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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

SHORT IN STATURE, A GIANT IN GENEROSITY

Catholic Homily/Reflection
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

SPARING ALL, SEEKING ALL, SAVING ALL

Zacchaeus sure had everything going for him … money, power, influence … Whatever it took to sway people to his side, he had it … like the mysterious funds that flow every time there are elections in the Philippines, (and elsewhere), whether national or local (as indeed, we had, a few days ago).

Zacchaeus was a man in search. He sought money and found it – with a little help from what every notorious tax-collector in Jesus’ times would do – pad the receipts sort of, or its ancient equivalent. He sought the famous wonder-worker and almost did not find him … had he not exalted himself up on a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus sure is one man who knew how to get what he wanted. A man of means, he found out in no time the means to see the itinerant preacher and miracle-worker. But instead of the searcher finding, it became a case of the seeker being found. Instead of the exalted one remaining up on his perch, he was summarily brought down to the plane of reality. He who “lifted himself up” was told to “lower himself.” The sought for now seemed to seek for him: “Hurry down Zacchaeus, for I mean to stay in your house today.”

Zacchaeus was a man in search for surprises. Being up and about most days, seeking for new earnings, and a few more extra shekels here and there, he was a man about town. Jericho was the place to be, where business most certainly must have been good for a man like him. He must have been anxious to make a little more, and add a few more silver and gold coins to his ever growing stack.

But he who sought surprises was sought by the biggest surprise of all. Someone big knew him! Someone sought after by crowds was seeking for him! Standing unique above “the rest of humanity,” whom the Pharisee of last week’s Gospel loved to look patronizingly on, Jesus the wonder-worker did not seem to hate him like all the others. He seemed not only to know him, but also to actually like him!

There is something heartwarming and hope-inducing in today’s readings as to be almost like a refreshing oasis in a desert of hopelessness and meaninglessness. What is this desert like, you might ask? The first reading enumerates for us the utter insignificance of all we hold dear … 1) “the whole universe is as a grain in a balance ...” 2) “a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth …” But against this desert backdrop of utter insignificance is a picture of solicitous love that is unparalleled, unequaled, and untrammeled even by all the worldly things people all over the world search for. “For [He] loves all things that are, and loathes nothing that [He] has made.”

Yes … God loves even the sinful tax collector. Why, He even loves you and me … at times even worse than the hated Zacchaeus.

St. Paul knew this truth first hand, from personal experience. He was so convinced of this that his prayer today oozes with the moral certainty of faith. It is a faith that already claims what it seeks for: “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith.”

So that God may make us worthy of his calling … Yes, here we are face to face with a glaring truth of faith. God who made us can make us and mold us into becoming even more than we already are – “a little less than angels” (Ps 8). But God can and will do that only if we allow ourselves to be molded accordingly. God can and will do that in us only if we are willing to do what Zacchaeus did. After exalting himself, he got back to his senses and lowered himself at the invitation of the Lord. “Hurry down for I mean to stay in your house today.”

There’s nothing abnormal in wanting to be exalted. There is nothing unusual about being tempted to “dream after things too great” and seek after “marvels too great for us” (Ps ). Zacchaeus was a man in legitimate search … just like us all. We search for a better life. We seek for worldly promotion. We long to be acknowledged and recognized for our real or imagined talents. We want to go up higher in the rungs of earthly esteem from people, friend or foe alike.

Today’s liturgy has Good News for us who all nurture that dream. Yes, it is God’s dream, too. Yes … God wants us exalted. God wants to lift us up from whatever depths we find ourselves in. The acclamation before the gospel could not be clearer in this regard: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

The other passage that comes to mind as I write this reflection is the personal motto that I have chosen for my new foundation, a passage that has captured my attention for at least two decades by now. It speaks about a God who knows our hearts, and knows our innermost thoughts and desires, and who also knows what we, deep inside, really are capable of. I speak of a God who has great desires for each one of us, a God who calls us to greatness, a God who wants us to develop our innate dignity as “sons and daughter of God,” as “sharers in the glorious liberty of the children of God.” “Ascende superius” (Lk 14:10) … this is my personal watchword. “Come up to a higher place.”

I am overjoyed to note that Don Bosco Technical College in Mandaluyong City has asked permission from me to adopt it as the school’s motto, too, in replacement of what I, many years ago, have also suggested that the school adopt then in 1987 (Pro Deo et Patria). I told them that it wasn’t mine to start with, but God’s own. It is God’s dream for me and for them and for everyone born in this world. God wants our greatness. God calls us to soar higher than what we think we are capable of. God even primed us for greatness and holiness through grace – sanctifying grace and the gifts of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Zacchaeus got it wrong initially. He thought it devolved upon him to pull himself up from his own bootstraps and clumber up a tree to see the Lord. He thought that by exalting himself, he would see the Lord. But he was, of course, dead wrong. The Lord sought for him, for the savior has come to save sinners, to cure not those who were well, but the sick, the suffering, the poor, and the lowly.

The Lord taught him a jarring lesson. “Hurry down, Zacchaeus.” Come down from your perch and I will show you the path to greatness. And that path to greatness can only happen through me – the way, the truth, and the life. That path to greatness is not something you give to yourself. No … it is given as gift from above, for “he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Zacchaeus learned first hand who God is. This is the same God who deserves to hear from us the words that we heard today from the lectern: “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God” (Responsorial Psalm). This is the same God who deserves to be told over and over again: “For you love all things that are … you spare all things because they are yours …”

Now, we know too, that our God is He who spares all, seeks all, and saves all in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Him, we pray today: “May the changing moods of the human heart and the limits which our failings impose on hope never blind us to you, source of every good” (Alternative Opening Prayer).

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, October 31, 2007 9:00 AM

N.B. What follows is an alternative reflection written three years earlier in Dundalk, MD

SHORT IN STATURE, A GIANT IN GENEROSITY

Reversals and paradoxes are a fixture in Scripture. We saw an example of this just last week, when we saw the great paradox of humble prayer that was answered, and the proud prayer that was no prayer at all, and therefore, remained unanswered. The tax collector, we are told, “went home justified,” while the Pharisee was left with an empty bag, along with his equally empty boast.

Today, the liturgy presents us with another interesting figure of a tax collector… No … a “chief tax collector,” in fact … a big shot of sorts (pun intended) – Zacchaeus, whose height was the opposite of his “weight” – in GOLD! (For the sake of my Philippine readers, I am tempted to compare Zacchaeus with some equally interesting personages among the top brass of our men in uniform, but I thought this was unfair to Zacchaeus). Zacchaeus, for all his wealth and stature (no pun intended, this time), was really a hated man. Seen as a servile figure acting at the behest of foreign rulers (the Romans), Zacchaeus was the opposite of what every true-blooded Jew at that time valued – freedom from any form of servitude to any foreign, especially, gentile rulers. He was despised for his work. He was hated for his servile, sycophantic attitude to the Romans.

But for all this, Zacchaeus did have some sterling qualities to match the silver that he amassed. Let us look a bit at this sterling quality that may be good for us to mull over and consider as good news to be lived.

