Monday, April 16, 2018

The importance of showing up in Church each week.

I don’t think it is a sweeping statement to say that every church, no matter what denomination of Christianity, faces the issue of their members not coming regularly to Church.  I am sure that the Roman Catholic church is not unique to face this issue.  Why is this so?  There are a host of reasons that cause this irregularity, and at its core, the issue really boils down to selfishness.  There is something somehow embedded in our human nature that wants to accept things on our terms rather than to submit to laws, authority and order.  Proof of this is right there in the opening chapters of Genesis, symbolized in the way that our first parents reached out to grab the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Theologians and scripture scholars have often called this first sin the sin of pride, and rightly so.  Instead of allowing this ‘fruit’ to be handed to them in God’s own time, the fruit was TAKEN as if it was a right.  We see shades of this in the current generation that is collectively called the ‘millennials’ where the sense of entitlement is often evidenced.

Perhaps the other reason that contributes to irregular or poor church attendance is a poor understanding of ecclesiology.  Ecclesiology is the theology or study of the nature of the Christian church.  A healthy ecclesiology is very much lacking in many Christians, but it is especially necessary in the Roman Catholic Church, principally because of how we understand the term Body of Christ.  This term is very dynamic because it applies to not only the consecrated host at Mass, which is the body, soul, spirit and divinity of Jesus Christ.  It is also a term that refers to the collective group of baptized Catholics in the entire Church, worldwide, past and present.

Understanding this has deep implications because it explains something that seems to be a bugbear to many Catholics – that every Sunday and day of obligation, all Catholics are obliged to be present at the celebration of the Eucharist, also known as the Mass. On the surface of things, it seems to be a fussy, archaic and demanding.  Underlying this obligation is love.  Let me explain.

That I am a member of the Body of Christ has to mean that by my very person and presence, I contribute to the faith, health and vitality of the entire body.  Coming to Church to stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellow member of the same body does several things which I may not be aware of.  By my very presence, I am giving my brother and sister in the Mass encouragement and strengthening of their faith.  I do this when I pray, stand, kneel and sing together with them. By that same token then, when I am willfully absent from the assembly in the Church, my absence creates a gap in the same Body.  I am also saying quite a few other things, and they are not limited to the following:

1)   This Sunday, you will not be getting any strength and affirmation from my presence because I prefer to be selfish with my time and energy.

2)   You (the person who would be sitting next to me, or across the aisle from me) are on your own, because you will not be benefitting from my prayers and presence.  You will not be getting my love today.

3)   My needs are far more important than yours, which implies that I am more important than you.

4)   I am not concerned with your needs and am showing this by my absence.

5)   My life is about me and my needs.  I am selfish today.

Certainly, this list is not exhaustive nor is it meant to be.  Barring those of us who are physically and bodily unwell to be present at Mass, there is a great necessity for us to show up.  When we see why our presence at Sunday Mass is so important, maybe we can then understand why a willful absence is seen to be so wrong as to call it a mortal or serious sin.  It breaks the Body of Christ on many levels.

Mass regularity and consistency ought not to be predicated on good music, riveting preaching and engaging lectors who read with a broadcaster’s voice, but it will help to make Mass participation appealing if liturgists and celebrants put great love into their celebrations.  

I have wondered many times in the past how I should address this issue to those who are infrequent at Mass attendance.  Speaking about this at the Ambo would be addressing the wrong audience by the fact that they are already there at Mass.  Perhaps this musing on the issue on a blog like this may reach those who haven’t seen it explained this way.  

Dear reader, my hope is that you may want to share this reflection with someone whom you know who could benefit from this, and let them know that the Body of Christ needs them.  Every Sunday.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Easter's empty tomb is not incongruent with a Crucifix that has a corpus.

Easter celebrates an empty tomb.  It is God’s ultimate vindication of a life that is lived out with the greatest of fidelity and love, and one that had gone through the toughest of struggles in life, having borne the heaviness of the world’s sins.  It really is the greatest reward given for the greatest of sacrifices.

That we can have heaven to look forward to when our own lives end is a goal that we all share as the baptized and adopted children of God.  It has everything to do with responding to and co-operating with the grace of God.  But the empty tomb of Jesus does not mean that our own lives of struggles are therefore over.  Each day still requires of us to do battle with sin and evil, to strive to do good, to make that choice for integrity, honesty, fidelity, and to, like Jesus, sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is not without meaning that the Church Militant is a name given to the Church that exists in this life - the life that you and I are living.

