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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

DARKNESS ONCE, BUT NOW LIGHT!

Catholic Homily/ Sunday Reflection
4th Sunday of Lent - Year A


Today’s liturgy smacks of contrasts: individuals being presented for office, but God choosing the least expected (1st reading); people wallowing once in darkness, but now being wrapped in light (2nd reading); and a blind man exposing people’s ultimate and real blindness far worse than the blind man’s own physical inability to see (Gospel).

We are once more back to the realm of reversals, the world of Christian paradox, the arena of faith that transcends the predictable flow of logic and linear, cause-and-effect mode of thinking. We are once more back to the realm of Christian mystery that is represented most fully by the mystery of the cross.

This mystery of the cross takes center place in our thoughts, in our prayers – in the liturgy all through the Lenten season. Of itself, Lent is one such big paradox, referred to by the liturgy as the “joyful season,” but a season during which we are told to think penance, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and repentance.

We would do well to give a look at it once more, if for no other reason, than to remind ourselves that behind the veil of self-denial, behind the centrality of the cross, behind the cover of seeming “darkness,” lies a reality that we do well today to pray for – that we may “hasten toward Easter with the eagerness of faith and love,” as, indeed, we ask the Lord in today’s Opening Prayer.

A wise writer, I am told, once said, “If you can’t handle the violence in the psalms, you can’t come to terms with the violence in yourself.” Being face to face with Christian paradox is a little like struggling against the natural tendency to be myopic, to be near-sighted, to see nothing more beyond one’s immediate, material, personal, and superficial concerns. To be bothered by the here-and-now, to be so discouraged by what goes on in this godless and ethically blurred times, to wax so hopeless because of our repeated plaints as the Israelites did of old, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” smacks of an inability to “handle the violence” both in the psalms, and in ourselves.

It means to be unable to handle darkness, to be so easily fazed by trials, by the so many existential pains that beset humanity, both natural and man-made. We humans, are “hard wired” to avoid pain, to question suffering, to flee from affliction, and to complain when touched by undeserved suffering. The cross never was, never is, and never will be automatically, and naturally equated with the soothing salve of consolation. On the contrary, the cross is a powerful testament to man’s inhumanity to man, to man’s cruelty, and to the human society’s misguided passion for revenge, and the propensity to right a wrong with another wrong deed.
There is no “light” attached to the “darkness” that is Christ’s ignominious death on the cross.

Or so we myopic creatures think!

For many years now, I have risen well before sunrise in order to walk, jog, or reflect in silence, or pray quietly. Just before dawn, this part of the world that was, and is home to me for most of my life, is enveloped in eerie darkness. Dead silence reigns supreme. Death and darkness mark the impatient waiting time for the world to stir back into life. It is always darkest just before dawn. It is always quietest, seemingly the most lifeless and the most hopeless time for miserable people who have to keep watch, who have to be awake, and who have to rouse from sleep for one unwanted reason or another.

But it is also the time of night that is fullest of promise! At a time when darkness straddles the coming of light, when nature’s lowest and worst is just about to give way to the bright promise of a new day, one’s deepest hopes and dreams arise with the first rays of a bright and warm sunshine of a new day, new life, a new beginning, and a new story to live by. Ironically, but true, it is only when one embraces the darkness, when one soaks in the temporary uncertainty, when one, in the words of the poet Rilke, “embraces the very questions themselves,” that one opens oneself to the possibility of enjoying to the full the meaning behind the pain, the darkness, and the seemingly endless waiting.

The writer Fleming Rutledge, commenting on the need to be at home with the violence of the psalms in order to be at home, too, with the violence in oneself, sees in this the equivalent need for us to look at the cross, to behold the wood of the cross, to see the cross for what it really and essentially is, to be at home with darkness, with paradox, with seeming contradictions that are part and parcel of our faith as Christian believers. “If we can’t look at the cross,” he writes, “we can’t look at ourselves either.” And if we can’t look at ourselves, I might venture to add, we can’t see the promise that is locked into our creaturehood, a hope that is plugged into our very personhood created in God’s image and likeness.

Hope does not thrive well in the hearts of people who have everything under control, for whom everything is predictable, for whom life is an unbroken series of logical steps that follow the linear law of cause-and-effect. In such a world of unbending laws, there is no room for mystery, for ambivalence, and therefore, no room for God who has come to reveal Himself in and through His Son become man like us. He showed us the height of paradox when salvation was wrought through his passion and death on the cross. Salvation was effected because the God-man Jesus Christ stared at darkness, suffering, pain, and the cross in the face.

