LIVING IN THE FRONTIERS

Catholic Homily/Reflection on the 32nd Sunday of Year C
November 11, 2007


A “WHY” TO HELP US DEAL WITH THE “HOW”

Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Gruesome, if not grisly, is an apt word to describe the “how” of today’s report on the death of seven brothers (1st Reading), along with their mother. But today’s first reading is to be seen, not in the light of even more gruesome “reality TV” shows and telenovelas that are a collective case of “art imitating life.” Seen against the backdrop of the almost daily reports of some suicide bomber and terrorist-inspired explosion that instill immense fear to countless numbers of people all over the world, the horrific deaths suffered by the seven heroic brothers (and their even more heroic mother) can perhaps occasion, at best, a passive shrug from a desensitized people such as we all are, … (“So, what else is new?” is what me might be tempted to ask), or at worst, a plain indifferent stare of unchristian – and, uncaring – resignation.

But we would be missing the point if all we saw were the grisly details. We would simply be watching in our minds’ eye mere replays and rewinds of old stuff that does not bother us anymore … of stories that don’t impress, and of patterns of behavior that don’t anymore impact on our lives, at least not as much as our favorite telenovela character’s life influences us.

Given the obvious parallelism between the first reading and the gospel from Luke (20:27-38), the two narratives do make a point that goes beyond giving mere superficial shock value. Yes … the two narratives do not merely shock, stun, and awe their hearers. The two narratives do not dwell on details just so people would pay attention. The two narratives do not focus on the “how” of their living and dying (and everything else one does in between). Gory details (as are found in the first reading) and funny, ridiculous scenarios that are so remote from the word of real possibility (as are found in the impertinent questions of the Sadducees) do not constitute the focus of the two narratives. Instead, they focus on the more important question that is now also posed to each and everyone of us here … now … today … and all the coming days.

And that focus is on the “why.” Viktor Frankl, I think it was, who quoted Nietzche who was supposed to have said this memorable line: “One who has a “why” to live for can live with almost any “how.”

Just what is this “why” all about?

Today’s selected passage from 2 Maccabees (7:1-2, 9-14) is worth quoting verbatim. The first brother to die explains this “why” thus: “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” The second is a little more straightforward: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us p to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.” The third explains where that “why” comes from: “It was from heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.” But by far, the clearest “why” comes from the fourth brother, who puts into words their unwavering conviction: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

Just what does this “why” consist of? It has to do with one simple thing … perspective. The “why” that led the seven individuals + 1 to go through their deaths with stunning alacrity and peace of mind is none other than the powerful perspective of faith in something higher, greater, nobler, and richer. It is something that is very literally “out of this world.”

Gory details pale in comparison to this “pearl of great price.” The mere thought alone, and the unflinching attachment to the truth that they would rise again – the “why” – were enough to help them deal with the horrendous “how” of their fiery and cruel deaths.

It is for the same reason that funny details that border on the ridiculous and the absurd, as posed by Sadducees whose questions were designed more to trump rather than to trumpet truth, do not occupy center stage in the narrative imagination of people. In the Gospel, as in the first reading, the “how” takes a back seat to the “why.” And that “why” is expressed in no uncertain terms by the Lord: “That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called out ‘Lord,’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

Our lives can, at times, be really like the telenovelas and reality TV shows we so love to watch. More than just gory details dot the terroristic filled landscape of our geopolitical, and economic lives. Sad news and sob stories fill the daily map of our collective consciousness. Our political lives can also be so funny we could cry. We find reasons enough to laugh at the inanities of both the leaders and the led in our society everywhere. Perpetual squabbles done not so much in the name of principles but of sheer political survival are getting to be so ridiculous as to make us laugh and cry at the same time – for sheer desperation and frustration. Like the Sadducees whose dogged determination at their brand of “doctrinal purity” is equaled only by their ridiculousness, our leaders and lawmakers especially in the country where I am, only end up making fools of themselves by focusing on peripherals, and not on what really matters.

