Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Feeding the 5,000 - Image of the Eucharist

This past Sunday (17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B), the Gospel reading was taken from John 6:1-15:
Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee.
A large crowd followed him,
because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.
Jesus went up on the mountain,
and there he sat down with his disciples.
The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
When Jesus raised his eyes
and saw that a large crowd was coming to him,
he said to Philip,
"Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?"
He said this to test him,
because he himself knew what he was going to do.
Philip answered him,
"Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough
for each of them to have a little.'"
One of his disciples,
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him,
"There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish;
but what good are these for so many?"
Jesus said, "Have the people recline."
Now there was a great deal of grass in that place.
So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.
Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,
"Gather the fragments left over,
so that nothing will be wasted."
So they collected them,
and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments
from the five barley loaves
that had been more than they could eat.
When the people saw the sign he had done, they said,
"This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world."
Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off
to make him king,
he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

The miracle of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is typically understood in Catholic theology as primarily Eucharistic. Besides the obvious giveaway in v11 where St. John tells us that Jesus gave thanks (Greek = “eucharisteo”), there are a few other Eucharistic images that are quite amazing.  

The first is the invitation given by Our Blessed Lord to Philip when He asks him “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” At first glance it may appear that Our Lord was asking an obviously simple question; but nothing that Our Lord says and does in the Gospels is ever simply simple. Instead, Jesus’ invitation to Philip hearkens back to the Lord’s invitation in Isa 55:1 (which is itself a Eucharistic prophecy):

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
So our Lord is inviting Philip to expand his thinking past the physical need of the people – instead, He is calling Philip to see that they have a greater spiritual hunger which can only be satisfied by the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that Philip at that time still didn’t appreciate exactly what the Lord was getting at.

Then in v9 Andrew tells Jesus that he has found a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, although he wasn’t quite sure what Jesus could do with such a meagre offering. But, a meagre offering mixed with the smallest amount of faith, even the size of a mustard seed, is all that Our Lord asks of us in order to do a miracle.
What is the miracle? The Lord takes the little boy’s meagre offering and multiplies it superabundantly to feed the multitude – no less than 5,000 men (not even counting the women and children). And this is what happens in the Holy Mass – we bring our meagre offerings of bread and wine (the work of human hands as the Eucharistic prayer calls these gifts) and we offer them in faith to God the Father.  Then in the words of Institution, these small gifts are transformed superabundantly into nothing less than the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. More than physical food for the masses, Jesus (acting through the priest) in this way gives us food unto Life Eternal.
What of the reference to the twelve baskets of fragments that remained? I think that, amongst other things, it serves two purposes in this passage.
Firstly, I think that it serves to show us that the multiplied bread and fish was no mere illusion or magic trick. The fact that fragments were gathered afterwards proves that the miraculous food was REAL food. The Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is REAL – it is not merely spiritual or symbolic. He is really and truly present – Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.
Secondly, there is the allusion to the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the Lord’s words “Gather up the fragments left over so that nothing may be wasted”. The multiplied loaves and fish did not cease to exist after everyone had received their fill – rather, the miraculous food remained. So too, in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus remains present even after everyone present at Mass has received Holy Communion and the Mass has ended. For this reason, it is fitting and proper that the Precious Body of Jesus be reposed in a most holy and dignified way in the Tabernacle. And more than that, if Jesus remains present in the Blessed Sacrament, it is our duty as Christians to pay Him homage, worship, and adoration in the Blessed Sacrament.

These are just a few of the Eucharistic images I found whilst I was meditating upon the Gospel reading. If you have any additional images that you would like to share, please feel free to do so.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Good Shepherd Preserves His Church

The Scripture readings for today (16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B) all focus around the Lord as our Shepherd – Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23; Eph 2:13-18; and Mk 6:30-34.

However, a closer look at these passages reveals that we are invited to more than simply seeing the Lord as our Shepherd. What Holy Mother Church is inviting us to do is meditate upon the Lord as our GOOD Shepherd, and specifically in the aspect of true doctrine.

For example, we see in Eph 2:13-18 that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who not only “preached peace” (v17); but who also shows Himself as the Good Shepherd who IS our peace (v14). How is He our peace? St. Paul tells us that Jesus is our peace because He broke down the walls of hostility by His death on the Cross (v16) – in other words, He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His Life for the sheep (Jn 10:11).

In the Gospel reading, we see that Jesus the Good Shepherd concerned about the welfare of His Apostles – He desires that they take some time to “rest a while” following the preaching mission that they had just returned from (see Mk 6:7-13). But when Jesus saw the crowds who continued to seek Him, He confirmed that He truly was the Good Shepherd by ministering to the people despite His exhaustion. This was no doubt in order to exemplify to His Apostles what was expected of them as the future shepherds of His Church. What is particularly interesting about the Gospel reading is that the Lord’s ministry to the people is in the form of doctrine i.e. “He began to teach them many things” (Mk 6:34).