In the final analysis, this liturgy is really not all about Zacchaeus. It has to do with God whom the first reading from Wisdom rightly extols as one who “has mercy on all,” who “spares all things,” but who at the same time “rebukes offenders” for them to “abandon their wickedness.” Liturgy is all about God manifesting His presence in the “work” (leitourgia) and worship of His people. It is all about the serendipities and surprises God works on His beloved people – surprises and wonders of His manifestation that makes humankind mutter, as we did in response to the first reading: “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.”

Zacchaeus was witness to one such manifestation and surprise. What greater surprise could one ever expect than what Jesus did to him when he said: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” What greater favor could one ever have than this? The centurion, faced with a similar potential “surprise” visit from the Lord knew the staggering import of it all: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my son will be healed.”

There is some urgency and definitiveness in the tone of the Lord. Here comes one of the tax collector’s sterling qualities. He “ran ahead.” Not only that, he risked making a comic character of himself by climbing a sycamore tree “in order to see Jesus.” The Gospel says more … In gratitude and ill-concealed glee, he promised to “give half of [his] possessions to the poor,” and pledged to pay all those he had extorted “four times over.” His generosity blossomed over into the much valued hospitality.

He who was surprised by joy, and gifted with a “divine manifestation” could not but be overcome with gratitude. And he who overflows in gratitude also knows how to give “gratis” – to give freely, that is, to be generous, and to offer that greatest virtue valued by Jews when it comes to treating foreigners and guests - hospitality. Indeed, God could not be outdone in generosity. Zacchaeus searched for Jesus. Jesus found him and declared to his newfound brother: “I must stay in your house.”

We have come full circle. Again, the liturgy points to God, by way of the example of one of His creatures, Zacchaeus. The first reading speaks of God’s gracious and generous mercy, a mercy that is as bountiful as His justice. The second reading shows us the generosity and graciousness of one who, like Jesus, offered his life for the sake of others. Paul, a minister to the Thessalonians, was praying for his flock, that “the Lord may be glorified in [them].

But this same liturgy that celebrates and enacts God “descending” on us, His people in the grace of Word and Sacrament, also makes possible our own “ascending” to Him in praise and gracious worship. We are called to the same generosity with which Zacchaeus welcomed His illustrious and much-awaited visitor. But there is something more important here – something that refers to our being priests like Christ, by virtue of our baptism, by virtue of our membership and incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. We are all called to respond to God’s Divine manifestation through ministry. We are all part of the missioning given to all the baptized, to serve the Lord in others, to do as Jesus did, to do as Paul did. This “visitation” from above is something we need to respond to much like Zacchaeus did. The Word, humbly listened to, occasions response, and gift received engenders a corresponding gracious generosity on the recipient’s part. Ministry is one such response – a response that has a tone of urgency in it (“I must stay at your house!), a response that is born of the missioning call from the Lord, a response that translates to concrete action. One is reminded by the synod of bishops declaration in 1971 that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us to be a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

There was a time ministry was thought of solely in terms of “priestly power,” that is, the so-called “potestas ordinis,” and the “potestas jurisdictionis.” Both were the monopoly of the priest “ordained for ministry.” With the rise of such a dichotomized and unbalanced understanding of Church as comprising the “clergy” and the “laity,” with the latter possessing no such “potestas” or power, ministry came to be equated only with priests and bishops.

Today’s liturgy would have us appropriate a far different vision of Church. The whole Church is called to mission and ministry. As God loves all and has mercy on all, God calls and entrusts all to the work of serving others. Jesus definitely found Zacchaeus at least worthy enough of a surprise visit. And that surprise manifestation of God right in his wealthy abode, despite the protestations of those who could not open themselves to the big surprises and reversals and divine paradoxes unfolding in their midst, produced in Zacchaeus a minister of hospitality and generosity to the poor.

Paul, the minister to the gentiles, was not talking of “potestas” (power) in his letter to the Thessalonians. He was acting ministerially to them even in the distance. He was praying for them. He was admonishing them. It was not so much power he was drawing from, as love, the same love with which he exhorted them not to be easily misled by false teachings.

Most of my readers both in America and the Philippines are lay people. Sadly, many of them still see me as a priest as one who has the sole power to pray, the power to bless, the power to intercede, the power to do things they could do by themselves. In their false understanding of what ministry is, they have forgotten that they themselves, as baptized Christians, who share the common priesthood of the baptized, are also called, first to be open to God’s surprises, and be part of those sent to preach, teach, and work for the good of others in justice and solidarity, and to help in the transformation of society. Many times, they tell me they do not know enough. Many times they say, they might make mistakes.

My friends, you would do well to dialogue with Zacchaeus today. He had every imaginable defect in a doctor’s and psychotherapist’s thesaurus. He was shrewd. He was servile to the Roman conquerors. He scrimped the last penny out of every unsuspecting Jew. Most of all, he was short. Short in stature … yes, but a giant in generosity.

You don’t have to have “potestas ordinis” and “potestas jurisdictionis” to minister to others. All you need is gracious openness to the God of surprises, and a great generosity to God and His people. “Come and hurry down! I must stay at your house today!”

Monday, October 22, 2007

BOASTING HUMBLY IN THE LORD

Catholic Homily/Reflection for the 30th Sunday, Year C
October 28, 2007

Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

I know the title sounds very much like an oxymoron. How can one be humble and boast? Or how can one boast and still be humble? This is a classical battle of opposites at its worst; a paradoxical tension of two seemingly irreconcilable realities, at its best. As a teacher, the Lord does not fail to surprise us. As a prophet, He continues to shock us. As king, He continues to lead His people to the “less traveled path” in the journey of faith. God’s Word, to the attentive and reflective reader (and hearer), continues to convict us. The Church, Christ’s mystical Body, in her ministry like unto that of Christ priest, prophet, and king, continues to amaze us and rouse us to ever new and “fresh readings” of the same Word, which is her duty to preach and proclaim, in season and out of season.

Today’s proclamation puts us in the midst of the proverbial Scriptural paradox, not unlike that of so many other paradoxes we read in the same Scripture: life through death, losing one’s life in order to find it; giving the other cheek to whomever strikes you on one; going the extra mile even if not asked to; giving up everything to gain a hundredfold; becoming lowly in order to be exalted …

God is a master at paradox … He is an expert at equivocation of sorts … Like our formal “God-talk” that we call “theology,” He engages us in an ongoing dialogue that makes use of analogical, symbolic manner of discourse.

In simpler terms, what does the liturgy today present us with? On the one hand, we have Sirach who declares his personal conviction that – you guessed it right – is couched in paradox. He says: “The Lord knows no favorites.” But in the same breath, he also avers: “He hears the cry of the oppressed … The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” On the other hand, we have St. Paul, who, thrusting modesty aside, writes to Timothy: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.”

The Gospel is no exception to this style. The Lord presents us with two people who went to the temple to pray. One boasted he was not like “the rest of men.” The other humbly asked the Lord for forgiveness, recognizing himself as a sinner. As any Biblical scholar would caution us, the Lord does not condemn the first because he was a Pharisee. In the same way, the Lord does not extol the other for being a tax collector. No, this is not a lesson on “class struggle.” Neither is it a blanket condemnation of a particular group of people, no matter how bad many of them most likely were.