Like them, we often lack perspective. We see the clouds but not the silver linings that hide behind them. Like the story of two men who looked out the same window, many of us often see mud, and so few see the stars up above. We see all the gory mess, and not the glory nest on which hope is meant to be nourished and nurtured.

We need to get fresh perspectives. We need to have fresh readings of old stories. In the meta-narrative of our salvation history, themes as old as humanity keep on playing themselves out in the on-going telenovela of our personal and collective lives. The theme of sin stands out in this unfolding narrative. But so does mercy … as does forgiveness. The theme of the fall keeps on surfacing everyday in the form of corruption. But so does the theme of repentance, the theme of the call, the theme of new life, the theme of the resurrection!

I have it on Thomas Howard’s (2007) authority that “the whole point of stories, from Peter Rabbit to War and Peace, is to summon us” … “to call us from mere silence and solitude to some sort of participation in the real world” (p.4). When, despite all the “many fantastic tricks we do before high heavens, as make the angels weep,” we look up and see in faith the truth of the resurrection of the dead, then we will have the necessary perspective to participate (through gory to glory) in a world where we all could declare: “we will rise and not grow weary for our God will be our strength, and we will fly like the eagle, we will rise again!”

St. Paul understood this well enough. He, too, had his “gory” moments, his own fiery furnace of real suffering. In today’s second reading, he prays for his followers and fellow believers. At the same time, he asks that prayers be offered also for him. But in the final analysis, his life became a living testimony to the need for us to gain perspective and to make a journey from gory to funny, from dying to rising, from Calvary to glory. He sure had a “why” that explains how he dealt with the blows of the “how.” Together with him, we pray for ourselves and one another: “May the Lord direct [our] hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ.”

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City - November 7, 2007 10:26 PM

LIVING IN THE FRONTIERS

The very pastoral and ministerial Paul continues to keep in mind his fellow believers, as today, in his letter to the Thessalonians, we once more hear him pray for them. Paul, the apostle of the Lord who, two weeks ago we heard taking leave, and almost like saying good-bye to Timothy, now prays for his disciples, and asks them to pray for him in return. Paul, who has spent his time “running the race and fighting the good fight” for the Lord, now has one foot in eternity. Whilst still living in this world, he knows full well that he is really called to live a transformed life together with the God he served so well.


Paul was in effect living in the frontiers. He was, to use the words of Countryman, “living on the border of the holy” (1999). He was straddling time and eternity. He was immersed, at one and the same time, on the “already” and the “not yet” of Christian faith.

I would like to share something personal and dear to me, what appears to me as the best exemplification of what I am talking about. Just before I got to Baltimore for studies at Loyola last year, I got to see my elder sister Maria, who was then close to dying of cancer. Since I worked mostly in the Philippines, that was the only time in the five years that she struggled with the cruel disease, that I got to see her up close, at a time when death was surely imminent, no matter how much we wanted to deny it. At a private Mass that I said in her presence, one of the last three I was able to do with her in attendance, the unmistakable, undeniable, and inevitable reality hit me hard as I celebrated Mass. In her eyes, in her overall countenance, in her serene and limpid gaze, I realized that she had gone far beyond us all, who still expected to stay on for a bit longer in this world. I realized that as I preached, she really was preaching to every one of us around her. There was nothing I said that could have brought her any closer than she already was to the God whose presence I could only feebly proclaim through my weak devotion and attention. It was clear to me, then, than she was, already at that time, with one foot in eternity. She was ready to go.

It was a powerful realization at the moment of the consecration. As I held back tears, choked by the thought of the inevitable happening sooner than I thought, I got distracted by the first line of one of her favorite songs of years past, “all my bags are packed, I’m ready to go … Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane.” Her eyes said it all, as if to say with St. Paul … “I have competed well; I have run the race; I have kept the faith.” In retrospect, I realized that by then, she had already detached herself from everything and everyone she held so dear for all her 56 years of life on earth. I knew the time would come when I can make use of this somehow in my talks, reflections, and writings. The time has come. Today.