In the first reading, we see no rhyme nor reason in the choice that fell on David. Seven older sons were presented. Culturally, the eighth would have been illogical, absurd, unheard of. But the choice of God fell on the insignificant eighth son, a number that stands outside the symbolic, meaningful seven. For “not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”

In Paul, writing to the Ephesians, we see someone who, like Christ his Master and Lord, also looked at the cross and saw meaning both for himself and for others: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”

The great reversal, though, is portrayed in the beautiful account of John. A man born blind, not expected to be able to shed any light, nevertheless, became the most sought after informant about the one who brought light to his darkness. Envious and incredulous Pharisees, who saw everything but understood nothing, just couldn’t take it. With feigned affectation, they sought for “enlightenment,” the very enlightenment that eluded their blind eyes that refused to see the obvious and the true. In their self-righteousness, they were scandalized by the act of curing on the Sabbath, but they were unfazed by their crass inability to accept what stared them in the face. They even had the temerity to ask sarcastically (but prophetically): “Surely we are not also blind, are we?”

They were indeed blind. They were worse off than the man born blind. They couldn’t see themselves objectively, for they could not bring themselves to look at the reality that was Jesus, the “light of the world” right in their midst.

As I reflect on today’s liturgy, the hauntingly moving lines of a song from the musical Phantom of the Opera keep on surfacing to my consciousness. They are words that could as well have come direct from the pen of St. Paul writing to the Ephesians: “Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light … Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness …”

“No more talk of darkness, forget your wide eyed fears …” Of all people, this was what the Phantom told Christine, These are words worth remembering even as we call to mind the more powerful words of the Lord to his disciples: “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will have the light of life.” No more talk of darkness, indeed, for “[we] were once darkness, but now [we] are light in the Lord.”

Saturday, February 23, 2008

DISCOURAGED BY WEAKNESS, CONFIDENT IN LOVE

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
3rd Sunday of Lent - Cycle A

We all are familiar with the complaint. People who suffer in any way, healthy individuals who suddenly get seriously sick, faith-filled persons who, otherwise, have lived observant lives, cultivating a healthy fear of the Lord, who try their best to become what God expects them to be, at a moment of intense (and undeserved) trial and pain, are heard to mutter, as the desert wanderers of old murmured: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?”

Is the Lord in our midst or not? This is the question of a heart confused by pain, the murmurings of a person hard-hit by suffering, the groans of one whose moorings of erstwhile certainty and security, are suddenly rattled and shaken by existential events not within anyone’s fondest dreams and designs.

Is the Lord in our midst or not? When I, as a priest, behold the polarized confusion even in the so many so-called communities of faith, the factionalisms even in a Church neatly divided between the “religious right” and the “religious left,” the divisions between and among peoples divided into groups called the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the “information-rich” and the “information-poor,” the “well-heeled” and the ranks of the “great unwashed,” the privileged few as against the “hoi polloi,” it is all too easy to give in to a sigh and a rebellious complaint: “Is the Lord, indeed, in our midst, or not?”

Our liturgy today opens with a reality we all could easily identify with – feelings and experiences of discouragement. “When we are discouraged by our weakness, give us confidence in your love.” (Opening Prayer)

Discouragement and confidence … could the twain ever meet at all at some point? Is the goal of confidence displacing discouragement an elusive dream? Are they not like the proverbial “two roads” of Robert Frost, “that diverged in a yellow wood” … two roads that we cannot – had better not – take both at one and the same time? Isn’t this more like Rudyard Kipling’s “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet?” How could anyone, for whom pain and suffering stare him/her in the face, ever be so Pollyannaish enough to wax confident in the midst of so much trial and tribulation?

The first reading tells us a familiar story … a disgruntled people venting out their anger against Moses who represented the God who pulled them out of a relatively comfortable cocoon in Egypt … Their bitter complaint “why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” was really designed to get at God by getting at Moses. The poor leader became a veritable punching bag for their growing frustrations!

Interestingly enough, the same account from Exodus shows us what to do with such powerful feelings of rebellion and complaint – face them squarely and deal with them fairly. God told Moses: “Go over there in front of your people … Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for people to drink,” Among other things, I would like to see this as referring to the importance of facing our own demons, and naming, claiming, and taming the ghosts that haunt us.

The famous writer Flannery O’Connor, who died at 39 after a long and crippling disease produced her best spiritual writings, we are told, when she faced her sickness bravely and dealt with it squarely. In answer to a letter from a friend who expressed his doubts about his faith, she wrote: “I think the experience of losing your faith, or of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be, or you would not have written me about this … I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.”

