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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

“GOOGLING” DISCIPLESHIP (4th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A)

Catholic Homily/Reflection
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle A
February 3, 2008

Last week, the liturgy did for us a “google” on discipleship. What we found led us to one basic idea that stuck out very clearly … disciples had to be “free” enough to follow. Among others, entanglements and enmeshments, whether psychological or physical, are meant to be left behind. The two pairs of brothers strike us with their prompt, interior complex-free response. They “left immediately their boat and their father and followed [the Lord].”

Our google search this Sunday leads us to an additional, no less important, concept anent discipleship. Apart from being “free,” a would-be disciple, we are further reminded, has to be “light” enough, one who is not too heavily laden with stuff to start with, as to be sort of “needy,” one who is wanting in a certain way, one who can follow Zephaniah’s wise counsel: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth … seek justice, seek humility.”

Our postmodern (and post-christian) world does not in any way fancy neediness and lowliness as values. We do not go running around googling humility. We do not usually fancy ourselves voluntarily aiming after a low-profile existence in a world that says wealth, fame, knowledge, and power are the ultimate and legitimate goals of everyone. The popular Google search engine is not exactly a mute witness to this drive to emulate the rich, the powerful, and the famous, if we are to judge by the most sought after personalities on the web. The sheer numbers of those who want to be the next “apprentice,” the next “American Idol” (star circle quest in the Philippines), or the next strapping “survivor” of reality TV and pop culture fame, show us that being “unknown” and being “nobody” are not exactly the most sought after dream of the average man, woman, or child of today.

Our search for discipleship may indeed be a letdown for most of us. But let us further refine our search and see what all this discipleship business entails for us reluctant disciples.

Apart from the fact that it has to do with “seeking” and “finding,” our ongoing google search focuses and hones on the need for disciples to “learn.” The lessons it teaches us go against the grain. They simply defy logic. They are hard lessons to learn. The first such lesson that is hard to swallow has to do with a humbling reality check. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Ooops! Now that hits me hard… what could be more blunt and real than this? … “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” The second lesson is even harder … no boasting! “What do you have that you have not received?” This is what St. Paul elsewhere in 1 Corinthians reminds us. That leaves us with little choice … as Paul counsels us today, if we are to boast, then we are to boast only in the Lord!

There is something in the disciple’s seeking, as counseled by Zephaniah, that opens itself to finding. There is something in the patient searching that leads to discovering, and there is something in the discovering that leads to happiness. People who are already full do not need to be looking and searching. Bloated egos care not too much for simple and basic essentials that add little to their public personal stature. But it is the hungry, the needy, the simple, and the lowly who find joy in the humble searching and the eventual finding of whatever it is they seek. Those who have a surfeit of goods don’t bother to seek, and those who don’t seek, never find.

I will never forget the moving account of a western journalist who reported the story of a little girl who, after one of the many natural calamities in the Philippines, waited for hours in line for food rations. Being small, and being weak, she could not make headway into the long line of more able bodied and quick bigger adults. When it was her turn to receive, the supply was gone. All she got was an over ripe banana. With grateful eyes nevertheless, she received what was given her and carefully carried the precious commodity to her younger brother. With joy and ill-concealed excitement, she carefully divided the banana and shared half to her equally hungry younger sibling.

That little girl obviously did her searching. Getting only an over ripe banana, but being happy and appreciative all the same, who is to say that she did not find the object of her search? With only a morsel to share, she found happiness – the happiness that is spoken of in today’s readings. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” (Responsorial psalm)

My series of reflections before and after Christmas made much of the paradoxical nature of our Christian faith, and of the events that led to our salvation, all of which were full of paradoxical reversals. The ultimate story of reversal, of course, is the story of God becoming man like all of us, getting down to our level, dwelling in our midst, becoming human, so that we might become like unto God.

The call to discipleship counts among such paradoxical reversals. Disciples are called to do a google, not on power, fame, and riches, but on justice, humility, and on the Lord. Disciples are essentially “learners,” we are further reminded, and the first lesson worth learning is the secondary nature and the futility of what the world considers as the ultimate objects of everyone’s earthly desire.

In the aftermath of the deadly tsunami that snuffed out the lives of more than 165,000 people three years ago, the world saw the rise of so many “theologians” who all of a sudden had every kind of answer to the mystery of suffering, the mystery of God’s will, and who gave cut and dried answers to questions that are basically bigger than life and death itself. Fanatics had a heyday rehashing the old story line of the need for “blessed candles” to ward off “punishment” during the “three days of darkness,” for one. Capitalizing a whole lot on fear, they accommodate current events with basically symbolic (apocalyptic) statements from the Bible, and endlessly connect such “predictions” with all that goes on in the natural world of tectonic plates and changing weather patterns all over the planet. In their misguided desire to be helpful, they create a god in the image of sinful and fickle men and women – a god whose will can basically be twisted and changed with sufficient effort on the part of people. On the one hand, some such tin pan alley theologians simplistically declare such calamities as directly willed by God in order that good would come out of it all. Still others find no qualms about seeing the divine hand of punishment for people who have become hardened sinners, suggesting thereby that those who died deserved to die because they were sinners. These are those who uncharitably declare those who died as having died because of human sinfulness, both their own and those of other people in the world. Yet others, who seem to have a direct line to heaven, see it as God’s way of reminding people to shape up – or ship out to a watery grave. At the rate chain letters are being passed on through the web (or text messaging), all the internet service providers see a surge of frantic, guilty, and fearful forwarding of rehashed warnings about the forthcoming “three days of darkness” that can, for reasons that only their twisted, misguided theology can understand, can only be warded off by “blessed candles.”

