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Monday, May 28, 2007

NEARER MY GOD, TO THEE, FATHER, SON, & HOLY SPIRIT

Solemnity of the Holy Trinity
June 3, 2007

Readings: Proverbs 8:22-31 / Rom 5:1-5 / Jn 16:12-15


The Solemnity of Pentecost we celebrated last week put the great Easter season to a close. We are now back to the so-called “ordinary time.” But the series of “solemnities of the Lord” that we will have in these two Sundays speak to us of anything but ordinary. They have, in fact, to do with some important and extraordinary truths of our faith.

There is nothing “ordinary” about today’s Solemnity of the Holy Trinity. Neither is there anything that could be seen as trite and commonplace in the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord slated for next Sunday. And if we include the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart trailing closely behind, we see, indeed, a series of feasts that speaks of truths that go beyond the category of “ordinary.”

The celebration of the Blessed Trinity, extraordinary though it is, owing to its nature as a mystery, is all about God’s desire to be “ordinary” in relation to us. It is all about His desire to be near us, to be close to us, to be on intimate footing with us, His people. The Book of Proverbs could not be clearer in this regard. God, personified as Wisdom, declares: “I found delight in the human race” (1st Reading). This God, transcendent and mysterious, is shown to be one who “poured forth” Himself, in and through the world which was His own handiwork.

Paul, speaking of pretty much the same extraordinary reality of God pouring Himself forth, becomes very direct in his declaration about the same God who shows Himself close to His people. That efficacious desire of God for closeness and intimacy with us assumed distinct faces – the face of God-Father, first and foremost, the face of the Son, Jesus Christ, God made man, and the face of the Holy Spirit being poured forth in love. In the face of such an extraordinary reality becoming ordinary, Paul waxes hopeful and optimistic despite the reality of “afflictions.” “Hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (2nd Reading). Afflictions become bearable, not because they become lighter, but because of the presence of this Trinitarian God in the life of the believer.

In the Gospel passage from John, Jesus refers to something that is difficult to bear. He speaks of an extraordinary truth becoming ordinary and bearable on account of the gift of the “spirit of truth” who, he says, “will guide [us] to all truth.” “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.”

All three readings refer to the difficult truth about God who reveals Himself in action as Trinitarian – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three readings speak of this extraordinary reality – a mystery no more and no less – but one which is softened and tailored for our needs, one that is made to pass off as an ordinary truth that has far-ranging consequences to our personal lives as believers.

The simple truth that may prove a little difficult to bear is simply this … God wants to be close to us. God reveals Himself, and works for deep intimacy with us. The Solemnity of the Trinity is all about our extraordinary God becoming ordinary and reachable for us and by us. The Trinity is all about God reaching out to us His creatures, making Himself within reach, within arm’s length, as it were.

He is a God in action … revealing Himself in and through history, in and through the created world. He is a God of passion … showing His great love in and through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, His Son who declared: (Jn 16). He is a God of presence … “I and the Father are one.” “Everything that the Father has is mine”“Behold, I will be with you all days until the end of time” (Mt 28). He is a God whose overweening desire is to make the extraordinary ordinary for us.

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is extraordinary by any standard. First of all, it remains a mystery. Even if God chose – as He did – to reveal Himself in action as Trinitarian, the extraordinary reality remains a mystery that we cannot fully understand.

But this God of extraordinary feats gave clues to help us fathom the mystery and make what is extraordinary ordinary. Paul, in his letter to the Romans we just heard, speaks of one such clue. The great Karl Rahner also refers to that same clue whereof Paul speaks. And it is the clue of afflictions, of suffering, of pain. Paul goes so far as to say: “We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (2nd Reading). Rahner echoes these stirring words of Paul. In his famous five questions, he basically offers us clues to the presence of God in our lives … questions like: “Have you ever felt the need to keep silent despite being unfairly treated?” … “Have you ever felt working for God even when no warmth sustained you?” … etc. He basically suggests wisely and insightfully that in these experiences of passion, of affliction, and pain, one stands to meet God for who He is, a God of action (God the Father), a God of passion (God the Son), and a God of presence (the Holy Spirit).