I have it on the authority of Carl Jung that “befriending our shadows” is the first step to take in order to deal with and integrate them in our total personhood. The first step towards resolving difficulties is to name them and claim them, to recognize the plain fact that what we reject in ourselves we tend to project onto others, and what we deny in ourselves tend to attain a life of its own, and which, therefore, can tend eventually to overpower us and control us. Something that is not named; something that is not claimed, can also never be tamed.

There is, therefore, something salutary in our being able to ventilate and express even our complaint before the Lord: “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” The confession and admission of one’s inner confusion and complaint was what prompted the Lord to intervene through Moses, who said: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

A contemporary analogy we may use to illustrate this is the story portrayed by the award-winning film “Million Dollar Baby” directed by Clint Eastwood. Two people, who are drifting along in search for lost family relationships serendipitously find one another and develop a chaste but deep father-daughter intimacy only when both started facing their real issues and dealing with them squarely. The plot boils down to two people in the same predicament making bold decisions when their life situation seemed to have both of them literally and figuratively “against the ropes.” Frank, the boxer-trainer, who spent decades looking and searching for his estranged daughter, who could not forgive himself for this and one other major mistake earlier in his life, found that daughter in the person of Maggie, the 31 year-old aspiring lady boxer, who herself was trying to face her fears and doubts, and who feverishly worked for what she wanted at all cost. In the process, she found the father she herself was looking for in the person of Frank, her initially reluctant trainer.

In the three years I have been writing this series of reflections, I have had the chance to write about my own fears, my own unbeliefs and doubts, along with the times when there was but little hope that remained in my heart. My readers and friends would attest to the many ups and downs that my journey towards wholeness and holiness has undergone. It was never smooth sailing all along. I have had my low and high moments. But I can vouch for the fact that, ironically, I felt closest to the God that I sometimes practically denied, precisely during those lowest moments, during the times when the psalms of desolation made much more sense to me than the psalms of consolation.

It was when I was most thirsty for God and for meaning that the gift of “living water” of filial attachment to God in faith that today’s gospel speaks of, became most meaningful and most appreciated.

This 3rd Sunday of Lent is all about the various types of thirst we all experience some time or other in our lives. Whether it has to do with thirst for faith, or thirst for meaning, for consolation, or for divine intimacy, it all boils down to one important prerequisite. We all need to acknowledge and accept first of all that we are thirsty, and needy, and that we need the help of someone above and beyond us, to fill that thirst to satisfaction.

That profession of one’s neediness is precisely what the Samaritan woman did when she told the Lord: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” The Samaritan woman, for all her alienation, really knew where to start, and the place to start was an honest admission of her need, a sincere profession of her deepest desire.

My years of experience in the context of seminary formation work have convinced me of one important truth in relation to this topic. “The noisiest wheel gets the most grease.” It is those who admit to their weakness and need who get all the help. Those who do not even name, let alone accept, their neediness, remain fixated in their make-believe world, and maintain an external façade of self-sufficiency and self-righteous contempt for those who are honest enough to admit to their pain and woundedness. Ironically, it is those who do not acknowledge their woundedness, who remain smug and cocky about themselves, who run the greater risk of acting out and thus, most likely end up wounding others in turn. Whatever is rejected in oneself, gets projected onto others, and whatever is projected, attains a life of its own, and eventually ends up controlling the very person who tries hard to deflect it from him/herself.

Today’s readings go right into the heart of the spirit of Lenten renewal, which is confession of one’s weakness and sinfulness. They challenge us, first of all, to confess to our lack – or loss – of faith. Second, they confront us with the truth about God who, while hating sin, nevertheless, continues to love the sinner: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Thirdly, they present us with a clear example of the need to embrace the truth about oneself, warts and all – an admission of need that leads to a confession: “Lord, you are truly the Savior of the world; give me living water, that I may never thirst again.”

Discouraged though we may be at times with our weakness, we are nevertheless confident in His love! Thus we pray in today’s alternative opening prayer: “God of all compassion, Father of all goodness, to heal the wounds our sins and selfishness bring upon us you bid us turn to fasting, prayer, and sharing with our brothers. We acknowledge our sinfulness, our guilt is ever before us: when our weakness causes discouragement, let your compassion fill us with hope and lead us through a Lent of repentance to the beauty of Easter joy. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Monday, February 11, 2008

SHADOWED VISION, RESTORED SIGHT

Catholic Homily/Reflection
2nd Sunday of Lent - Year A
February 17, 2008

There is hope in every line of today’s readings, upliftment for everyone who sees and sees rightly, for all who care to listen and hear good news during this “joyful season” of Lent. Last Sunday, our readings introduced us to the reason behind this joy, the foundation of this hope, and the firmament upon which all our Christian strivings are solidly anchored.