With these things in mind, I believe that the first Scripture reading (Jer 23:1-6) contains a particularly significant truth which highlights just how good our Good Shepherd is.

Jeremiah prophesies that in contrast to the many shepherds who had led Israel astray into idolatry, God would raise up a wise and righteous Shepherd (the Lord Jesus Christ) who would lead His people into all truth (v5). In verse 4, we are told that the perpetual protection of God’s people would be assured by the fact that He would appoint other good shepherds to lead them. Jesus taught that this prophecy would be fulfilled in His Church when He taught that He would keep His Church from straying into doctrinal error (e.g. Jn 16:13-14; Matt 16:18).

Going back briefly to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – in the context of the unity of the Church (Eph 4:3-5), which includes doctrinal unity (ONE FAITH), St. Paul talks about the Church’s responsibility to maintain that unity (v3). This responsibility, however, is not without hope and insurmountable because it is accompanied by a great and precious promise – the Lord Jesus Christ would Himself give gifts to His Church (vv7-11) which St. Paul lists as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

Note that the gifts referred to are gifts relating to orthodoxy (right doctrine). In keeping with the preceding context, the purpose of these gifts is to maintain the unity of the faith of the Church. For how long? St. Paul tells us in Eph 4:13 that it the gifts will remain in force until the Church is fully conformed to the image of Christ.

This means St. Paul believed and taught that true doctrine would be preserved in the Church that Jesus Christ founded until the consummation of all things at the end of time when the Lord returns in glory. St. Paul believed that with regards to doctrine, the Catholic Church would always remain infallible.

Sadly, there are many non-Catholic Christians who disagree with St. Paul on this point by believing that the Catholic Church has fallen into heresy (some would even say apostasy). However, they are willing to believe that God preserved the Scriptures as infallible (including the New Testament). What is odd about this view is that the Church preceded any of the writings of the New Testament. In their view the fallible Church produced the infallible New Testament. And more than this, it was the fallible Church which declared which writings should even be considered as Canonical Scripture in the first place. It is a logical fallacy to believe that a fallible Church infallibly created and declared the infallible Scriptures. If they are willing to believe that God, by the Holy Spirit, has preserved the Scriptures from teaching error, surely it isn’t such a leap of faith to also believe that God, by the same Spirit, has also preserved the Church from teaching error in interpreting the Scriptures. After all, who better to interpret the Scriptures than Holy Mother Church who gave us the Scriptures in the first place?

This makes even more sense when we further consider that Jesus Christ is the Head of His Church; and if this be the case, then we can safely assume that He will also lead His Body into all truth (just as He promised).

As we meditate on the Liturgy of the Word today, may we be ever thankful to our Good Shepherd that He has given us the assurance of infallibility in the Holy Catholic Church so that we “need no longer fear and tremble” (Jer 23:4), being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). Rather, let us always listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd as He speaks through His Holy Catholic Church, so that we may become conformed to Him.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Redemption - Private or Communal?

