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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

IT IS NOW THE HOUR! (1st Sunday Advent-A)

Catholic Homily/Reflection
1st Sunday of Advent- Year A

The second and third readings’ insistence, not without a tone of urgency, to “rise and shine” and “conduct ourselves properly as in the day,” is striking. There is no mistaking it. It is urgent. It is important. And it is imperative that one gets to realize that, while waiting for something imminent and sure, one really has no time to lose, no moment to spare, no opportunity to waste and let go.

The insistence can be summarized simply thus: it is now the hour!

It is now the hour! Whilst it is true and obvious that in our days, people are hard pressed for time, and are quite incapable of waiting, it is also true that for many people in a mad rush towards something undefined, the sense of urgency can often be more a sign of neurotic attachment to being occupied and busy with something. People rush out of their work places, only to kill time in front of the TV screen, watching and getting involved in telenovelas, or let time fritter away in some entertainment place, while nursing a drink or two in the hand. People everywhere try to cut through snarled or stalled traffic, only to get home and spend more time in front of the ubiquitous computer.

People are in a perpetual rush. And people in rush are people who cannot wait.

Henri Nouwen makes an insightful comment that in the gospel according to Luke, the first personages mentioned are all described as people in waiting … Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna … and, of course, Mary! I would like to suggest my own tentative insight, for whatever it is worth to you my readers. I would like to suggest that for at least two of them, their waiting was crowned with a satisfied and fulfilled sigh of more than just relief. They acclaimed and extolled God who made known His glory at the appointed time. Zechariah waxed prayerful and grateful as he acknowledged the “hour of visitation” from the Lord God: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, he has come to his people and set them free.” Zechariah acknowledged that the Lord’s appointed hour of salvation has come. His profuse praise is made as if to say: “It is now the hour … it is now the hour to thank and praise God who has made good his promises of old."

Simeon, too, was a man conscious and cognizant of the “hour” of God’s epiphany. Happy and fulfilled that the Lord has, indeed, chosen to favor him with his timely self-manifestation, Simeon poured forth his thanks and praise for his “hour” had already come, and that it was now his “hour” to take leave with overflowing joy and a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled.” It is now the hour for me to go. It is now the hour for me to take leave quietly, for “my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.”

But Mary herself was a woman of the hour. She knew how to appreciate and acknowledge the overwhelming truth, not only of the hour, but for all time: “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty had done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Her prayer is made as if to say, “it is now the hour to give God utmost glory and praise, for he has mercy on those who fear him in every generation” … now … then … and thereafter.

We are a people tired of waiting. We cannot wait a minute longer to get our favorite fast-food meal. Many of us get violent while sitting it out in snarled traffic everywhere. In the Philippines, some people can even get so worked up waiting that, in their anger, they pump bullets into other people who happen to also get very impatient and cranky while struggling for limited driving space in our hopelessly inadequate roads. Road rage is nothing more than impatient waiting turned violent. In crowded restaurants, everyone has a sense of entitlement making unreasonable demands on the oftentimes hapless waiters and waitresses who get the ire of pretentious and unsatisfied customers who all want to be served first. Again, in the Philippines, predictably, ambitious wannabes are already positioning themselves as they drool over the most coveted office in the land as we approach once more the year of national elections.

It is indeed the hour for everyone who has his or her personal agenda to take care of. It is the hour to strut one’s stuff in the ramp of life. When it comes to ambition, it is always the right time. When it comes to personal dreams and desires, it is always the hour. And there is precious little time to waste when it comes to fulfilling one’s overriding desires and dreams. Already, in every Senate investigation and high profile discussions done under the glare of lights and whirring TV cameras, people who drool over national positions of leadership consider it their opportunity “to strut and fret their hour on the stage” of life.

Advent has once more set in for us believers. Today, we begin that very short period of no more than four Sundays when all we do is focus on the main issue of waiting. But today’s opening salvo would have us acknowledge like Zechariah, Simeon, and Mary did, that the time has come. What we are waiting for has come already and has irrupted into our present hour.