My take on this is simple. The Pharisee was too categorical and cocky, as to miss out on one of the many ambiguities in life. He was too rigid. He painted the world in terms of black and white, saints and sinners, good and bad. Worst of all, he saw himself as the good, versus “the rest of humanity.” He lived in a world of certainty, and he divided the world neatly between those who can simply boast, and those who have no right to boast at all. He missed the glaring paradox that human life is basically all about.

There is a very disturbing trend in our times that reflect the attitude of that cocky Pharisee of the Gospel. There is that tendency in each one of us to divide the world neatly into two categories, to engage in an oversimplification of a basically complex reality, and see everything as belonging to just two extreme polarities, and to divide people into “we” and “they.” This is what extremist fundamentalism is all about, whether Christian, or any other religion. This is what spawns a dangerous wave of terrorism that is basically built on a simplistic – if, intolerant – view of “other” people who do not think as we think, who do not believe as we believe, and who, therefore, ought to be relegated to the world of “outsiders,” or, worse, condemned.

There is a very real threat of extreme polarization of all kinds in our society today … in politics, in economics, in religion, and other aspects of human, societal life. It sounds like it is the most cogent thing to do … force must be met with force; terror must be met with even greater terror … a tooth for a tooth; an eye for an eye … and killing, provided it is done in God’s name (or in the name of justice) is seen by such extremists as the proper, “holy” thing to do.

I would like to suggest that, among other things, today’s liturgy invites us to give a look at our ability or inability to live with ambiguity, with paradox, with the Scriptural datum that “all men have fallen short of the glory of God;” that “all men have sinned,” and that all of us stand in need of redemption.

Today’s liturgy is a reality check for all of us. If we are to be honest, we have identified mostly with the Pharisee and his supercilious, intolerant, and condescending attitude toward “the rest of humanity,” particularly the tax collector.

One of the hallmark characteristic traits of a fully self-actualizing (mature) person, according to humanistic psychologists, is the ability to live with ambiguity, the capacity to navigate oneself in the midst of tension and paradox that life is all about. The same may be said of the mature and virtuous Christian. He boasts of nothing that comes from his personal work. He can only lay claim to his sins, and thereby, lay claim also, to God’s mercy and forgiveness.

This glaring paradox comes out clearly in our words of response after the first reading: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” It only echoes what we heard from Sirach: “Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”

It is only the oppressed, the sinner who acknowledges his sins, the person who gives up the illusion of certainty in favor of living in a state of paradox, who, in the end, is open to surprises. It is people like the tax collector, who humbly confesses his sins, who can openly boast and proclaim, like the psalmist does: “I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall be ever in my mouth.”

In contrast, the rigid, the cocky, and the self-complacent go out of what was supposed to have been a prayer experience without ever having met God. The Pharisee, in his false self-complacent certainty left the temple with only that same certainty. The tax collector, on the other hand, left the temple with the only certainty that counts – the certainty of ever having met the God he prayed to, and the certainty of having been forgiven by the same God.

The Pharisee went to the temple boasting. The tax collector, like Paul writing to Timothy, went away from the temple of meeting with God boasting in the Lord, for his humble prayer had been heard. He went home “justified … for he who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Alternative Reflection

BOASTING IN THE LORD VERSUS SIMPLY BOASTING

Last week, we reflected on persistent prayer. Prayer spelled the victory of God in Moses’ developing problem with the Amalekite marauders. Prayer, the persistent type, spelled too, fulfillment of the widow’s request from the unjust judge. This Sunday, we are back once more, at least initially, to the topic of constant prayer.

Sirach gives the opening salvo for us. He is our authority of the day. In prophetic fashion that accrues from the wisdom tradition, he declares unequivocally a double truth born out of his own and his people’s experience: the truth of God’s justice, on the one hand, and that of His mercy, on the other. “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” But wait … Sirach gives the thought a second look, and this time, he speaks from his people’s journey of faith. He declares once more, that God was not “unduly partial toward the weak, yet he HEARS the cry of the oppressed.” God hears. God listens. No, He does more … God obeys (eisakouo) the pleadings of the poor and the lowly.

There is something about someone hearing that reminds us of somebody else speaking and pleading, and praying. God could not have “obeyed” had someone not interceded; had someone not prayed. Again, Scripture reminds us of the power of prayer. This, the psalmist tells us in his most convincing apologia: “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me? My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Scripture does not explain and expound. Scripture just simply reports the fact in a straightforward fashion. It is a two-pronged fact. One is the established fact of God’s justice. The other is the unfolding fact in His people’s history of His preferential option for the poor and the powerless. Diane Bergant, apropos this, puts it so well: “[Sirach] insists that God is concerned with justice, not favoritism; when God takes the side of the poor, it is for the sake of justice, not poverty.” And God does so, most especially because the orphan, the widow, and the lowly take resort to prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.”

Both the second and third readings offer us examples of prayerful people for whom God has become real and personal. This, the readings give us by way of contrast. St. Paul, knowing that his end was drawing nigh, gives in to grateful remembering. He sees himself as an offering being poured out on the altar of sacrifice. He sees himself taking leave of what he has gotten used to doing all his life, and, like a faithful soldier, just fading away slowly from the scene. His memories are well stocked, not with achievements, but with what God, in His power and mercy, has wrought in him. Grateful remembering gives way to humble boasting as only the really humble can do. In the utter simplicity of his childlike faith, he makes a “boast” to Timothy and his flock: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” But this was not the inane boasting of a proud man who only wanted merit for himself. This was the humble boasting of a man who knew all along that, in his weakness, God had been his strength. “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the gentiles might hear it … To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

In the Gospel, the Lord shocks us his hearers once again. In another story of “reversals,” we are presented with the image of a “good tax collector.” Since when did tax collectors who padded their collections many times over, been associated with “good”? But the Lord did not favor the publican as against the other because that other happened to be a Pharisee. The Lord did not condemn a Pharisee for being a Pharisee; nor did the Lord favor the publican for being one, as we shall see.

Seen in the backdrop of today’s readings and the theme of the liturgical celebration, the gospel presents us with something which, someone like Paul, like Sirach, could boast about. Two men entered the temple. One boasted of his “righteousness.” The other confessed his sinfulness. The former, certain and complacent in his pretended goodness, did nothing but enumerate his good acts. He worked his way through his list of good deeds, and felt smug about them. He came, not to pray, but to tell. He came, not to acknowledge, but to judge. “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”

But it is the latter, the publican, who came mortified before the Lord. He came with sorrow in his heart, not praise for his good deeds. He came with humble acceptance of his sins, not defiant proclamation of his achievements. He came, not with a lame boast, but with a claim to his own sinfulness. He came, not with a press (or “praise”) release, but with a prayer for mercy: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Here we are with a story with immense shock value! What a story of reversals! What a story about Christian essentials! It is a story, not about class struggle between Pharisees and Publicans, nor is it a story about God’s favoritism. But it does have something to tell us smug and complacent people who feel happy and contented that “we are not like the rest of humanity.” It does have a message to people like us, who can be satisfied that we are not “terrorists,” that we are not “murderers” and “thieves;” that we are not given in to doing such dastardly acts as we read in the papers and see on TV on a daily basis. It does have something to say to that attitude of religious arrogance that we can have at times. It sure has something to say about our prayer, which, like that of the Pharisee, is often more like a monologue than anything else. It sure has something to say to us who are often given in to empty boasting, and to self-centered focusing, more on the evil that we have not done, and less on the good that we ought to have done.

