Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The End may not sound like fun but it can be Joyful

Third Sunday of Advent Year B

Have you ever seen an apocalyptic “end-of-the-world” movie that was a cause for celebration? I guess not till recently. If you have watched Thor-Ragnarok, you would know what I’m talking about. The movie has received raving reviews of being one of the “barmiest and funniest” of Marvel films. I would be offending many Marvel and Thor fans by saying that I found the humour crass and the whole movie quite outrageously gaudy and cartoonish. As I heard rip-roaring laughter from the other members of the audience, especially the children, I slumped down in my chair, hoping that movie would come to an apocalyptic end as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, when we think of the end of the world it is often with anything but joyful hearts. The thought of going out with a cataclysmic bang is hardly something to shout about and applaud. From the Mayans to the prophecies of the Irish bishop St Malachy or Nicodemus to modern doomsday preachers, there’s a long list of people who predicted the end of the age. It’s not the triumphant return of Christ in glory which becomes the focus of such prophecies. Rather, we hear about a time of tribulation, war, earthquakes, death and destruction. Should Catholics see it any differently? Well, today’s theme of joy invites us to envision the end of time in a totally different light.  We see it as the return of Our Lord Jesus Christ in glory, a time of judgment, yes, but also a time of liberation. Not only should we rejoice when thinking about it, we should be praying for the coming of that day!

So do we believe in the End Times? Of course we do! For Catholics, the terms “end times” and “last days” refer both to the conclusion of history at some future point, and also—even primarily—to the last two thousand years. It is here that what I’m about to say may come as a big surprise even to Catholics. Yes, we are living in the End Times. The death and resurrection of Christ is the first and decisive act of the End Times. But now we wait for God’s work of salvation to be completed when Christ returns in glory. That is why our Advent celebrations help us to focus on these two comings, the first Coming of Christ at Christmas and His Second Coming at the very end. So, yes, we are living in the end times, they’ve always been the end times, and they’re always going to be the end times. Notice that in every age, there are tribulations, both natural and manmade. And yes, in every age, there will be the forces of Anti-Christ, the ideologies, structures, governments, individuals and corporations who would deny the Kingship and salvific role of Christ. We are continually in the End Times.

But our Christian expectation of the End Times is marked by joy and hope because of the object of our contemplation. “By gazing on the risen Christ,” wrote Pope Emeritus Benedict, when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Christianity knew that a most significant coming had already taken place. It no longer proclaimed a pure theology of hope, living from mere expectation of the future, but pointed to a ‘now’ in which the promise had already become present. Such a present was, of course, itself hope, for it bears the future within itself.” “In Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi, his 2007 encyclical on Christian hope, “God has revealed Himself. He has already communicated to us the ‘substance' of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty.” Attempting to describe that substance of things to come, the pope writes: “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love... life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” 

Therefore, we Christians should anticipate the End Times not with fear and trembling but with rejoicing. St Paul reminds us in the second reading, “Be happy at all times, pray constantly, and for all things give thanks.” Like the prophet Isaiah in the first reading, the thought of the “end times,” of Christ’s coming, should be met with euphoria, “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God!” The prophet announces that the coming of the Lord’s messenger will mean healing and liberation to all who are poor, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and captive. This “year of the Lord’s favour” applies to all of us. The Spirit of God continues to bring healing and liberation and works from within us, just as an organism heals from the inside out. But our duty is not just merely to wait passively. We must actively ensure that the Spirit has opportunity to work in us; we must be guided by Him in discerning good from evil.

Such attitude of hopeful and joyful expectation therefore brings about a livid consciousness that we are witnesses of God’s light while steadfastly denying that we ourselves are the light. Just like St John the Baptist, the closer one comes to God for the purpose of testifying of him, the more clearly one sees the distance between God and creature. The more one vacates space within himself for God, the more he becomes a simple instrument of God, a mere voice that cries in the wilderness, “Make a straight way for the Lord.”

Sometimes we have an image of John the Baptist as an austere ascetic. He had an unusual flair for fashion, wearing wild-looking clothing made of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. He lived in the desert wilderness, ate locust and wild honey. In depicting the Baptist in this fashion, we tend to forget the joy that is associated with his entire life and vocation. It was him who leapt for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when she encountered the Mother of the Word Incarnate. In the fourth Gospel, St John speaks of the source of the Baptist’s supernatural joy - it is the joy of the friend of the bridegroom, who rejoices greatly at hearing the bridegroom’s voice. He knew that his own ministry was on the wane, and that more and more people were coming instead to Jesus. Instead of feeling threatened or jealous, he rejoiced in the fact that the Bridegroom is coming at last.

