Saturday, April 29, 2023

Trust in the Good Shepherd: Homily for the fourth Sunday of Easter 2023

The Good Shepherd, Sieger Köder

My dear brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Today’s lectionary challenges us. It asks us how seriously we take those words “Lord Jesus Christ.”  Let us listen again to an extract from the first reading, which is from the Acts of the Apostles:

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed:
"Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."

Peter, the spiritual heir to Christ, stands up with the eleven – the seeds of the new Israel – the very men who have transmitted the faith to us. And so, this testament of Peter is the voice of the early church that speaks to us in unanimity. And what do they say to us, through the voice of Peter?

"Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."

You, my dear brothers and sisters are the house of Israel, and Peter asserts That Jesus is Lord, and Christ, and that you – yes, I am looking at you – have crucified him. Jesus was crucified precisely because He was not accepted as either Lord or Christ, and when we do not take His position as Lord or Christ seriously, we too are guilty of participating in His crucifixion.

There are in the contemporary world, in India, and Goa, very serious challengers to the Lordship of Christ in our lives. Three of these I can clearly identify, the first is the family, the second the market, and the third the nation-state.

All of us in Goa know, whether consciously or otherwise, that all too often our primary allegiance is not to Christ, but to family interests. It does not matter if what we are doing is contrary to Christ’s commands, we nevertheless do so because it secures family interests. These politics can include securing the interests of one’s children, whether to get ahead in school, or to ensure that they inherit larger estates that they might otherwise get. Sometimes it includes the continuation of silly family feuds, taking sides in a petty problem that we should not be involving ourselves with in the first place.

Know this, unless you subject your family interests to Christ, you are guilty of not accepting Jesus as Lord and Christ and crucifying him.

The other great challenger to Christ is the market. All too often work is the deity we worship in contravention to the two crucial commandments that Christ identified, love of God, and love of our neighbour. How many people I wonder, despite the fact that they could, took off from work so that they might worship properly at the parish feast of St. Thomas yesterday? Too often feasts have been moved to Sunday, ensuring that the worship of God and His saints is displaced in favour of worship of the market.

The third idol that we prostrate before instead of Christ is the nation-state, whether in India, or elsewhere, which demands primary allegiance to itself. In India the problem is particularly exacerbated since allegiance to the nation-state is tied up not just with Brahmanical rituals, but also the false gospel of decolonization. While there is every virtue in challenging colonial power relations, decolonization in India, and other parts of the world, have often come to mean overthrowing the certainty of the teaching of the Church, the overthrowing of a Christian outlook on the world, to replace it with pagan perspectives.

Christianity teaches us the existence of an objective truth. This moral clarity is not a feature of the postcolonial order, where there are multiple truths, and everything is negotiable. Let me offer you a simple example of how this plays out in our daily lives. Ask yourself when was the last time you experienced traffic in Goa flowing according to the rules? Everything is now negotiable, there are no clear rules anymore, indeed, most people on the roads don’t even know the rules. Worse, sometimes you yourself – and I am talking about myself here – will break the rules because you have forgotten them or do not think them relevant at that point. If this is the case with the roads, can you imagine the scenario when the armed forces will be “decolonized” as the present regime is contemplating?

And it was for this reason that in the first reading today St. Peter exhorts us, as he exhorted the Jews he was speaking with,

"Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."

Turning away from these false gods is, in fact, fairly simple. As in the letter of St. Peter we just read: have no deceit in your mouth, and commit no sin.

Since today follows the parish feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, I would like to invite all of you to look up the altar mor, the high altar, and look at the status of St. Thomas right at the very top. St. Thomas holds a carpenter’s or architect’s try-square in his hand. This try square could well be a sign of his trade, but it holds a deeper symbolical meaning as well. The try square is used to determine if the wood one is working is indeed at right angles, which is to say to determine if its angle is truth. St. Thomas then, is set towards the truth, his rule is the Truth, and this truth is Jesus whom he confessed as Lord, and God.

Jesus, our Lord, is the Truth, and He invites us to enter into the truth, through Him, since, as He says  to us today, in the Gospel according to John:

Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.….

I am the gate.

Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

Christ teaches us through the scripture, through the tradition received via the Apostles, and through His bride, our Holy Mother, the Church. Turn to these three sources of teaching and we cannot go wrong. And indeed, we all know that we don’t need to make any grand moves, all we need do is make small decisions correctly. Privilege the teachings of Christ over our commitment to false loyalities within the family and clan. Recognise that the market and our job are not the most important thing in the world; and that listening to the teachings of Holy Mother Church will always ensure that even if we are acting against the desires of the leaders of the nation-state, we are in fact acting in the state’s best interest.

In the same portion on today’s Gospel which I extracted earlier, where Christ tells us that He is the gate, He also tells us about those who would contend to vie with Him for our attention and loyalty.

All who came before me are thieves and robbers….

A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy

In other words, the tree is known by its fruits, and we don’t need to look far to realise that contemporary Goa, where most of us put only the most nominal truth and faith in Christ, is in fact marked by stealing, slaughter, and destruction. These are the wages of the corrupt generation that Christ asks us to save ourselves from.

To follow Christ, is not, however, easy. This much is clear. Else we would all be fervent Christians. Betray your family’s mistaken agendas and you will be subject to all manner of emotional blackmail, and this is the best case scenario. Put the market in its correct place and you could lose your job; challenge the nation-state and, well you know how that could end. But, as the first letter of Peter which we heard today assures us:

If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.

For to this you have been called,

The life of a Christian, dear brothers and sisters, is not about the good life. It is about a life that is often at odds with the world, a world where one has to suffer.  To echo St. Peter, “to this you have been called”! The life of the Christian is not about the good life, it is really about preparation for the good death. For it is once we are dead and have spurned all the trials and temptations that the Evil One casts before us throughout our life that we come to enjoy eternal reward.

Until we get there, however, we have to echo to ourselves in confidence the words of the psalm we heard today:

              The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

Even though I walk in the dark valley

I fear no evil; for you are at my side.

The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

Remember then, that you are never alone, for He is there at your side with His crook and His staff and He will guide you in right paths, offering you courage and rest along the way. He will feed you at His table, and finally offer you space in His house for all your life.

(A version of this homily was first delivered at the Mass in English at the parish church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Aldona on 30 April 2023.)

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Cor ad Cor Loquitur: Homily for the third Sunday of Easter 2023

Stained glass window from St Dominic's in Washington DC,

My dear brothers and sisters,

I would like to begin this homily by drawing your attention to the verse used to acclaim the Gospel today:

Lord Jesus, open the Scriptures to us; make our hearts burn while you speak to us.

This verse for the Gospel acclamation draws our attention to the words shared between the two disciples of Christ at Emmaus after he had disappeared from their sight:

Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?

This was the first thing that I cottoned on to when I read the lectionary in preparation for this homily. And then, when I read the lectionary for today again, other things started jumping out at me. Take, for example, the words from the psalm of David referred to in the first reading today, which is incidentally also the responsorial psalm we sang today:

You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.

Or a little earlier in the same psalm:

Therefore my heart has been glad and my tongue has exulted; my flesh, too, will dwell in hope,

We are presented with the image of a heart on fire when we read, or hear, the scripture; that is to say a heart full of joy, a heart so full of joy that we cannot but help to sing of our love. This heart on fire is a good indicator, and clearly one with noble antecedents, of when Christ is speaking to us. But is any of this happening to us today or any other day when we hear or read the scriptures?

Allow me to delay the response to this question while I undertake a very short detour. We must remember that Christ, Christ Himself, comes to meet us at various times in the liturgy of the Mass. He comes to us first in the congregation gathered in the name of Christ. Remember His words, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt 18:20). He is present in the altar, which is why the priest, and deacon reverence the altar by kissing it, and Christ returns this kiss. But this is not all, prior to the consecration of the bread and wine, He is present in His Word, the scripture that is proclaimed in the liturgy of the Word. This is to say, when we are at Mass, almost from the very get go, Jesus is walking with us on this road to Emmaus.

But, I ask the question once again, if Jesus is, in fact, already so vitally present in the Mass, why is it that our hearts are not on fire? Why is it that so many of us are listless, distracted, and bored?

It should come as no surprise that many of us find the Sunday Mass too long, some find it boring and can’t wait for it to end. Some of us don’t think it a problem if they arrive after the readings and the gospel. They still consider it a valid mass if they can get the liturgy of the Eucharist. Others have so much riding on the homily. For these people, a homily can make, or break, the mass.