That reason, the readings insisted, was none other than God’s generous, gracious, and gratuitous love!

This is the same story of love reported by the first reading taken from the book of Genesis: the call of Abraham, a call enveloped in fivefold promises not only for the called, but for his descendants. “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you … I will make of you a great nation … I will bless you … I will make your name great … I will bless those who bless you … All the communities shall find blessing in you.”

The second reading fares no less in the conviction that God loves us. In his letter to Timothy, Paul boldly states: “He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works, but according to his own design, and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began.”

In the Gospel account from Matthew, upliftment happens both literally and figuratively, for three of Christ’s disciples. Led up a mountain to pray, they were favored with the grace to see rightly, and the singular blessing of being given a sneak peek at God’s dream – the “design” that St. Paul speaks of in the second reading. Peter, James, and John were led to a journey that peaked in a moment of discovery. God’s plan, and the absolute finality of that plan for sinful humankind, was delivered to the shadowed visions of three struggling disciples. By being made witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration, they saw a pledge; they espied a promise; they were made witnesses, participants, and partakers of the coming eventual fulfillment of what that gracious love of God entailed – every believer’s total transformation in Christ Jesus.

That coming transformation, however – our own transfiguration like unto that of Christ – is something that has become a little too hard to see. The many everyday pressures, the enormous stress and strain that are shouldered by entire generations caught up in a “culture of death” marked by hedonism, individualism, and minimalism of these postmodern and post-christian times, have resulted in peoples’ “shadowed visions” and blurred perspectives.

Our eyes are dimmed by selfishness and sin. Our capacity to see rightly is blocked by so many challenges. Where Abraham saw promise, where Paul saw grace and divine design, where three disciples saw a vision of what is to come for all of us, most of us now see discouragement, despondency, and despair.

I would like to confess that I am, on not a few occasions, also overtaken by such cases of “shadowed vision.” On both sides of the pacific, separated by some 9,000 miles of undulating sea, in both cultures that I have had the singular grace of experiencing first hand and comparing in my recent past, I see so much jaded hopes, so much passivity and resignation, and so much discouragement and lack of enthusiasm to believe that the world, and life in this war and strife-torn, unequal world, could still be better.

Our political lives everywhere are characterized by bitter polarization, our governments and peoples vie with each other for the unsavory reputation of being the most corrupt, the most graft-ridden, and the most inefficient in terms of meeting the needs of their constituents. (In this aspect of corruption, only one other country in Asia beats the Philippines!) The Church is locked in a lose-lose situation of two polar extremist groups vying for the attention of confused believers – the ultra conservatives and the ultra progressives. By their rigidity and dead, unbending, categorical positions, they both do a lot of harm to a living Church, who, they both forget, is guided by the loving and living guidance of a living God who promised to send His Holy Spirit to “lead us into all the truth.”

Shadowed visions are a daily reality in our times. We lose sight of heaven, even as we throw away the concepts of sin and divine justice. We lose a sense of a lively hope as we increasingly rely more on our own human knowledge and human capabilities, more on our own skills rather than divine wisdom. The stories that we tell each other, the news that hogs our TV screens, the headlines that catch our attention, all betray our preoccupation with and focus on the problems that plague us, and consequently, all we look for are solutions to the same problems. In our linear, cause-and-effect mentality, in our static, essentialist frame of mind, we fall easily to the temptation of looking for what is wrong, and what needs to be given solutions to. We are a people caught up in a blur of misplaced priorities and misguided approaches to poorly defined problems and issues in our lives.

As a phenomenologist, who subscribes to the basic notion of reality as something that is always co-constituted, as something that is not merely objective, but subjectively informed, I would like to suggest that the stories we tell each other have a lot to do with the reality that we all “construct” together. Where people are focused on “looking for what is wrong,” they see what they are looking for – problems to be solved. Where people are focused on what works, on what is good, and on what is right, they see solutions. They see a world that is patently different from that of the linear thinkers who only see causes and effects, who are rigidly attached to the belief that good management means the ability to troubleshoot, and see the source of problems, and therefore apply what they see are logical solutions to all the ills they can identify.

