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Monday, July 30, 2007

THE PASSION OF THE WORLD & THE GLORY OF THE LORD

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
August 5, 2007

Readings: Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23 / Col 3:1-5, 9-11 / Lk 12:13-21

Perspective is an apt word to encapsulate today’s liturgy. Perspective is having the right frame of mind with which to look at things. It means not being too close for comfort, nor being too distant to see clearly. Perspective is seeing things objectively for what they are. It also means valuing things for what they are really worth, and knowing what to value and why.

Qoheleth gives the opening salvo in today’s reflection on perspective with a little irony. He refers to “vanity of vanities” which really ought to read more like “transitoriness of transitoriness” (1st Reading). He does not downplay nor look down on human toil, nor declare it as useless. All he cautions against is affording every fruit of human toil absolute value. He counsels perspective. He reminds us to toe the middle line between being too attached to the fruits of one’s efforts, on the one hand, and being too dismissive of something legitimate – and – necessary if one is to live in this world of material realities, on the other.

The same perspective is what we are reminded of in Ps. 90 (Responsorial Psalm). Transitory human life, it says, ought to be put in proper perspective, seen in the light of God’s eternity: “For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, now that is past, or as a watch of the night.”

St. Paul corroborates the call to a proper perspective. He counsels the Colossians to “take the moral high ground” in a good sense, and “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” He tells us more pointedly: “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” (2nd Reading).

Perspective, being the right way of viewing reality, also refers to seeing more, not less. It means having the right vantage point, and thereby, seeing a vast panorama of things from which one can see which ought to be given focus to, and which ought to be treated as secondary, and therefore, of lesser importance. A request from someone in the crowd occasioned a perfect backdrop for the Lord to declare: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (Gospel).

Again, the Lord counsels perspective. It means not missing the forest for a tree. It means not getting lost in inconsequential matters and missing what in the end really matters most.

We live in postmodern times. We have witnessed in the not-so-distant past, the collapse of what used to be the bastion of objective truth – authority – through the cultural, and expressive disorder of the 60s. The spirit of the “contestations” (contestazioni, in Italian refers to the cultural revolution that characterized the times right after Vatican II), along with a later collapse of a different bastion and fortress of an unbending and rigid source of another brand of dictatorial truth – communism – has produced generations for whom truth, understood as objective truth, does not exist anymore, anywhere, in any guise or any form.

Funny, but in the postmodern individual’s desire to rid the world of dogmatism, he or she has created a different tyranny of absolutism – the absolute attachment to the belief that there are no absolutes in this world! The singing group Boyzone (admittedly rather dated now for the standards of today’s youth), encapsulates this dogmatist attitude that goes against any dogmatic formulations thus: “No matter what they tell us; no matter what they do; no matter what they teach us, what I believe is true.”

But I sound like I am digressing from today’s topic which is on the importance of perspective. No … I don’t digress. I am illustrating the need for us postmoderns to re-appropriate this lost ability to get perspective.

The Lord does not condemn riches in today’s gospel passage. But neither does he extol and foster penury, utter want, and poverty. He really wants us to put things in proper perspective. He reminds us of the need to watch out lest we be caught in the clutches of materialism on the one hand, and hatred for what the world legitimately offers, on the other hand … things that are not sinful of themselves and can therefore, be legitimately enjoyed.

We live not only in postmodern times. We also live – precisely on account of that – in confusing times. We are often torn by two or more opposing factions, many times appearing as irreconcilable opinions for or against every imaginable issue under the sun. Some mistakenly believe, for example, that the Holy Father’s democratizing the use of the Latin Tridentine Mass, ought to be interpreted as taking sides between two opposing and irreconcilable factions … that it means being on the side either of those who offer “right worship” and those who proffer a “not-so-right-way of worship.” For some others, it might mean being identified with a “strict observance” group and with an “anything goes” group in the Church.

But having perspective is not an either-or, black or white, or polarized thinking and behaving. It means the ability to know and define one’s hierarchy of values, one’s priorities, and one’s order of preference in accordance with the values of God and Kingdom. Qoheleth does not detest legitimate fruits of his labor. But he does remind us that one who absolutizes them is literally to be clutching at straws. It is the height of folly, he reminds us, to work for what is ultimately, the most transitory of all transitory things!

St. Paul, too, does not despise what is earthly. But he does help us to see that what is earthly is intrinsically inferior to what is heavenly. “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then, you too will appear with him in glory.” In the same vein, the Lord does not teach us to despise earthly goods because they are evil of themselves. But he does teach us to value them in the right way, in accordance with God’s way of valuing all created things. He makes a striking contrast between those who “store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich in what matters to God.”

Pope Benedict XVI gives me a perfect analogate for this issue of gaining the right perspective. Gaining perspective means striking a balance. It means toeing that middle portion of virtue that straddles the in-between area of two bi-polar – if patently contrasting – realities. But here, contrasting does not necessarily mean contradictory to each other and mutually self-canceling. In a recent statement during a question and answer session with clergy, he spoke of the delicate balance between being focused on the “passion of the world and the glory of the Lord.”

In our postmodern, confusing times, we could be caught up by all that pertains to the “passion of the world.” We need not absolutize them. We need perspective. And that perspective is provided by all that pertains to the “glory of the Lord.”

We can start by reminding ourselves of one element that today’s liturgy would have us focus on: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Alleluia verse before the Gospel).

[National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians,
Paranaque City, Philippines – July 30, 2007]

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI!

All of us mortals long for the more, the better, the greater, and the ultimate! The history of the world, and our own personal histories reflect this timeless and ageless truth – we look for fulfillment, for what satisfies, for everything that gives lasting meaning to our existence. We even pine for immortality, for the proverbial fountain of youth, physical prowess, and beauty. We hanker for everything that lasts, and all things that lend perfection and lasting dignity to our person.

All that we long for, and all that we look for are not bad in themselves. They are legitimate ends for men and women created by God with the natural tendency towards “self-transcendence.” This includes our legitimate desire for material wealth and prosperity.

Today’s liturgy, though, offers some kind of a “caveat” (a warning). Today’s readings would have us pause awhile and see beyond what we consider as the “ultimate.” The Lord, today, would have us reflect a little bit deeper on the values we hold dearly, on the priorities we have set for ourselves, on the targets we have focused on, and on the bases of the happiness and meaningfulness we have pegged ourselves and our lives on.

For, truth to tell, there is so much blindness in the world today, so much lack of clarity, so much lack of perspective.