John’s selfless humility opened a space within him for true joy, the kind which comes from the real presence of the Lord. So it can be for each one of us. Thus, John stands as a sign for us today on Gaudete Sunday. He points out for each one of us the path to lasting joy; a lifestyle of self-emptying – a life marked by humility – we prepare for the coming of the Lord by always holding on this basic principle that defined the Baptist’s life and mission, “He must increase and I must decrease.”  We can know no lasting peace and joy, unless we come to know Christ.

Coming back to the movie which I mentioned in the beginning, Thor-Ragnarok, given that it is an imperfect and sometimes enraging film, but it challenges us with the biggest idea it can think of, there can be a new beginning only when we accept the inevitable ending of everything we value now. Just like the Baptist, we should acknowledge that our impermanent problem-ridden human lives can only find closure and an ultimate solution on the plane of the infinite.
So, this Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, as we contemplate the ending of this world, it becomes an opportunity to be joyful. In just a matter of days we will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord. But we do not just commemorate the past. The Liturgy anticipates the future, the coming of our Saviour, our long awaited Messiah. The Church thus proclaims at the beginning of today’s liturgy, using the imperative case - Rejoice! Notice - It is a command! “I command you to rejoice!”  Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete : Dominus prope est. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near!”

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Original Look: Without Spot or Wrinkle

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception 2017

The Church, in honouring the saints, normally celebrates, not their birthdays, but their dates of death, which the Church regards as their birthdays into eternal life, Heavenly glory.  However, there are three exceptions to that simple rule: December 25 - the birth of Our Lord; September 8 - the birth of Our Lady; and June 24 - the birth of John the Baptist.  And what do those three have in common?  The first two, Our Lord and Our Lady, are conceived without original sin; and John the Baptist is born without original sin.  We presume that the moment of his sanctification is, not at his conception, but when Our Lady visited Elizabeth, resulting in John the Baptist leaping for joy. 

But though the Birthday of Mary seems to be a great day for the Church to honour her with a grand celebration, the Church chooses not to do so. The greater feast is today, celebrated as a solemnity, a first class feast which shares the rank of a Sunday. And it is a day chosen to commemorate not the birth of Our Lady but her conception in the womb of St Anne. This is because the Church teaches that her sanctification, her freedom from sin, took place from the very moment of her conception. This is what the Immaculate Conception is all about. Contrary to popular myth, this feast is not about her virginity. Neither is it about the virginal conception of Our Lord in her womb. But, rather, it is a feast that celebrates God’s original plan for humanity before the fall, and His redemption after the fall. Our Lady is the first to be redeemed.

To understand Our Lady’s role in the whole scheme of God’s plan of redemption, let us take a closer look at sin and, particularly, original sin.  Sin is not some “thing”, or some “black mark” that appears on our otherwise pristinely white souls. For it was so simple then, going to confession is like going to the laundrette to have your soul washed clean. Well, that's not a bad way to try to explain something to children, but it's a little inaccurate.  Sin is not something; it is a lack of something, a deficiency.  It's an absence - an absence of grace, which is the life of God. Our first parents, Adam and Eve were created in a state of grace, a state of original holiness. They were created to be with God forever in Paradise. Their sin, however, took that state away. Sin wasn’t an add-on and certainly gave them no added value. No, sin took everything that was worthwhile, everything that was worth living for, away from them, including eternal life. They who were meant to have everything, were dispossessed of everything. You and I all inherit that deficiency, which the Church calls Original Sin.

The only One preserved from that deficiency was Our Lady. When Cardinal Newman was trying to help Protestants understand who Mary as “the Immaculate One” is, he came up with a very clever title for Our Lady.  He referred to her as “the daughter of Eve un-fallen.”  You and I are the sons and daughters of Eve in her fallen state.  Mary, however, is the daughter of grace, Eve would have had, had she not sinned. In her, we see what life would be, before the Fall.  This reminds us, of course, that God's original plan for us was that of holiness and grace, not sin and alienation.  Holiness was meant to be the ordinary state of life.  Holiness is what makes us truly human, not sin. And, it's important to regain that focus: to make that original plan our own personal plan.

