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Monday, July 28, 2008

GIVE THEM SOME FOOD YOURSELVES!

Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A


Even a cursory look at the three readings today, including the response after the first reading, the entrance and communion antiphons, would show that all speak about divine caring and solicitude. The liturgy opens with an earthly plea: God, come to my help. Lord, quickly give me assistance. You are the one who helps me and sets me free; Lord, do not be long in coming. The collect (opening prayer) addresses God as “Father of everlasting goodness.” The alternative opening prayer acknowledges that “gifts without measure flow from [His] goodness.” The two communion antiphons speak about “bread from heaven… a sweet tasting bread that was very good to eat,” and about Jesus’ claim: “I am the bread of life.” The prayer after communion sums it all up and thanks God for the biggest gift of all: the Eucharist.

This is one of those Sundays (in my 25 years as a priest) that every reading and every line seems to fit in one common mould.

Food, glorious food! This is today’s liturgy's common mould. Food is what we ask God for – or more properly, food security. Food is what God offers, and more … Gratuitously so ... It is so precious, so important to sustain our earthly human life, so valued and so much appreciated by all. In times of plenty, it is considered so valuable that the automatic response of man is to celebrate by putting up a lavish feast. It is almost held sacred that in the Mosaic Law, first fruits had to be offered to the Lord and a feast day set aside for the first harvests.

Food figures very prominently in man’s conscious and unconscious thoughts, held so dearly by humans that even the Bible uses the image of a banquet with good food as the representation of God’s gift of wisdom, as in today’s first reading. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! All you who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

What the first reading from Isaiah portrays, which really speaks symbolically about the Messianic banquet (the fullness of salvation in God through Christ), happens concretely in the Gospel passage of today. The responsorial psalm declares in earthly terms this incontrovertible truth about God: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”

There is no mistaking what this is all about. It is all about God’s solicitude and care for us, His people. God provides. And from His gifts, there is enough for all.

Or is there? Let us sidetrack for a while and take stock of what is also true here and now…How about the fact that there is so much food all over the world, but so little for those who really need it? If you go by the endless shelves and piles of food seen in our mushrooming malls and sprouting supermarkets all over the country (more so in the first world), there seems to be no reason to worry. There is a lot of food to go around. So much stuff to choose from, so many varieties, all vying for the consumer’s attention! Sometimes it seems the real problem is not so much the lack of food, as the increasing difficulty shoppers have in making definitive choices.

But we all know this is just one side of the picture. Given the fact that in the Philippines, only 5 % belong to the so-called A & B crowds, the richest segment of Philippine society, and the remaining 95 % distributed in the C,D, & E brackets (with the overwhelming majority in the two lowest classes), the artificial picture of plenty immediately collapses. Let us look at some hard data culled from international sources:

• 1 out of 5 goes to bed hungry every night
• Christopher News Notes says 841 million people are chronically undernourished
• 1.2 billion do not have access to safe drinking water
• 12 million people die each year from diarrhea, malnutrition and other related causes

Do these hard data negate in any way what the liturgy today proclaims so confidently? Are we then to think that what we heard in today’s readings are all forms of wishful thinking? Does the hand of the Lord, indeed, feed us and answer all our needs?

Today, I would like to ask you: hold on to the good news! No, the above data do not negate this good news in any way. And yes, the Lord continues to be the provident God that Scriptures consistently talk about. For the Good News does not end only with Christ seeing to it that the hungry multitude gets enough to eat. The Gospel passage of today does not picture Christ saying to the disciples and crowds alike: “Leave it to me! I’ll take care of everything.” He did not say, “I’ll feed them myself.” That would be the height of misguided paternalism. And yet, true to his nature as a loving and caring God, Jesus balks at the slightest suggestion from the disciples to send the crowds home hungry. “No, there is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” GIVE THEM SOME FOOD YOURSELVES! This is the good news that we must take to heart today. God, being God has the power to do what He wills. But He expects us to pitch in our share. He expects our cooperation. The good that is within His power to do anytime, He decided to do through human cooperation, through the instrumentality of creatures – other human beings who are now expected to incarnate or make real in their persons what God is like. Yes, God remains – and will always be loving and caring God. As God, He cannot not be such. But in His wisdom, He decreed that we all should mediate this same solicitude and caring by means of the earthly finite powers of our personhood.