The view from Hollywood, for one, is an absolutist one. Entertainment and fun is the ultimate gauge of one’s happiness and well-being. Everyday, we are bombarded by pictures of svelte, upbeat, and perpetually smiling actors and actresses, whose lives appear to revolve around party upon glitzy party, their seemingly happy and ever smiling faces paying tribute to the mantra of youthful life based for the most part on the culture of fun.

So is the view from Wall Street. Wealth and fortune, and the examples of those who made it, constantly hog the infotainment headlines. They act as the modern-day prophets of the capitalist gospel of prosperity and financial well-being.

This absolutist culture is nowhere more visible as in the marriage of capitalism and entertainment in the many shows that dot the prime time landscape: reality TV and shows that consistently gravitate towards Hollywood, New York, Chicago, and, of late, Las Vegas – all centers of commerce, entertainment, and fun. (Have you made a recent count of shows that have focused their sights on Las Vegas?) In many other places all over the world, entertainment and shows mostly revolve around the so-called “primate cities” which function as hubs of development, wealth generation, and the place where to get the “proverbial pot of gold.”

Today, the Church goes counter-cultural, as usual. Today, I am afraid, many people, especially the young, would find the Lord’s good news as one that rather goes against the grain. However, I would like to suggest that, more than being a put-down, today’s biblical readings are an invitation for all of us to gain back perspective, to put back the horse before the cart, and to regain our sense of clarity.

In a culture that has co-opted our minds, our attitudes, and our hearts, and which has gradually led us to absolutize and prioritize our “labor,” “toil and anxiety,” and all “the part of [us] that are earthly,” the Lord reminds us today through Qoheleth that “all things are vanity.” In essence, what we are told is not that all the above is bad, but that they are simply not the ultimate, for they are nothing but “vanity,” that is, mere “vapor,” “breath,” something that is merely transitory. They are useful and important, true, but transitory, not permanent. Being transitory, they are not to be considered the “end all and be all” of human existence.

I had the fortune of meeting and being a friend to a Filipino couple and their children over the past 14 years. When I got to know them, I was doing pastoral work as a substitute pastor in a big parish in Manila, while I was preparing myself to go to Rome for further studies. At that time, they had a booming and lucrative business that placed them among the more well-to-do members of the parish community. The relative wealth they enjoyed, however, did not get to their heads. They kept a low profile, while at the same time, gave generously to the church, while anonymously helping a number of poorer members of the parish. As I got to know them better over the subsequent years, I realized that their lives had been some kind of a roller-coaster ride, with the proverbial ups and downs, failures and successes, joys and disappointments. Their wealth and financial status shot up and shot down, in an unpredictable cycle that would have daunted people with lesser faith. But through all this, the family remained steadfast. They were happy when they lived in prosperity, but they were happy all the same when there was precious little to spare.

They were a clear example of persons who understood the relative importance of wealth.

Unfortunately, in my experience as a priest and an educator/teacher for so many years, I have also encountered people who showed exactly the opposite attitude. Already having more than they could reasonably use to live decent lives, they still want more and more. I have seen people whose drive for more seemed to be the all important rule in their lives, with their families taking a back seat, and values taking a still farther slot in their order of priorities. For some of them, the unbridled drive for wealth and/or power have gradually hardened their hearts, making them callous to the needs of others, and the welfare of their competitors or opponents, as the case may be.

And neither are Church personnel and religious priests immune to such a pervasive culture that can also lead some of us to resort to manipulation and machination in order to safeguard coveted, lucrative posts or hold on to power. To our shame, there are posh parishes all over the country that have become untouchable turfs of some well-connected clerics.

But what is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce, too, for the gander. All of us Christians, whether cleric or lay, would do well to reflect on the prayer that we blurted out after the first reading: “If today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We would do well to remember the relative nature of everything that we have on loan from the gracious generosity of God. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”

Indeed, all the parts of us that are earthly, all that we consider important in this world, all that in our lack of clarity of mind and heart, we believe to be the ultimate values; indeed everything that in our shortsightedness, clouds our minds, and makes us lose perspective and miss the forest for a tree, will all one day disappear, for “the world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away.” Sic transit gloria mundi! That is simply the way of all earthly glory … like grass, they wither and die; they are here today, and gone tomorrow.

Fr Chito Dimaranan, SDB
[St. Rita Parish, Dundalk, MD – August 1, 2004]




Monday, July 23, 2007

DOES GOD CARE?

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
July 29, 2007

Readings: Gn 18:20-32 / Co 2:12-14 / Lk 11:1-13

DOES GOD CARE?
[Paranaque City, Philippines – July 23, 2007]

Today’s readings are, at one and the same time, a study in the acceptance of truth, and an example of persistent and proactive hope. They are readings that we, postmodern women and men all over the world, ought to mull over and deeply internalize.

The first reading is almost counter-intuitive. The opening lines expose the glaring truth of a people so steeped in sin: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, that I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me.” The story, to cut the long narration short, is one of persistent haggling, on the part of Abraham, and one of overflowing solicitude and mercy, on the part of God.

All God needed was a few good, reliable, innocent, and responsible people. But that is only one half of the story. The other half has to do with a persistent, prayerful, and proactive Abraham who is portrayed as the quintessential pray-er who was untiring with his petitions as God was unrelenting in His mercy.

The stories that stare us in the face each morning, both from the print and broadcast media are stories that today’s first reading reminds us of: the growing and increasing threats from terrorism, the seemingly unstoppable march of globalization with both its negative and positive points, the rapid degradation of the world’s precious, dwindling, and disappearing natural resources … the list is legion. Global warming is not just a theory anymore. It is a glaring fact that slowly, but surely, brings us closer to the imminent possibility of cosmic and colossal ecological tragedies not yet seen by humanity.

Does God care? Does it matter for God that we humans seem to have taken it upon ourselves to destroy the world that once upon a time, was the object of God the Creator’s primordial blessing? … “And God saw that it was good!”

I stand here before you in this cyber pulpit aware as much of the progression of humanity towards seeming self-destruction, as of the rousing call and promise of God Himself whose mercy and love are more powerful than the forces of selfishness and sin.

I lay claim to what we proclaimed in faith after the first reading: “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me” (Responsorial Psalm). Does God, indeed, care?

My reading of today’s passages leads me to answer “yes” and “no” at one and the same time!

Yes … God does care for us. That is clearly the overriding message of Genesis Chapter 18. But I do feel the need to qualify my answer. For if our yes answer would mean it all depends solely on God, then my answer is a “no.” God cares for humanity indeed, but He cares enough to allow us the freedom to actualize that caring for, and on behalf, of suffering humanity.

God does care for us. He gives us what it takes to become progressively like unto Him. St. Paul speaks of this foundational truth in glowing theological terms: “you were buried in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” We were redeemed. We were saved. Elsewhere, however, the same Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us that that foundational truth was in view of something else: “you have received a Spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father” (Alleluia verse before the Gospel).