On a personal note, I am one still reeling from a painful personal experience of affliction. From a purely subjective point of view, I might be justified to call it an extraordinary experience of undeserved pain. There were options that ran through my mind at the height of that extraordinary affliction. But for the most part, such options led me away, not nearer, to a God who showed Himself extraordinarily passionate about us all, even those who make life difficult for others, including those individuals who made life temporarily miserable for me. “For He makes his sun to shine on both the good and the bad alike.”

The thought of Paul and his afflictions, the memory of (Saint) Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, who suffered indescribable suffering owing to the envy of certain powerful and well-connected ecclesiastics who just didn’t like him … the glowing examples of St. Benedict Menni, betrayed and stabbed at the back by his own confreres, reminded me, and still continue to remind me, of an extraordinary God who wants to make Himself ordinary in relation to each and everyone of us.

Yes, the solemnity of the Trinity is an extraordinary mystery non pareil. No, the solemnity of the Trinity does not intend to keep God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit distant, detached, and disconnected from us His beloved people. He is a God who draws near to us. He is a God who suffers with us. He is a God who journeys with us in this unfolding mystery that is life. He is a God in action. He is a God of passion. He is a God of presence. As Father, He is Giving. As Son, He is the Gifted One. As Holy Spirit, He is still Gifting, still forming us all in His image.

The greatest of these gifts is His presence, which appears in a multiplicity of forms, all of which are multi-layered graces from above. At times, this presence comes in and through affliction and pain. In whatever form, through whatever way, the one who sees beyond the extraordinary, and sees the ordinary can only mutter, as did the psalmist: “O Lord our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!” (Responsorial Psalm).

“One God, Three Persons, be near to the people formed in your image, close to the world your love brings to life. We ask this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, true and living, for ever and ever. Amen” (Alternative Opening Prayer).

Monday, May 21, 2007

GIFTS THAT DIVIDE AND THE GIFT THAT UNITES

Pentecost Sunday (Year C)
May 27, 2007

Readings: Acts 2:1-11 / 1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13 / Jn 20:19-23



You would think that, with all the gifts that the early Church received on the day the Church was born, everything would go smooth as silk, and every relationship in the incipient faith-community unruffled. Paul, in his letter to the fractious and quarrelsome Corinthians (1 Cor 12), in fact enumerates a variety of gifts: being apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, assistants, administrators, and – that much coveted gift in our “charismatic renewal” times – the gift of tongues!

But alas, the Corinthians’ and our very own experience tells us that there is a shadow side to those gifts. Gifts galore bring as much jubilation as consternation. With gifts come envy and jealousy, to name just two. With gifts come additional difficulties, as later Paul would acknowledge.

But I am getting ahead of myself and the story.

Today’s story is one of gifts abounding. Today’s story, too, has to do with that one GIFT par excellence, that we would do well to heighten over and above all others. The Acts of the Apostles (1st Reading) stuns us all with that matter-of-fact recounting of Luke, about an event that can only be described as astounding. Everything in the account speaks of power. Everything in the story relates to strength and force. Luke speaks of a “strong driving wind,” which “filled the entire house,” and “tongues as of fire” which “parted and came to rest on each one of them.” Everything, too, relates to a marvelous efficacy in terms of communication, for each one understood the lowly and looked-down-upon Galileans like as if they spoke in everyone’s native language.

For this is basically the story of Pentecost. It is a story of empowerment. It is a story of enlightenment. It, too, is a story of power rising above individual stories of weakness and difficulty. It is a saga of transcendence, of a once frightened band of self-doubting disciples, who got, not just a second wind, but a driving gust, and a life-enabling breath from the Risen Lord. It is a story of the Holy Spirit being given as promised, who “enabled them to proclaim” (1st Reading).

