting Jesus to look something like the picture of the Divine Mercy and the Sacred Heart, a Jesus with a kind, compassionate and gentle face with arms outstretched to give us a warm fuzzy hug, to welcome all of us, even the most wretched among us. We find it hard to reconcile a Jesus who is merciful and loving with a Jesus who sits in judgment of us. Perhaps, some would even cite today’s gospel, “Look, Jesus identifies with the weak, the poor and the marginalised.” This is the kind of Jesus whom we would expect to be our BFF, our Buddie for Life, the Jesus who seems to be just ‘an ordinary Joe’, not a cosmic universal king who will act as our final judge. This last image seems too alien and distant from us.

But before, we come to a conclusion about the kind of Jesus whom we would like to worship, let’s listen to the rest of this hymn, especially the next stanza. I will just stick to English.

Grant me a place among the sheep, and take me out from among the goats,
setting me on the right side.

It’s quite clear now that this hymn is describing the scene in today’s gospel, the story of how Jesus separates the sheep from the goats. Read on any other occasion, it would not be too hard for someone to conclude that the whole crux of the story is this: all it takes to get to heaven is to offer a cup of water to someone who is thirsty, because you may actually be offering a drink to Jesus, Himself. It is certainly a nice interpretation that reminds us of the responsibility of fraternal charity. Nothing wrong with this reading, but is it adequate?

Do remember that this is a parable of judgment. More importantly, Christ is presented as a cosmic all-powerful king sitting on His throne and as a judge summoning the accused to trial. Perhaps, this setting is entirely lost to most of us because the gravity and seriousness of the Day of Judgment is no longer emphasised in our modern liturgy. In fact, the parable of Jesus presents two images of Christ, both seemingly at opposite ends of a spectrum. One image is that of a God who is transcendent, who is distant from us, who sits as king in judgment of us. The other image is an image of a God who is immanent, who dwells among us, who is in complete solidarity with us, and who identifies with us. The parable reminds us that both these images of Christ are not mutually exclusive. One does not cancel out the other.

Our preference for the gentler image of Jesus betrays a certain prejudice on our part. The idea of a remote or formal king does not resonate with us. What we want is one whom we can identify with, one who is like us; an approachable, compassionate and gentle king. Unfortunately, it is not a matter of choosing one image over the other. Our Lord is that cosmic king seated on His throne of judgment – and there is a chasm which separates us lowly creatures from His august presence. Majesty which deserves worship and adulation is always marked by distance. You admire and worship someone only when you admire them from a distance, not when they are standing next to you and doing the same things as you. At the same time, this is a Jesus who has chosen to cross that chasm, knowing that no man nor woman will be able to make that journey; this is the supreme judge who understands that no mortal is able to bear the sentence for which he is accused, and who finally chooses to cross the distance from the bench to the gallery to take the place of the accused, the condemned in the dock, and to be punished and executed in his stead.

It is easier to understand why the world requires a loving and compassionate king, a king who soothes us when we fall, a king who embraces us when we are lonely, a king who kisses our wounds to make the pain go away. Who wouldn’t want to have this kind of a king? But I believe Jesus came not merely to act as life’s panacea, a painkiller, for us. Ultimately, the world is in need of a king who calls and challenges them to greatness rather than mediocrity. The world is in need of a king who gives them a chance to experience the perfection and the holiness of the divine, rather than just being satisfied with our human weaknesses. The world is in need of a king who demands radical self-giving and loving, and not only when it suits us. The world needs a king to inspire us, not a king who looks and behaves just like us.

Today, in our attempt to make God and the divine more accessible, for example, by transforming the sanctuaries of our churches into empty spaces barren of beauty, in the removal of communion rails, in the singing of music that approximates the kind of music we listen to in our daily mundane existence, there is something about the character of the liturgy that is lost – we lose focus of the object of our liturgy, which is to worship God. In place of this, man is worshipped in his stead. But it is not just liturgy which suffers. Christian life suffers too when we choose to depict Christ merely as an ordinary Joe. There is no challenge to aim for loftier goals. At the end of the day, when Christ becomes ordinary, He will soon be forgotten, since He only acts as a functional implement or tool whenever we need Him.

As a priest friend of mine once said, “if we erase the distance, wipe away the blood and hide the painful suffering of the crucifixion and demythologise the divinity of Christ, we sanitise the image of our King to the point of an empty symbol.” We have reduced Christ to a mere panacea or an intoxicant that serves to make us feel good in our otherwise miserable existence. But, this is Christ, King of the Universe, the one whom we must subject ourselves to. This is Christ, the Judge, who will call us to account for our actions, and who would demand evidence that we had recognised Him in His people. This is Christ, our Lord and God, who chooses to come among us, God who becomes man in order that men may become gods. This is Christ who inspires us and reminds us that we are made in His image and likeness, a royal priestly people called to give glory to God. Let us not make the mistake of reducing Him into nothing more than an image of ourselves. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Grace, Risks taking and Gratitude

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

In today’s gospel, we encounter the literary genre called the folkloric threesome. Storytellers throughout the ages have discovered that three events, characters or issues in a story provide an importance access point for the hearer. There is often some emphasis, climax or concentration of attention directed to the last character of the series. And so we have the familiar fairytales of the three bears and Goldilocks, the three little pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella and her two sisters plus stepmother. The twist in the story is that the last and third character, who is often depicted at the beginning to be the least likely to succeed, would eventually spring a surprise at the end of the story by emerging triumphant. Thus, the use of the folkloric threesome seeks to turn the perception and values of the audience upside down.