It was a gift that needed to be reciprocated … a present that needed to be operationalized … a love that needed to be actualized in our lives!

Yes, God does care for His people. But the same God of justice, mercy, and overflowing love, is a God who expects us to offer a little contribution from our part. He expects our good will. He waits for our commitment. He counts on our capacity to dream dreams alongside Him. He gently nudges us toward the realization that God’s passionate love for humanity and the world ought to be appropriately matched by our reciprocal passion for Him and His handiwork.

Last week, my reflection in this cyber pulpit focused on the question: “what return can you make?” I spoke of the need for two values: openness and reciprocity. Abraham showed open welcome to three strangers. That openness was reciprocated by a God who could not be outdone in generosity … He and Sarah begot a child in their old age. Martha and Mary showed openness and welcome, too, to their honored guest. The two sisters reciprocated the gracious visit by giving Him a Martha-hand and a Mary-heart – action and contemplation.

Today, I would like to suggest that action and contemplation meet at the crossroads of prayer – prayer that is, at once, persistent and proactive. Such prayer, the Lord teaches us is persistent and pregnant with hope … “your kingdom come.” But the same prayer, he takes pains to clarify, is one that is proactive and one that demands a reciprocal commitment on our part: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” This is related to our twin values of openness and reciprocity of last week.

God’s openness is clear in God’s justice that ultimately spelled divine mercy. But mercy is occasioned by the graciousness and persistence of a pray-er like Abraham, who called out to Him from the depths even of human despair … “Let not my Lord grow angry if I speak.”

The same hopeful persistence is what today’s gospel passage calls us to. The vignettes used by the Lord highlight the pertinacious spirit of the man of faith, who calls on Him despite the seeming futility of it all.

There is a pervading spirit of looming helplessness and hopelessness all over the world in these our terroristic, corrupt-ridden, and terribly fragmented and fractious world. In the midst of all this bad news, I discern a pervasive good news from a God who cares, a God who cares enough for us to allow us the freedom to participate in the actualization of his saving mercy and justice. Our persistent and prayerful hope, the Lord assures us today, is met and reciprocated by God’s paternal solicitude. “O bless the Lord, my soul, and remember all his kindness” (Communion Antiphon).

A FEW GOOD MEN!
[Dundalk, MD – July 25, 2004]

The little, the seemingly insignificant, the few, and the powerless … those who don’t seem to count; the perpetual underdogs; those whose lives don’t make waves: the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the lowly … these are those who can make a difference, those whose presence – and persistence – can mean life, fullness of life both for themselves and others, or the utter lack of it for everyone.

I refer to the “power of one.” I speak of the riches behind the widow’s mite, the force of puny David’s stone that spelled defeat of the mighty Goliath. I point to the authority of the twelve – the Lord’s “few, good men” whose conviction and faith, despite the onrush and crushing weight of the worldly power of kings, emperors, and tyrants over the past two thousand years.

The faith that we celebrate this morning in this church and all over the world is a testimony of the power of these “few good men” – and women – whose lives (and deaths) spelled life for all of us women and men of good will, life in all its fullness, as the good Lord would have us inherit.

Our faith, which we share with all brothers and sisters in the whole Christian world, deserves this weekly (daily for some) gathering of prayer, praise, worship, and thanksgiving. As we do Eucharist, though, we are all aware that the world we live in, is in a situation that, to be honest, leads us to ask this burning question: “Should not the judge of the world act justly?”

When we see what we are capable of doing; when we behold what we all are guilty of; when we are face to face with the reality of human depravity and sinfulness; when we acknowledge the fact that two thousand years after the coming of the promised One, the world is nowhere near being fully and definitively redeemed; when we cannot but stand as helpless witnesses to the ravages of war, terrorism, corruption, and the all-pervading signs of a “culture of death” in our midst, we are led to ask: “Should not the judge of the world act justly?” Should God not finally intervene in this messy world that everywhere seems to reek of personal, social, and structural evil?

Today stands out as a day of persistence. On the one hand, we see Abraham’s consistent and constant pleadings before the Lord for the sake of “a few good people” in the city of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, we see also God’s own brand of persistence in His answer that was as firm as it was gentle: “I will spare the whole place for their sake.” “I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there.” “I will not destroy it, for the sake of the twenty.” “For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it.”

Abraham’s perseverance in prayer is matched by God’s infinite justice. In a society and culture that prizes a kind of “corporate personality” and where “social responsibility” is highly valued, the presence of a “few good people” – along with the persistent and faith-filled intercessory prayer of one on behalf of the whole, occasions God’s justice that then overflows in mercy. “I will not destroy it,” says the Lord of mercy and justice.

This is definitely good news for us all. At a time when “hope grows grey hairs” and patience wears thin, when more bad than good news fills our TV screens and daily papers, when all we see seems to be the triumph of not a “few good people,” but a whole lot of evildoers, when “all I endeavor in disappointment end,” and faith almost becomes mere wishful thinking, the Church invites us to pray along with Abraham and the psalmist, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.”

You answer us, O Lord God. You definitely do. But we know all too well, that your answer has to be matched by a call on our part. We do know that reciprocity is part and parcel of the dialogue of salvation that you have come to grant us in Christ, Your Son. We do realize that this gift of salvation is both a gift and a task – Your work and ours; Your grace and our cooperation. You have done justice to us, O Lord God. Even where we were dead in transgressions, you brought us to life along with Christ, Your Son. You forgave us all our transgressions; you obliterated the bonds against us, with its legal claims, and Christ, Your Son removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.

Today is a day of persistent prayer. Today is a day when the light of faith ought to overcome the darkness of hopelessness and cynicism. And the good news is … the Lord Himself gives us THE model of persistence prayer – the Our Father. Persistence is the character of this prayer. Perseverance is etched in the very language of this prayer that asks, not for food for tomorrow and for the distant future, but only for “today,” and only for what is strictly necessary to maintain oneself in “being” (epiousion).

Today’s good news includes a blanket authority for us to “pray without ceasing.” Today’s good news gives us the right to pelt God with prayers, for “we have received a Spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father.” Today’s good news offers us the privilege of drawing near to God, for “[we] were buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which [we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Today’s celebration seals our right to “give thanks with all [our] heart,” “because of His kindness and His truth,” for “on the day [we] called for help, God answered us.”

There are reasons galore for us to approach this loving, merciful, and just God. There are enough reasons to continue on believing, to go on hoping, even against hope – even if, alas, there are so “few good people” left on this earth.