We must be careful to distinguish our stories from the story that unfolds today, and which still unfolds for all time. Our stories are marred by human weakness. Gifts that abound do not necessarily assure a smooth sailing as we navigate through the rough seas of life. We all have our own sob stories to tell the world. We all have our own talents and capabilities many times lying buried after a tumultuous sandstorm of conflict, envy, competition, and jealousy. How many of us have not experienced being the object of scorn and contempt for speaking our mind, for pushing what appears, at least to ourselves, as a brilliant idea, only to be shot down by the opposing winds of intrigue, suspicion, and naked ambition? Truth be told, how many of us have not become instruments of the very same Darth Vader of selfish and dark motives lurking deep inside our psyche?

Our stories, like that of the fragmented and fractious Corinthians, are one of disunity and disempowerment. Good people, in and out of government, in and out the Church, in and out of the faith-community, or religious orders and congregations, are many times disenfranchised, disempowered – even marginalized – owing to the intergalactic forces of conflicting Darth Vaders rising in our midst. The saints suffered similar setbacks. St. Benedict Menni, to name just one, suffered enormously owing to confreres who, at some point, allowed themselves to be instrumentalized by envy and jealousy, which were reframed and made to look like virtues and an overwhelming desire to “do the right thing in God’s name.” Montonati, his biographer, aptly entitles one of his short works about him thus: K.O in Terra; O.K in Cielo (Knocked Out on Earth; OK in Heaven). Padre Pio of Pietrelcina did not fare any better. Some people even manipulated their way to Rome, just to get his suspension from priestly faculties.

But it is just stories such as these – our own – that became the backdrop for today’s story.

The gifts that make each one of us individually and humanly great, no matter how important, are not necessarily what would propel us to the greatness that God would have us value. Our first reading speaks of Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. It speaks about inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, Cretans, and Arabs. This is a motley crowd. This is a most disunited crowd, each one proud of each their own heritage.

I would daresay, at the risk of playing psycho-analyst, that that crowd was probably a very good illustration of what family therapists refer to as, poor “self-differentiation.” Fractiousness and divisiveness, reactivity and “negative vibes” between and among them, along with intrigue and unbridled competition, are nothing more and nothing less than signs of such poor self-differentiation. Gifted and brilliant each in their own way, they nevertheless lacked that one gift that is at the core of today’s story.

And here is the good news attached to our story of today. No… I don’t refer to downplaying nor rejecting our individual giftedness and capabilities. The Church is, and has always been, a community of gifted people. Our associations and various groups in and within the institutional Church cannot do without their members’ individual giftedness. The early Church definitely was served in good stead by the organizational and charismatic talents and gifts of Paul and Barnabas, of Peter and the rest of the original band of disciples, and more.

But we ought to speak today of two realities: the reality of gifts from the Spirit, and the GIFT of the Spirit. The Lord speaks to us, as he did to his disciples gathered in the upper room: “Peace be with you … “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (3rd Reading). Gifts from the Spirit are gifts meant to be used for others. They are given for the good, not of the person who received them, but for others, for the good of the Church as a whole. But over and above these gifts for others, is the gift for the self, the gift for the person her/himself. This is the gift of interior peace. This is the gift that makes a Padre Pio bear the full brunt of injustice and even hatred from others. This is the same gift that empowered St. Benedict Menni to walk with head high up, despite the seeming inhumanity of his fellow humans and fellow monks. This is the gift of personal integrity and holiness.

The Church is populated by people of exceptional giftedness and talents. That is a fact that ought not necessarily be a problem. But envy is. Jealousy is. Unbridled competition is, too. Poor self-differentiation from such gifted individuals, is also a big challenge. In my almost 25 years as a priest, I have seen innumerable groups fray at the edges after some productive and happy years, when personal unresolved issues that spring either from being “fused” or highly “disengaged” from a childhood caregiver comes into the picture through the mechanism of projection. Normal events become “trigger events” for such people. Otherwise indifferent events become full-blown tragedies for many of these so-called “walking wounded” in the world. And a variety of disproportionate reactions relative to the stimulus are made to lash out in full fury at the unfortunate object of one’s projection.