Many have noticed and remarked how different the crosses are in Protestant and Catholic Churches.  Those in Protestant churches are always plain crosses, sometimes with a cloth draped around its bare crossbeam.  Those in Catholic Churches are distinctly different because they almost always have a corpus or body of Christ hanging on it.  Protestant theology tends to explain it this way – that because Christ rose from the dead, he should therefore no longer be seen to be nailed and hanging on the Cross anymore.  The victory of Christ should be symbolically represented by the fact that the Cross stands empty.  The battle over sin and death is won.  Game over.

By that token then, would it mean then that Catholic Churches do not believe in the Resurrection?  Certainly not.  In fact, all Churches - both Catholic and Protestant, share the same belief in the resurrection of Christ as the ultimate victory of God over sin, evil and death.  In both Churches, the game is indeed over for sin, evil and death.

But our victories – yours and mine, has a dimension that still features a personal and ongoing struggle that requires a daily fight.  Objectively, the battle is won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection.  Our individual battles are still subjectively ongoing.  Our human tendency to not want to fight, to give up easily and to not sweat any blood in our own Gethsamanes is a constant reality.  These experiences of ours will always require some added boost to our faith, giving us a stronger resolve to want to live and love as close to the way that Jesus lived and loved as possible. 

The danger of having a bare Cross as our symbol of Christ’s victory is that it can leave us clinically distanced from what has made God go to the Cross – our sins.  It can turn us into complacent Christians who give nary a thought about the depth of God’s love for us which caused not just a man, but a just man, to be so brutalized to such a heinous extent. 

Just as our spiritual progress is always a ‘two-step-forward, one-step-back’ process, the joy and strength of Easter is never going to be a distinctly straight road to glory.  Our lives will always feature some form of the Cross for us as we do our battle with sin.  The forms of the glory of the empty tomb is, for most of us, going to be fleeting glimpses in between the struggles that we face.  I can understand why the Prosperity Gospel message is so appealing to many – its message is essentially one of Easter all the way.  The truth is that Easter’s triumph gives us all the more reason to carry our Crosses with greater elan, and we will do this well by constantly casting an eye on an image of Jesus dying to show us his undying love.

Monday, April 2, 2018

There is really nothing to be scared of. The tomb is empty.

The gift that Easter gives us is so astounding, but its symbols and metaphors are strangely varied.  Bunnies are cute and cuddly, and decorated eggs are attractive in some ways, and chocolate is always appealing.  These need to be unpacked and peeled away to arrive at what the essence of Easter really is, and what it does to us.  Otherwise, it will only be a time to stuff our bellies and leave our lives largely unchanged, with the only thing changing being our waistlines.

At the heart of all sins is the unwillingness to love, or to love inordinately, which is most of the time an overemphasis of loving the self.  The antithesis of love isn’t hatred, as many think it is, but fear.  We have a certain fear that is built into our human condition, and it results in us doing many things to harm ourselves and harm others as well.  When we fear that when others are loved and appreciated more, it means that we are loved and appreciated less.  We fear that when others are approved, it means that we are not.  On so many levels, we fear when we are humiliated, despised, and unnoticed by those who are in positions of power and have some influence or authority, and as a result, we try all means to jostle for fame, recognition and popularity, even being dishonest in the ways we attain our aims. 

When we come to this realization, it will then dawn on us that the greatest freedom that we can ever have in life is to be free from this fear.  It is the smart-bomb, if you will, to handle all of life’s challenges and anxieties.  But is there really such a ‘smart-bomb’?  What form does it come in? 

For us Christians, it comes in the form of the empty tomb and the Cross of Christ.   Theology explains it (or tries to) often in ways that are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person on the street.  But I have come to see that the brilliance of sound and beautiful theology often do very little help us in our particular struggles and battles.  It is most likely for this very reason alone that there are countless lukewarm Christians who have not truly appreciated the power of the Resurrection.  Its power lies in the gift of fearlessness.

Imagine the kind of freedom we will have when we truly have nothing to be scared of in life.  It will mean that our happiness isn’t contingent and predicated on how much we are recognized by another human being, if the doctor gives us a clean bill of health, if our bank accounts are bulging or if we are praised and adulated.  When we are truly convinced that we are loved not only supremely but divinely by God, it will be well with us when we don’t get the positive appraisals by our fellowman.  Horatio G. Spafford must have had this in his heart and soul when he wrote “It is well with my soul” because he had literally lost everything in his life when his beloved wife and four children perished in the sea while crossing the Atlantic when their ship sank. 

We may not be as poetic and lyrically brilliant as Spafford in our own trials and anxieties in life, but we need his conviction that no matter what happens in our lives, as long as we believe in our hearts that God loves us, it is still well with our soul.  The Easter message of the empty tomb gives us this assurance.  It gives us a fearlessness to face all of life’s hardships, though it doesn’t take them away.  St Paul’s conviction of the power of the resurrection had him saying “death, where is your sting?”  It is a bold statement, but it is one which we need to be as bold to say when the going gets tough in life. 