The Pharisee, who came, not to pray, but to boast, got home feeling good about himself, but not justified before God, who “reads the heart” of people. What he said was not answered, for the simple reason that he did not make a prayer. He made a praise release. The Publican, who came with the humble request for mercy, got what he asked for – and more.

Today is a day for all of us to make a solid choice: simply boast and go home empty-handed, or boast humbly in the Lord, and go home filled. “For he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Indeed, to quote an American author, “nothing is more simple than greatness; to be simple is to be great.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

ALL DAYS, ALL WAYS, & FOR ALWAYS!

Catholic Homily/Reflection
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
October 21, 2007

Today’s readings remind me of people who know what they want, who know that what they want is good for them, and who also know that what they want as something ultimately good for them, is worth waiting patiently for, praying fervently for, and working feverishly for.

Where I come from, people have the utmost respect and reverence for farmers. I am one of those who look up to them with awe. My father was an accountant by profession, but a farmer by vocation. He loved to plant. He loved to till the soil and be close to nature. He began planting coffee trees at age 11, together with his even younger brother who eventually died as a boy of something that, by today’s medical standards, could easily have been cured. He knew what he wanted. He knew that what he wanted was good for his future (and ours!). And he worked for what he wanted with utmost dedication, commitment, and perseverance.

For me, on account primarily, though not solely, of my father’s and many relatives’ good example, farmers are the epitome of patience and perseverance. They plant with a long range vision in mind. What they plant today, they know all too well, is not something they will reap tomorrow. They know how to watch and wait. And in the meantime, they fondle the work of their hands with the brightest of hopes accompanied by the most fervent prayer. Persistence and perseverance are two words that aptly describe them in general.

This kind of unflinching perseverance is what juts out of the first and third readings. In the context of a fierce battle that probably could have had something to do with a much-prized and much-coveted watering hole, Moses and his people put up a fierce resistance. Although there seems to be something faintly magical in what he does, the real focus of the passage is not the use of magic, but the persevering and long-suffering nature of what Moses does – raise up his arms in an obvious allusion to the biblical gesture of fervent prayer.

Our usual one-word summary of the first reading, is thus, none other than this simple word … ALWAYS. If we are to take to heart the meaning behind the gesture of Moses (with the help of some equally committed aides), then the allusion to praying always could not be clearer. “As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.”

The Gospel passage, like the first reading, leads us to reflect on patient, persistent prayer. But there is more than just persistence in both readings. Beyond speaking of persistence, both readings allude to one obvious trait that accrues from, and accompanies, persistence – the capacity to conjure up various means and methods to achieve one’s end. Moses’ aides resorted to the ruse of propping up his hand(s). They took Moses’ noble cause and made it their own, by taking part in Moses’ ministry of intercessory prayer. The widow spoken of in the gospel did all her best to talk the wicked judge out of indifference and carefree insouciance, and cajole him to take action in her favor. Wicked though he was, he fell for the various antics and persistent ways of the widow. ALL WAYS is an apt phrase to summarize both readings. Persistence and perseverance are shown in creative and proactive stances to take up God’s cause – in many ways more than one, just in order to advance one’s vision and achieve one’s legitimate aim. Some Sundays back if you remember, the gospel spoke all about the steward who wisely did EVERYTHING possible to save his own skin (25th Sunday, Sept. 23). St. Paul, too, alludes to this equally multi-faceted power and incisiveness of God’s Word that works in “all ways,” because it is “inspired of God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction and training in righteousness” (2nd reading).

A pray-er prays always and in all ways, and is “persistent, whether convenient or inconvenient” (2nd reading), as St. Paul continues to remind us.

Inconvenient is an apt word to describe many situations of our times. The growing traffic snarls all over the world, particularly in developing – and, I must add – corruption-ridden countries, the unabated rapid destruction of the world’s delicate ecological balance, epitomized by the raging – if, irreversible – phenomenon of global warming, along with many others, are all in function of the overweening desire to reduce or banish whatever is inconvenient. Inconvenience, too, is what draws people away from church, or from personal prayer. Inconvenience, too, is what explains the loss of sacrality and solemnity in our hurried and harried Masses in far too many churches in our times. Inconvenience, too, is what explains the loss of the culture of “Sunday best” in people’s attire in Church on Sundays. It’s too much hassle to dress up properly and go to Church Sunday in and Sunday out. It is too inconvenient to be spending quality time each day for personal prayer and reflection, when that precious time could be used to be more productive and economically fruitful. I have heard quite a number of people complain vociferously when the priest, in his homily, does so much as add a minute or two to his “ten responsible minutes.” And those who complain, by the way, are usually also those who come late for Mass – precisely for the same reason as “inconvenience.”

When convenience and the search for quick results become the true protagonists in the daily drama of life, the “always” and “all ways” character of prayer bows out of the stage of everyday life. Like the proverbial dodo bird, they just fade away from the scene, and their absence is effectively masked and covered over by the more attractive pull of what gives comfort and convenience for the here, for the now.

Where I come from, I saw many years ago (don’t ask how many) very good examples of these “always” and “all ways” of prayer that is as persistent as it is creative and proactive. My grandmothers of both sides were women of prayer. As a boy, the most vivid memories I have of both of them were when they were praying. Like most old people I knew back then, they were praying when they were not working, and they were working when they were not praying. And it was hard to tell the difference between one and the other. Of course, my mother who knew what she wanted at all costs, prayed fervently for what she wanted above all – the grace of a happy peaceful death. And we all think she got what she prayed for … every day, in every way, all the way.

There is something very real and concrete in what is proposed to us by the readings. Times are both “convenient and inconvenient” for the most dedicated and pious pray-er that, I would like to think, all of us at least fancy ourselves to be at some point or other in our lives. With global warming and its effects hanging like a Damocles’ sword on each and everyone of us, with the specter of so much self-destructive behavior that societies are all too prone to, with so much corruption in and out of governments, along with the progressively diminishing natural resources that more and more people are vying for and even fighting for, like fresh water, less and less time and energy is given to what is perceived as a non-productive activity that prayer is perceived to be.

But we just have to take God’s word for it. We simply have to make good what we, in fact, pray for each day: “Give us this day, our daily bread.” Such daily insistence and persistence … such daily perseverance are of the essence of prayer. Peter John Cameron is right … “The heart of prayer is praying with our heart.” It is praying with all our heart, with all we’ve got … time, means, effort, faith, and all … We need to stow it in our hearts and show it in our lives … pray with persistence and perseverance … ALL DAYS, ALL WAYS, and for ALWAYS.