There is need for all of us today to appraise what today’s solemnity means for us. The phenomenon of a highly globalized world can mislead us into believing that the existence of a one-world culture that revolves around consumerism, will necessarily translate to unity and peace. But even globalization gurus speak about going global but acting local. In many senses, we really need to speak more of glocalization, rather than globalization. Local interests, like terrorism for example, are really made to ride on globalized means to wreak maximum havoc on an international, global scale. But the real motives are really “local” not “global.” And these motives have to do with personal or communitarian, ethnic hurts, with personal and collective anger, hatred, the need to do vengeance, and the need to “right” the “wrongs” in this globalized world.


Pentecost Sunday is a story of the gift, more than it is a story of gifts. Gifts refer to many individual persons. This is equivalent to going global. Gift refers to the person per se. This, on the other hand, is the equivalent to going local. Gifts are important and necessary for we are not called to mediocrity and narrow-mindedness in a Church that is called to be, like Christ, a light for all nations (lumen gentium). But, over and above all this, we are called to peace, to forgiveness, to being Spirit-filled. Gifts alone may divide us, as our experience shows. But the gift par excellence does the opposite. This gift of interior peace, the Spirit Himself, will not only lead us into all the truth, but will lead us towards unity, towards the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth.”

It may well be worth our while to take a second look at the prayer we said at the beginning of this Mass: “Father of light, from whom every good gift comes, send your Spirit into our lives with the power of a mighty wind, and by the flame of your wisdom open the horizons of our minds. Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words beyond the power of speech, for without your Spirit man could never raise his voice in words of peace or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Alternative Opening Prayer)

Monday, May 14, 2007

ABSENT FOR A TIME; PRESENT FOR ALL TIME

Ascension Sunday
May 20, 2007

Readings: Acts 1:-11 / Eph 1:17-23 / Lk 24:46-53


This day is definitely a day of seeming contrasts. Jesus bids good-bye to his disciples. Good-byes are, in our human experience, generally sad events. But not so Jesus’ leave-taking. The ebullient joy that characterizes this day is captured for posterity by our response after the first reading: “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.” Make no mistake about it. This is a joyful departure. It sounds almost like we are happy because the Risen Lord has taken leave of us.

But hold it a second … did he or didn’t he? Let us see more of such apparent contrasts.

The first reading gives us one more to consider. The Apostles, we are told “were looking on [as] he was lifted up” (Acts 1). They were awed. They were caught up in the loftiness of the mystery unfolding. They worshipped and adored the Risen Lord. But hold on a second … Just before being taken up, the Risen Lord told them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We are further told by Luke’s account in Acts, that as they looked up, two angels challenged them: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

We see immediate parallels of this reality in our lives. It does not do us much good to be staying on and worshipping unless this basically good deed rises higher to become witnessing. Worship and witness … the initial contrast between the two collapses upon deeper reflection.

But here’s one more such seeming contrast … “shouts of joy” are matched only by the “blare of trumpets.” There is an ascending character even in the apostles’ response to the Lord’s rising and ascending up to heaven. Praising the Lord of victories is good and laudable. But something else that transcends mere praising is in order. Shouting for joy alone does not do justice to one’s personal experience of the Risen Lord. Praising ought to rise to the level of proclamation. And proclamation has to come from one who has been gifted with “a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him” (2nd Reading). Proclamation comes when “the eyes of [our] hearts are enlightened,” [and when we] “know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”

All elements we have mentioned – joy, worship, witness, praise, and proclamation – are rolled up together in the Lukan gospel account. Jesus reminded his disciples: “You are witnesses of these things.” Luke tells us that the disciples who saw him rise up to the heaven “did him homage.” They also “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” And they “were continually in the temple praising God.”

This is one story of “good-bye” that constitutes one heck of a celebration – and a joyful one at that. This leads us to our simplistic sounding question at the beginning of this reflection. Did he or didn’t he?