A few good people … These are the men and women who continue to show that God is alive and well, and working in our midst. These are the men and women who live unheralded lives of indomitable heroism and quiet faith. These are the men and women who pray fervently and faithfully behind closed doors, before flickering candles in dark and dingy churches. These are the men and women whose earthly lives may be surrounded by every imaginable type of darkness – the darkness of personal suffering, of poverty, powerlessness, and pain – but whose hearts are aglow with the resplendent assurance that can only come from a God who declares: “I will not destroy it.”

A few good people … a few good men and women … a few persistent souls before a God of permanent love, justice and overflowing mercy. A few good people is all we need. For their sake, for the sake of those who seek, for the sake of those who knock, and for the sake of those who ask, God and His love will remain steadfast forever!

Can we be counted along with these “few good people?”

Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB
National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, Philippines




Sunday, July 15, 2007

WHAT RETURN CAN YOU MAKE?

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
July 22, 2007

Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

Today is one of those Sundays when the readings sort of converge on some common theme, when an attentive reader can easily discern a thread that seems to run through the warp and woof of the texture of the entire liturgy.

I would like to start right off by suggesting what this leitmotif appears to be - to me at least – and to many others as far as I can ascertain. I suggest that the term OPENNESS would not be such a bad word to capture this emerging leitmotif.

Abraham is featured in today’s first reading. He and his openness and welcoming attitude to three strangers occasioned a greater openness from the Lord, who would not be outdone in generosity – a reward of an offspring for him and Sarah, his wife. In the second reading, we see a slightly different form of openness, this time, in Paul’s ability to see beyond pain and suffering, and, despite all that, to be able to welcome those very same afflictions, and claim, as, indeed, Paul does: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body.” The Gospel could not be clearer in terms of manifesting the same leitmotif. Christ was a welcome guest of Martha and Mary. The two sisters both welcomed the Lord, each in her own unique way. Martha showed hospitality in the traditional way. She was up and about, busy with so many chores attached to providing hospitality to an important guest. Mary did the unconventional. She warmed up to her guest, sat beside the Lord at his feet, and welcomed every word that he uttered, in her heart and mind.

Abraham, Sarah, Paul, Martha, and Mary … they all followed the same basic thread – the same fundamental story line … They all showed openness and a welcoming attitude.

And they all got more than what they originally offered. They all got copious returns of their “investment.” This we express so nicely and aptly in our response: “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord” (Responsorial Psalm).

Last Sunday (15th Week), we spoke of being near and being neighborly. To the lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor,” the Lord very definitely said that one’s neighbor is the person you seek to be far from, the person you would like to ignore, the person you would rather not have anything to do with, and the person who needs you at any given particular moment. People passed by and did not notice the man left for dead. They ignored him. They did not even draw near to him. They were not neighborly to him, with the exception of one who was culturally, religiously, and ritually “far” from him – one of the hated Samaritans!

He had the basic openness of heart to do what was supposed to be “near him, in his lips and his heart” – the great command of the Lord to love. We don’t have to repeat the story here, but we need to remind ourselves of what he did – everything possible to put him right back on his feet!

I would like to believe that the Lord adds on a little more to this story for our consideration today. He calls our attention to a basic expression of such love for God and neighbor. And that expression is hospitality, openness, and a deeply welcoming attitude, first of all, to the Lord, and secondarily, to all the gifts that He gives us … all of His gifts … not some. All … and not only those God-given gifts that we happen to like.

A curiously sad and contradictory trend is happening in our days and times. We have become too open, mass-media wise. We see and hear everything. We have witnessed the so-called “collapse of boundaries” brought about by globalization, postmodernity, and the New Information and Communications Technology (NICT). We live in a borderless world, understood in every imaginable meaning of the term. We appear to be open, but curiously, we are not. We erect different forms of barriers. We close in ourselves in different layers of “security” that pose as obstacles to genuine connectedness and openness to one another. We have more cell phones, but not necessarily greater understanding and communications with each other. We have more cars, but strangely enough, less places we are allowed to pass through to get to many places that have erected high walls and guarded entries to our so-called “gated neighborhoods.” We definitely have more airports, but less security and serenity as we go from one place to another.

The terroristic act done to that hapless traveler spoken of by last week’s gospel (Lk 10:25-37), has only escalated and worsened in our anxiety-ridden and increasingly unsafe world in our days. A perpetual game called “closed-open” is what we all play everywhere in this confusing world marred by so much violence. We open the cyberworld to a borderless reality. We close the real world to potential immigrants who, we are afraid, might turn out to be murderous doctors who go against the basic Hippocratic oath to “primum, non nocere,” that is, to first of all, do no harm to anyone! We open WINDOWS, and even transform it to a higher level and call it VISTA, but what we basically do is fence out entire peoples and races in a world now divided between the “information-rich” and the “information-poor.” We have SAFARI to cybersurf everywhere in this shrinking world, but we could hardly hope to see genuine savannahs of the blue cowered as we are in fear of violent terrorism and all forms of strife.

We live in a confusing world made even more crazy by so many real and imaginary barriers that are man-made. We claim openness, but all we can boast of is veritable closedness in all senses of the term.

But my job as a priest and preacher, as one who is duty-bound to “break the bread of God’s Word” is to offer Good News despite all these things that are really equivalent to Paul’s afflictions. My job is to follow the conceptual lead of Hans Gadamer who spoke abstrusely about the need for a “fusion of horizons.” God’s horizon is Good News in Christ. Man’s horizon is reality that may yet be far from this Good News. We may only see strangers like Abraham saw, and not angels. But Abraham showed them welcome and openness all the same. We may only see afflictions and problems quite unlike Paul who saw beyond the pain and saw possibility. We may, even at this very moment, act more like Martha whose every word is a rant and a complaint. “Lord, how could you allow evil to triumph?” “How could you spend your time instructing people to do good while evil people are having a heyday doing all kinds of shenanigans and foolishness that cry out to high heavens for justice?”

But like Mary, we sit today beside the Lord at his feet. We look at the Lord and we listen. And what we hear is really “near us, in our lips and in our heart.” He tells us to extend our openness, to allow that openness bloom into generosity. He tells us really not only to brood and sit. He tells us we have work to do, for “blessed are they who kept the word with a generous heart and yield a harvest through perseverance” (Alluluia verse).

And what, you may ask, is that which we ought to do? What return are you called to make to the Lord? After being filled with His gifts, what then are we called to do? Let our beginning prayer remind us of that: “Fill us with your gifts and make us always eager to serve you in faith, hope, and love.” (Opening Prayer). “Let the gift of your life continue to grow in us, drawing us from death to faith, hope, and love. Keep us alive in Christ Jesus. Keep us watchful in prayer and true to his teaching till your glory is revealed in us” (Alternative Opening Prayer).