This unique privilege of the Blessed Virgin Mary, completely unmerited by her, seems to make her a super-human, beyond the reach of us mere mortals. But this is a problem with our perspective. Mary is the complete human being, and we are the defective ones. We are the hollow men, the badly drawn boys and girls, incomplete like the stick figures on the door of restrooms. But Mary is a human being as she ought to be, replete with and completed in grace, fleshed out, full-bodied and perfected in her life. Our Lady is perfect because she is most perfectly natural, and she is utterly natural because she is filled-with-grace. Mary is full of grace because Christ is the fullness of grace, and it is from His grace that we have all received grace upon grace. Mary shows us our true vocation and God’s original plan for us.

This is what today’s second reading tells us: we are chosen in Christ eternally, chosen to become holy and to be enfolded in God's friendship. In fulfilment of His timeless love, the Father sent His Son into history, and through His death and resurrection poured out the Holy Spirit on people of all times. The Spirit was at work in Mary from the first moment of her existence, making her holy, free from sin. The salvation of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, is a pre-sacramental salvation. Mary does not need baptism. From the beginning of her existence she was utterly filled with God's grace. You and I, and the rest of humanity, inherit original sin and its effects, and we have to submit afterwards to the medicine, which is called Baptism.  God did something better for His Son's Mother - she never had to suffer the deficiency, to begin with. And this is why the Immaculate Conception is so important for us. Mary's pre-sacramental salvation is a sign of our post-sacramental life in the Kingdom of heaven. Unlike Mary, the Spirit begins the same work in us at our baptism.

We have not yet been brought to the same integrity the Spirit wrought in Mary. So we find it difficult to imagine a sinless life. We are so used to little compromises that we forget a sinless life is fully and richly human, not somehow inhuman. Because the sin of the fallen angels, the first sin of human history, the root of all sin, is pride, we tend to suppose that the ability to say 'No’ to God is a sign of freedom and somehow safeguards our dignity. But Our Lord has come to remind us that sin is a slavery. It is saying ‘Yes’ to God that we are truly free. In today's Gospel we hear of Our Lady’s fiat, her great free act of saying ‘Yes’, made in the power of the Spirit who had been at work in her from her beginning: “Be it done unto me according to your word.” As the first Eve drew her Adam to his act of disobedience, so Mary the New Eve was enabled to draw the New Adam to his saving act of obedience, ultimately to say ‘Yes’ to the great sacrifice that had to be made on the cross.

As Mary already is, so shall the whole Church be, as Scripture says, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and immaculate” (Ephesians 5.27). What this feast means for us is that Christ's love does not stop with us merely being forgiven sinners, but it will transform us as though sin had never been. Our redemption will not be simply the happy end of a fraught journey. In our redemption we will be somehow mysteriously freed from our history. Even our sins will form the weave of a completed holiness. There will be no more striving to get there, because we will have arrived. Till then, let each of us, seek Our Lady's intercession as we endeavour to make the Incarnation of her Son a reality once more in our own personal lives and in the world in which we live.  Let us invoke her with that favourite title which St John Paul II created for her: “Our Lady of the New Advent, pray for us, and make us worthy to share in the promises of Christ.”   

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

God's trustworthiness is the basis of Hope

Second Sunday of Advent Year B

The Christian season of Advent abounds with traditions that have been upheld, invented, and reimagined over the centuries. In the West, one such tradition is attending Handel’s oratorio, Messiah (1741), with its famed “Hallelujah” chorus. Interestingly, this piece of music was written for the season of Easter. Nevertheless, it has become a standard staple of Christmas pop-culture. The opening words were what we heard in the first reading, “Comfort my people” or in our lectionary translation, “Console my people, console them.”

The chapter begins with a beautiful assurance of consolation. In fact, it takes us to the foundation of hope – our hope. Hope colours our entire season of Advent. No wonder, the prophet Isaiah who speaks these words of consolation has often been described as both the prophet of hope and the prophet of Advent. Though these words were written to ancient Israel thousands of years ago, they are addressed to us as well. What God said then, to them, He continues to say to us today. To understand the message of hope for us, we need to remember the hopeless situation of the original audience. 

The people were in exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar’s army had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and taken its leading citizens into captivity. But as bad as that was, that wasn’t the worst of it. They knew that the reason why they were in exile was because God had handed them over into the hands of their enemies. The exile was God’s judgment on their sin – in particular, their immorality and their idolatry.  So Chapter 40 and following is addressed to that generation, languishing in exile in Babylon, who knew they had two – seemingly insurmountable – problems. The presenting problem was their captivity, but the deeper problem was that God had apparently abandoned them because of their sin. Could this be the “double punishment” which Isaiah refers to in the text? Was there any way back – any way back to the Promised Land? Any way back to favour with God? Well, this chapter provides the answer, “Yes, there is a way back”. The way back is returning to the Lord.