A world that has forgotten to learn the lessons on discipleship that the Lord had given and still gives to his followers, is now at a loss for categorical, black and white answers to the complex problem of material and moral evil in the world of free human beings that our loving God has created. The shortest, easiest path is to go the way of oversimplified answers to basically complex problems.

Today’s lessons on discipleship, however, do not give such straightforward, off-the-cuff answers. There is no such thing as “shoot-from-the-hip” type of answers that come from people who see the world in terms of black and white with no shades of grey in between. And even if there were any, said answers would obviously be of little help and consolation to people who have lost their entire families, their sources of livelihood, and everything that gave their lives meaning and purpose all in a matter of a few minutes of rampaging waves. Discipleship itself does not guarantee that one’s life would be free from pain, from suffering, and disappointment.

But discipleship does offer us a program to live by. It is a program that is dotted with paradoxes and reversals, a program of life that sees value where the world usually does not, a program of life that puts postmodern man’s value system on its head. The Lord’s formation program would have us see blessedness (macarisms) and deep happiness in being “poor in spirit,” in “mourning,” in being “meek,” in one’s “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” in being “merciful,” in being “clean of heart,” in being “peacemakers,” and in being “persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”

Discipleship thus puts all of us into the heart of Christian paradox, in the heart of the Christian gospel. The follower’s openness to this world of paradox, ultimately, leads the believer to a world of meaning, blessedness, and purpose in life in a world, that, despite its messiness and unpredictableness, remains to be a world eminently loved and guided by God who sees what people in their shortsightedness, cannot usually see.

Googling discipleship, as you can tell by now, does not lead to quick and easy answers. Following the Lord in faith does not offer a detailed “map quest” to follow that leads to our earthly destination. Nor does it give definitive and final answers to all our questions. If anything it has led us to draw closer to him who once said, “he who seeks, finds; he who asks, receives.”

That little girl received not what she was expecting. But she did find something that no amount of goods and earthly treasures could give – the love and happiness that only the simple, the lowly, the humble and the “poor in spirit” can see despite their wants, despite their needs. If only for those few, fleeting moments that she and her little brother took to finish that forlorn banana, they saw – everyone saw just what evangelical blessedness really means in concrete. It goes beyond need, beyond want, beyond pain, beyond death!

I am reminded of a church song that I love to repeat in my head every time I am left holding an empty bag in my everyday life, in moments when I feel short-changed by the world, by others, and even by God, every time my pessimistic bent tells me to stop hoping and dreaming … “shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life!”

I would like to invite you to go on googling, to go on dreaming, to go on hoping. For “the Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free!”

Monday, January 21, 2008

WHO DO YOU BELONG TO?





Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
January 27, 2008

This Sunday, as the readings introduce us to the public life of Jesus, to his call to discipleship, a theme that will resonate in the next few Sundays, we are confronted with a very deep, but foundational question to answer on our own. Who do I belong to?

The Corinthians offer us a sneak peek at human nature, specifically at our propensity for division, for bickering, for disunity, and all sorts of interpersonal strife and fractiousness.
“I belong to Paul … I belong to Apollos … I belong to Christ.” Judging from the passion with which Paul writes to the factionalized members of the church of Corinth, then caught up in petty squabbling and inane “party politics,” it would not be hard to imagine what he is writing about as jutting straight out of our own personal and group experiences. Disunity and lack of oneness in so many aspects of our lives are an integral part of our human experience. In my 25 years as a priest, one of the greatest challenges to my pastoral leadership skills (or the sore lack of it) had to do precisely with trying to unify people who otherwise are good, talented, committed, and dedicated individuals, but who simply could not get their act together. Disunity, as the experience of the pious Corinthians shows us, is also part and parcel of the lives of those who consider themselves disciples of the Lord. We see factionalism and division in the Church, in religious life, in parishes, in covenanted communities, among people who otherwise are expected to show good examples as followers of Christ.

In a tone that almost smacks of exasperation, Paul asks his fractious readers:
“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”

Alas, disunity does not happen only between and among individuals and peoples. There, too, is inner lack of integration, an inner loss of unity within oneself, a psychological or spiritual split that gets in the way of our capacity to leave everything behind in order to follow the Lord. This is the lack of personal integration that came as one of the consequences of original sin that alienated people from themselves, from others, from the world, and from God.

Time was when, courtesy of humanistic psychology of decades past, the fashionable question to ask oneself in the course of one’s search for identity was “who am I?” People were told that the absolute prerequisite to self-fulfillment was a solid and clear articulation of one’s self-individuation, one’s self-identity, one’s personal self-definition vis-à-vis the whole external world populated by others who are supposed also to define who they are. As an avid follower myself of the tenets of humanistic psychology, I have no reason to discredit such an approach towards personal self-fulfillment. As a pastoral counselor, I believe in the wisdom and helpfulness of the approach towards self-possession and self-definition. However, as a priest and teacher of theology, as one who would rather that psychology and spirituality be integrated in order to help myself and others find their way gradually not only towards self-fulfillment but fellowship with others and the Lord, I am fully one with Merle Jordan who suggests that the really all important question to ask other than “who am I” is “who do I belong to?”