Indeed, for this Sunday is a day for us Christian believers to move forward and look forward. Today is a day of hope. Today is a day like every Sunday, when our gaze is led far beyond the daily travails of life, far beyond pain and suffering that form the warp and woof of human, earthly existence. Today is a day when our thoughts are directed toward what is “already” taking place, and towards the “not yet” of our Christian calling, which we can only possess in advance through hope and faith.

It is well for us all to remember that the liturgical celebration, the memorial meal and sacrifice that we are engaged in, this very Mass, basks in the certainty of what in our faith we look backward to, and what in our love and hope, we also look forward to, and what in mystery, is already happening in our midst.

In the liturgy, we celebrate the historical fact that we are a redeemed people. We also proclaim and enact the fact that our salvation is an ongoing process, an unfolding reality that happens here and now. This liturgy is also a proclamation in hope of that which, on account of Christ’s resurrection, we all await – His coming in glory to bring the fullness of salvation. No wonder today, we proclaim after the first reading, “Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.”

Our proclamation, though, needs to be pitted against that of the three brothers who chose to die horrific deaths rather than do something abominable to the Lord. By their martyrdom, their witness, and their death, the three pointed to their great faith in the resurrection of the dead, in the after life, in Divine justice, in His love, and overflowing mercy.

The situation of many of us may be a far cry from the courage and strength of faith of the three (of seven) brothers who all died in witness of what they believed in. Our faith may not be that strong. Our hope could easily disappear at the first wisp of the winds of trials and tribulations. Our love could easily be overcome by so much hatred, so much lack of care and concern from others, and so much violence in the world. Paul, ever the solicitous servant-leader of his fellow disciples, knew as much. He prayed for them that they “may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.”

Not all have faith. Not everyone you love share the same convictions. Not everyone in the world believe as you do. And even those who usually do have faith may not have enough during hard times. We feel encouraged by Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians and for us, that we may be granted “courage in our hearts” and “strength in every good deed and word.” We feel supported in our weakness of faith, in the times we so easily give in to discouragement, to cynicism, and to loss of enthusiasm in the good, when we see people like the three brothers in the first reading, Paul and his fellow believers, saints like Therese of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa of Calcutta who saw far beyond the reality and experience of pain, with “tears as their telescopes.” Modesty aside, and by the grace of God, my elder sister could be counted among them. In their joy, as much as in their suffering, whether personal or vicarious, they gave witness to a future that was already present in their lives of faith, hope, and love.

These were people who lived on the border of the holy. These were people, who, as every Christian ought to be, were really frontier beings. They lived in the frontier world that straddled time and eternity, the present and the future, the “already” and the “not yet.” They were prophets who bore witness as much in their life as in their death, to the justice and unbounded mercy of God whose love for us is everlasting. They were faithful souls whose prophetic imagination led them to live in hope and courage, the future that really awaits us still, a future that has actually dawned in the birth of Christ, the Son of God. Men and women of strength and courage, they lived earthly life to the full while looking forward and moving forward to life in its fullness, as promised by the Lord. With feet firmly planted on the ground, they lived life on the basis of what gave life ultimate grounding, on the basis of what Tillich calls “ultimate concern,” God, who revealed Himself in Christ. Men and women of God, they were men and women of earth who lived life to the hilt until the time came when they had to surrender everything associated with earth, including their life the ultimate gift, back to the Giver.

All the people I listed above, including the Maccabean brothers, their mother, Paul, and my sister, were not priests like I am. But although they did not have the sacramental priesthood, they really took very seriously their wider and more fundamental Christian priesthood of all the baptized. By exercising their fundamental priesthood by serving and ministering to others, by being at the service of God’s Kingdom, they brought the world a glimpse of the HIDDEN HOLY that was a reality in their lives. Without doing sacred things, they brought people to the sacral and the mystical, for they were, in the deepest sense of the terms, frontier beings who straddled the realms of earth and heaven, the sacred and the profane, the ordinary and the mystical, the present and the future. The joy that was already in their hearts, could only be made full, when the glory of God finally appears.

St. Rita Parish, Dundalk, MD
Nov. 7, 2004

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