And so Isaiah’s first emphasis is this wonderful word of forgiveness to Israel. The most important message at the outset is that God is no longer holding their sins against them. That their most fundamental problem is resolved. It’s the message that God’s people desperately needed to hear. At the heart of this comforting and consoling message is that judgment is at an end, because their sins have been done away with. He speaks to the heart of Jerusalem, and announces to her that “her time of service is ended (the warfare is ended), that her sin is atoned for, that she has received from the hand of the Lord, double punishment for all her crimes.” The reader seems to be carried forward in time to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In that very sacrifice of His, the atonement of our sins has already been accomplished.

That last phrase, “double punishment” does not merely mean that God has punished the nation twice what their sins required. This is a reference to an Eastern custom. If a man owed a debt he could not pay, his creditor would write the amount of the debt on a paper and nail it to the front door of the man's house so that everyone passing would see that here was a man who had not paid his debts. But if someone paid the debt for him, then the creditor would double the paper over and nail it to the door as a testimony that the debt had been fully paid. Yes, our debts have been fully paid by the blood of the Lamb on the altar of the cross.

But Isaiah is not done. There is another message of hope that begins with a voice crying in the wilderness. We need not be in doubt as to whose voice this is, for the Gospel tells us it is St John the Baptist, the one who calls us to “Prepare the way for the Lord”. These verses quoted from Isaiah define the ministry of John the Baptist. He was to announce the coming of the Messiah and his ministry would not only be one of reconciliation, but also one of reconstruction, to “make a straight highway for our God.” The idea of preparing the highway of the Lord is a word picture, because the real preparation must take place in our hearts. Four steps would be involved in the building process: “Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley.” A massive construction work meant to reshape the unfriendly terrain into a great thoroughfare fit for the king of kings. Building such a road is expensive. It comes at a great sacrifice and cost, not just to us, but for God too.

Most people mistake this sentence as the spiritual engineering work that we must undergo if we wish to prepare for the Lord’s coming. At one level, that is true. Repentance is an essential condition for reconciliation and it is hard work. But the saying also speaks at a deeper level of what God is about to do. The greater work that is to be done would be the work of God – Opus Dei. And so both Isaiah and the gospel utilises beautiful symbolic language to describe what God undertakes when He comes into our lives. When we have received His forgiveness, the next step is that the Lord begins to change us, to reconstruct our lives. “Every valley be filled in” - in the low places of life, the discouraging times, times when you feel crushed and defeated, there will be comfort and encouragement from the Lord. “Every mountain shall be brought down” - all those places where our ego manifests itself, our proud boasts, our grasping for power, these must be cut down. Ultimately, every crooked place will be made straight - our deviousness must be corrected, our wrongs put right, our deviations set on course again.

Ultimately, the basis of hope is not in human strength or human achievement, which withers like grass; like the flower of the field. The basis of hope is found in this simple verse, “for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The basis for our hope is the trustworthiness of the word of God - the word of our God which stands forever. Sometimes, we doubt if God is indeed present or working in our lives. Very often we do not have any objective proof of this. There is no cloud of dust on the horizon to prove that the way of the Lord is under construction. There is no account book with “paid in full” stamped on your page. You have to take it on trust. You have to believe the word of the Lord. The divine comfort only comes to those who believe that the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that their sins are dealt with, that their rescue from Babylon is only a matter of time. Your hope depends utterly on the trustworthiness of the Lord’s promise.

Hope is about the now and not yet of our salvation, about the Lord’s coming. This is a hope grounded on the promises of God, to forgive our sins and deliver us from our captivity. A hope grounded on the knowledge that the Lord is the good shepherd who longs to bring the strays home. Like the Israelites in Babylon, we live in that window of time between the promise and fulfilment. As we think about the situation of the Church universally and locally, as we continue to follow the sad developments in our country, it is easy to focus on the negatives: the crisis of division within the church, the rise of modernistic notions even among bishops, the rampant corruption in this country. It can all seem hopeless. But Isaiah challenges us to refocus. To look not at our circumstances, but to lift up our eyes and to behold this with the vision granted to us through the lenses of faith and hope, “Here is the Lord coming with power, His arm subduing all things to Him. The prize of His victory is with Him, His trophies all go before Him. He is like a shepherd feeding His flock, gathering lambs in His arms, holding them against His breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes." He's the King of Kings! The Lord of Lords! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Open your hearts to Him this Advent Season.