Who do I belong to? Who are those whose orders I really follow? Whose beating drums, and whose music do I really dance to? Jordan wisely suggests that those who really mean a whole lot to us all are the “idols” or “false gods” that we really worship, beyond whom we claim are our real, personal God.

There are some curious details in today’s gospel that should offer us a clue or two with regard to this important personal question that all would-be-disciples ought to ask themselves. First, we are told that Jesus called fishermen busy with their trade. Recent biblical scholarship would have us disabuse the notion that they were poor, uneducated people, who hardly had anything to leave behind. On the contrary, fishermen were the equivalent of modern-day entrepreneurs who had a thriving, flourishing business, and who, therefore, were individuals who were conversant with the language of management and administration on a day-to-day basis. Peter and Andrew, their father; James and John, and their father Zebedee were no suckers. Neither were they penniless bums who had nothing better to do than follow a ragtag band of itinerant good-for-nothings. They were people who had something to leave behind.
“[Jesus] called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” They did not have “complexes” about their belongings, to use that famous word made popular by the psychologist Adler.

But there is one more detail that ought to make all of us pause and reflect – the figure of the fathers of the two pairs of brothers whom they all “left behind” – again, without any complexes and complications. The father was part of the story, a figure that more or less stayed in the background. But the figure of the father was not among the “emotional baggages” that hindered the four would-be apostles’ ability to follow the Lord with alacrity and utter dedication.

My own personal journey towards wholeness, in my own trajectory of growth towards ongoing maturity, along with my more than a decade of experience in formation work with seminarians, have shown me just how powerful and strong a figure the father (or the primary authority figure or caregiver) is, in a person’s ability to really “leave everything behind and follow the Lord.” My own experience and those of many others who passed through me tell me just how easy it is for anyone to belong not to God, but to a conjured up “idol” that one has made as object representation, as a projected image of the father one had, or the father that one lacked or did not have. Such an image of a “false god” continues to wreak havoc in the life of one who has not properly and sufficiently worked through his unacknowledged, or denied issues for or against this father figure. I have seen seminarians who hated me, and rejected me as an authority, not for who I was, but for who I reminded them of. I have also met up with those who idealized me, who idolized me, and who treated me like I was the answer to all the questions they ever had. Invariably, people would either “reject” their father-image, or “idealize” it. There was usually no middle ground. For those who rejected their object representation, sooner or later, they see nothing but disappointment, for everyone who resembles their father in any way, end up disappointing them. For those who idealized their object representation of their father, they continue on with their illusion, but they end up not finding the ideal father they never had. So they become drifters, finding ideal father figures in elusive personalities, whom they end up enthroning as their “false gods,” thereby giving them “divine status.”

Today’s liturgy, among many other things, is a very clear lesson on the psychological meaning of genuine discipleship, and on the fact that he who calls to discipleship has also brought good news to a people ‘walking in darkness.”

We all are wounded individuals, each of us with our own personal story of father and mother figures who may well have provided us in our tender growing up years with not a “good enough” mothering or nurturing, as the case may be. We all have our own stories of rejection, our own versions of idealizing, and our own versions of “see no evil, hear no evil, do no evil” sort of mentality. The full spectrum of psychological defenses came to our temporary rescue at the right times when we most needed them. But the more we took resort to them the more we felt we were retreating into a world replete with darkness. We were really in the dark, for we did not know any better.

I am convinced that the Lord who calls us to discipleship, first and foremost, calls us to self-possession. Before we can follow, we first have to give up something. Whilst it is true that no one ought to confuse the Lord’s call with the need to “leave behind” all one’s possessions, that the former need not have the latter as an absolute “conditio sine qua non,” the call to discipleship does entail leaving behind our psychological baggages that stand in the way of genuine discipleship. We are “called for” discipleship, but we are not necessarily ‘called from” possessions and belongings. But being called to discipleship definitely means also a call from the effects of those baggages and idols that we worship deep inside. Discipleship is a call from the Lord. And discipleship entails a need for those who are called to veer away from all that militates against the total surrender to that call. It is a call to “worship the only true God, in spirit and in truth.”

In the words of Merle Jordan, we have to “take on the gods” that we have absolutized or idealized and idolized in our lives. If all the petty squabbling and disunity tell us anything, it is simply that we who make up the ‘body of Christ” may not have fully given up our “false gods” in favor of the only true and living God of Jesus Christ our Lord. No wonder there is so much fanaticism in our midst, so much categorical and rigid thinking from among some ultra conservative church leaders and lay members who only see the world and all reality in terms of black and white. In the same vein, no wonder there are still those vague, undefined drifters, the ultra liberals for whom there is nothing definite, nothing certain, nothing final. These are people, who, in their search for the idealized father figure whom they have internalized all these years, have no qualms about putting worship of the one true God alongside worship of gurus and charlatans who tell them that the way to find and love god is to find the same god in themselves, to divinize themselves, and to see everything as god. The father they missed in their growing up years is the father they continue to miss in their constant search for such “self-atoning” practices as perpetual self-deprivation, self-inflicted hunger, and a “feel-good” spirituality of saccharine idealism and pollyannish – if, misguided – hopefulness, not really for heaven, but for “nirvana” that is nothing but undefined bliss and happiness that is based on negative emptiness.