Yes, he did. It stands as a historical fact of the inspired New Testament that he “was taken up to heaven.” But his departure for a time, really meant he is present in a different, transformed way. His ascension to heaven, at bottom, is also what is behind the rising transformation of people who initially felt the need to resort to worshipping, but who eventually understood that they were really called to witnessing. The same people initially engaged in praising the Risen Lord, but the rest of the New Testament story speaks of them proclaiming the saving wonders of a God who is really present in their midst in a new and more encompassing way.

Yes. Ascension is all about going and coming, with the focus on the latter. The Lord went away for a time, in a physical sense, but this going away translated into his coming, and being present for all time, in a new way, in a way that did not limit him to a tiny geographical area of Galilee and Jerusalem, but in order to make real the promise of a “new heaven and a new earth.”

Ascension is all about presence. Ascension is all about power, too – the power attached to praising and proclaiming, to worshipping and witnessing, in a way that transcends mere rejoicing to exulting in the Lord who is our strength.

And this leads us to think about our own need to transcend. Far too many of us profess to have faith in the Risen Lord. But our God is a God who “has pitched his tent in our midst.” This is the literal meaning of the Johannine phrase “et habitavit in nobis” (and he dwelt amongst us). Our God is present in our midst. He lives with us, and journeys with us. He is, according to philosophers, both a transcendent and immanent God. There is no question about his being present to us for all time, for all places, in all ways and for always. But we do need to check on where we are in all this. Are we in his tent (or at least near it) or outside of it, or far from it? Alas, too many claim they believe in God. But they really do not belong. They remain outsiders, not insiders. They keep God always conveniently at arms’ length, so that their praising need not graduate to proclaiming, so that their worshipping need not move on to witnessing.

In the context where I am, and in many other places in the whole Christian world, there is need for all to make a rapprochement between faith and life, between praise and proclamation, between worship and witness, between believing and belonging. Honduras, for example, is really like the Philippines. Both are predominantly Catholic (or Christian). But both are mired in corruption, crime, and violence, whether drug-related or politically motivated. Highly ritualized and highly sacramentalized, their eyes remain fixed on the sky, but their concrete life never get around to really live what they believe.

Ascension is not only about staring up into the sky, like the angels told the apostles. It is all about going down to the plains, and getting down to brass tacks. It is all about us being extensions of a Risen Lord who has gone away for a time, so as to be present for all time. It is all about making good what we asked for in faith in today’s Mass: “Father, in this Eucharist we touch the divine life you give to the world. Help us to follow Christ with love to eternal life where he is Lord forever and ever” (Postcommunion Prayer). It has to do with being engaged, not being detached and disengaged … “May we follow him into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope” (Opening Prayer).

Paranaque City, May 14, 2007 11:00 AM




Sunday, May 6, 2007

HOPE THAT IS AT ONCE HOMELY AND HEAVENLY

6th Sunday of Easter – Year C
May 13, 2007

Readings: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 / Rv 21:10-14, 22-23 / Jn 14:23-29

HOPE THAT IS AT ONCE HOMELY AND HEAVENLY

Our opening prayer in today’s Mass gives me a perfect jump-off point for this reflection. We ask God for grace to help us “express with our lives the love we celebrate.” Celebration connotes crowds. It entails many people gathering to express live the love that calls them to celebration in the first place. When we speak of many, we speak, too, of differences: different characters, interests, points of view, origin, race, color, and so many others. When we speak of love that is worthy of being celebrated, we speak of unity in diversity, we speak of inclusion, not exclusion, of openness, instead of bigoted and narrow-minded closedness.

In fact, this is what we pray for right after the first reading: “O God, let all the nations praise you!” (Responsorial Psalm).

But prayer is not just wishful thinking. It is wanting and doing at one and the same time. It is active and alive; waiting and watching proactively. It is acting in a manner that paves the way for God to be able to do what we ask for in faith, what we work for in hope, and what we do together in love. This is what Paul and Barnabas did. They forged new trails. They pushed onward and outward to Gentile territories to win as many as possible for Christ, without having them subjected to the cultural traditions and practices of the Jewish converts to Christianity, while remaining faithful to the non-negotiable essentials of Christian faith.