The personages in waiting as reported by Luke are individuals who wait, not impatiently, but imbued with the spirit of hope. Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna had all the time to be waiting. Luke’s report tells us they were old, very old, but ever youthful in their active and hopeful waiting. Their beard and hair may have been grey, but their hope never grew grey hairs. For patient and hopeful people who know how to wait never grouse and become grouchy when the “hour” finally comes their way. Impatient people complain when the object of their waiting comes around. “Why only now?” would be their exasperated statement, most likely. But hopeful people burst forth in praise and proclamation when the much-awaited “hour” comes around.

We postmodern people just cannot wait. There was a time people said, “wait a minute” if they had to have people on hold for any reason. Nowadays, people don’t even want to wait a minute. Most people would now say, “hold on a second.” Just a second, never a minute … In a world that communicates instantly “in real time,” a minute of waiting is simply unimaginable and unforgivable.

But important things can stand being waited for, more than just a second, and definitely more than just a minute. Today’s liturgy, the first Sunday of Advent, reminds us that it is now, not the second, it is now, not the minute, but “it is now the hour” of our salvation.

With salvation and redemption so important, a second less, a second more; a minute less, a minute more would not count as important. What really counts and matters in the long run is what that “hour” ultimately is all about – everything that our hope and patient waiting stand for – our salvation in Christ, “for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”


Fr Chito Dimaranan, SDB
CB Retreat House

Tagaytay City, Philippines
November 27, 2007 7:00 PM

Monday, November 26, 2007

BEYOND VAGUE OPTIMISM

Catholic Homily/Reflection
1st Sunday of Advent - Year A

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Advent has come once again. The rhythm of the Church’s liturgical calendar once more reawakens us to a fresh start, a new beginning, a renewed sense of expectation. There is newness all around us. In temperate zones, the breathtaking sights of “Goldengroves” of once lush greeneries turned orange, crimson, ochre, red, yellow, and then brown, fade away gradually, and give way to an apparent starkness and barrenness of winter, giving way to images of life preparing to burrow under cover of cold, chilly snow. In the rest of the world gifted with more sunshine and warmth, cool, dry, refreshing breezes take the place of wet, wild, and windy storms, or scorching heat, as the sun withdraws a bit from the scene, causing longer nights and shorter days – and milder weather. All over the world, there is a reason that comes with the season, to start afresh, make new plans, and adapt oneself to the changing conditions of nature that remind one as much of endings as of beginnings; closings and openings; death, and the hope of rebirth; and images of the old giving way to the new.

This is the backdrop to what the whole Church is beginning today, the season of Advent. At a time when all we want to do is to stay in bed for as long as we want, Paul tells us that “it is now the hour for [us] to awake from sleep.” At a time when darkness lingers longer than earlier days, he tells us to “throw off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” At a time when Israel could use a lot of encouragement, Isaiah spoke about “all nations streaming toward [Jerusalem].” At a time when people, like the Jews of old who were tried and tested to the core by exile, we are getting sick and tired of wars and terrorism, beheadings and gruesome murders, Isaiah awakens people’s flagging hopes with visions of nations “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” At a time when most people are so taken up by the daily concerns that contemporary culture imposes on us all, the gospel’s apocalyptic language rouses us to also think about being prepared, “for an hour you do not expect, [when] the Son of Man will come.”

Without falling into the trap of accommodism, which is the tendency to read the Bible in terms of current historical events, and the concomitant tendency to show exact parallelisms between what happens now and what happened then, we should not fall into the opposite trap of reading Scriptures merely as a distant story of the Israelites, or of the early Christians, without seeing the underlying relevance, significance, and the power that its message has for us and our postmodern – even post-christian –society.

The Bible is historical in a precise way, as only a people of faith can understand. It is historical, whose underlying meaning counts as more important than the story it narrates. It is as much a record of the complex vicissitudes of a people’s history, as much as a record of their faith about a God intervening, working in, and speaking through the same shared history. But Scriptures transcend material history. Scriptures relate as much to the history of the Israelites and the early Church, as to the ongoing, unfolding history of God’s people all over the world.