Jesus gives us the parable of the three servants who had been entrusted by their master with different levels of responsibility, one with five talents, another with two, and the last with only one. One would expect, that the story would follow the traditional folkloric threesome ending. The one entrusted with one talent, the least likely to succeed, would emerge champion and prove himself to be the most trustworthy servant of all. But the stories of Jesus do not necessarily have to follow the normal schema of things. In fact, this poor man, perhaps not thought of so highly by his master, which explains the entrusting of just one talent, would actually have to live out the self-fulfilling prophecy of being a loser.

This parable has often been used to illustrate the point that we must all use our God-given talents. This is certainly one of the points which Jesus wishes to make here. But there is something much more profound here – it speaks to us about what it means to be prepared, it speaks to us about how we should respond to the graces we have received especially in the sacraments, and finally it speaks to us of the importance of gratitude.

Today’s parable comes after last week’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, five who were wise and five who were foolish. Both these parables are eschatological parables – in other words, they both speak of the end times. Both these parables provide us with clues as to how we are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. If last week’s parable spoke about keeping enough oil for the lamp to be burning, this week’s parable emphasises the need to invest our talents. The oil in last week’s gospel parable referred to something which was internal – our inner life, our spiritual life, our faith relationship with God which is nurtured by prayer, contemplation, the sacraments, devotion and sacrifices. However, the inner life would finally have to find expression in our external actions and behaviour. So, this week’s gospel reminds us that the inner life that we have cultivated must be translated into action – we must always be committed to the mission of Christ. Faithfulness to this mission, symbolised by the other two servants investing their talents and gaining more, will be rewarded. However, a lackadaisical or indifferent attitude to our mission will also be repaid at the end, as in the case of the third servant.

The parable of the talents also speak about the grace of God. One may judge the master as someone unjust who seems to favour some servants over the others. Another way of looking at it, is that it points to God’s gratuity, His abundant generosity – that he would even risk granting a boon, a grace to the third servant, even though he knew that this man would not amount to much. Thus, the real difficulty here is not that God had not given His graces to all three, He did, but to each according to his needs. God’s justice is not egalitarian – everyone is placed on a level playing field. Neither is God’s justice based on merit – to every man or woman what he or she deserves. No!  God's justice is this: to every man or woman what he or she needs. God still dispenses graces to those who don’t deserve it. But grace is both a gift and a response. God pours out His graces on us through the sacraments of the Church, but calls on us to respond to that gift by growing in personal sanctification or holiness.

But God’s graciousness should be matched by our willingness to take risks. This was the failing of the third servant. If we wish to be disciples of Christ, we must take risks. Why did the man go off and bury his one talent – why did he do that?  He wasn’t dishonest or unethical. He could have been lazy, but perhaps, the real reason was fear, as indicated by his excuse to the master.  He took what he felt was the safest way – no action. He felt safer to do nothing rather than take the risk of investing his talent and failing or losing it all.  His ostensible fear let him forget that the nature of the gifts entrusted to him is to produce more – it is a call to be fruitful. The real test of discipleship is fruitfulness. It is ironic, that he treats a “living” gift as if it were dead, by burying it. Each day we are faced with thousands of decisions and how often do we opt to do nothing rather than taking the risk of doing something.  We worry about what will happen, what others will think of us, if we will look stupid, or if we will fail.  When we are unprepared to take risks for Christ, our lives count for nothing.

There may be another reason why the third servant failed to respond to his master’s gift. The answer can be found in his own defence of his actions. He saw the talent not as a gift but as a curse. The real reason for his inability to respond like the other two servants was his lack of gratitude. Gratitude or the lack of it shapes the way we view life. When we lack gratitude, then life seems to be a curse. We begin to see ourselves as victims of injustices, both real and imagined. For someone who lacks gratitude, life would always seem unfair. We refuse to take responsibility for our own lives and continuously find some reason or cause to blame someone else, even God. We eventually grow despondent and cynical. In many ways, we are digging a little hole for ourselves and calling it quits even before the end. Looking at life through the lenses of gratitude, however, changes everything. Every moment becomes an opportunity for growth rather than another obstacle to be avoided or a curse to be rid of. Gratitude helps us to appreciate what we have, rather than to gripe about what we lack.

When the master finally returns, there will be an accounting of His resources, of what He had entrusted to each servant. To each of us has been given a certain amount of time, a certain amount of opportunities, a certain amount of gifts and graces and a certain amount of talent. No point comparing our lot with that of the other guy. At the Final Judgment, God will hold each of us accountable for what we have received from Him. For the unfaithful who chose to take the safe path, who misused the time, resources and opportunities accorded to him and demonstrated unfaithfulness, who saw life as a curse and burden rather than as a gift, he will be thrown “out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For those who have faithfully served the Master, who chose to take the risk to follow Him even on the path that led to Calvary, who have used His gifts and graces for His glory, whose hearts swell with gratitude and are able to express that gratitude by sharing it with others, this passage reveals a most splendid promise, “come and join in your Master’s happiness.”