Paul, the great apostle to the gentiles, worked for inclusion and integration, not narrow parochialism and ritual-bound belief systems that would slam the door in the face of non Jewish converts to the faith. Integration of the many opens the way to genuine celebration.

The second reading paints in glowingly symbolic terms what this inclusion, integration, and celebration would look like. The only word I can think of right now is HOME. The “holy city Jerusalem” is pictured in the prophetic vision as “coming down out of heaven from God.” The glory of God comes home to us His people. The promised “new heaven and new earth” spoken of in last week’s passage is portrayed as becoming a reality here and now – and beyond. John’s ebullient joy shines through in his picturesque language that is redolent of a lively hope that merits celebration if, at least, in profuse prose. He talks of “splendor” and “radiance,” and numbers galore dot the description that is as gorgeous as it is glorious.

The hope of the ages has come home alright. But the same hope is described not as something merely earthly. No … that hope, though spoken of as homely, is really “out of this world.” It is heavenly. It is transcendent. It goes beyond mere human joy and fulfillment. It goes beyond calling people to mere rejoicing. It is a hope that is at one and the same time homely and heavenly, intra-worldly and ultra-worldly, immanent and transcendent, like God Himself.

It is a hope that is “already” reality, but it is a hope that is also “not yet.”

Jesus’ rising from the dead made most of it an unfolding reality for the growing number of believers. The number of joyful, rejoicing, and celebrating people increased, owing to the proactive faith, hope, and love of individuals like Paul and Barnabas. By their preaching an inculturated faith, and allowing the pagan converts to refrain from doing what the Jews usually did, they brought the Christian faith home to them. What was basically heavenly in nature, origin, and finality became a homely, humble belief system that made them feel very much in league with those who believed and belonged to the full.

I would like to push the envelope a little farther. I would like to think that Christ today, in his second “farewell” discourse prior to his ascension into heaven, was giving a homespun, and thus, homely metaphor to refer to his home (ours, too, potentially) both on earth and up in heaven. He speaks about him and the Father “making [their] dwelling with him.” In effect, Christ tells us to rejoice because he is going away … going away, that is, to prepare a place for his followers. He goes away not to abandon us, but eventually, to take us home. That hope he speaks of today is twofold. First, “whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” Second, he promises another “homecoming” in our midst: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”

There is something powerfully hopeful in the three readings we hear today. In a world that is now characterized by new and varied forms of alienation, dissension, discord, and segregation, so many are feeling like strangers in their own land. Globalization and the tendencies associated with a media saturated culture that makes for shallow homogeneity, displace so many people in this shrinking planet where there are now between 175 to 200 million migrants in every part of the world. We feel lost even in our own home countries. Third or fourth generation immigrants in immigration receiving countries increasingly feel confused and unwelcoming to new migrants, who, like before, are forced to move on and move out, in search of greener pastures. We feel estranged even in our own global families and clans, where our closest relatives could be living eight or ten thousand miles away from us. There is strife and division even in the Church, in religious congregations, among covenanted communities, even among and within families that at some time, were a picture of warmth and closeness. Everywhere we go, hope seems to be, in the words of Manley-Hopkins, “growing grey hairs.”

In the context where I am, hope is growing grey hairs as far as our political culture is concerned. Everything gets worse before it can get better. The traditional rule of thumb that counsels voters to choose the lesser evil does not seem to work anymore given the fact that both sides of the fence are manned by less than noble and respectable candidates. In the face of all this, people resort to indifference, cynicism, and downright desperation that all translate to dangerous non-involvement and lack of commitment.

But it is precisely in this climate that hope, instead of growing grey hairs, can be revitalized and made operational and real. It is precisely when one knows he has hit rock bottom that he can decide to pull himself together and make a breakthrough after a seeming breakdown. It is precisely in dying with Christ that one can speak of rising with him. It is when everything is eerily quiet and pitch black at dawn when one begins to pine and hope for first rays of light at the break of day. It is always darkest just before dawn, but it is always the moment marked by expectant waiting, certain that light will soon dispel the dreary darkness.