We are part of this unfolding history. We are sharers and recipients of this same saving love and work of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaiah, the God of the prophets, and the God whom Jesus Christ revealed. We are a people in waiting like Jews waited for deliverance, like they waited for the restoration of the temple’s glory. We are a people of hope, and as we go through our own experiences of exile, of persecution, of trials and tribulations – our own “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number,” we are also led by the same God who continues to save us in Jesus Christ, His Son. Our forgetful minds are refreshed by messages designed to sow hope and love, and not fear. Our story is reframed in, and rendered meaningful by His story.

Humankind’s contemporary story, like always, is a story of search. We are still in search for answers to problems that are bigger than life, bigger than the world, bigger than all of us put together. Our story is a story of waiting. We are awaiting the fulfillment of the brightest hopes and dreams of Abraham, of Moses, of Isaiah, of Paul, of Peter, of Jesus Christ. Today, Isaiah shares with us his dream – God’s dream ultimately – “In days to come … the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain … all nations shall stream toward it …one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again …” Today, too, Paul shares the partial – if, ongoing fulfillment – of this same dream: “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is far advanced, the day is at hand.”

We are, indeed, a people in waiting. We are a people of hope, as we grapple with a world that lives life like as if everything it offers is the ultimate. Many postmodern people live like as if there were no tomorrow to wait for, no future worth investing in. People go through life “imagining there is no heaven.” (It’s easy, if you try!) Indeed, in this cynical post-christian world, all modes of absolutism, dogmatism, and unempirical bents of mind are held suspect. Faith, hope, love, and other unquantifiable, and scientifically unverifiable “cumquats” are thrown out the window. By and large, people’s take on things is characterized by a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” to use loosely a term popularized by Schussler-Fiorenza. All forms of dogmatism from people in power are held in utter suspicion. No wonder categorical pronouncements from men of the cloth are not paid attention to, or downright ignored. Descartes’ famous statement that started the Enlightenment “I think; therefore I am,” continues to hold sway over us. In this logically positivistic culture, hope is bound “to grow grey hairs.” Hope is often replaced by mere feverish dedication to human efforts designed to banish sickness, pain, disease, and other blights of the human condition.

The Church, like always, like she has always ever been, goes counter-cultural today. We are told, not to imagine there is no heaven. No… we are precisely reminded there is a heaven to hope for, a heaven to work for, and the fullness of salvation to wait for. The good Lord, in and through the Church, issues a “wake-up call” for us. “Now is the time for you to wake from your sleep.” Now is the time of salvation. Now is the time for hope … more than ever … more than before.

But I am one with Brueggemann (1997) who suggests that there is a need for us to do a “re-imagination of hope” to be able to transform what he calls the Enlightenment “scripting of reality.” Isaiah did his part, by taking part through his prophetic imagination in the rescripting of Israel’s history. Through him and the other prophets of old, Israel’s history of subjugation, exile, and banishment became a story of God’s love, God’s compassion, and God’s faithful covenantal love. Above and beyond their experiences of sin and forgiveness, unfaithfulness and conversion, the story of God’s fidelity to His people became the grounding of Israel’s conviction, Israel’s faith in a God who fulfills His promises to His people.

Our current history is one of difficult waiting. We wait for wars to end, and for weapons of mass destruction to be banished from the face of the earth. We hope for better things to come, for a better and less frightening future for our children. In the Philippines, for far too long, a people shackled by so much graft and corruption in and out of government, bondaged by a progressively worsening lack of collective self-esteem and self-respect, wearied by so much lack of a sense of nationhood, healthy patriotism, and concern for the common good, for justice and solidarity, finds reason to continue on believing, to continue on hoping – even against hope itself – that “the days to come” will be an unfolding history, not of a forlorn and forsaken nation, but of a God who comes to the help of His people.