But the homily is not the key part of the Mass, nor is the choir, as wonderful as they may be, and in our case, they often are!  No, the key part of the Mass is the encounter with Christ, the sacrifice who will make us right with God. And if our hearts do not burn with passion when we come together in His name, when we hear His Word, then something is wrong with our faith practice, and we need to fix it.

But fear not. There is a remedy for a cold, stony, heart.

The remedy begins from identifying the problem. To my mind, if our hearts are not burning, it is because we are not doing something that the disciples of Christ would have done, which is to know the scriptures intimately, and secondly engage in pious practices.

The first, and I believe, essential, pious practice is to ensure that our hearing the lectionary readings for the day at Mass is not the first time we have encountered it. The rector of the seminary I study at, Canon Philip Gillespie, once said to us in class, that if the Sunday mass is the only contact people have with the faith, then it is obvious that they are going to feel bored.  Therefore, read the lectionary before you land up for Mass. Having read it the first time, listening to it read the second time, things will, I promise you, strike you that you didn’t notice before.

And, as I indicated through Lent, Christ is all over the scripture, the Old and, of course, the New Testament. Getting to know it better will allow us to get to know the man we should all be in love with. Know the scripture intimately, and the various prayers that constitute the Mass will come alive for us.

There are a variety of prayers that constitute the Mass, seasonal in nature that keep changing. The Collect, the prayer over the offerings, the preface to the Eucharistic prayer, the post-communion prayer. Each of these prayers is so beautiful. Often left unsaid in the course of the Mass, and for no good reason I might add, are the various antiphons that are a part of the Mass, the entrance antiphon, the communion antiphon. Read all of these prayers, and the Mass jumps up alive! I realised how beautiful they were when I used to serve the Mass at the Igreja de São Nicolau in Lisbon and I would flip the pages of the missal as a part of my duties as an altar-server. As I did so I would mentally read alongside the priest, and my word, did my relationship to the Mass change!

And so, another thing we can do, to makes sure our hearts burn, is to read these various parts of the Missal, once again prior to Mass. I do not recommend reading them during Mass, that is, following the Mass with a missal, because it can be distracting. Having read these prayers once, we realise the depth that the Mass offers us, and I assure you, your hearts will begin to burn as He speaks with you through His bride the Church, who is our Mother.

On this point, let me commend to you the sermons of the ongoing novena to the patron of our parish St. Thomas the Apostle. The director of the Diocesan Centre for Liturgy, Fr. Afonso Mendonça, is doing a wonderful job of unpacking the constitutive elements of the Mass. Come to the novena mass, which begins a little after 6, or just come for the sermon, and I promise that you will go back richer.

Finally, one last set of pious practices. The Oratorian saint, John Henry Newman, adopted as his motto the phrase cor ad cor loquitur – heart speaks to heart. Our hearts must burn when we speak with the Sacred Heart of Jesus that burns with love for us. We have to, however, cultivate, not just our head, but also our hearts. And, my dear brothers and sisters, Christ Himself commented – through his disciples on the road to Emmaus – “How slow of heart” we are. This is to say, merely reading the bible, or the lectionary, is not sufficient. There is every danger in this method of developing a solely conceptual understanding of the faith. As I never tire of repeating, in the words of the late Pope Benedict XVI, being a Christian is not about a lofty concept or ethical choice, but above all, an encounter with a person. And so, we must cultivate not just our head, but our hearts as well.

This cultivation can happen in various ways. Like I suggested through Lent, spend long periods of time contemplating Christ on the cross. Repeat ejaculatory prayers continuously. For example, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or, “We praise, and we bless you O Christ, for by Your Cross You have redeemed the world.” Repeat it long and often enough and Jesus becomes for you a real person, not simply a concept. Second, do things that will remind you that He is actively present in the Blessed Sacrament. If physically able, genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament, don’t simply bend your neck. And finally, when receiving communion, receive it not in your hand, which – before I am accosted outside the sacristy after Mass – let me rush to add is an acceptable way of receiving but open to so much abuse, receive it not in your hand but try to receive it on your tongue, and ideally whilst kneeling. Do this and watch your heart turn into a torch on fire for Our Lord Jesus Christ as you say to each other:

Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?

(This homily was prepared to be preached at the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, the parish of Aldona on 23 April 2023.)

(I dedicate this homily to my friend and fellow seminarian José Maria Rebello de Andrade who confessed to me how the fact that his heart burned while he read the documents of the Vatican Council II was a sign that it had been moved by the Spirit.)