The alternative opening prayer comes in handy here. “May our mortal lives be crowned with the ultimate joy of rising with him.”

Today, what we pray for is what we proclaim – the conviction that hope is at home in our midst, despite all evidences to the contrary, and that that same hope refers to something that is both homely (earthly) and heavenly. The Risen Lord makes sure of that. The new heaven and the new earth has come down upon us, and will still come down in total and full splendor in our midst, here on earth, as it is in heaven. Our prayer after communion reflects that conviction: “You restored us to life by raising Christ from death. Strengthen us by this Easter sacrament. We ask this through Christ our Lord.”

I end by quoting a favorite song that, even as I write, fills my eyes with joyous tears: “We will run, and not grow weary, for our God will be our strength, and we will fly like the eagle, we will rise again.”

Paranaque City, May 6, 2007 11:00 pm

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

FILLED WITH THE WORDS OF A NEW SONG

5th Sunday of Easter (C)
May 6, 2007

Readings: Acts 14:21-27 / Rev 21:1-5a / Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35

FILLED WITH THE WORDS OF A NEW SONG
(5th Sunday of Easter Year C)

[Paranaque City, Metro Manila, May 1, 2007]


Newness is the apt word that best describes what today’s liturgy, among other things, focuses on. The Entrance Antiphon gives the opening salvo: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds” (Ps 98). The acclamation just before the Gospel brings us to the heart of what the Gospel reading itself zeroes in on: “I give you a NEW commandment; love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).

Newness, or the active search for it, is what led Paul and Barnabas to blaze new trails for their work of evangelization. Discerning rightly that they were called to go beyond the limiting confines of the Judaic world at that time, they left the familiar sights and sounds of home, and went on a whirlwind “pilgrimage” of ministry to the areas associated with gentiles and non-Jewish cultures.

But it is especially the 2nd and 3rd readings that strike at the heart of this evangelical message of newness that we would do well to reflect on more deeply. Using what is known as “apocalyptic” style of writing, John reports a “vision” of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), thus effectively corroborating a prophecy made by Isaiah (65:17). Apocalyptic roughly means symbolic. If it is symbolic, a literal interpretation, obviously, is simply out of order. When the power of such symbolic language is pitted against the expanding bigger picture provided by the rest of Scripture, along with the tradition that accompanied such a “faith-context,” we also see an expanding understanding of this newness that comes from our Christian “faith-content.” This newness is not mere material, superficial, ephemeral, and shallow newness. It is newness in nature, and not mere newness in time. It is newness that seeps deep down, and not newness that loses its luster with the passage of chronological time. The Greek original pits a very important word that captures this total, out-and-out newness – kainos – as opposed to the highly time-bound, and ephemeral neos. The former is qualitative – and, therefore, deeper; the latter is merely quantitative – and, therefore – superficial.

This is the backdrop of what the Risen Lord now challenges us to – the call to radical newness that accrues from his “kainotic” (not neotic) message: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved, you should also love one another” (Gospel).

Part of my modest experience in leadership is my growing realization and conviction that “what you see is what you get.” Vision propels meaningful action. A recent acquaintance, a brilliant and capable businesswoman, over at dinner table, quoting her deceased father, puts it so nicely: “If you can’t see the invisible, you can’t do the impossible.” Without vision, not only people perish. The work perishes along with the demise of one’s capability to conjure up a world of possibilities, a world that could be different and better, a “new heaven and a new earth.” Back in the 70s, a car bumper sticker refers to the incongruous situation that occurs when a leader does not have a vision: “Don’t follow me. I’m lost.”

Henri Nouwen (who amongst my readers does not know him?) relates that famous story of a horse-rider who, one day, galloped into town, and when repeatedly asked the same question, “where are you going?” he would always have the same answer: “I don’t know. Ask my horse.” Nouwen wisely counsels his readers … “We must know where our horses are going.” We must have a vision, lest we perish.