However, here is where there is a need for a re-imagination of our hopes. And Advent can help us in this quest for a needed re-imagination. Hope is not a type of resigned and passive waiting, we are told. Isaiah’s vision speaks of a “mountain” to which “all nations shall stream towards.” But he ends with something for people to do: “Let us walk in the light of the Lord.” The responsorial psalm extols the same “house of the Lord” as envisioned by Isaiah. But we all respond: “Let us GO rejoicing to the house of the Lord!” A re-imagined hope is a hope that is awake, a hope that is ready to pay the price for hoping. A re-imagined hope is a reframed story – a story not of people in bondage, but a story of God saving, God forgiving, God loving, and GOD BEING LOVED IN RETURN. A re-imagined hope is one that waits, not in vain, but waits actively, working for the very fulfillment of its hopes.

Advent is waiting time. We wait for the definitive coming of Him who has already entered into our human history. By his coming as man, He started the rewriting of our life script. Whilst before, we wallowed in the narrative of sin that was deathly and destructive, we now glory in the greatest story of reversals humankind has ever known, the greatest story ever told – our salvation in Christ. But Advent is also working time. We work together to write an alternative life script. Our new, common Christian narrative is no longer a story of hopelessness and despair, but a life-enhancing, and life-fulfilling narrative of a new life in Christ, the narrative of the life-giving Kingdom of God.

We are now back to where this reflection started – on Scripture. Scripture is one such alternative narrative we are speaking about. It speaks of hope in every chapter, in every book, in every page – the kind of hope that, in the words of Brueggemann, is “not a vague optimism or a generic good idea about the future but a precise and concrete confidence in and expectation for the future that is rooted explicitly in Yahweh’s promises to Israel.”

We who live in a postmodern, postindustrial world of technological marvels and gizmos, also live in an atmosphere of despair. Despair belongs to those who cannot appropriate an alternative narrative of the great storyteller, who once uttered “let there be … and there was life.” This ongoing story always ends with the truth – God’s truth: “And He saw that it was good.” God’s promises, God’s deeds, God’s marvels – the so-called magnalia Dei – all have to do with life-giving truths for us His beloved people.

It is time we listened to God’s wake-up call. It is time we realized that, amidst the falling leaves, the changing season, the lingering, longer darkness, God’s promises triumph, and will continue to triumph, for those who believe, for those who love, and for those whose hope goes beyond vague optimism.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

THE CROSS AS THE ULTIMATE REVERSAL

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
Solemnity of Christ the King

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Over the past few weeks, we have been reflecting on some reversals that the Gospel accounts present: the Pharisee and the Publican, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and his dramatic turn-around towards the Lord and his fellowmen, and the powerless widow who nevertheless influenced the unjust judge by her persistence. Make no mistake about it. Scriptural evidence is clear with regards to whose side God is on. He is on the side of the powerless, the poor, the orphan, and the widow. More than that, He has a soft spot for those who call on Him in trust, in unflinching and unflappable faith.

Today, we are face to face with one more such reversal … the ultimate reversal of the cross, an overturning of something that all of humanity associated with defeat, with death, with shame, and utter humiliation.

No matter contemporary and past society’s attachment to a culture of power and prestige, pomp and circumstance, honor and glory through worldly power and wealth, somewhat counterintuitively, the Church would have us celebrate today the solemnity of Christ, the King of the universe.

Contemporary postmodern society is really conflicted about power and the trimmings of power. We don’t value anymore the image of kings and queens in regal splendor, ruling over the masses with such aplomb and an air of snobbish detachment, far removed from the hoi polloi, the ranks of the great unwashed, and the arena of daily mundane, workaday world. The world has little respect and awe left for royal fanfare and pomposity. Just look at how much not a few societies have reduced the image of their centuries-old royalty all over the world. They are kept, not so much as a necessary fixture in their societal lives, as a cultural and historical artifact that defines, not so much their daily life, as their glorious historical and cultural heritage. Modern society is not exactly in love with royalty at least in its traditional image characterized by pageantry and pomposity.