There is, at bottom, nothing negative about the call of the Lord to discipleship. It starts with good news in the first place. The good news for all is expressed so nicely by Isaiah: “anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness … the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in a land of gloom a light has shone.” That light has to do with one who revealed an image of a God who is “Father,” a God who “loved the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son,” a God who calls us as much to physical and psychological wholeness, as to holiness.

For those who hear the Lord’s call and listen to him, discipleship is not primarily a “leaving behind.” It is, first and foremost, a testimony to the world that all others now are secondary, that “no better serves me now, save best,” for now I have found something infinitely better than everything else, for now “I belong to Christ.”

Who do you belong to?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

GOD IN EVERYDAY ORDINARINESS

Catholic Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A. January 20, 2008

Please find below in a separate posting a reflection on the Sto. Nino (Feast of the Holy Child) which is a national celebration in the Philippines.

N.B. I am reposting a reflection I wrote three years ago, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami that ravaged a big part of Asia. I post this in advance as I will be in the center of all the celebrations - Cebu City, in order to preach a retreat for a week. I may not have time to post a new one but I will try.

Today’s reflection poses as a big challenge for me straddling between two worlds set apart by some 9,000 miles of ocean and shore, mistakenly called by history as the pacific, the same pacific ocean that was the theater of bitter, anything but pacific conflict just 60 or so years ago. The pacific ocean is the same body of water that has seen deadly tsunamis over the last 100 years, where the so-called “ring of fire” of volcanic and tectonic – and obviously – deadly upheavals are located.

The recent tragedy in 12 different countries fronting the Indian ocean once more gives the term “pacific” a relatively apt moniker for the time being. Anguish, sorrow, and untold grief now criss-cross a vast territory of Asia, with repercussions and destruction cutting through a broad swath of suffering humanity all the way to Africa, 6,000 miles away from the epicenter of the deadly tsunami-inducing earthquake in Sumatra.

In times of such cataclysmic and a sudden snuffing out of unsuspecting human lives busy with their ordinary – or extraordinary – affairs, one’s faith in God of whatever name and tradition and persuasion is sorely put to the crucible. One is at a loss for words to say, to do so much as assuage the very real and existential pain that has visited upon hundreds of thousands of people, and millions more around the fragile planet that can only watch helplessly as rampaging waves faster than a superperformance Boeing 747, swirl, swell, and swallow people caught in the ordinariness of their everyday activities at one moment, to be gone forever the next.

History, the kind that we stand witness to every single day of our lives, unfolds before us and confronts us with events that make us pause, reflect, and ask questions. Human history, the unraveling story of man’s search for the more, the better, the nobler, for freedom from disease, from sorrow, from unnecessary suffering, from all that smacks of death and destruction, despair, and despondency – a record of achievements and successes, also confronts us with a whole lot of recorded and unrecorded stories of failures, of selfishness, of human greed, of tragedies both natural and man-made, of wars and insurrections, terrorism, of freedom gone berserk, of people who turn out doing all sorts of inhuman acts to their fellow human beings. Alas, history also shows us how man, wrapped up in what appears to be deep religious faith and passions, can turn the very same faith in their God to causes that are basically ungodly, murderous, unworthy of a God of whatever name, who calls all to life, who rouses all women and men to solidarity, to charity, and to social justice.

This is the same history that stands witness to events that we all remembered with such pomp and circumstance, with gifts galore, and bells jingling all the way to the malls and the world’s cathedrals of commerce, the story of a God come down in sinful humanity’s midst, to lift humanity enveloped in the darkness of sin, selfishness, and sordid personal gain.

This is the great historical event of a God-revealing-and-offering-self to us, a story that we managed to romanticize, to mythicize, and to wrap with dainty tinsels of gold and silver. This is the story of Christmas. This is the story of a God who came hiding behind the humility of a child born in inauspicious circumstances, envied and plotted against by a threatened monarch whose claim to power and fame was receding from under his feet faster than a psychological tsunami could do.

This is the story, God’ story – History! – of which people like John testified. “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me… I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel … I saw the spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me … Now, I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God.”

Let us face it, dear friends. Our faith is an eminently historical one. It is as much a history marked by concrete events, as a history of a people’s reflecting on such events, and finding meaning, finding guidance, finding light in the welter of daily events big or small that tended to cloud over peoples’ sense of peace, serenity, faith, and a set of commonly held values that sprung from such events. Our faith boasts of historical figures like Moses, Abraham, the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who had to speak out in the face of unfolding events that made people forget all too easily, events that made people lose out all too soon, swallowed by rampaging torrents of irreligion, of idolatry, and apostasy. When people saw hardship in the desert, they forgot the Lord’s promises and pined for a false sense of home in Egyptian bondage. When God was getting a little too far for comfort, they fashioned a golden calf to worship, and kept up with the Joneses, as it were, and joined their pagan neighbours in worshiping inanimate gods.

When things are simply going too well for us, with wealth, comfort, and ease surrounding us, we forget all too soon, and we cease living a life of remembering, a life of memorializing, of celebrating the magnalia Dei – the wondrous deeds of God, in our personal and communal histories. With many of us now wallowing in first world comfort, who really can remain for long touched by images of suffering and abject poverty elsewhere in the world? Who among those who are thousands of miles away from suffering, and closely wrapped up in their comfort zones can withstand the onslaught of desensitization to pain and the suffering of others?