A recent interesting application of this phenomenologically inspired “social constructionist” philosophy is in the area of management of “learning organizations,” known as “appreciative inquiry.” Known and popularized as AI for short, it essentially asks the question “what is going well around here?” rather than “what is wrong in the system?” It is based on the counterintuitive concept that whatever is needed for an organization to grow and move forward is already in existence, already there waiting to be tapped, and that solutions, not problems, ought to be the focus of an organization’s journey of “discovery,” subject matter of its “dreams,” material for its “design,” and stepping stones toward its further growth and “development.”

Appreciative inquiry, as applied to faith, then means the ability to see and see rightly, to see beyond mere appearances, to see beyond the surface meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, and see through its real meaning which is not defeat but victory. It stands for the ability to see the resurrection that could not have taken place without the experience of calvary.

AI, as applied to Christian faith, means to “seek that which is life-giving even in the midst of death.” It means to place “a comma rather than a period at the end of tragedy.” (G. Banaga, Jr.) It means to focus, not on the problems that plague us, but the blessings that inundate us, as we read so clearly from Genesis (1st reading) and Paul’s letter to Timothy (2nd reading).

It is about time we looked at our old life-scripts and reclaimed our stories. It is about time we reframed our understanding of who we are, and who God is vis-à-vis our personal and communal lives. As a people, we Filipinos, in particular, could use a little toning down of our tendency to self-flagellate ourselves, and continue to live under shadowed visions of victimhood and a sore lack of national identity and national sense of healthy pride in our heritage and history. It is high time that both government and people stopped heaping blame on former regimes, no matter how authoritarian, and began acknowledging their roles in this ongoing story of graft and corruption and national slide to becoming Asia’s basket case, economically, politically, culturally, and morally.

Today, one lesson we can draw from the transfiguration story is our need to look up and behold. We need to go up the mountain as Peter, James, and John did, together with Jesus, to see a new reality, to write a new story, to come up with a fresh discovery, conjure up a totally new dream for the future, and make new designs for ourselves as a people, and forge new paths towards development that are not based on blame, but on the ability to name, claim, and tame our own personal and collective issues that block growth and development. We cannot forever blame the Spaniards. Nor can we always use the Japanese and American occupations as a convenient excuse. And to see the Marcos regime alone as the universal culprit to our ills as a nation and people is the height of denial and unhealthy projection of the worst kind. It is to avoid responsibility and deflect from ourselves all culpability and blame that are ours, as much as theirs, to own.

My American sojourn has taught me a lot of precious life-lessons. One of them is the conviction I got that precisely proves my point – the need to focus on what is good, what is working, and what blessings we all have, instead of the problems that beset us. Another is the concomitant conviction that Christian faith has an important role to play in extricating ourselves from this mire or life-trap of “shadowed visions” and hopelessness. Merely talking about problems and endless hand-wringing and blame simply won’t clinch it.

Today’s transfiguration story is a clear support of this point. We all need to look up, and behold as the disciples did, so as to discover, dream, design and develop “a new heavens and a new earth.” Only we could do it. Only we could help ourselves. And God helps those who help themselves.

I end with a quote from the alternative prayer for today, a prayer we all could make our own, a prayer worth repeating over and over again: “Father of light, in you is found no shadow of change but only the fullness of life and limitless truth. Open our hearts to the voice of your Word and free us from the original darkness that shadows our vision. Restore our sight that we may look upon your Son who calls us to repentance and a change of heart, for he lives and reigns with you forever and ever. Amen.”

Thursday, February 7, 2008

UNDERSTANDING JESUS' DEATH & RESURRECTION

Catholic Homily/Reflection
1st Sunday of Lent - Year A
Feb. 10, 2008

Lent has once again come by us. It opened with an age-old, Biblically based ritual of the imposition of ashes last Wednesday, a rite as meaningful as it is colorful, a symbol that stands for layers of meaning that only people deeply immersed in the whole Judeo-Christian culture and history can fully fathom.

Whilst it is true that, traditionally, Lent has been proposed by Christian tradition as a time for penance, for repentance, and a time to stand back and take stock of our spiritual resources for the journey of life up ahead, it is important for us to understand that the Biblical readings all focus, not on human sinfulness, but on the gracious, generous, forgiving, and immense love of God.

I thought I should clarify this right at the outset. Lent is not a time primarily for sado-masochistic, self-inflicted suffering per se, not a time primarily for self-denial, and self-focused introspection. It is also that, but it is all that because of what the Biblical readings all through the season tell us about God. And what Scriptures tell us about God is the ultimate rationale, the reason behind all that we do during the Lenten season, including acts of sacrifice and acts of self-denial. Lent is ultimately not about us, but about God and His solicitous love for us His people.