At the same time, however, society all over the world manages to find a replacement for what they throw out the window. Ridding themselves of inane royalty, they look for the equivalent of persons on whom to bestow the same status. People do not line up anymore to get a glimpse of kings and queens in gilded horse driven carriages, but people do rant and rave for their favorite divas and entertainment kings and queens down Hollywood, Bollywood, and their local equivalents all over the world. They swoon, they stumble, they shriek with delight at the sight of their queenly and kingly stars whose faces are perpetually plastered on TV screens, billboards, and glossy magazines.

People just love to dignify and glorify all those they fancy, all those they identify with, all those who seem to represent their collective dreams and desires.

The Feast of Christ, the King of the universe, seems to be a little counterintuitive to this postmodern trend. There is something in the language that does not seem to fit the mould, something in the image that does not quite add up to the expectations of a people who have enthroned a lot more kingly or queenly figures than they can handle. The symbolic image of a Christ reigning gloriously on earth and in heaven just cannot compete with the modern icons of cultural leadership that the young people have elevated to the dignity of a figurative type of royalty. An image that drew raves during the baroque period associated with colonization and missionary expansion of the Church just does not attract a society that is now far removed from that understanding of Christendom that spelled untold successes and triumphs as far as “bringing the world to Christ” is concerned.

What do we make, then, of this feast of today? Wherefore celebrate it? What does it mean for us who talk less of kings and queens, and more of divas, thespians, idols, and cultural icons? With no space, time, nor interest for triumphant processions and whole-day adorations and the like, what is there left for us believers to hang on to?

A cursory look at history ought to show us that our faith has always been expressed through the prevailing customs, language, and symbols of the time. Thus, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament arose at a time when, first, there was a heresy denying the Real Presence of Christ in the sacred host. Second, it arose as a substitute to receiving communion at a time when, thanks to Jansenism, people thought nobody was worthy to receive communion, so people weren’t receiving any. In its place, popular devotion, supported by private revelation given to some saints and mystics, substituted the act of giving a “pious stare” to the Sacred Host placed in ornate, baroque, regal, and pompous “monstrances.”

The figure of Christ the King and other images associated with worldly kingship like power, majesty, prestige, and glory became de rigueur in people’s minds. People began to think of themselves as loyal subjects of this King, ready to suffer the cold, the heat, hunger, and sleep deprivation, in order to show one’s unparalleled allegiance to this same King and Lord, for whom the pageantry and high profile symbolism of triumphant processions were but right and fitting.

The image of Christ the King as powerful leader, savior, and Lord became uppermost in people’s minds and hearts.

I am not about to obliterate that tradition with this reflection. That is not my task. It is up to the believing community, helped by theological reflection, and led by sound and wise pastoral leadership to do that. But a little reflection on the liturgy and today’s readings might help us in our common quest for the unchanging essence of today’s feast. To start with, it might come to many as a pleasant surprise that the readings chosen for today do not emphasize that pompous image of Christ the King.

The first reading from the 2nd book of Samuel gives the opening salvo. It presents the image of David as a shepherd: “You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel.” Shepherd here connotes tenderness, not brute power. Paul’s letter to the Colossians speaks of Christ as the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Christ, our King and Lord, comes from the Father, and cares for all of God’s creation, being its “firstborn.” More like a divine gardener sent from above, to which Paul adds still another image, this king is shown thus: “all things were created through him and for him.” He is, furthermore, “head of the Church,” “firstborn of the dead,” who by his rising, now shares everything, including reconciliation and peace with His Father. He is King who mediates. He is King who serves. And lastly, He is King through “the blood of the cross.” His kingship shines out most fully on the throne of the cross.

The baroque period was right in conjuring up images of a victorious, triumphant Christ as King of the universe. It was a period of growth and expansion on both the political and ecclesial fields. I am not about to take that away from history. But as a priest, pastor, and part-time teacher, I do suggest an overhauling of the way we present the feast of Christ the King of the universe. We do have to reappropriate the rich Biblical tradition that steers clear of worldly honor and glory, and pride of an elevated, but detached status of leadership. Rather, we need to appropriate a Christ, who earned this same honor and glory through dedicated leadership as servant, as victim, as bridgemaker (pontifex) who brought heaven to humankind, by offering himself to be lifted up on the cross. He was both priest and victim, offerer and offering, servant and leader, up on the cross.