Jesus told his disciples, “Give them some food yourselves.” In effect, Jesus was asking his disciples to be concrete signs and bearers of God’s love and solicitude for the crowds. He was asking them to be his extension, his lunga manus, and he expected their wholehearted cooperation. And cooperate, they did! The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves took place, precisely on account of this free human cooperation. It does not matter anymore how much one has got, how much worth is what he can offer in material terms. “Five loaves and two fish are all we’ve got here.” Not much, assuredly, but enough to make a miracle with. What was needed was generosity. What the Lord was looking for was someone who would be willing to offer what little he has got for the sake of the kingdom. All he needed to do a miracle was the total cooperation of whoever it was who offered those measly five loaves and two fish, plus a lot of enthusiastic obedience and loving cooperation from the disciples who, from then on, learned what it meant to “wait on tables” and “serve” others, offering their strength and capabilities to do an on-the-spot catering with the Master, minus the expectation of any form of material ROI (return of investment).

Give them some food yourselves… Surely, there is something we all can do to help alleviate hunger and suffering in the world. At the very least, we who may have more should not go on with our wasteful ways. Surely, all of us can offer at least our time, our talent, if not our treasure in proactive activities that foster social justice and equitable distribution of wealth in the world. Nobody is so poor as not to have anything to offer to the Lord. And nobody is so rich as not to be needy of anything at all. We all could use a little more love and caring for each other. We all could strive a little more to become what we expect God to be for us, each in his own unique way. If all of us just did our little part, what a different world this would be! A beautiful – if, a little abstruse sounding poem of Hopkins comes to mind at this juncture:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring: like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying What I do is me, for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ acts in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Among other things, this poem reminds us to become what God expects us to be; what Christ wants us to be; what every baptized Christian is called to be. We are called to cooperate with God in his work of salvation. We are called to act according to our nature as willed by God. “The just man justices…” the just and upright man, does deeds of justice. Handsome is, as handsome does. The holy, just man always does gracious deeds. “He keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces.” All he does is work of grace. He becomes a channel of God’s grace for others. We are called to act in God’s eye what in God’s eye we really are – alter Christus – another Christ. If we all do our part, then literally Christ acts “in ten thousand places.” He acts; he saves; he feeds the poor and hungry multitude through the arms and limbs of people like us. “lovely in eyes and limbs not his,” (Christ’s) but lovely to the Father nonetheless, for “through the features of men’s faces,” God sees his own Son, Jesus Christ.

Today, let us not feel sad because there are so many hungry and poor people in the world, especially in the Philippines. Let us feel sad if no one among us, including – and, especially – us, would be willing to “give them food ourselves,” and to “act, like Christ, in ten thousand places.”


Monday, July 21, 2008

GIVE YOUR SERVANT AN UNDERSTANDING HEART, O LORD!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
July 27, 2008


I used to be annoyed by a distant relative, much older than me, who used to punctuate all her sentences with “Do you understand?” (Naiintindihan mo ba ako?). For every little detail, she would ask whether I understood. More often than not, she would be referring to details about things she would plan – and do – for the benefit of others, especially her loved ones. Being unmarried, all she thought of was how to help as many people as possible, most especially her relatives. That, of course, included me. Every time I would visit her abroad, she would have invariably, a lot of errands for me to do back home - “padalas,” “habilins” and “pabaons” (all meaning give-aways). I would go away from her place not only with boxes of goodies, but also an even bigger number of instructions, reminders and more reminders. Of course, I would listen to each and everyone half-heartedly. My little annoyance would lead me to some kind of “tuning out” for sheer survival of the ordeal. Upon reaching home, I would open the boxes of gifts and goodies and, lo and behold! … every item would be painstakingly marked, and pasted with Post-its, each one labeled with more instructions and reminders.