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Extra Jar of Oil

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

As many of you know, I just returned last month from a nineteen days long pilgrimage to Western Europe. As usual, I was bombarded by the same question countless of times, “How was it?” Without hesitation and unrehearsed, I replied, “It was very good, but challenging.” I then began to explain myself. Lost luggage right at the very start, pilgrims having to cut short the journey due to a family emergency and last, but not the least dramatic of all, lost passports on the eve of our return. It seemed that what could possibly go wrong, went wrong with this trip. And yet, despite all the unplanned emergencies and heart-stopping mishaps, most of us, including the ‘victims,’ emerged strengthened by the whole experience; in fact, doubly certain of God’s Providence and protection. In a way, the surprises were the value-added elements of our pilgrimage – a reminder to be constantly vigilant and be ready for the moment when the Lord decides to change our life’s itinerary. 

But in hindsight, no amount of careful preplanning or caution could have prevented the twist and turns in our itinerary. What then was needed to weather the unannounced storms and detours of life? This is where today’s parable becomes illuminating. Many have focused on the element of wakefulness in today’s parable. But it is important to take note that the passage records that “all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise slept as well as the foolish! But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval from the Lord. It seemed perfectly natural, under the circumstances. This indicates that Christian vigilance does not mean continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Reminders, like the Church’s annual season of Advent, are helpful and needed, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, food must be cooked, laundry washed, school lessons learnt, weddings and funerals held, time for rest and leisure - life must go on.

So, the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish has to do not with staying awake but with having sufficient oil. In unraveling the mystery and the symbolism of the oil, we can perhaps begin to understand the depth and meaning of being prepared in the Christian context. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecration (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled). Likewise, in the life of Christians, nothing good happens without the inspiration, the guidance and the strength afforded by the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism at baptism and Confirmation, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives.

Notice that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids had oil to start with. The difference lay with the extra jar of oil. The vital point in the foolish bridesmaid’s ‘foolishness’ was not that they ‘slumbered and slept’ but that they had no oil in their vessels. They had oil in their ‘lamps’ to start with, a testimony of the sanctifying grace a person receives at baptism. But they failed to bring along an extra supply of oil – indicating the many souls who fail to grow in sanctity, making use of the channels of grace like Holy Communion and frequent confessions, failing to apply themselves to grow spiritually through study, devotion and prayer.

The great danger is that so many have become contented with the mere fact that we are baptised and have done little more to grow in our personal faith life. This is the problem with the foolish bridesmaids. They had forgotten an important lesson in life, it’s not just how you begin the story but how you choose to end it. Our salvation depends on so much more than just being baptised. Our faith must go beyond the rudimentary catechism that was given to us when we were young. It demands that we live out the call to holiness that comes with being a Child of God.  That’s what’s so wrong about the fundamentalist evangelical idea of “once saved, always saved,” that you only have to believe and accept Christ as your Saviour once in your life to be automatically “saved” regardless of what you do the rest of your life. That is certainly not true. St Paul tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” And if our light is to endure to the end, we need an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, undergirding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life.

Holiness is that extra reservoir of oil. We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Through it, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. But that is only the start. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us forgiveness if we have strayed from the path of holiness. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Holy Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life. We must never feel complacent that we have sufficient ‘oil’ of holiness. We must be constantly working at ensuring that we have an extra supply.

That is why the wise bridesmaids could not share their extra oil with the foolish ones. This is because the oil which the wise bridesmaids possess is not something external- like food or clothes or money. The oil which is used in this parable is a symbol of inner spirituality, virtue, and the faith life of a person that has been nurtured carefully with prayer, the sacraments, spiritual practices, devotions and a commitment to living the Word of God. It is product of personal sacrifice, devotion and discipline. Holiness is simply not transferable.

We may be secretly sympathetic of the plight of the five foolish bridesmaids. We too wish to step forward and hand them our oil and perhaps find ways to lighten their burdens. But the truth is, this is not possible. One of the important lessons that my last pilgrimage taught me and which coincides with the message of today’s parable is this: Holiness or even readiness cannot be shared or transferred to another. It is most personal for it is our lives that we are preparing. Some other pilgrims later shared with me how they would have been willing to exchange places with the couple who had lost their passports. God could not have chosen a more vulnerable pair. The thought that others were willing to take their place was inspiring. Unfortunately, this was not possible. No one could take their place when it came to lost passports. Likewise, no one would be able to make up for the insufficient oil that each of us needs to keep our lamps lit and burning.

As we continue to wait for the Divine Bridegroom, with many, if not all of us, feeling drowsy or perhaps even falling asleep, let us pay heed to the words of the gospel and the advice of that Great Doctor of the Church, St Augustine: “Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love, watch with charity, watch with good works …; make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out …, renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience; then shall the Bridegroom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet room, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”