Filled with his gifts, we are called to be open and eager … in faith, hope, and love.

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, Philippines – July 15, 2007 10:00 AM

DOING JUSTICE AND LIVING IN GOD’S PRESENCE

I take my cue for today’s reflection from our response after the first reading: “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

Traditional scholastic philosophy that reached its apex in the writings of St. Thomas speaks of justice as based on what is “due,” from the Latin word “debitum,” that is, what is “owed” to someone else.

Biblical tradition as a whole, and the readings today, in particular, going far beyond what the scholastic treatise on justice demands, show us what this “due” is all about, and to whom it is owed – to widows, to the poor, to strangers, and to orphans … everyone who has no one else to rely on. God’s justice shines best in His compassion, His mercy, His loving-kindness.

Today’s liturgy offers us a whole lot more on this issue of the “debitum.” It refers to a state of healthy tension between two seemingly irreconcilable polar realities. It refers to a delicate balance between giving too much attention on one, to the detriment of the other; between being present to oneself and one’s concerns, and being present to others, including, and, most of all, God Himself.

Thus, in the first reading, Abraham’s “attention” – his being meaningfully and actively present to three strangers who happened to pass by his dwelling; his hospitality and his giving “due” concern to weary and hungry travelers, was ultimately looked at kindly by God, who rewarded him and Sarah with a son.

Abraham’s generous and selfless act of “attending,” that is, his being fully present to his guests, occasioned more than just a visitation from above. He literally “lived in the presence of the Lord,” after giving what was “due” to his guest-messengers from God.

Good old Henri Nouwen years back, had already written about the need for us followers of Christ to cultivate this virtue of hospitality. He contrasts hospitality with hostility, and says that spirituality, among other things, ought to be a movement from hostility to hospitality. At the risk of misrepresenting his ideas, I would like to suggest that this virtue is basically what this “delicate balance” is all about. Hostility is to be so focused on oneself, and one’s concerns, on one’s needs and wants, as to be effectively against the same needs and concerns of others. Hostility, which comes from the Latin word for “enemy,” is to be turned against others, while hospitality, which comes from the Latin word for “guest,” connotes being turned towards others.

Our world is deeply mired in a culture of hostility, in what the Holy Father calls, the “culture of death.” Why, people cannot even be magnanimous enough to welcome new life into their busy, cluttered, and self-centered lives. People polarize themselves and align themselves with either the Pro-Life or Pro-Choice banners, reducing morality to a superficial choice between two political ideologies. Nations are preoccupied defining and safeguarding “borders” to prevent outsiders and strangers from coming in. Civilizations are at figurative loggerheads, trying to outdo each other, trying to be two steps ahead of one another, in a mad race to eradicate each other in a violence and hate-ridden world of terrorism and counter-terrorism. The so-called G-8 (industrialized) nations are aeons ahead of what I call the P-8 (most impoverished) nations of the world. In a very real sense, “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” A great social, economic, cultural, developmental, moral, and spiritual divide separates the so-called “lender” from the perpetually enslaved “debtor” countries. Within individual nations, divisions and distinctions abound between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Hostility, not hospitality, seems to be the name of the game.

The good Lord, today, offers us not a set of new rules for this vicious cycle of a political, economic, and ideological game. He offers us a different paradigm, a vision, a distinct way of looking at things. Instead of rules and prohibitions that many people mistakenly identify Christian morality with, He offers us a virtue, an interior attitude of heart and mind. He offers us a path that does not give quick and instant solutions, but which slowly leads to a gradual personal and social transformation.

The Lord offers us a path away from hostility to hospitality. He offers us a spirituality.

What, then, are the hallmarks and elements of this Christian spirituality? Abraham acts as the driving wedge that opens the way for us. He shows us how “doing justice,” that is, giving more to those who have less, indeed, can lead to “living in the Lord’s presence.” He shows us how being attentive to others’ needs, instead of being cooped up in one’s own, can give our lives that needed state of balance and spiritual equanimity. Indeed, as the old song goes, whilst there is enough for everyone’s need, there is never enough for everyone’s greed. Hospitality, in Abraham’s example, came into full bloom in charity.

This same spirituality that moulds us all into one body, the Church, also makes it possible for us, like St. Paul, to “rejoice in [our] sufferings,” in order to “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” Hospitality becomes transformed to hopefulness. Hostility becomes replaced by gentility and gracious charity.

This is the same charity and love that led Martha and Mary to learn from each other as each showed their own version of sincere and effusive love for the Master. Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” Martha was “burdened with much serving.” Both did what they did for they both sincerely loved the Lord. Different strokes for different folks, as they say, but motivated by the same love and devotion.

I would like to caution my readers to go easy on condemning Martha and facetiously favoring Mary. No. The Lord does not intend to make us choose to either “do a Martha,” or “do a Mary” act. He wants us to do both. The Lord leads us to a healthy balance between two extreme poles. Nay more, the Lord does not want us to get fixated at some point in an imaginary continuum, but wants us to be perpetually on the move, ever on the go, again, to quote Nouwen, from hostility to hospitality. Spirituality is not something we attain once and for all, but something we grow into. If this spirituality is genuine, there ought not to be tension between tasks and people. Both are important. Both need our attention. We need to serve, that is, engage in diakonia. But we also need to sit still and listen, and take care lest we forget the very people we serve. We need to be busy for the Lord, but never too busy as to be ultimately away from His presence, even as parents need to toil for their children, but never too much as to miss the very children they are toiling for.

Doing justice … giving others their due; giving God, too, His due … in a spirituality that integrates faith and life … all this will assure that biblical promise we have proclaimed: “He who does justice, will live in the presence of the Lord.”

Dundalk, MD July 18, 2004
Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Monday, July 9, 2007

BEING NEAR AND BEING NEIGHBORLY

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
July 15, 2007

Readings: Dt 30:10-14 / Col 1:15-20 / Lk 10:25-37

[Paranaque City, Philippines – July 9, 2007]

From the standpoint of my Southeast Asian culture, being near and being a neighbor almost sounds synonymous, if not referring to one and the same reality. Very literally, in my native Tagalog language, to be a neighbor (kahanggan) really means having, and acknowledging, the existence of common boundaries with somebody else (kahanggan literally refers to my property as contiguous with someone else’s property). Thus, for our culture, to be near is usually tantamount to being a neighbor.

I would like to think that, tangentially at least, the first reading has something to do with both one and the other. The Lord declares His proximity to His people via His command: “It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.”