The cross was Christ’s most important image in the tradition of “reversals” in his preaching and teaching. Up on the cross, he proclaimed one more such reversal. The condemned was no longer damned forever. The repentant sinner’s plight was reversed by him who overturned a sign of a shameful and ignominious death, and made it a symbol of eternal life and salvation. To the repentant thief, this same Jesus up on the cross himself said: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Silenced, cursed, wounded, derided, and defiled on the cross – and ultimately by dying on that same cross – he destroyed death and restored life forever.

What does your cross mean for you? What do you make of your current pain and suffering? One thing certain, for Christ, his cross represented the ultimate reversal. On that cross, he reigned supreme, as Lord, as King of the universe. Down from that cross, and once more lifted high in the glory of the resurrection, he still reigns as Lord and King in the hearts and minds of every believer. And He shall reign forever and ever. Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

EARNING ONE'S KEEP; WORKING FOR KEEPS

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection for the 33rd Sunday of Year C

OF SET-UPS, UPSETS, AND RESETS

By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Last week, we alluded to the importance and necessity of having perspective. To have perspective is to have a frame on which to set a picture, a ground on which to locate a seemingly smaller reality. To have perspective is to be endowed with a point of view, to see the bigger picture, as it were, and not to miss the bigger forest for just a few trees.

The seven brothers and their heroic mother of last week’s first reading, definitely had perspective. That perspective of faith in the resurrection was what gave them the courage, the strength, and the endurance to withstand a painful and cruel – grisly – death. On that score, the Sadducees, disbelieving as they were, of the resurrection, lacked the necessary perspective to see beyond earthly existence. Their ridiculous – if, impossible – scenario in the impertinent question posed to the Lord, betrayed their utter lack of perspective.

This Sunday, we get to understand the concept a little more – and with a lot more graphic and concrete details to boot! That perspective takes the form of what Malachi and the apocalyptic writers call “the day of the Lord.” In a language that sounds as gruesome as the language of the seven brothers’ account of their martyrdom, the day of the Lord is presented like fire that razes “all evildoers” [who] will be set on fire, “leaving them neither root nor branch.” But Malachi makes sure that the bigger picture behind the grisly images is proclaimed: “for [those] who fear [God’s] name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Although Marshall McLuhan quipped long ago that “the medium is the message,” in the case of today’s first reading from Malachi, the picturesque images used ought not to be mistaken for the message. The snapshot ought to be distinguished from the frame on which it is set. The frighteningly concrete images of fire and destruction ought not to obscure the bigger truth conveyed by the passage that “the Lord comes to rule the earth with justice” (Responsorial Psalm).

That big picture is summed up by the phrase “day of the Lord.”

The truth is couched in metaphor, in concrete images that sound frightening to modern ears. But the frame on which such images are set, the ground on which those metaphors are based, have to do with the certain truth that God is coming with both majesty and power to set everything aright, to reward the good, and to punish evildoers. And the only way this can be done is to “raze everything to the ground” and start anew on a clean slate. This basically means to transform the world as we know it, to renew all, and restore everything to its original state of utter blessedness.

In computer terminology, I would like to use the world “reset.” Perhaps a close analogy to explain this truth is the concept of “burning” rewritable DVDs or CDs. To renew the contents of a re-writable DVD or CD, ironically, even computer parlance calls it “burning.” One cannot put in new stuff to the disk unless one burns it, unless one very literally razes its contents and restores it to its pristine state. Only then can one hope to put in new data. For it to be renewed, it needs to be overhauled by passing through “Nero’s” hands, so to speak.

Sometimes, to continue on with my computer analogy, when one “resets,” one’s computer, one loses data. When one empties one’s “cache,” one loses even those data one doesn’t want to lose. One very literally starts out again, on a clean slate. One gets transformed. One gets cleansed of old “files” that encumber one’s CPU and slows down operations.