One of the sad consequences of our modern individualistic society is that there are many Christians who think of Redemption in an exclusive way. I’m not here referring to the mentality amongst some who believe that only those who belong to their particular denomination are going to be saved (although that is no less a serious problem). I am referring to the mentality that tends to think of salvation and redemption as exclusively private matters.
The trend in evangelism nowadays is to talk about how God loves YOU and that Jesus died on the Cross for YOUR sins. The emphasis is on a “private” salvation, which in turn I think can lead dangerously towards a self-centred “Christianity”. Of course, personal salvation is true and necessary – but to emphasise it almost exclusively is to miss the whole picture. There is a very big piece of the picture that is missed – and that is the Church.
The tendency with those who think in this exclusively personal way is that “going to church” is seen as a private preference. The Church is not central in their thinking – and it is not necessarily essential for their ongoing growth in Christ much less for their salvation. They believe that all they need to build their relationship with Jesus is their Bible. And this shouldn’t be surprising – it is simply the logical conclusion of a Sola Scriptura tradition that has been handed down in some Christian circles since the time of the schismatic Martin Luther.
Rather than an exclusively individualistic redemption, what we find throughout the Scriptures is that, more often than not, redemption is presented in communal (or corporate) terms. For example, in Eph 5:25, St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ specifically died for the Church (that’s communal not individualistic language). Of course, personal salvation plays a part in this because the Church is the communal gathering of each of the individual members. But it is vitally important to note that it is the corporate aspect that is emphasised, and not the private aspect.
What is interesting about the individualistic tendency with some Christians is that they are usually OK with accepting that sin is not necessarily a private matter. For example, these same Christians would agree that the sin of an individual can affect the many. The primary example of this would be the doctrine of Original Sin, whereby we know that because of the sin of an individual (Adam), the whole human race is marked by his original sin.
But the issue with these individualists is that they are not consistent in that they don’t apply this same principle to the redemption achieved by Jesus Christ, the Last Adam (see 1 Cor 15). [In its own way, this may point to a more fundamental issue that perhaps they see God primarily as a judge who punishes sinners who refuse to accept His gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus the image they make of God is that of a dictator, rather than accepting the way He has revealed Himself as a God who IS love.]
So what is the true Christian approach to Redemption? If the whole human race is imputed in the original sin of the First Adam, surely we can expect that the redemption achieved by Jesus Christ, as the Last Adam, would abound to an infinitely greater degree – especially given that He was not just a sinless man. He is so much more than that. He is the very Creator of the entire Universe – He is the God who took on human flesh so that He could redeem the human race that He created. And this is why the central message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ offered Himself up as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the WHOLE WORLD (1 Jn 2:2).  
What is so beautiful about this is that because redemption is corporate, our Lord invites those who are of members of the community of the redeemed (i.e. the Church) to partake in the application of His redemption. Just as our sins are not private but affect others; so too our deeds of righteousness are also able to be applied on the behalf of others.
In the Old Testament, Job understood this when he offered sacrifices in reparation for the sins of his children (Job 1:5). During the time of Christ’s ministry, the faith of a man’s friends was imputed him so that Jesus could heal him (Matt 9:2). During the time of the ministry of the Apostles, St. Paul tells us that He offered up his own sufferings to help complete what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of the Church (Col 1:24).
But how is all this possible? It is possible because whatever we offer is offered in union with the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. If He is the Head and we are the Body, then it makes sense that what we do is united to what He has already done on the Cross. That is why for the Christian, nothing that we ever do is meaningless – and this includes our suffering.
So when we as Christians suffer some trial, small or great, it can be offered up as salvific – in other words, united to the Cross of Jesus Christ, all our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings are effective for the salvation of others.
In actual fact, as we look deeper into this issue what we see is that when we reduce salvation to a purely private matter, it actually denigrates the value of the individual. But when we understand salvation in the communal way that God intended, it actually serves to highlight the significance of each individual Christian.
So, I would like to suggest that one way to start thinking more communally is by offering up this little prayer (or a something similar) every morning:

O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings, all that this day may bring, be they good or bad: for the love of God, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for all the sins committed against the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. AMEN

In this prayer you will notice that we make recourse through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This is because she knows better than anyone else what it means to offer oneself up completely to God for the sake of others. She did so at the beginning of Christ’s life in the Annunciation; and also at the end when as His Mother she silently and trustingly watching Him suffer for the sins of the world – and as she did so, her heart was truly pierced together with His (Lk 2:35; cp Jn 19:34).
May Our Lady help up us to see that everything we do and experience is significant. May she help us to humbly offer up and unite to Jesus Christ all that we are and do for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of souls.

Ad Jesum per Mariam

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Are you familiar with Jesus?

Although written almost 2,000 years ago, the Gospel reading for today (14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B) is very appropriate for us as Catholics today:

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.
When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished.
They said, "Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?
What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?"
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them,
"A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house."
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mk 6:1-6)

In the homily this morning, our priest pointed out there were times in Jesus’ ministry when He was amazed at the faith of the people He was ministering to (e.g. Matt 8:10). But in stark contrast to this, when ministering to the people He grew up with the Gospel reading ends with the sad words that “He was amazed at their lack of faith”.
What was the reason for their unbelief? How is it that they could be astonished at His teachings and miracles, but still refuse to believe in Him? The Gospel tells us that the reason for their refusal to believe was their familiarity with Jesus. He had grown up in their neighbourhood – they knew Him; they knew the Blessed Virgin; they knew St. Joseph; they knew His cousins. Some of the men and women in the Synagogue may even have been Jesus’ childhood companions. So even though they were astonished at His teachings, because they were too familiar with Jesus, they were not willing to believe.
This is a sombre reminder for us as Catholics.
How little the reverence we show in our lives and in our worship? We grow too accustomed to the beauty that is the Catholic Church, and so we lose sight of that beauty. How many of us have complained about the “staid traditions” of pre-Vatican II days? As a convert, who has had the blessing of seeing the true value and beauty of these traditions, I believe that we only become bored with the traditional when we allow ourselves to become too familiar with tradition – and so the traditions lose their power of impact in our lives.
But there is something even more serious to consider...
How little the reverence that we show for our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament? Think about it? Do we really believe that Jesus is truly present – Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the Eucharist? I think that sometimes we get so familiar with the theology and terminology of the Real Presence that we actually lose sight of the immense gravity of it.
When was the last time that we genuflected before entering our pews whilst consciously acknowledging with our whole being that we were doing so because the King of Kings was present and hidden in the Tabernacle? Or when was the last time we considered that, while we knelt in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, we were in the VERY PRESENCE of the Living God?
Even though He is hidden under the appearance of bread, it is no less true that right there before our very eyes is the Creator of the Universe!!! When we gaze on the Blessed Sacrament, we are gazing at the same Jesus who died on Calvary for our sins – the very same Jesus who rose again three days later and is now ascended to Heaven where He is seated at the right hand of the Father.
How seldom, if ever, do we actually ponder the sheer magnificence of this truth?!? 
I believe that, based on our lack of reverence in our churches, we as Catholics need to do some serious soul-searching – and we need to do some serious God-searching too. May today’s Gospel reading come as a timely reminder and warning to us to never grow so familiar with Christ that we lose our faith.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Baby is Born Again