The history of God’s people is a history of reminders, of wake-up calls, of prophets’ rousing and sometimes politically incorrect speeches and oracles. That history is an ongoing reminder for people never to lose sight of Him who directs the course of history, of Him who has placed Himself in charge, of the God who once uttered and continues to utter in our midst: “Courage, it is I.” This is the history of prophets like Isaiah, who, today, tells us through the “servant of Yahweh” figure: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” This is the history of attentive people who heard God’s call in the midst of a clamorous and noisy, complaining lot, and answers ever so humbly and silently: “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.” This is the history of people like Paul, who despite initial fear and trepidation, answered the call to become “apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God.” This is the history of those “who accepted Him … [and to whom] he gave the power to become children of God.”

These individuals – and many more in our midst, many even from among my readers who stand proud and tall in their faith despite their own stories of pain and suffering, are those who see the gentle presence of God in the ordinariness of everyday joy, in the ordinariness of everyday pain, in the daily realities of divine epiphanies in the unfolding history of their lives of simplicity and utter humility, hidden from the eyes of men, tucked away from the applause of people, hidden in God, hidden in their own version of holiness. One of my revered professors, Robert Wicks, apropos this, rightly and wisely speaks of “ordinariness as palpable holiness.”

There is revelation unfolding in history, in our story, in our pilgrimage through this “agrum” (fields) on our way to the “sacrum” (the holy) - what Tillich calls the object of our “ultimate concerns.” Too sad that people only seem to wake up to this reality when they are inundated with a flood of tragic information and images like the recent calamity spoken of above. Too sad, that too many religious fanatics in their misguided theology ascribe meanings associated with fear and ideas of “God’s wrath bearing down upon sinful people” – almost like as if, and indeed suggesting, that those who died deserved to die because of their sins.

The God they do not see in ordinariness is definitely not the god they think they see in cataclysmic events. The world of meanings they miss in the ordinary run of history is something they will also miss sorely in the “earthquake, the thunder, and the lightning” of extraordinariness.

There is something deeply theological and existential in the liturgy that celebrates (at least in the Philippines) the divinity of Christ hiding in the humility and lowliness of a child. Christian faith being a historical faith in essence and foundation, there is something we all need to learn and practice in the ordinariness of everyday life – to find God in all things, to see Him in whatever events unfold, never to focus solely on the cataclysmic, the spectacular, and the extraordinary, but to see God masquerading under ordinary, familiar events and realities in this world.

Holiness is for eminently ordinary people. It is meant for the Dominic Savios, the Maria Gorettis, and the Mickey Magones of our times, along with the plebeian Lorenzo Ruiz who started out as one who was trying to escape the clutches of the law. Holiness is not for the grandiose, the Herods and the “big guns” who are blinded by their own false sense of self importance. Holiness is like that of a little child, “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” Like the old song goes, it is not only “tomorrow” that “belongs to the children.” Holiness does, too, for in their simplicity, they see God in the ordinariness of their everyday lives.

St. Rita Parish, Dundalk, MD January 16, 2005

HALA, BIRA!

N.B. For the sake of my Philippine readers, I am posting in advance, a reflection I wrote back in 2003 on the Feast of the Child Jesus (Sto. Nino). My foreign readers will understand that the feast of the Holy Child is an important one in Philippine culture and tradition and is one of the noisiest, merriest, and fun-filled days of the year.I have also made a related reflection at Per Agrum ad Sacrum site.

There is an air of decisiveness and definitiveness by which revelers at the famous Sinulog of Cebu and the Ati-atihan of Aklan, and similar celebrations all over the country get into the act of celebrating the feast of the Santo Nino. What some of them shout out in full force as they beat their drums and dance their way through the main thoroughfares expresses it all: HALA, BIRA!

I have no ready explanation for this phenomenon as a Filipino, but the way we Filipinos greet young children and treat them to festive celebrations has definitely an air of aggressive hopefulness all the time! Why, no Filipino father would do so much as give a reluctant headstart to his newborn son or daughter! No Filipino parent would allow himself or herself to be carried away by pessimism or hopelessness when it comes to introducing his or her little one to the world. Just look at the amount of money Filipino families spend on baptisms! They would rather postpone the baptism of their child rather than not have anything to offer to guests and relatives to celebrate and feast on. No self-respecting parent here in the Philippines would allow the first birthday of his or her child pass by without at least a few bottles of beer to share with kumpadres and some spaghetti to dish out to the guests.

Filipinos are bullish when it comes to giving a hopeful headstart to their young children. In every family, the child is the sole focus of attention, worry and planning. How else explain the sudden rise in popularity of educational plans in the whole country? And when it comes to celebrating in the name of a child, there are no holds barred; no bounds; no limits. HALA, BIRA! Sigue! Go for it!

This may well explain the decidedly noisy mirth-making attached to the feast of the God-become-child in the person of the Santo Nino!

Whilst not bad in itself, this aggressive hoping and bullishness attached to the celebration of the Santo Nino, epitomized in the watchword HALA BIRA, may just as well be appropriated by us in other aspects of our lives as Filipinos. That decisiveness, that I-mean-business type of approach to life, which is the exact opposite of the wishy-washy I-don’t-exactly-know-what-to-do type of behavior that seems to be the hallmark of our political will-challenged leadership both in and out of government, is what we may be much in need of, elsewhere in our communal and personal lives.