The “day of the Lord,” pictured thus, offers us a positive perspective. Instead of being razed, one is renewed. Instead of being emptied, one is made whole and rendered receptive to a fresh influx of grace. Instead of being encumbered by old data, and countless “cookies” that weigh the CPU down, one is cleansed and made whole once again. The UPSET that took place because of too many viruses of sin in our lives, is RESET, and the original SETUP is restored.

Our times call for focus. Our times call for perspective. We live dissipated lives, bombarded as we are with the so-called “info-flood.” As the gospel of Luke says, there are too many who come and speak like they were the true voice, who talk like they come in Christ’s name. Too many “pop ups” clutter the screen of our spiritual lives. Too many “worms” try to (pardon the tautology), worm themselves into the system and destroy us from within. “See that you be not deceived, for many will come in my name …”

It would do us good to see our lives in terms of what we are all too familiar with. Whether or not one is computer literate, one readily understands the concrete image of razing that figuratively refers to renewing, not destroying. In this sense, then, the apocalyptic language that, at first, frightens, really in the end, enlightens. It brings to the light, and to the fore the truth that stands behind our conviction of the resurrection of the dead. It brings into relief the frame on which is set the metaphorical images of fire and stubble that would all be consumed, the earthquakes, famines, and plagues. That frame which constitutes the bigger, more important reality is the second coming of the Lord, the so-called “last things” that constitute the essential tenets of Christian faith that is expressed succinctly thus: “Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (Lk 21:28)

Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, November 13, 2007 9:50 PM

EARNING ONE’S KEEP; WORKING FOR KEEPS
[Alternative Reflection]

Last week, we were actually reintroduced to a topic which Christian tradition has always considered integral to faith – our belief in the end times, or what systematic theology of yore, has referred to as the study of the so-called “last things,” (ta eschata) or eschatology. Our reflection last week led us to reflect on how, as Christian followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are, in a very real sense, citizens of two worlds – earth and heaven, and that whilst Jesus’ “kingdom of God” has not fully come to fulfillment, we Christians believe that the Kingdom of God has irrupted into human history, and that we are already immersed in the “already” and the “not yet” dimensions of what Malachi and other prophets were speaking about. We are basically living in a frontier world; with eyes set solidly on heaven, but with feet fully grounded on terra firma.

It is important for us, however, not to fall naively to a too literal interpretation of the “signs” that both Malachi and the Gospel passage from Luke speak about. To err on the side of literalism is to overemphasize the “already” to the exclusion of the “not yet.” To err on the side of spiritualism is to miss the power of the meaning and the message behind the same signs, and to miss the worth and meaning of what is in the here and now. It means to invalidate the world. It means to render our human nature as embodied spirits, and life itself in this world as worthless, futile, and ultimately meaningless. At the end, it means to invalidate everything human, everything earthly, everything created by a God who “saw that [everything] was good.”

Paul should know. Paul, who preached tirelessly about the need to “set [our] sights not on things below, but on things above,” nevertheless shows us not to be so taken up with the thought as not to be engaged anymore in doing earthly things, and helping build a society along the spirit of God’s reign. Paul gives in to righteous boasting as he declares: “You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.” Paul was not busy with ministry alone. He was also busy earning his keep, so as not to be dependent on anyone.

I would consider today’s readings, among many others, as a big lesson on a Christian sense of balance in today’s complex world. A proper Christian sense of balance is the ability to keep the healthy dynamic tension between the drive for the “not yet” and the complacency over the “already.” A healthy balance would mean a proper valuation of the created world and its goods, on the one hand, and the hopeful imagination of one who knows that “the world and its pleasures are fast drifting away,” on the other. To be so engrossed in this world and what it offers is to identify the world with God’s Kingdom. To be so focused solely on God’s reign to the total exclusion of worldly realities is to act like disembodied spirits, who have nothing at all to do with life in the world. Such would mean we all have no responsibility in and for the word, in the false – if literal – belief that the end times are already here. In that view, the Kingdom of God is totally other-worldly, and has no connection with life in this world.