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, October 16, 2007 8:45 AM

Monday, October 15, 2007

PRAYING WITH, PRAYING FOR, PRAYING PERSISTENTLY

Catholic Homily/Reflection
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C


Alternative Reflection. What follows is an old one. The fresh version is found in my latest posting above.

Four Sundays back, Luke’s Gospel had us speak about the unjust steward who was cunning, wily, and whose prudent ways led him to selfishly prepare for his own future. Today, Luke would have us consider the figure of an unjust judge who capitulates to the importunings of a widow in need. These are story stuff that merit a second look from story-starved writers of “telenovelas” (soap operas) known now in the Philippines as “teleseryes.”

Yes, there is unfolding drama in the parables of the Lord. Parables are basically stories, but, used skillfully by the master story-teller and teacher that Jesus was, are more than just bedtime stories to tuck children in bed with. No, parables were meant to disturb; they were meant to be so surprising as to catch people off guard, as to make hearers gasp in disbelief, and react either positively or negatively to them, especially if hearers miss the real lesson behind the initially shocking story.

Today’s parable is no exception to this. But the first reading is no less shocking. It recounts what appears to be a strange, almost magical story about Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur, caught up in battle with Amalekites who “came and waged war against Israel.”

Taken in its right context, however, and pitted side by side with the other two readings, we see a totally different picture. We see, not magic, but a concrete portrayal of Moses and his companions, at prayer. We see a people in difficulty whose leaders show by their actions, how best to face a group of aggressors who are about to go against the plan of God for His beloved people. They do what they can. Moses sends Joshua to deal with the marauders. But they also take resort to prayer. By so doing, Moses prophetically tells his people, that ultimately, victory remains in God’s hands, and that in times of trial, prayer and faith in God are just as important as their feeble human efforts.

We live in equivalently difficult times. We live, too, in a world marred by conflictuality, tensions, and even by armed and, at times, violent, struggles. We reflect today on what today’s readings can teach us as we face the challenges of our times.

In the history of Christian spirituality, one of the images used to represent the call to a personal relationship with God, is that of Christian life as a call to engage in some kind of spiritual warfare. Like Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur, we are continually face to face with forces that appear so formidable.

Our so-called “foes,” however, need not be external to us. Indeed, many times, our opponent resides in us, and comes from our very own person – our very own tendency to sin: We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:14-15). Indeed, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” as the Lord reminds us.

Moses knew this first hand. Moses, who “kept his hands raised up,” (a symbol of prayer), knew exhaustion at some point. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. He prayed. But he grew weary praying. And it was at such a time that others came to his support. Others came to pray with him. Others came to pray for him. And with others, persistent prayer spelled the difference between defeat and victory.

The times are indeed challenging, to say the least. All the trends, studies, and statistics do not sound good for institutionalized religion. Mainstream churches all over the world, including the catholic church all suffer from decline in memberships. Ironically, despite the mass exodus of people from organized religion, there is paradoxically so much hunger for spirituality, and for personal meaning in life today. But there is a strong and marked reaction against all forms of institutionalization, hierarchical structures, and authoritative pronouncements from leaders and pastors. Quick fix cults, and raucous evangelical groupings seem to be the favored menu of the day. Pastors like me, like Moses, can succumb to weariness and discouragement in the face of all this undeniable reality.

But today, I would like to think that we all are getting a shot in the arm, a much needed vaccine to guard us against the flu of despair and lack of faith. Our response to the first reading sums it all up: “Our help is from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

The dramatic elements of the first reading show this much. Prayer is essential for the life of the serious leader like Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur. Without prayer, the battle waged by the Amalekites in our midst, (which includes our own self-inflicted temptations) cannot be won. But the story makes it clear, that in the end, victory is God’s work. But the story also makes clear the pressing need for us not only to pray, but to pray with others, to pray for others. Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ weary arms (and drooping spirit) represents this truth. At a time of weakness, pastors also need the prayer of those they work for and work with.

Last weekend (that is, October 10, 2004), I preached a retreat to a group of families out in Solomon’s Island, southern Maryland. Even if I was suffering from another bout of severe allergic reaction that made every part of my body itch and twitch, and my face all flared out in rashes, and my skin crackling and cracking in utter discomfort, I found joy, solace, and strength in the simple and searching faith of these families who attended the retreat. I prayed for them. I prayed with them. But they prayed for me and with me. Their marked spiritual hunger that led them to be very attentive and receptive to what I told them, eventually made me go through the retreat without any hitches. The flock, through their prayer and attentiveness, became my support, an erstwhile shepherd in their midst.

The words of St. Paul to his protégé, Timothy, cannot be more apt in this regard: “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).

The Lord has been leading me to a whole lot of realizations over the past few years. At a time when I can very well say to myself not without a little pride that I had “been there; done that” kind of thing, He still teaches me hard lessons to live by. And usually, His teachings come through the school of hard knocks – the school of suffering. Being sick for one who has always been healthy is most distressing. But it has led me to go back to the times when I thought that success depended on me; when I thought that the more than ten years I was in formation work owed a lot to my personal efforts and my pretended abilities. And the realization that not a few of those I wasted so much time for chose to follow a path different from the one I had hoped they would pursue, and that some of them might have just been going through the motions and taking advantage of the relative security provided by the seminary, was most disappointing.

I did so much. I planned so much. I did a whole lot more than what was expected of me. Or so, I thought. But there was one thing I sorely missed out on. I missed to give due emphasis to prayer. No, don’t get me wrong. I did pray. But the prayer the Lord teaches today is not that kind of prayer that attributes victory to the pray-er. The prayer that the Lord shows us today is the prayer that goes beyond disappointment, the prayer that is marked by persistence, by faith, and by communality. It is the prayer which guarantees victory, not for me, not on account of me, but guaranteed by God’s power and God’s love.

This means there is something more that the pray-er needs to do. He should give way, step aside, and while praying with faith, he or she ought to allow room for others to pray for him, pray with him, and – like Moses, Aaron, and Hur, and yes, the widow in Jesus’ parable - pray persistently.

St. Rita Parish,Dundalk, MD

Monday, October 8, 2007

SEPARATED, SAVED, & SENT

Homily/Reflection for the 28th Sunday - Year C
October 14, 2007

Today, the readings speak about something totally unexpected, something unpredictable, and utterly surprising from all points of view. Naaman, a foreigner, a non-Jew, and a non-believer, is healed of his dermatological problems of depressing and alienating proportions (1st Reading). What makes it surprising is that a foreigner is deigned worthy of being healed by God. What makes the story unexpected is that he, a man of means and a man of influence “went down and plunged himself into the Jordan seven times,” – a possible allusion both to embracing humility, and doing as he is instructed by Elisha, that is, physically going down the waters of the Jordan. What makes it unpredictable is the total and complete turn-around of somebody who was not expected to believe and embrace the faith of Elisha and all those the prophet stood for.

Naaman’s story is a story of reversals par excellence.