I suggest that the way we are bullish about giving fitting – if, at times excessive - celebrations to any child figure, including the figure of the child Jesus , ought exactly to be the way we approach most everything else in our society.

Christmas celebrations are the longest in the Philippines. Whilst it officially ended last week, there is some kind of “second wind” by way of this bonus of a celebration for us. The child, apparently, takes too long to grow, in a cultural sense. And yet, the Gospel of Luke makes it quite clear for all of us: “and Jesus advanced (in) wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52).

The child Jesus certainly deserves all that we Filipinos do to celebrate in his honor. Noisy or subdued, active or sedate, whatever form it takes for all of us today or around this day, all celebrations made in his honor and glory are all fitting and proper for one who “humbled himself and took the nature of a slave,” who chose to dwell in our midst, the God-made-man who was “like unto us in all things, except sin.”

But the child-Jesus certainly deserves a whole lot more. And this is where we need to realize as Filipinos, that substance and not mere form, is what matters most, what counts most. This is where we need to put a lot of flesh to so much rhetoric, so many words uttered in vain, for they are more to serve our grandstanding selves rather than the common good. This is where we need as Filipinos to understand that faith cannot remain infantile, that faith has to spill out of our altarinas, our covenanted communities, our action groups, our households, our small group affiliations and family compounds. This is where we need to really understand that like the boy Jesus, our attachment to the Lord has to go beyond mere privatistic faith and selfish concerns and that this very same faith must be felt and seen where it is needed most – in the area of public service, in government and in our political and social lives.

HALA, BIRA may be appropriated like a biblical command after all, when seen in this light. HALA, BIRA may then be understood to mean, go for it, “be not afraid,” “ go and make disciples of all nations, and teach them all that I have commanded you.” HALA BIRA may then be seen as an encouragement to a David, sent to do battle with the Goliath of selfishness, graft and corruption, and utter unconcern for the common good. HALA BIRA, may then be understood, too, as a call to go deep – DUC IN ALTUM – to probe the depths and courageously take up the challenges posed by this vast ocean of a consumerist, globalized, and individualistic world that we live in.

Yes, there is wisdom tucked deep in this highly popular Filipino celebration of the Santo Nino. There is rhyme and reason to it all. But it takes some reflection and meditation. This is what we in Church all over the Philippines do today. In the context of a more quiet but more meaningful Eucharistic celebration, our inner joy and still aggressive hope leads us to ask the same Lord whom now we behold in the simplicity of a child, to make us all “advance in wisdom and grow daily in faith and works of love, so that we may find favor in [God’s] sight” (Postcommunion prayer). HALA, BIRA!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

CALLED, GRASPED, FORMED, AND SET!

Catholic Homily/Reflection
Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord - Year A
January 13, 2008

The solemnity of today smacks of growth and development – a gradual process of enlightenment, of understanding, of individuals slowly realizing or seeing things in their totality, for their bigger and deeper meaning. We speak here of people seeing more than just the “light of a star,” more than just romantic images of a child born in circumstances of great expectation and waiting. We speak of a deeper epiphany, a greater understanding of God’s process of revealing Himself to the world.

Indeed, the Baptism of the Lord counts as a big part of the bigger mystery of the Epiphany, a feast we celebrated last Sunday.

But lest we get too lost too soon on deep theological insights, let us start with simple things first, as can be gleaned from the text of today’s scriptural readings. We start with Isaiah, who speaks prophetically of what is known as the “suffering servant” of Yahweh. He gives a preview of what is to come hundreds of years hence, and speaks in God’s name of the one who “shall bring forth justice to the nations,” a feat he will do, not with brute power and strength, but with gentleness and kindness: “a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.”

Isaiah revealed in prophecy, in the broad strokes of his prophetic imagination, what transpired factually later in history – an event that later, Paul and the evangelists would record for posterity.

Cornelius, the stalwart of Roman officialdom’s detached and cold professionalism and stand-offish disdain, became partner in ministry to a very Jewish Peter who was getting quite a few realizations himself. Peter, who was as much a Jew as he was a disciple of the Lord, was experiencing a conversion of sorts: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” Peter did the unthinkable and the undoable … he went inside the house of a pagan, ordinarily a hated gentile. And in case you missed it, Cornelius was not alone. He had a full retinue of all sorts of possibly at least initially unsympathetic people in his household.

It was before such a crowd that Peter delivered his piece – one that “proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is lord of all.” Peter, an avid Jew, was warming up gradually to a people, who, themselves, were warming up to the idea of Christ as the “light of all nations.”

John the Baptist had some warming up to do himself. He initially would not hear of him baptizing the Lord: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” John was prevailed upon by Jesus, who insisted for “it [was] fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

There is something in the need for people to gradually warm up and be gradually led to deeper realities that speak to us about our lives, and about our faith. There is something about our need to be gradually formed, molded, and set that opens us up to the delight of experiencing the Lord’s epiphanies in the midst of the ordinariness of everyday life. There is something about the initial discipline of sitting through the first lengthy chapters of a novel or a book that gives way to the fullness of enjoyment that only comes after a difficult plateau of seeming pointlessness and dreariness. There is something about going through the “pain” that can only lead to “gain” that enlightens us about warming up to our faith, and our attachment to a personal God who seems at times to be unforgivably silent – and even absent - from our lives just when we need Him most! There is definitely something about Isaiah’s patient prophesying, Peter’s gradually changing perceptions about gentiles, Cornelius’ growing trust in the power of the Risen Lord, and John’s gradual sense of self-surrender to the one who has come to bring justice to the nations, that can speak to us modern men and women who cannot wait, a people who cannot afford to waste time gracefully getting formed, trained, and set for a mission much bigger than anyone of us, much greater than all of us put together.