I would like to think that today, 5th Sunday of Easter, the one who blazed startlingly new trails, by rising to new life, is also giving us a blueprint for a new heaven and a new earth.

He calls us to newness. He rouses us to freshness. In a world filled with the staleness of the ordinary and the mundane, the Risen Lord calls us to a life of extraordinariness. In a world that expects us to follow the well-beaten path of mediocrity and the so-called patterns of “normality,” Paul and Barnabas, John the evangelist, and no less than the Risen Lord Himself, tell us that there is a new world out there waiting to be born, a new reality out there waiting to be fashioned, a world best described by John (and Isaiah) as a world where “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (2nd reading).

This new world whereof Isaiah and John speak, is, for the most part, invisible to our narrow, and progressively narrowing visions. Caught as we all are, by the rapid onslaught of globalization, along with its concomitant forces that produce an equally rapid and almost unstoppable process of dehumanization, most of us literally and figuratively raise our arms in exasperation and surrender. For a great many of us postmodern people, what we see, is, indeed, what we get … a culture of sin, a culture of corruption, a culture of individualism, etc. Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, has the best word to describe this process. He called a spade a spade. He called it a “culture of death” plain and simple.

Our contemporary experience is full of glaring examples of this process of co-optation that this culture of death subjects us all to. Trust and freedom are the very first items to be thrown out the window of convenience and commercialization. Two things stand out in our postmodern culture marked by insecurity and lack of trust: suspicion and irreverence. Unable to hold on to the molding and gelling power of commonly held beliefs (faith-content), lost in a tumultuous “sea” of insecurity and inability to be attracted by commonly held values (faith-context), we end up wallowing in a culture and “hermeneutics” of suspicion. We suspect everyone and everything. We don’t trust leaders. We don’t trust the system that breeds rapacious wolves who go around in sheep’s clothing. And those we don’t trust, we definitely condemn. We look at institutions with both damning suspicion and irreverence. We poke fun at leaders capable or not. Just look at our lackluster governments and administrations all over the world. Here in backwater Philippines, where I chose to remain – and stay – I salute whoever it was who first said that our problem in our society is as much about a “crisis of leaders” as about the “crisis of the led!” We are all in it together. We are a rudderless, vision-less, direction-less nation adrift in a sea engulfed by massive suspicion and irreverence. Did I mention that most of us Filipinos don’t even subscribe to the official pro-life teaching of Mother Church? Did I mention, too, that Honduras (with more than 95% of the 7 million population officially Catholic) and the Philippines have more than one thing in common … starting with the damning fact that both countries are patently Catholic and patently corrupt?

My heart bleeds for a country adrift in this chaotic sea of corruption and vision-less leadership (at least on the part of most politicians). It is never too late at this juncture to remind ourselves that John saw a vision that “the sea was no more.” The sea, for the Jews, was a symbol of everything chaotic, everything that is wrong with the world. John’s vision takes pain to remind us that “the sea was no more.” Who can beat this message and vision of utter newness?

Whilst my heart bleeds for my country and the world … whilst it also bleeds at the sight of a local church lost in a sea of squabbles and ministerial disunity … whilst it all the more bleeds for a congregation I belong to which (at least in the local scene) seems to be led by people who either can’t have a vision, or at least can’t articulate that vision if they had one, my readings of today’s liturgy is what propels me to share this overwhelming message of hope that comes from someone who is in charge, and who will ultimately prevail: “Behold, I make all things new.”

But in the meantime, as we all wait actively for what is “already” and what is “not yet,” there is the in-between-time of our pilgrimage stay in this world, where we are called to give a little help to Him whose vision is “that we might have life and have it in its fullness.” These are words that form part of a new song. I refer to the new song of Easter. “We are an Easter people, and Alluluia is our song,” Augustine reminds us. Why don’t we start by praying as we did at the beginning of this Mass?

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you have revealed to the nations your saving power and filled all ages with the words of a new song. Hear the echo of this hymn. Give us the voice to sing your praise throughout this season of joy. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen” (Alternative Opening Prayer).