The Gospel story, too, is one whose element of surprise is more than just a cute literary device designed to impress, drive home a moral lesson, and function like one of the stories that make up the highly popular “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. The parallelism between the story of the named Syrian (Naaman), and that of the unknown and unnamed Samaritan, is too striking to be missed and glossed over. Both men, though unworthy, were healed of their maladies. Both returned to give thanks. And both stand for important truths that ought to be of much help to us – here and now, as they were – there, and then.

What truths do we see jutting out of the pages of today’s readings? What truths can we see as we take a backward glance to what transpired then, so that we could gain insight as to how we ought to value, and thus, learn precious lessons from what transpires in the here and now? What parallelisms appear to us now between the two lepers’ stories and our ongoing stories now in this place, in this time?

We can focus on the more obvious elements, to start with. It is no secret to many of us that anyone who had any type of sores on the skin was not just labeled a leper, but, more so, considered unclean. Unclean people were supposed to be shunned and kept at more than just an arm’s length away. They were to be actively avoided. They were pariahs, outcasts, and deemed non-entities, walking zombies – in effect, considered dead, though still physically living. They were to be treated as separate, as on the other side of the great, though imaginary divide between healthy people and the scum of society, which they effectively, were.

But we really are all lepers and outcasts on account of the greatest separation we are capable of heaping upon ourselves – SIN. Sin isolates us. Sin separates us from God, the All Holy One. And sin is something that we all have, whether we are fair or dark skinned; whether we are rich or poor, dull or intelligent. Naaman, though rich, was really shunned, avoided, and kept at a comfortable distance by the rest of humanity. Riches were no guarantee he was to be treated differently and mercifully. This is the first word in our three-word summary of today’s liturgy – SEPARATED. Our ongoing experience of sin brings into relief the egregious truth that sin separates, that sin isolates, and that sin alienates. When we sin, we lose our lifeline. We lose our status. We lose self-respect. And we lose the respect of others.

But the surprising thing that the readings today tell us is that, though separated on account of sin; though isolated by our sinfulness, and though alienated from God, others, self, and nature, God’s love and His gift of salvation know no boundaries. Of all people who ought to have been healed, it was the foreigner Naaman who got healed. God’s saving mercy knows no bounds, and is given to Him whom He wills, to anyone who is honest enough to acknowledge the deep and big chasm that divides and separates him and the God of mercy.

This brings us to the second important truth – the second word in our three-word summary – SAVED. More than just physical healing took place for both Naaman and the unnamed Samaritan. Healing constituted being re-instituted as a subject of rights, a person worthy of attention, an individual that ought no more to be considered separated and isolated. Healing restored both persons’ dignity. They were both rehabilitated before the society which before, they could have no dealings with whatsoever as lepers. Healing constituted earthly salvation for them. Once healed, they were free in senses more than just one. They were saved from a lifetime of insecurity and utter alienation from others. They were saved from a status of rejection to a status of acceptance. This is what St. Paul so gratefully speaks about in his hymn-like passage in his letter to Timothy: “Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory” (2nd Reading). This same reality of being saved by God is the same joy that emanates from our response to the first reading: “The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power” (Responsorial Psalm).

But there is more … Sinners like all of us are, though separated once, were brought closer to God and to each other by the gift of salvation. But the story does not end there. Having been favored with a clean slate by the gift of salvation, having been made recipients of a great gift from above, the two lepers found it in themselves to go back and declare undying gratitude. Naaman swore to worship the only true God, as symbolized by his carting home soil from Israelite land. The unnamed Samaritan, only one out of ten, came back to give thanks to the Lord. And this is where the third word, SENT, enters in.

Like grateful former lepers-made-clean; like former pariahs and outcasts, but rehabilitated by the gift of salvation in Christ, we come back and gather together to give thanks – to do Eucharist. This is what the Holy Mass essentially is. We come back to the house of the Father to give thanks. But we gather and unite ourselves to God and to each other only to be SENT once again. We gather, not in order to glory selfishly and revel solipsistically in our good fortune. We gather only to be sent forth. At the end of the Mass, we are told: ITE, MISSA EST. Go … you are sent …

The Gospel passage could not be clearer on this aspect, at least. The Samaritan who was healed, the only one out of the total ten who received a great favor, came back to give thanks. But he came back not in order to stay. He came back only to be told as, indeed, all of us who attend Mass, are told: “Stand up and go … your faith has saved you.”

This, unfortunately, is the ultimate litmus test of total healing. He who is restored to total healing is sent forth to mission. He who has been restored to God’s good graces cannot remain unaffected, uncommitted, and disengaged. “Stand up and go … your faith has saved you. ITE, MISSA EST.

For once we were separated from God, but now are restored and saved in Christ. In His name, and on account of Him, we cannot but see ourselves as a people sent to give to others the same good news we ourselves have received and benefited from.

What, you might ask, does being saved and sent lead us to? What fruits can we reasonably expect from doing a Naaaman and acting magnanimously like that Samaritan who went back to give thanks? St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, could not be clearer: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with him” (2nd Reading).

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City - October 9, 2007

GRATITUDE THAT GOES BEYOND "THANK YOU"

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
October 14, 2007

There is more than just following mere rules of civility and politeness that is at stake in today’s readings, as some might well normally imagine. Yes … Naaman the leper did well, not only because he returned to Elisha, retinue and all, but because of something far superior to mere thanks-giving, as we shall soon see.

Just as well, for we have gathered once again today, to do the eminently Christian communal activity on the day of the Lord – to give thanks to God, to do “Eucharist,” to celebrate our oneness, to extol our giftedness, and to proclaim our faith in an eminently giving and personal God. We have come back, like Naaman to give thanks. We have gathered together, to “remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (2 Tim 2:8). We have returned, hopefully like that lone leper, to “glorify God in a loud voice.”

Today, we are probing into the depths of what biblical “gratitude” is all about. We are plunging deep into the nature of “thanksgiving,” as shown by the brilliant examples of two lepers from both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures. We stand at the basis of the core, essential meaning of doing “Eucharist” as Christian believers.

They say gratitude is the remembrance of the heart. The heart is the repository of all good things received, good deeds done to us by another, great gifts showered from the largesse of other people. Rightly does St. Paul counsel Timothy in the second reading: “Remember Jesus Christ.” Paul sounds very much like one who, despite being physically in chains, had a heart that soared free … free to remember … free to see beyond shackles and temporary imprisonment, free enough to be able to declare from the bottom of his heart: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.” I say more. The heart goes further than merely remembering. The heart does more. The heart sees far ahead, and far beyond. A loving heart is a heart immersed in prophecy. It finds reasons for what it sees clearly, though veiled by current difficult predicaments. It finds reasons that, in the famous words of Pascal, reason itself might not know of. It finds enough reason to prophesy: “In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:13).

I would like to suggest that Christian gratitude is precisely one that goes beyond remembering. It pierces through mere recall or “remembrances of things past.” It sees more. It recognizes the giver. And recognition gives way to acclaim, to prophetic proclamation, to doing thanks. (The Latin version of “to give thanks” is “gratias agere,” which is more akin to “doing.”)