Our opening prayer today (the so-called Collect) puts us in the heart of this reality about God. “Father, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of your Son’s death and resurrection, and teach us to reflect it in our lives.”

Meaning … this is what the liturgy of today – with the aid of God’s grace – helps us to understand. What, you might ask, constitutes this world of meaning? Let’s get it right from the evidence of Scripture. The first reading introduces us to this proverbial goodness of God. God’s goodness is shown by his creating man and woman, and by giving them a place stuffed with all sorts of good things meant for their use. In poetic and symbolic terms, the account of Genesis introduces us to what later, the Christian testament would confirm as fulfilled. What was foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures in the story of Adam and his fall to sin and the promise of deliverance became a reality in Jesus Christ. A parallelism between the old Adam and a new Adam would then complete the Biblical picture, a picture that once again, has to do with a loving, forgiving God who does not keep a record of wrongs and who does not give up on sinful humanity.

This is St. Paul’s passionate argument in the 2nd reading. What old Adam did, the new Adam, Jesus Christ, undid. “Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so, through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”

There is no mistaking the meaning that unfolds in Paul’s argument – the incomparable forgiving mercy and love of God for sinful man.

The Gospel reading, for its part, introduces us to a picture of Jesus’ extraordinary nature, as extraordinary as the love of God that sent him to a sinful, wayward world. Such a story of Jesus being tempted thrice in the desert can only be appreciated if we see it against the backdrop of the story of hard-headed wanderers out in the wilderness, for whom and on account of whom, Moses their prophet and leader, repeatedly shed copious tears of disappointment and sorrow. Where the Jews of old complained for lack of food, despite the gift of manna, Jesus responds to the test that addressed his hunger directly: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Where impatient desert wanderers rebelled and disobeyed their leader, Jesus answered his tormentors who told him to throw all self-responsibility to the winds: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” And where proud people set up their own gods in place of the true one, Jesus declares his conviction: “The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”

This is the extraordinary nature of the world’s “most tremendous lover,” the story of God’s unbounded love made manifest in the person of Christ, the new Adam, the one who has come to restore the lost balance between God’s graciousness and human sinfulness.

This is the world of meaning that has been lost on us. This is the significant reality that has been replaced by other lesser and short-lived, partial truths that have taken center stage in the theater of postmodernity that we all are immersed in. This is the universe of salvific truth that we all need to re-appropriate, replaced as it has been by purely human wisdom, by pride that has all but smothered faith and a loving attachment to a living God who has shown Himself faithful to His beloved people.

At times, it is not pride, but mere unresolved human resentment that stands in the way of this healthy attachment to God, and His church. Having been a priest, and a counselor and guide for more than two decades, I have realized from experience, both in my own personal journey towards wholeness (I am not yet out of the woods, but I would like to think I am getting there), and that of others, that many times, one’s early disappointments with authority figures, such as one’s parents, one’s first impressions about clergy, one’s early experiences with the “institutional church” all have a lot to do with one’s consequent relationship with God and with one’s choice of faith community to join, if ever one decides to join at all. I have once alluded to Merle Jordan’s basic questions that ought to be answered more than any other: “Who do I belong to?” “Who are the idols that rule my life?” “Who really are the false gods to whom I pledge my allegiance?” and “What sort of self-atoning acts do we resort to over and over again in the desire to rewrite old life scripts that keep on haunting us?”

It would be mighty hard for one who did not feel loved by a parental figure as a child to believe he or she is loved by God at all. It would be difficult for one who sees in the institutional Church a projected image of an uncaring father or mother, or a mean, cruel, and abusive priest (or parent) during one’s early years, to ever bring himself/herself to a deep sense of belongingness and warmth in the context of a powerful organized institution that the Church could be mistakenly identified with.

God’s love, for some of us, could very well have been eclipsed by the “reality” of uncaring, distant – and even abusive – parents, clerics and early authority figures. What replaces this lack of warmth, this wonderful feeling of being loved, is a deep sense of mistrust, suspicion, and a whole lot of defensiveness against what they perceive are really “wolves in sheeps’ clothing.”

Lent, among other things, is a time to pause and reflect on the overwhelming evidence Scripture presents to us today about God’s magnanimity for each and every one of us. Owing to the various types of darkness that we all experience, not excluding the ones referred to above, the darkness of breached trusts and broken promises, the darkness of sinfulness enveloping even the very ones who ought to have been the primary examples and models for the young and the weak, the darkness of a crisis of credibility spawned by some rotten apples from among pastors now seen as wolves in sheeps’ clothing, whether rightly or wrongly (wrongly, for the vast majority of upright priests who are doing their jobs silently and well), the darkness of terrorism and the mystery of suffering for victims and survivors of natural calamities all over the world, it has become very difficult to find truth in what the Bible claims, in what we proclaim in our liturgical assemblies: “His love is everlasting!”