We can also read God’s closeness to us in Jesus Christ in what St. Paul writes the Colossians. He professes how the “fullness” of the Godhead is “reconciled” with “all things for him.” He speaks about how Jesus Christ “made peace by the blood of his cross,” and how he became the connection between “those on earth” and “those in heaven.” In effect, Paul tells us how near God is, in and through, Jesus Christ His Son.

The Gospel speaks of what it means not only to be near, but more so, what more than just being a neighbor consists in. The Lord teaches us what being neighborly is all about. It is all about drawing near purposefully, not steering clear and purposely avoiding someone else.

In the Gospel passage, the Lord takes up what the first reading speaks about – God’s great command of love, that ought to be “in our lips and in our hearts” – and connects it with a deeper form of purposeful nearness that being neighborly is all about. After hearing the clear-cut answer from the scholar of the law, who rattled off God’s command with such ease and cocky self-confidence, he retorted back to him with the clincher: “Do this, and you will live.” In other words, what the Lord tells him really is simply this … nearness is as nearness does. One cannot be a neighbor without acting neighborly. Nearness has to translate to closeness, not distance. Neighborliness has to spill over into compassionate caring, not distancing.

The world as we know it now is a shrinking world. We are apprised of what goes on anywhere in this shrinking world in real time. When China sneezes, the whole world gets a cold. When financial tremors rock Shanghai, the whole world shudders for fear of an economic meltdown. Everything seems to speak of closing in gaps, of putting the curse of distance to an effective closure. Internet communications via the worldwide web, along with other factors, cause the collapse of time and distance. Never before has the entire world felt so close, so within reach, so accessible. Entire economies can rise and fall within minutes courtesy of paperless electronic transactions that take place without the need for money or hard currencies to change hands. Big time financial gurus who make money on money, can literally cause death knells sounding on local economies of smaller, poorer nations, whose currencies can be manipulated at will by such big time currency speculators.

But such seeming closeness is really a big lie, an egregious myth that hides more than it shows. Behind it is really a looming and lurking, deeper, and more pervasive form of alienation and distance. The whole globalization issue may be said to be the death of physical distance, but it may also refer to the curtailment of interpersonal nearness and of psychological and spiritual closeness.

There is something endearing in today’s readings. Instead of fostering further moral and psychological distance that already is becoming a curse in this globalized world, the Lord reminds us how close He really is to us, in His command of love. The Lord reminds us how near He is to us, how his words, at bottom, are really “spirit and life; for [He alone] has the words of everlasting life” (Alleluia verse).

But He goes further. He tells us not only about the fact of His being near. He challenges us to translate that nearness to being neighborly. In effect, He tells us to go beyond what culture expects of us, what contemporary globalized realities may lead us to. In a world that is filled with all sorts of alienation, in the moral, physical, psychological, and spiritual senses, God tells us to pierce through the darkness of distance and draw near purposefully to people who live far from grace, far from security, far from the level of comfort we may have at the moment.

The world of mass media has made everything so near … and yet so far. Millions, if not billions of people are continuously exposed to desensitizing news of tragedies and natural calamities, and even of terroristic acts all over the world. The new information and communication technologies have brought every tragedy so close to home, so near, so accessible. But alongside such seeming closeness is the progressive desensitization of people that spells indifference, cynicism, and quiet – if, dangerous – resignation to what seems so inevitable. One more tragedy among so many … what is that to me? What can I really do in the face of so much human misery? Globalized mass media may have caused the death of distance, but it has also caused the demise of compassion.

This may well have been the problem of the Gospel’s priest and levite. They saw misery from afar. But they did not purposely draw near. They must have looked the other way. They kept distance. After all, the man in question was probably a member of the hated Samaritan crowd. And being in all likelihood dead, it made no point for such noble priests and levites to defile themselves by touching a dead corpse. It all sounded so logical and well-advised. Have nothing to do with a dead – or soon-to-be-dead stranger who happens to stand in the way. Keep focused. Keep your eyes on the goal. And let nothing perturb you and make you veer away uselessly from that goal.

Both priest and levite were so near … and yet so far. They might have been near, but they were not neighborly. They passed through the trial, but failed the test. And what is that test? “Hoc fac et vives … Do this and you will live.”

“Father, Christian is the name and the gospel we glory in. May your love make us what you have called us to be. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen” (Alternative Opening Prayer).

HOC FAC ET VIVES!

[Dundalk, MD – July 11, 2004]

Last Sunday’s gospel confronted us with the true meaning of discipleship. Without resorting to sugar-coating, Jesus made us aware of the inherent difficulties attached to following the Lord: “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” But we were exposed also to the bigger reality promised to those who are called to work for the Lord’s harvest. “Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.”

This Sunday’s readings are a further deepening on the meaning of discipleship. They give us the absolute ideal, the heights to which every serious and solid believer ought to aspire after. Hoc fac et vives, the Lord tells us. Do this and you will live.

What exactly ought we to do? What in concrete does this close link between doing and living consist in, in our times, in our days, in our world?

Our generation is steeped in the desire for more in every conceivable way. We want bigger and more comfortable homes, more flashy cars, longer and longer leisure time, higher incomes, and longer lives. Ultimately we long for life and all the best it could offer. Even when we satiate ourselves a lot more than is necessary for us to go on living physically, deep down what we want is not really more calories, more sugar, more mortgages to pay, and more health problems. We want quality life. We long for the best for ourselves and our loved ones.

Even when we decide to do evil, it is not the evil we really are after, but the superficial good behind which evil hides. Philosophers have told us from many centuries back that people are motivated to act by what they mistakenly think is the good object. Even the devil with his wily enticements, appears to us, at least initially, as an “angel of light,” whose apparent intention is to cater to what will be beneficial to us on the surface.

We live fully… completely and totally. Or so we believe. But our living lacks an important component. It has lost its essential tandem … We have lost that which makes living truly worth all the striving after and the longing for. We lost the aspect of the “doing.” “Do this, and you will live,” the Lord tells us. Living fully, according to him, requires the grounding of “doing.” Living truly and completely has to entail willfulness. It has to have the inseparable component of “responsibility.”

There are many of us who live the good life by worldly standards. For still many more, having denied God, they see no reason for his laws. They live “la dolce vita,” unmindful of the will of someone greater than them who has left His word as a path that leads to fullness of life, a life in abundance as He envisioned it, as He created it. Having thrown this foundational truth outside the window, moral laws and principles simply have no voice in their lives anymore. They prefer to wallow in what Pope John Paul II prophetically calls the “culture of death.” With no God to “mind the store,” at it were, there is a wide avenue for people to engage in acts that cater to “death” instead of life: procured abortions left and right, wars, terrorism, violence, corruption in and out of government, capital punishment, and various forms of infidelities, and break-ups of relationships.