From the day I first preached my first homily at Mass, I told myself that the people of God need to be reminded over and over again that God’s love for them is going to be the ultimate power for them to handle all of life’s challenges with aplomb and tenacity.  I have always ended my homilies with the phrase “God love you”.  I know I run the risk of sounding like a broken record, and that its power gets lost through overuse, but there is really no greater power to give us the freedom to live fearlessly.  How assuring it is to be told that in life, there is nothing to be scared of. 

The empty tomb of Easter holds this as its subtle power.  Happy Easter to all.  And God love you.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Is our Passion weak on Passion Week?

As human beings, I believe that all of us are made with a certain capacity to be people of passion.  There’s a certain fire that burns inside our core that makes us give ourselves, our energies and our attention over to things or people with a certain focus and drive.  You see it in the ways little children are so fixed in their gaze at when they are playing with their toys or these days, their internet driven devices.  The world could be falling apart around them and it wouldn’t tear their attention away from the object of their desire.  Adults are really no different in the ways that they can be so attuned to what delights, fascinates and thrills them.  As well, many in life are just as bothered, worried and filled with anxieties with their problems and issues, causing them to be so focused on them that it adversely affects the way they live and the relationships that they have.  In good ways and in bad ways, we are invariably passionate people.

It is no coincidence that the week before Easter has another name, Passion Week, apart from the other more used nomenclature of Holy Week.  Passion week starts from Passion Sunday, which is also called Palm Sunday.  It marks Jesus’ final and strangely triumphant entry into the beloved city of Jerusalem.  It is strangely triumphant because although he arrives as a leader, his status and mode of transport is so understated that it seems strikingly counterintuitive.  Not riding proudly on the back of a regal Stallion or a majestic elephant decked out in the colours of royalty, but rather on a back of a beast of burden and one that is not known for any semblance of intelligence – a donkey or an ass.  This choice is deliberate because it underlines the attitude of humility that is sine qua non for the way Jesus leads, loves and overpowers the hitherto unconquerable bastion of sin, evil and death.

I much prefer the name Passion Week over that of Holy Week because it gives us an entry point as Christians into the heart of Christ - something that we don’t do often enough and seriously enough.  If we do not regularly take time to peer into the heart of Christ, our hearts will not be beating in tandem with his.  When we are only hearing the beat of the drums of the world, they will be beating out of sync with the heartbeat of Christ.  Where was Jesus’ heart at?  What was his Passion?  What drove him to be so dedicated to His cause?  What was his cause?  What was he enamoured with?  Whom was he enamoured of?

These questions are not only good to ponder, but also very necessary if we truly intend to be the disciples of Jesus, and not contented to merely pay him lip service.  Wanting what Jesus has and truly being besotted, beguiled and captivated by this is what is going to change the way our entire world pivots.  It is one thing being attentive to the laws of God and ticking all the boxes of the teachings of the Church.  But it is when we love what Christ loves with his entire life (causing him to go to the Cross for it) that we truly raise the bar of our faith.  The gospel text that featured the rich young man’s encounter with Jesus becomes then the paradigm of most of us in the way that we live as Christians.  As far as the commandments went, he was probably an All-Star player.  But he lacked one thing – complete commitment to God.  This was articulated by Jesus in asking him to divest of himself of his material wealth.  We need to interpret this with care though – at the heart of this was Jesus’ silent question  - “Where is your deepest passion?”  At that point in time, the young man knew that his love for God was not as strong as his love for his possessions, causing him to turn around and walk away.  But notice Jesus’ response to his turned back – Jesus looked at him, and loved him.

God’s love for us is truly unconditional no matter how many times we turn our back to him.  But he continues to beckon, to invite, to draw, to entice and to call.  The core of Passion Week’s purpose is this - to show us how incessant and deep Jesus’ love for his Father was, so that we watch not just as passive by-standers, but that we somehow get ‘infected’ and smitten by the same way Jesus was for his Father.  After all, if this love was what saved the world through his fidelity to His Father, being similarly enamoured of and passionate about not just the same thing, but the same Person will align our hearts with Jesus’. 

Passion Week is a very apt time for us to tune in to what we are passionate about in life, and what truly drives our hearts’ desire.  Our journeying with Jesus on Good Friday ought to imagine him asking us, like the way he asked that rich young man, if we are willing to let go of what owns us, take up our cross, and follow him.  He was asking that man if his love for God went beyond mere commandment adherence. 

Only we will know if we are truly passionate about loving God or if we are only passionate about what this loving God can do for us.