But the waiting, the surrendering, the molding, the forming, along with the calling and the setting, eventually paid off for John, his disciples, and all those who were willing to give the preacher from notorious Galilee a chance. Their investment of time paid off today. They got more than they ever dreamed of. They saw an epiphany, and got front seats to a big event – a revelatory experience from the Trinitarian God. “Behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

The world that we live in, a world of fast food, instant noodles, instant messaging, and instant digital connectivity, is a world that wants instant answers to nagging questions. Technology and information systems appear to be everyman’s handy toolbox when life and what it offers go awry. Information, and the one who holds the right information, has the power and edge over others who have no access to such. Religious fanatics, in the aftermath of the tsunami that swept a deadly path through eleven countries in Asia three years ago, are having a heyday giving what appears to be clear and definitive answers to a basically natural calamity, showing connections where there are none, and bloating out of proportion the so-called “third secret’ of Fatima, thus giving an oversimplified answer to the big mystery of a God who seems powerless before the onslaught of mother nature’s wrath.

Alas, today’s feast tells us that the answer to our questions, the answer to God’s mysterious ways is not information. We have a glut of such information, many of which, like the chain letters from the internet that purportedly enlighten people on the third secret of Fatima, endlessly sowing fear in the hearts of many who are weak in faith (both in faith context and faith content), who are thus largely ignorant of the Lord’s teachings, only end up misleading rather than educating people to the truth. Today’s feast teaches us that it is not so much information, as FORMATION, that we people need.

That formation is what Isaiah got in the school of life and the faith that he nurtured as he gave way to expressions of his hopeful imagination as a prophet for the Lord. That was the formation that Cornelius, in his daily dealings with that band of followers of the Galilean, whom they murdered as a criminal, underwent. That was the same formation that Peter, seeing the openness of the very pagans who had caused untold suffering to his master and Lord, went through as he reflected on God’s selfless and universal love for all peoples, whether Jew or Greek, or pagan or gentile.

This is the same formation that the thousands of saints and mystics, confessors and martyrs of the faith, underwent as they got training in the school of hard knocks, and who, in their growing faith, began seeing daily epiphanies of a God, who loved them and cared for them in ways that did not fit their earthly and worldly expectations. This is the very same formation that enable millions of suffering souls all over the planet to see blessings where others only see blight, grace where others only see darkness, life where others only see death and destruction.

It takes formation to see what others do not normally see, for as Antoine de Saint Exupery notes wisely, ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It takes formation to be able “to read God in daily life,” to find God in all things pleasant or unpleasant, and to see “ His blood upon the rose, and in the skies the glory of His eyes.”

Isaiah today tells us what this formation is all about. It is all about allowing God to be God, leaving Him room to do with us what He wills, to form us into a people ever at the ready to be extensions of His presence in a world that needs more and more of God’s wondrous, caring, benevolent, and constant love. Mattie Stepanek, of whom I spoke last Sunday, is one such Divine handiwork, one of God’s many simple answers to profound questions that bedevil the men and women of today. So is Blessed Mother Teresa. So are the thousands of saints who “looked out the window, and saw … not mud, but the stars up above!” In their “heartsongs,” they led people to the light of his mysterious, hidden presence.

The Trinitarian God reveals Himself even in our times, even in what is perceived as His hiddenness. He whispers to us in our joy, and shouts at us in our pain, as one author puts it. In His way of communicating Himself to us, He gives us, not so much information, as formation. Like Isaiah, we can only see clearly, if we allow ourselves to be “called for the victory of justice,” “grasped by the hand,” “formed” and “set” as “a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO SEEK

Catholic Homily/Reflection
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

In most parts of the world, Christmas began with hordes of seekers. They went in droves and waves, as early as the day after Thanksgiving (or September in the Philippines) seeking for the best bargains, seeking for the best gifts to give both themselves and others they care for. Christmas – or at least the commercialized kind propagated by the “malling culture” of consumerism – also closed with even more hordes of seekers searching for even better bargains for items “previously owned” – and returned – by “unsatisfied” consumers (at least in America).

In the aftermath of the horrendous tsunami that killed possibly more than 150,000 thousand people in nine different countries two years ago, a tragedy that happened just the day after Christmas, just when the whole Christian world ought to have been immersed deeply in the heart of the mystery of Christmas, the number of seekers swelled even more, as reports and images of 60 foot high tidal waves filled people’s TV screens all over the world. In the days that followed the tragedy, people have been, and still are, in search, not so much for answers, as for the ability to live with the baffling questions that fill their hearts and minds in the face of such a numbing natural calamity.

My reflection for today, the solemnity of the Epiphany, has to do with all the seekers and searchers that we all are, in good times and bad times. In these most difficult times when we all have to grapple with a reality that is bigger than life, it appears to me that the mystery of the epiphany, at bottom, has to do with God revealing Himself to people who are willing to “rise up in splendor,” to “see” despite “darkness” and “thick clouds” the “glory” of the Lord. At a time when the whole world saw more than just thick clouds, when darkness covers a big part of southeast Asia, when questions about whether a similar tragedy of such magnitude could happen elsewhere, perhaps closer to where my readers are, today’s liturgy warms up the hearts of people like us who are in search, in awe, and even in grief at the unfathomable mystery of God’s will and the power of nature gone berserk.