We all have experienced being hurt after doing something really great in our eyes and not getting recognized for it. We all know what it means to go out of our way, bend over backwards, and all we get for our heroic efforts is an indifferent stare. Know why we get hurt? Know why we get so offended by people whom we, in disappointment, refer to as ingrates? It is for the simple reason that we were not recognized; our act was not acknowledged; and the beautiful aspect of our personhood was not seen. We have an idiomatic expression in Tagalog that epitomizes our pain: “Hindi man lang ako tinao!” (He or she did not even treat me as a living person.)

Ingratitude hurts for the simple reason that it is a callous form of bad-willed blindness to the good done. We all have our own stories to share about this. I, too, have my own. I, too, have felt bad that after pouring my heart out to my work over the past years, what I got, was silent indifference at best, and painful accusations, at worst, from people who stood to gain from my work. But lest you get me wrong, I, too, have caused others a lot of grief, by my own indifference to all the good, and to all the persons who did me good in the past. We have a name for this ingratitude, yours and mine … we call it sin. And this is part and parcel of the story of each one of us.

Today, I invite you to reclaim your stories. I invite you, first of all, to recall Naaman, the leper, who returned to Elisha and did a whole lot more by proclaiming for all to hear: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.” His gratitude bloomed and broadened into deeper recognition of the ultimate source of the gift of healing. He did much more … His recognition of the gifting God spilled over into action (remember “gratias agere”) … “I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other God except the Lord.”

We have come together to “do Eucharist.” But before we could “break the bread and drink the cup of unity,” we needed to acknowledge our own brokenness. No wonder we opened the celebration with the Confiteor, (I confess) the acknowledgment of our sinfulness. But, as every liturgist worth his salt would tell us, the real focus of the Confiteor is not our human sinfulness, but the recognition of the merciful and forgiving God. The Liturgy of the Word opened with all of us flinging wide open our hearts to welcome God and acknowledge the “magnalia Dei,” the great things He has done for us. Only after the acknowledgment of sins could we acknowledge the God of glory, the God of compassion, the God who is giver of everything that is good … “Glory to God in the highest …”

The statistics of the Gospel passage is downright lopsided in favor of the ingrates. Only one out of ten came back. Only one of ten saw beyond the gift received and acknowledged the giver. Nine out of ten were healed and all they saw was some “good fortune” befalling them. Only one out of ten saw the “good God” doing wonders for them. All ten probably remembered their good fortune. The nine most likely went their way smiling and telling others of the fulfillment of something that went beyond their wildest dreams. But one out of ten went beyond remembering and resorted to doing thanks: “realizing that he had been healed, [he] returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.”
I am not in the best of health at this time of my life. Now that I feel bothered by a relative lack of health, I am reminded of the sobering reality about myself, and my lack of gratitude to God. It dawned on me that I have been taking the gift of health for granted. In many ways, I see the signs, not of Naaman, and the one leper out of ten who came back, but of the nine ungrateful lepers who ignored the one who gave them much more than just healing.

Today, as I lead you in the communal act of worship, I am not ashamed to acknowledge my sore lack of recognition of the God who remains faithful, despite my lack of perspective and vision. Even as I declare my blindness, I also proclaim the enlightenment and the hope which today’s liturgy, and your presence as fellow believers, offer me: “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” I am convicted by what I see and hear today – God’s Word and your living examples. And the words of a favorite American author named Louis Evely whose book I read 32 years ago haunt me no end: “If you have nothing to thank God for, there is nothing Christian in you!”
[Dundalk, MD October 10, 2004]

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

IS IT GOOGLE OR GOGGLES? (27th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Catholic Homily (27th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C)
October 7, 2007

Bad news seems to be all we hear each and every single day. There is bad news in our (mostly) dysfunctional politics all over. There is bad news everywhere in the world where division, cliques, and conflicting allegiances reign. There, too, is bad news in the world of believers who may be staking out their futures – and, in many cases – also their peace of mind, on matters inconsequential. There is bad news in families all over, especially in poorer countries where there is a preponderance of so-called “global families,” a euphemism for families whose members, for economic reasons, have to live far apart from each other. There is bad news in the geopolitical world where the battle for economic supremacy entails wanton and selfish disregard for the integrity of the whole created world. In the context where I am, the Philippines, more of the same bad news continue to make our blood boil in frustration, anger, or desperation, as the case may be – news of such brazen acts of corruption on the part of the powers-that-be that makes one wonder whether there is still hope for the whole forlorn and forsaken country.

I am not sure the situation of turmoil that Habakkuk refers to in the first reading should arrest our bewildering slide into the slope of discouragement. But I do know, based on my Christian faith, that what Habakkuk eventually makes of it – the meaning that he draws from the sad experiences he refers to, has something to do with my state of discouragement and despondency. Like the proverbial rower, I move forward by looking backward. I look backward at history – the history of God’s people, in order to chart anew a fresh destiny, and weave a new story about the present and the future, based on God’s dream and vision for both me and the whole world in turmoil.

We counselors and therapists have it on the authority of Alfred Adler, that one powerful method to help people change and snap out of their debilitating slide to despondency is what is known as “confrontation.” Some authors now call it more benignly as “care-frontation.” I would like to think of Habbakuk as doing this for us in God’s name. The despairing Habakkuk declares on the one hand: “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord” (1st Reading). But on the other hand, we hear him confront himself with God’s declaration: “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.”

That vision, let us please remind ourselves, has together with it, a promise: “The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

The just one, because of his faith, shall live! …

We are rowing now in more than just turbulent seas. The ship of our faith is shattered and battered by all sorts of challenges and oppositions. We need to look backward – at the history of God’s chosen people, if we are to move forward. But we need the proper tools to see clearly. We need the capacity of finding meaning even in apparently meaningless situations. We need the right vision. We have to have the right goggles.

Nowadays, all we do when we do not know is google it. But googling alone will not clinch it. We need to be more than just informed. We need to be formed, moulded rightly, endowed with the wherewithal to make meaning come out of what appears meaningless. We need more than just googled information. We need the goggles of faith. “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets” … the tablets of our hearts and minds.

All events and circumstances that unfold might be grossly dissonant with what we hear God tell us in His Word. There is a great divide between ideal and reality all over. The “already” and the “not yet” of our faith appear to be separated by a chasm similar to that between Dives and Lazarus that last Sunday’s gospel was speaking about.

At this point, a quote from Timothy Radcliffe, comes in handy. He, in turn, quotes William Carlos Williams who wrote: “dissonance (if you are interested) leads to discovery.”

This sounds like a “care-frontation” for me today, convicted as I am, by my lack of faith, my lack of ability to see meaning that hides behind the thick and lowering clouds of despair and discouragement. This much, the psalmist also tells us, as indeed we remind ourselves after the first reading: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

He does not stick to dissonance. That leads to a “hardening of the heart.” He, instead, focuses on discovery – the same discovery of the rower who moves forward, by looking backward. Propelled by the goggles of faith, his googled information – perhaps oodles and oodles of discouraging information – will not crush his resolve to move on, move forward – and live!

The disciples in today’s gospel passage tell us as much. They don’t google for more information beyond what they already heard and know. They ask for the real thing. They beg for what is really necessary and essential. They beg for goggles to see beyond what they already know: “Lord, increase our faith.”