A contemporary analogy I am reminded of by the difficult times we find ourselves in, is that of the story of “Finding Neverland.” Johnny Depp’s character named James played a big role in restoring meaning to the lives of four young boys left behind first by their father and then later their mother both of whom died early deaths. By leading them to the imaginary world populated by flying Peter Pans and kings and queens in imaginary kingdoms, James was able gradually to conjure up a world of meaning for hapless little orphaned boys who were confused twice over by their parents’ early deaths.

The Bible and today’s readings in particular, of course, do not offer us an imaginary world named Neverland. But they do lead us to a world of meaning. That meaning system is based on what juts out so clearly in today’s liturgy – God’s graciousness and love for His beloved people. By our Lenten “retreat,” by our “standing back” and “taking stock” of what God has done for us since He created the world and our first parents, we do get what we have prayed for today and pray for everyday … an understanding of Jesus’ death; a grasp of what his resurrection really means for us now.

In Johnny Depp’s (James) imaginary world, the teary-eyed little Peter got a very touching message from his would-be surrogate father: BELIEVE! BELIEVE IN YOUR HEART.

The grieving Peter, along with his siblings, did not find a solution to their grief, neither to their deep sense of loss. But their “faith” gave them a sense of perspective and restored their trust in a world that remains to be what it always has been – imperfect, and, at times, even cruel.

Today, we do not ask God for the impossible. We do not ask Him to banish death and suffering from our midst. Being the effects of sin, death and human suffering will continue to be part and parcel of our basic human predicament. We beg Him, though, for something that we can help Him with, something we can help ourselves to, with the aid of His grace. And so we ask, as we do in today’s alternative opening prayer:

“In this time of repentance we call you for your mercy. Bring us back to you and to the life your Son won for us by his death on the cross, for he lives forever and ever. Amen.” It is His death and resurrection that now stand at the basis of our world of meaning as Christian believers.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

LIGHT THAT BESTOWS SIGHT

Catholic Homily/Reflection
Ash Wednesday
February 6, 2008

“Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” (Not to laugh at, nor to mourn for, neither detest, but to understand) Spinoza

Ashes on the first day of Lent for the great tradition of the Eastern and Western Christian churches are one of those rituals and practices that are all too easy to deride, deplore, or detest – at least from the postmodern, and more so – biblical fundamentalists’ point of view. After the spate of anti-christian (and anti-catholic) literature over the past decade, not excluding the extremely popular Da Vinci Code, it is easy especially for those who have an axe to grind against the institutional church (which they mistake for the essentials of Christianity) to take everything Dan Brown and others say hook, line, and sinker, never mind the overwhelming historical and scholarly evidences to the contrary. It is still to be wondered at how come people do not react as vehemently against the lies peddled by the Da Vinci hoax, as they did against the mostly Bible-based “Passion of Christ” that hogged the movie and TV screens and talk-shows last year.

It is easy for anyone unfamiliar with the wider origins (both Biblical, cultural, and historical) of Church worship and rituals to laugh at, mourn for, and detest symbolisms, sacraments, and sacramentals that are not clear to people who, like Dan Brown, have already decided to close one eye on the bigger context and fuller matrix of the truth.

The church’s practice of imposing ashes on the forehead is one such snippet of truth that needs to be understood, not deplored, nor detested. And understanding entails literally “reading into” things, placing them in their original context, thus allowing one to see aspects of meaning that may now be hidden from the eyes of the entertainment, information-glutted postmodern woman or man.

There are those who like Brown, take resort to rehashing old issues that have been settled long ago, like for example, the issue of the so-called “apocryphal gospels” referred to by him as the “80 gospels which have been suppressed” by the “Vatican” in order to hide the “truth” about Mary Magdalene. There are those who, on the other hand, see nothing else apart from the Bible (or their chosen translation-interpretation) as the source of their truth. If something is not found therein, it should not be part of one’s belief system.