We enjoy the “living,” minus the “doing.” We enjoy the right, without the corresponding responsibility. We want the gift, but not the giver; the dowry, but not the duty it entails. It is to such ilk that we all are, that the words of Moses ring timely and true: “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord, your God, and keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law, when you return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul.”

With all our heart, with all our soul … this ought to mark our attention and obedience to God’s will, with all of one’s being. This speaks of totality, of fullness, of completeness. This has nothing to do with half-measures. Rightly, then, does Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” says that “when Christ calls us, he bids us come, and die.” He calls us to life, but he also calls us to “doing” or “dying” so that we might truly live.

The concept of “God’s law” is not very popular in our days. People think of God’s law more like prohibitions, restrictions, and a general curtailment of personal freedom. But these very same people who find it hard to accept “God’s law” do not see any problem with “punishing evil-doers.” People who do not accept the concept of God’s law have no problem using the law of the land in doing away with signs of religion in emblems and public places. They use human law that emanates from God ultimately to “outlaw” God himself, and declare him “persona non grata” in their personal and family lives. God simply has no role to play in people’s decision to kill unborn children. The Church, who speaks in God’s name, has no business whatsoever in the bedroom, nothing to do with people’s choices, and should not meddle with other people’s bodies. A decision to do good or bad is simply a choice, devoid of any moral quality.

The funny thing is when people choose to do good, the whole world rewards them with citations, and extols them to the skies. But when people do wrong, they are seen as simply making choices. People can do good. But people cannot sin. With God and His will out of the picture, people just commit crimes that are illegal, or out of bounds with man-made laws. This paves the way for us to simply live, without the doing part.

Denial, however, does not do away with what is real. No amount of denial can change reality. This much, today’s readings tell us clearly: “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life; you have the words of everlasting life.” The law of the Lord may appear so lofty and so far from human reach, so impossible to do, and hard to live. But it is really very close to us. “It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

Indeed, when we look closely at God’s law, not as restrictions and prohibitions, but as a gift, which it really is, things take on a far different meaning. Instead of a road that says “no entry,” we find a “path that leads to love.” Instead of indifference, we see compassion, like that of the good Samaritan. That Samaritan must have been busy eking out a living, but he was never too busy to do that which makes living really worth all the striving. He lived. He took time to love. And he did as love bade him do. At the end of the day, he made all the difference between those who merely lived, and those who behaved in accordance with their deep desire to live and love fully, “with all one’s heart, with all one’s being, with all one’s strength, and with all one’s mind.” Doing and living… Living and believing… Hearing and obeying… This is what Moses, Paul, the good Samaritan, and Jesus bid us do. “Do this and you will live.” “Go, then, and do the same.”

Sunday, July 1, 2007

TWELVE PLUS SEVENTY-TWO EQUALS YOU AND ME!

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
July 8, 2007

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14c; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12,17-20


We are not speaking of mathematics here. Neither are we referring to what is known as quantitative research. We speak more of quality, of something that qualifies our attachment to the Lord, our discipleship, the manner by which we live our following of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Last week, we spoke of the need to be focused. We reflected on the need for us to “tune out” so that we could “tune in” positively to God and His call. We said we needed to unclutter our lives, and “put to rout everything that is not life” – to “front the essential facts of life,” to “free ourselves from,” so as to “free ourselves for,” that is, to “follow God more closely, and love Him more dearly.”

Our question for today is basically not one of quantity. It is not “how much do we need to do to follow the Lord?” It is, rather, “what qualities do we need to have so that we can be called genuine disciples of the Lord?”

The answer boils down to one word – values. The Liturgy’s answer today is not a sum total of numbers, not a summative quantity, but a qualitative summit of values of, and for, the Kingdom.

The first reading starts out with some such values – the values of care, concern, and solicitous love. Isaiah paints a picture of God’s maternal love. All images represent a quality of God’s love that is patently maternal and eminently personal: “As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.” Although the literal sense really refers to Jerusalem, its fuller and allegorical sense ultimately refers to our expanding understanding of who God is for us, His people.

The second reading reminds us of something that is qualitatively “new.” Paul rejoices, not so much on account of measurable physical attributes like circumcision, but on the “new creation” effected and provided by the “cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What marks the disciple is not a physical mark, but a qualitatively new attribute that is interior, first and foremost.

But the real clincher for today is the Gospel passage from Luke. What values of and for the Kingdom do we see in it? What qualities do we need to see in the disciples?

The first thing that strikes us is the choice and sending of the seventy-two. It would be all too easy and simple for us to see this as a matter of mathematics, an issue of numbers. The more, the merrier, is what we often think and say. In addition to twelve apostles, it would certainly be a good idea to have 72 extra pairs of hands and feet to multiply what the twelve were doing. We often think of discipleship in such shallow, mathematical terms. Twelve plus seventy-two surely sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?

But hold it a second. Yes, 12 plus 72 adds up to many. But “many” is not what the Lord points out above all today. It has to do, not with the many, but with the manner of our being disciples. And that manner begins not with having much, but with having what it takes to be a disciple – utter dependence on the Lord, for one. Certainly, the many does not even refer first and foremost, to money, as we often think. “Carry no money, bag, or sack.” It has to do with depending not on what we have, but on whom we have – the Lord and our attachment and obedience to His will.

As you can readily see, dependence is not quantitative, but qualitative. It has to do with a universe and cluster of values for the Kingdom, and not for the material world that St. Paul really refers to in the second reading. As one can also notice, Jesus arms the seventy-two, not with material tools, but with one qualitatively superior tool par excellence – the gift of peace. He counsels the seventy-two to offer, not lengthy greetings and endless self-introductions, but the greeting and the gift of “peace.” Peace, not material prosperity, is among the first values of the Kingdom the Lord has come to bring us.

Our postmodern, consumeristic world is one that values the more, the many, the quantifiably greater, higher, and better. For many of us, we cannot even imagine how life would be without cell phones, without computers, and so many other stuff. Henri Nouwen once referred to a very big danger lurking in the shadows of this materially cluttered world of ours. We can run the risk of being “filled yet unfulfilled.”

Discipleship is not about having things, but about having Jesus. “The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Because of Jesus’ name … this is the qualitative difference between the true disciple and the charlatan. And this is all that matters - to do as he did … to act in His name, and not in our own name, not by our own strength, not by or through our own talents, but all in His name.

In our days and times, we need committed and dedicated disciples. Priests are not increasing by droves all over the world. Ordained ministry is not the most popular choice of “career” in our times. In the setting where I am – the Philippines – the most popular career has to do with “caregiving” – nursing, and the like. No matter the state of denial in many dioceses all over the world, priests are not going to increase dramatically anytime soon, most especially in the more prosperous western hemisphere. A recent study reported by John Allen says that whilst the number of priests in America declined, the number of “lay ecclesial workers” increased almost exactly equivalent to the rate of decline of priests.