We experienced the awesome blessing on Sunday of having our youngest child baptised. What was particularly moving was the reminder that what was happening before us was a profound Mystery – the Mystery of new life in Christ!

A few years ago, when I was still a Baptist, I would have told you that we shouldn’t baptise our babies because they don’t have the ability to make their own decision for Christ. Besides that, I was under the impression that “infant baptism” was a carry-over from heretical Roman Catholicism which some of the Reformers were not willing to let go of. As far as I was concerned, infant baptism was part and parcel of a theological system which taught that salvation comes through “good works” – and that infant baptism was one of those attempts at good works. Those who adhere to Baptistic theology appeal to the Scriptures to teach that infant baptism is wrong because (they say) the Apostles taught that we must FIRST repent and THEN we must be baptised. And since it is obvious that babies cannot examine their consciences, and have the subsequent and necessary remorse of sin to repent, they should not be baptised.

What I failed to realise as a Baptist was that the practice of infant baptism teaches the exact opposite of a “works-based” salvation. On the contrary, infant baptism shouts aloud the fact that we are saved by God’s grace alone. This is because the baby being baptised DOES absolutely nothing; and has absolutely NOTHING to bring. Furthermore, water is poured out on the baby from above, as a sign that what is happening in baptism comes from God.

I also failed to realise that salvation is not always a strictly personal matter. God’s gift of salvation is also available through the faith of others (e.g. Matt 9:2).This means that God looks at our children and sees the faith of their parents. In addition, Sacred Scripture tells us that there is an element of faith which a baby is able to exercise – obviously, not the fully-bloomed cognitive faith of an adult, but a faith that God accepts nonetheless (e.g. Ps 22:9).

Even after I rejected my Baptistic theology and became a Presbyterian, my understanding of baptism was still deficient. I understood that baptism was the sign of the New Covenant that replaced the circumcision of the Old Covenant (Col 2:11-12) and so baptism belonged to our children just as circumcision did to Israelite children. As members of the Covenant, children belong to God, and so God requires that they be sealed in the Covenant by baptism. But still that wasn’t the whole story. What I failed to realise as a Presbyterian was that there was more going on in baptism than simply a “sign of the Covenant”. As Scriptural as the Presbyterian position was, it was still only a watered-down understanding of what really happens in baptism.

And this is where being Catholic is so fantastic! Because the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth, she has been faithful in preserving the true Apostolic and Scriptural meaning of baptism. The true meaning of baptism, and the meaning faithful to the Scriptures, is captured beautifully within Sacramental theology.

When we search the Scriptures regarding the practice of baptism in the Apostolic Church, we do not find what represents Baptistic theology i.e. we do not find that baptism is referred to simply as a testimony of our repentance and conversion to Christ. Nor do we see that it is only a sign of the New Covenant. No! Throughout the New Testament, we find that baptism is referred to as being efficacious i.e. it always achieves something. Here are just a few examples:

Joh 3:5  Jesus answered: Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

 Act 2:38  But Peter said to them: Do penance: and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Act 22:16b  Rise up and be baptized and wash away thy sins, invoking his name.

Rom 6:4  For we are buried together with him by baptism into death: that, as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life.

Gal 3:27  For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.

Eph 5:26  That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life:

1Pe 3:21a  Whereunto baptism, being of the like form, now saveth you...

The above Scriptural passages show that baptism is necessary for salvation. This is because baptism washes away our sins, and gives us new life in Christ i.e. by baptism we are regenerated (born again).

It was with this Sacramental understanding of baptism that God touched my heart on Sunday. Our little boy, born only four weeks ago, was now being born again. By his baptism, God was washing away the stain of original sin, and so brought our little boy into His true and eternal family. Our little boy has truly been born from above by water and the Spirit. And for this, I give God praise and thanksgiving!