Ash Wednesday opens the season of Lent with one such ritual that is easy to pass off as unbiblical. (The word “trinity” is not found anywhere in the Bible, but the teachings on the “trinity” are clear from the Bible. Whilst everything in the Bible is true, not everything true is in the Bible!) But the practices of putting a sign on the forehead, and the sign par excellence of ashes as a symbol of penance and repentance both jut right out of Old Testament times as is clear from so many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezekiel 9:4-6, I Samuel 4:12, 2 Samuel 1:20; 13:19 etc). The idea of being “marked for God” on the other hand, is something that is clear from several passages from the New Testament (Rev 7:3; 9:4; 14:1)

But I digress too much from what I would want to share on today.

I take my cue from today’s alternative opening prayer. “Father in heaven, the light of your truth bestows sight to the darkness of sinful eyes. May this season of repentance bring us the blessing of your forgiveness and the gift of your light.”

It does not take too much a stretch of our imagination to realize how much darkness there is in our world. There is darkness in bigotry, and in all forms of bias and prejudice in the world. There is darkness in a culture that, contrary to its avowed protestations and proclamations of democratic “values,” this “death-denying,” postmodern culture, really has fallen in love with violence, as is evident in movies and canned shows for the boob tube. There is darkness in a world that, in the words of Pope John Paul II, has chosen the path of the culture of death, a culture that has denied the existence of the reality of sin.

Ash Wednesday, though, was never meant to be dour and sour primarily. It is a reminder first and foremost, a reminder that as creatures endowed with personal freedom, salvation is something that we ought to do in cooperation with the Savior, that salvation is something that is based as much on God’s grace and love, as in our human effort at “working for our salvation with fear and trembling,” in the famous words of St. Paul. The scholastics, basing themselves on St. Augustine, put this matter succinctly in their dictum: “Gratia supponit naturam.”

Grace builds on nature. Grace does not deny, nor destroy nature, but presupposes it. Grace can only work when one opens oneself to the workings of grace. Put in other words, God cannot force Himself in on anyone of us. He respects our freedom, and God, thus, meets us halfway. Ignorance, for example, is something that God’s grace cannot banish, for as long we don’t make efforts at resolving our ignorance. John reminds us: “he came into his own, but his own received him not.” This is a testament to human freedom that can even reject God.

I can think of no other analogy to represent these ideas than the novel and very popular musical Phantom of the Opera (now made into a motion picture). The feared “Phantom” of the opera represents one who literally and figuratively lived in the darkness, down in the bowels of the “opera populaire.” From such darkness, he terrorized the crew, cast, and management of the opera house. From such a situation of darkness, he used his brilliance and calculating intelligence to manipulate others, and cower them into doing his every wish. It was from the dark shadows of his evil machinations that he devised a grand plan to subjugate the young and beautiful Christine Daae, and take her into the clutches of his selfish desires.

But for all his evil plans, the phantom of the opera was touched by love. In the nadir of his shadowy plans and desires, the sincere love and chaste kiss from the lady he loved and wanted to possess brought light to a heart wallowing in the darkness of selfishness and sin, and transformed it into the light of genuine love that was ready to give up whom he loved best. Touched by that love, he was transfixed and transported to the apex of benevolent, self-denying, and self-giving love that led him to do the greatest sacrifice a man in love could ever do – give up the very object of his love for no other reason than love itself. That love is noble and great enough as to enable him to liberate both himself and his beloved. In a most moving scene, where the phantom finally decides to let Christine go, along with the other man who also loved her, few people can fail to notice the full import and meaning of his supreme sacrifice in love’s name, as he plaintively cries one last time, “Christine, I love you!”

The ashes on Ash Wednesday, we have always been told, have to do with penance, prayer, fasting, abstinence, self-denial, and everything associated with the negative. Whilst all this is true, they do not represent the totality of the truth. The ashes have more to do with the reason behind all the negative, the real foundation of the self-denial and the fasting. They have to do essentially with the fact that we have been touched by God’s great love, and marked as God’s own on account of that love. God’s love has swept us away from the nadir of our sinfulness, to the apex of his wondrous, generous, forgiving love. As St. Paul reminds us: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2nd reading).

Ash Wednesday reminds us that our Christian life is nothing else but an ongoing journey from darkness into light. We all have our own versions of the shadowy bowels of the opera house, our own situations of darkness, our own predominant areas of sinfulness that still need liberation and salvation. Psychologically and spiritually, we all have our own dark corners of the heart. There is always something in us that needs healing; there is always something is us that needs salvation. We all need light, at any given time in our lives.

Ash Wednesday and the whole season of Lent is a protracted reminder of our need for the light that gives sight, the light that sweeps us off our feet of vengefulness, selfishness, and possessiveness. St. Paul tells us as much: “Now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the time of salvation.” Lead us, Father, to the light of love that bestows sight to the light of sinful eyes.”