Isaiah’s “hopeful imagination” serves us in good stead today, as we face the many questions that befuddle us, the mysteries that elude us, and the inscrutable ways of God that confound us – a God who came to be like us, who became one with us, and who lived, died, and rose for us.

Recently, I had an “epiphany” experience that I would like to share in connection with today’s feast. This powerful experience of a God who shows Himself behind “thick clouds” and “darkness,” ironically, was mediated for me (and many others) by a 13 year old boy who recently died of a rare muscular dystrophic disease, a disease that also killed three other older siblings, a disease that is also slowly killing the four kids’ mother. Matthew Joseph Stepanek began writing poetry at age 3. Mattie, as he was fondly called, who wanted to be able to ride a fire truck, through his mystical poems, through his absolute passion for life, his resolute commitment to joy and optimism despite the constant pain and the debilitating sickness, became for me an impersonation and an icon of what Isaiah’s hopeful imagination was speaking about. When he died at 13 last June 2003, in the arms of a mother who is also dying of the same disease, Mattie had already published at least six books. But more than his material achievements, Mattie had succeeded to become God’s answer, God’s revelation to people out in search for the ability to live despite so many nagging questions. Mattie’s life – and death – had become for me and many others all over the world, one big “why” that should make it possible for people “to live with just about any how.” As I was eating my early dinner in preparation for school, the haunting and moving image of his mother cradling Mattie in her equally emaciated lap was an actual epiphany for me of a mother suffering along with her son, a mother offering her young son’s life as she had done three times before, a mother just about ready also to offer her own life. It was to me a powerful epiphany of the mystery of Michelangelo’s world famous La Pieta!

On the occasion of the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I shared with you the reality of life as not providing easy answers to our mostly undeserved painful experiences, and a whole lot of even angry questions directed at God, others, and the world in general. I reflected with you on the fact that what we need is not so much answers as the reassuring presence of one who came to dwell in our midst, one who chose to walk with us as we journey through this “valley of tears.”

Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the thousands of saints and martyrs – including Mattie Stepanek – whose lives were all inundated with copious suffering each in his or her own way, show us in concrete what faith is all about. They show us that even without getting satisfactory answers, there is a way of living alongside the questions, and, in the words of Rilke, “love the very questions themselves.”

Mattie, for one, shows us how everything boils down to a matter of perspective – a way of looking at things in the light of something else that goes beyond flimsy answers. When the whole world was wringing its hands at the collapse of the twin towers owing to sinful man’s machinations, Mattie saw an opportunity to speak of peace, to dream of peace, and to be a feeble channel towards mutual understanding between peoples. When everyone dreamed of toy trucks alone, Mattie dreamt of being one of those he saw as heroes who risked their lives to be able to help others in imminent danger of fiery deaths. When most everyone sang of hopelessness and despair, Mattie heard what he call “heartsongs” and saw different possibilities beyond his own pain and suffering. Mattie had an eminently Christian faith-perspective. He saw and heard what others did not. And like John, he shared what, in his faith, he saw. “This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, and our hands have touched – we speak of the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1).

Mattie, among other things, dreamt of unity and harmony: “Our differences are unique treasures. We have, we are a mosaic of gifts. To nurture, to offer, to accept. We need to be. Just be. And now let us pray, differently, yet together.” Mattie saw epiphanies of God in the most mundane things one could imagine: “When the trees sing, it doesn’t really matter if you know the song, or if you know the words, or even if you know the tune. What really matters is knowing that the trees are singing at all.”

Moses was a leader during his people’s own “valley of tears” in the desert. But in his attachment of faith to a God who showed His presence as cloud by day and fire by night, a God who showed His love in and through so many trials for His pilgrim people, Moses saw visions of a reality he never got around to seeing for himself. He heard his own “heartsongs” from God. He saw more than just flames in the burning bush. He saw the glory of God!

The American journalist Kathy Coffey shares with us a snippet of her own “heartsongs” in the midst of a jaded, rather confused people with teen-age children who don’t seem to care about God and faith anymore. After enumerating what she calls ten good reasons to be catholic in America, she gives ten good reasons to raise children catholic. The first states: “so that they will have rules to reject when they’re teen-agers.” The second is: “so that they’ll have some rules to reconsider when they have kids of their own.”

Perhaps the problem of the world in search is not about a God who is silent and indifferent to people’s pain. Perhaps the problem of the world is all about the gross inability to hear the “heartsongs” from above. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it so vividly, “the world is filled with the glory of God, and every bush is aflame with his love. But only he who sees takes off his shoes and worships. All the rest sit around, and pluck blackberries.”

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, John, Jesus Christ, the saints, Barrett-Browning, Mattie Stepanek … they saw questions alright. They may not have provided answers to our liking, but they sure show us how marvelous and wonderful it is to see little epiphanies of God taking place in daily events, including painful, tragic events of untold and unimaginable proportions. They lead to questions, and questions lead us to seek, search, and long ultimately for God who may just be hiding behind the temporary thick clouds and the temporary darkness. Blessedness lies in the searching and the seeking, “for he who seeks, finds.”