Jesus and the 12 apostles certainly did well and did rightly in asking the help of seventy-two others to do what they were doing. Discipleship is not a monopoly of us priests and bishops. Even the good Lord needed the help of 72 extra pairs of hands. Vatican II, among others, has established that the Church is, or ought to be, lay centered, not clergy centered. Lay people are called, as much as priests, bishops, and deacons are, to make discipleship real, alive, committed, and dedicated. But lest we think that all this translates only to a mere numbers game, today’s liturgy reminds us, that the more in discipleship consists in the more in terms of quality, first and foremost.

That leaves me with the final clincher. 12 plus 72 is not just 84. Twelve apostles of the Lord, plus seventy-two committed disciples who do everything “in Jesus’ name,” equals – or should equal ALL OF US. We pray for ourselves that we may really become what he expects us to become: “Make us one with you always, so that our joy may be holy, and our love may give life.” (Alternative Opening Prayer)

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, July 1, 2008



WHEN BOASTING IS APPROPRIATE


The readings today are a study in contrasts. We hear a call to rejoice to those who previously were mourning. We hear St. Paul’s readiness to boast, but this boast is associated with the “marks of Jesus on [his] body.” We hear the Lord exhorting us to ask the harvest master to send more laborers to his fields, but we also are made aware of the danger attached to the work of reaping, a danger not unlike that of lambs sent in the midst of wolves.

We have today a very sobering reality check for all followers of Christ!

Reality … that which so many people in our times try their best either to ignore, gloss over, or deny altogether. When reality gets too painful, when it strikes too close to home base, the common tendency for people is to pretend “everything will be alright.” But no amount of denial can reverse the hard facts of life. People suffer. People die. There are gross imbalances in the world, and whilst one fourth of the world’s population make use of three-fourths of the world’s resources, three-fourths of the world’s population make do with the remaining one-fourth of the world’s resources. Terrorists are a tough reality to deal with. So is the fact that “bad things happen to good people.”

I am sure you all can add a lot more to my short list.

But even in the fields of the Lord’s harvest, a bit of a reality check is in order. 25% of the current members of more than 5,000 cults in the United States are former catholics. So-called cradle catholics, they were born into the institutional community of faith but never really grew in their affective faith and personal relationship with the Lord. A lot more do not officially denounce the faith, but who engage in a variety of forms of syncretistic beliefs that mix elements of Christianity with esoteric teachings from Eastern gurus, thus effectively making a new brand of universal religion that are really nothing more than modern versions of Gnosticism, an early heresy in the incipient Church. Whilst keeping a nominal attachment to Christ by holding on to a smattering of Christian terminologies and basic theological concepts, the fundamental integration of the so-called three C’s (creed, code, and cult) is compromised by effectively doing away with the principles of the incarnation, mediation, and sacramentality. Saving truth is now mediated by gurus, who may or may not even mention Christ at all. The totality of the message of salvation, and the path towards definitive salvation, gets reduced to a unilateral effort of man, principally through self-deprivation, a distorted understanding of meditation, and a na├»ve – if, Pollyanish – drive to banish suffering entirely from the face of the earth. The concept of grace is effectively thrown out the window, and in its place, is plain, human effort at total self-emptying.
The list is by no means complete. One can add to that a lot more, not excluding the recent priests’ scandals, the “skeletons” in the Church’s closets that effectively muffled the teaching authority of Bishops in many places all over the world. It is not far-fetched to say that, indeed, those who intend to follow the Lord will end up being thrown very much like lambs in the midst of wolves, with their work of evangelization almost getting cancelled out by mainstream mass media that is patently anticlerical.

Christian faith, though, would have us transcend mere acknowledgment of reality. Accepting what is real is not the same as wallowing in the negative, and giving in to discouragement. Here is where today’s readings come in. Here is where our faith has to weigh in, and here is where today’s good news speaks to all of us powerfully.

They all speak, not of a weapon against irreligion, not some kind of a tool-box that one can draw from to counteract such unpleasant realities. They speak, rather, of a spirituality, an attitude of mind and heart that is born of faith, and a sense of personal conviction that the God of history who irrupted into our earthly history, is basically in control, that the God we love and believe in, will never leave his flock untended. Using the human language of maternal warmth, Isaiah reminds us: “as nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

Such solid conviction of God’s “maternal” love ought to be enough for us to shout out with the psalmist: “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy!” Such adherence to the truth of God’s saving love in Christ was what led St. Paul to boast not of his achievements, but “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There is no wishful thinking involved here, no Pollyanna attitude that ultimately is a fruit of denial. Jesus himself gives solid grounding on reality to his disciples, not shielding their eyes from the reality of what they would find as they go out into the fields of harvest: “Behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” But it was not to be pure suffering all the way, all the time either. We are told that “the seventy-two returned rejoicing.” Jesus gave them power, enough power for those who were ready and willing to do as he commanded them: “Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you.”

The world might well be in a real mess in many ways. The Church, too, may not be in the shape it was in back in 1958, when 78 % of American catholics attended Mass regularly on Sundays (as against the 25% now). There may be a deep sadness in many of us as the Church’s voice appears to remain unheeded, and, at times, even ridiculed by popular opinion. In Philippine context, I might add, the wonderful landmark teachings and decrees of PCP-II (Second Plenary Council) of 1991 are still far from being implemented. Corruption, a deteriorating educational system, grinding poverty, and the structural evil that is the political system continue to cancel out what little efforts are done by well-meaning NGOs and philanthropists. Reality is far too obvious to deny, far too deeply entrenched to simply gloss over.

Nor is there need for us to engage in denial. For something that does not exist cannot be given any solution. Acknowledging the problem is, therefore, necessary as a starting point.

Today’s liturgy shows us in concrete where to go from here. It shows us that in the face of such challenges, we need to have a spirituality that knows how to embrace the cross, a spirituality that ought to lead us to reorder our priorities, and separate what is important from what is merely convenient, a spirituality that is willing to confront the prevailing standards of the world, one that does not boast of “money bags, sacks, or sandals,” but one that values mercy, peace, and the possibility of one’s name not being honored here on earth, but on being “written in heaven.”

There is this undeniable reality of a sinful world to confront. But there is this equally undeniable reality of the power from above to “tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy.” This is the power of the cross. And this is a time when boasting in its name, is more than just appropriate. In the cross is salvation. In the cross is hope. In the cross is victory.

St. Rita Parish
Dundalk, MD – July 4, 2004