Christian theology does not support such a bipolar view.

Donald Messer, in his book A Conspiracy of Goodness (1992), narrates a real-life story of a man more than six feet tall, who, in a moment of a sudden boat tragedy, offered to make himself a human bridge to connect the chasm that was too wide for elderly and weak people to jump across. He literally became a bridge which spelled salvation for all those people, who otherwise, could not have saved themselves. Twenty people walked over his outstretched body. Andrew Parker by name, he single-handedly, and by means of a heroic act, changed the meaning of bridge-maker forever. He became very literally a pontifex, a pontem factor, a bridge-maker. He straddled two realms separated by a deadly, churning chasm of chaos over the waters. Messer suggests that such an image could very well represent what we as baptized Christians, ought to be – a community of bridge-makers.

As bridge-makers, we see life as just one single continuum, one reality. There ought to be no extreme polarization between earthly life in the present and the end times that Malachi and Luke’s gospel refer to. If life is just one, then we cannot say that earthly life is intrinsically evil and the other totally holy. The world, where we are all born, is the arena of our salvation. If that is so, then salvation not only begins, but also takes place also in this life, by way of life in this world. In that sense, there is potential holiness and salvation in the work we do, in the ordinariness of everyday life, in the mundane concerns that occupy us during the day. Holiness is to be sought for in the context of earthly life. Holiness is not to be divided into two types: the inferior kind which is the way of ordinary people in the world, and the superior type, which is done by people who take themselves away from the world to be “far from the madding crowd,” and perhaps spend long and sleepless hours in front the Blessed Sacrament. No, there is only one Christian holiness, and that holiness bridges the gap between the here and now, and the coming, and awaited glorious coming of Christ.

St. Therese of Lisieux, who considered herself the “little flower” for the child Jesus, is a shining example of holiness in the every day, ordinary reality. She did no outstanding deeds by worldly standards. She did not even leave her monastery at Lisieux. She did not spend long hours of adoration and prayer. She did not even look for painful self-inflicted suffering or mortification. But she found union with God in simple things, in little things, and insignificant deeds, but all done with extraordinary love. Whilst she did not seek voluntary suffering, she willingly accepted it when it came, and saw in it a channel, a bridge, through which she could express her love for her savior, represented by the child Jesus.

St. Therese was a thoroughly modern and absolutely relevant saint whose sanctity fits the demands of our modern times. Dead at 24 years old, little did she realize that, in her short life, she had acted exactly like Andrew Parker, and bridged the gnawing gap created by a mistaken notion of holiness as only about doing heroic and extraordinary things.

The world and life in this complex world is so ordinary. Everybody joins the rat race for more, for bigger and bigger homes, for more and more luxury and comfort. The name of the game is competition and unbridled thirst for power and wealth. Everybody thinks it is normal and routine now to sacrifice values for the coveted more. But it is precisely in this ordinary world populated by ordinary people that sanctity is born. It is precisely in this rat race world, that people like Andrew Parker come to the fore. It is in these prosaic times that the poetry and passion of heroism surfaces, when prophets and bridge-makers like Archbishop Romero, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Ninoy Aquino of the Philippines, in a sense, even Gorbachev and Reagan, and the thousands of selfless and dedicated missionaries all over the world “stand erect and raise [their] heads, because [their] redemption is at hand” (Alleluia verse). Like Paul, like Christ, like the holy women and men known and unknown, they toil and work – even suffer tribulations. Living in this world of ordinariness, they earn their keep in the meantime. But ultimately, they all work for keeps, for eternity, in the conviction that for those “who fear [the Lord’s] name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

St. Rita Parish, Dundalk, MD November 14, 2007

Monday, November 5, 2007

LIVING IN THE FRONTIERS

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


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

Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

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

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

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

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

Just what is this “why” all about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIVING IN THE FRONTIERS

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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