We ought to take careful note of what is asked for. The request presupposes not a totally blank slate, or a totally empty container. The request presupposes there is already some faith to start with, something to begin with. They don’t beg: “Lord, give us faith,” but “Lord, increase our faith.”

There, indeed, is a great deal of dissonance in our daily lives, a great deal of moral distortion and confusion. In the current debacle in the Philippine senate, we cannot tell who among them is telling the truth. In between violent accusations and vehement denials, the only truth that seems to come out is what we already know – since the time of Adam and Eve. And what we know is what we are reminded of today – for the nth time … that all of us are sinners, and that “all men [and women] have fallen short of the glory of God.” What we know is that corruption is sin, and sin is what the middle letter of that three-letter word stands for – “I” … Sin has to do with You and I … with all of us taken singly and collectively.

But there is one today who reminds us to clarify our vision. Above and beyond mere knowledge of facts, St. Paul calls to mind what we all need to apply ourselves on, and use our talents and energies for … “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”

We need not more googles of information, but fresh and renewed goggles of faith in order to stir into flame the gift that we already all have. The former only leads to further dissonance. The latter can only lead to discovery.

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Better Living Subdivision, Paranaque City, Philippines
October 2, 2007 – 9:45 AM



Monday, October 1, 2007

INTEGRITY, RIGHTEOUSNESS, FAITH & LIFE

Alternative Reflection for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
October 7, 2007

Today is a day that speaks to all of us who have ever felt discouraged, dispirited, dejected and forlorn. That means all of us! But without denigrating your personal experience, I would like to suggest, as all three readings show, that today’s liturgy talks, in a special way, to leaders, to pastors, to people out there who have made it their lifetime option to serve others.

Today, the Lord talks to all the jaded Habbakuks of our time, pushed against the wall of uncertainty and undeserved suffering who cries out: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen!” The Lord, too, directs himself to all the weak-kneed, relatively youthful Timothys in our midst, overwhelmed and crumpled into “cowardice” on account of the seemingly more powerful forces of darkness that stalk the world. Ordained for service, for kingship, priesthood, and prophecy like unto Christ the Good Shepherd, they are, at times, overtaken by fear, as the initial “flames” brought about by the gift of ordination (imposition of hands) are smothered by so much bad example, and so much bad will from friend and foe alike. The Lord talks to weary disciples depleted of their supply of faith who beg him: “Lord, increase our faith.”

The Lord does not simply talk to me today. He convicts me. Being rather naturally inclined towards pessimism, I spend lots of time (and sleepless hours) thinking (it is more like worrying) about the growing problem of terrorism, the impending financial collapse of my country, so battered limp by so much corruption in and out of government. I worry myself sick about the seeming victory of “ruin, misery, destruction, and violence before me.”

I am reminded by what some writer said to the effect that God whispers to us in our joys, talks to us in our successes, and shouts at us in our pain.

He shouts at us today. He wants a hearing from us all who are lost in our own version of “clamorous discord.” He offers, not a quick fix answer, but a vision. To aid our eyes clouded over with tears, he offers a binocular, a telescope, a big Powerpoint presentation of something that “will not disappoint.” He bids us be patient. “If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”

We see this vision despite our tears. We see this unfolding reality because of our tears. Didn’t somebody say that “tears are the telescopes by which we see far into heaven?”

But wait. This surely is no mere pious talk. This surely is not one of those pietistic pie-in-the-sky kind of thing that fools no one and convinces nobody! This is good news. And this good news entails a good hard look at what we can do, what we ought to do, what we should invest, if we are going to reap the fruits of our waiting, and hoping, and believing.
This vision has a price tag. It demands a counterpart, some form of “earnest money” from our part, to show the Lord we are indeed listening, that we are indeed, doing our part.

Habakkuk demanded an answer to his “why” question. (Counselors are enjoined never to do that “why” question ever … don’t ask me why). God offered a vision, not a quick fix answer. The vision entailed some good all the impatient Habakkuks in our midst could do. The vision offers a way towards INTEGRITY, RIGHTEOUSNESS, & FAITH. “The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

Timothy, who was cowered into timidity and cowardice by pressing difficulties was given a shot in the arm by being encouraged to cultivate power, love, and self-discipline with God’s grace, and to “take as [his] norm the sound words that [he] heard from [Paul], in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

The disciples asked for an increased dosage of faith. Their question was one of quantity. The Lord gave them a qualitative answer. They did not need an increased shot of morphine, figuratively speaking. What they needed was not more of what they already had, but something qualitatively new and different. They needed VISION. They needed to understand the power they already had. They needed VIRTUE. They needed that POWER that comes from what they already had – their faith. And that power does not come from the quantitatively more. Instead, it comes from the qualitatively more. Just a little of this qualitatively more genuine faith ought to be enough even to move mountains and do the impossible.

I would like to suggest that today’s liturgy leads us to reflect more on the power that virtuous living has in our lives as mission-partners of Christ and His Church. For far too long, our moral reflection, and thus, our spiritual theology, too, has been too much based on rules, norms, and commandments (commandment-based ethics). No wonder moral living sounds so unpalatable, so unappealing, so difficult. But moral living has to do primarily with relationships more than it has to do with rules.

Today’s readings offer us this VISION of a qualitatively more relationship with a God who is concerned with our total welfare. So concerned is He with our integral good and growth that He does not give us quick fix answers. He offers us a way we can follow on our own. He offers us a set of virtues to live. He counsels us INTEGRITY, RIGHTEOUSNESS, and FAITH. And all three virtues lead to life.

Even Paul, who surely could have patronized or paternalized his young protégé, did not offer to do for Timothy what he could have done on his own. He counseled power, love, and self-control. He reminded him not to “be ashamed of [his] testimony,” and “to bear [his] share of hardship for the gospel.” Instead of giving his disciples the much-coveted easy answer to discouragement, he offered them a set of virtues needed by those who have offered themselves in the service of others.

There are so many Christians in our midst who go through life sad, burdened not only by the vicissitudes and usual difficulties attached to daily living. (I am one of them. Welcome to the club!) But there are those of us who feel even more burdened because they look at Christian life as a never ending quest for obedience to rules and commandments alone. They go through life sour and dour at the mistaken belief that the world is going past them because they are tied up to minute rules of conduct, and that the rest of society is having a nice time after having done away with said rules.

I see no additional rules today to make life even sadder than it is already. I see and hear a VISION of something sure and certain, a vision of a God who cares, a vision of a God who serves others, who rewards discipleship with more than just worldly material perks and bonuses, and whose retirement benefits are simply out of this world! I also see and hear that the way towards the attainment of such vision is God’s work and ours to do. God’s work comes in the form of grace. Our work comes in the form of virtues. Virtues are our counterpart, our personal contribution and investment.

It would be good for us to start with some basic ones: integrity, righteousness, and faith. Throw in a dash of “power, love, and self-control.” Add in a measure of selfless service, patterned after that of Christ. “The rash one has integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

[Dundalk, MD October 3, 2004]. N.B. This is a rehashed reflection I wrote in Baltimore three years ago. I will try to find the time to do a new one before the week ends.