Funny, but on hindsight, I feel it all made sense. Had they not been marked and labeled, I would not have known what to do with all of them. The mind forgets all too easily. Or if it does not forget, it simply does not understand. Period.

An old Latin proverb, I think, from the Scholastics, tells us: Repetitio mater studiorum. Repetition is the mother of all learning. Just look back at your own experience… what do you remember most? Isn’t it the one that your mother or father drilled into you over the years? Some psychologist coined a word for it, although it has a negative connotation: parental tapes. These are the statements that we heard over and over again…statements that have become us, that have shaped who we are right now.

The Lord, Gospel commentators say, was a good teacher. We need not have a teacher’s advanced degrees to understand this. Today, we hear him ask us: “Do you understand all these things?” Naiintindihan n’yo ba ang lahat ng ito? Like us, the disciples were quick to answer: “Yes.” Exactly like us, who think and act like we already knew everything at times. Exactly like us, who, at times, cannot stand it being told, reminded or instructed.

But often, we really do not understand things fully. We see only parts and parcels of the truth, not the whole truth. Our minds really do not fully grasp everything. We are all short-sighted in a very real sense. “Every scribe,” we are told, “who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Among others, it refers to the ability to integrate a whole lot of things, the capacity to look at wholes and not get lost in disparate parts. It means being able to see the totality, to see as God sees, to think as God thinks, to understand the mysterious ways of God.

Now, this is the difficult part. How does one fully understand the reasons why suffering exists in the world. How does one fathom – let alone, accept – the mysterious and difficult ways of God who thinks not as man thinks, whose ways are not man’s ways? How on earth does one explain convincingly to one who is grieving the sudden loss of a beloved one, deep in the throes of the pain of unexpected loss, that all is well because it is all in accordance with God’s plan?

When my mother died all so suddenly 18 years ago at age 63, I did not understand a thing. I had lots of questions deep within. Of course, my mind knew all the answers. It knew that it was all part of God’s plan; that it was God’s will. But my heart revolted against what my mind told me. It simply did not make sense to one who was still grappling with the sense of utter loss, as painful as it was unexpected. I could not honestly say I understood it all … Hindi ko naintindihan ang lahat!

Of course, at that time, I did not know that what was missing was integration. The event of a sudden loss of a loved one was too close in time for me to make sense of it all. It was too soon for me to situate it within the totality of my life, and that of our whole family. Being too close to the event – and a painful one at that – my whole system was shut off to really understanding anything. I knew in my mind, but at heart, I really did not understand.

Now, older and wiser, there is something I know I can share with deep personal conviction – the truth of what St. Paul today speaks about: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Indeed, how very true this is! On hindsight, my mom’s death, which was hard to accept then, is now really an enviable one. She died so peacefully. Doctors say that her death was the most peaceful death one could imagine, even from the medical viewpoint. She just dozed off to a perpetual sleep. All her life, she was begging the good Lord for a happy and peaceful death. That was what she prayed for, each and every single day. (Days after she died, we got to know she still said that prayer for me which she started praying when I left for the Juniorate –minor seminary – back in 1969. The yellowed-with-age copy of the novena to Mary Help of Christians I gave her in 1968 was still tucked in together with all her daily prayers, all tied up in a neat, but often used, bundle with a rubber band. She always prayed for a peaceful and happy death). The good Lord gave her what she wanted most. Like Solomon, who begged the Lord for wisdom, my mom was given what she asked for. Now, without the obstacle provided by grief that closed the heart and mind to understanding, everything now falls into place.

We would do well to aspire for that same wisdom that Solomon prayed for: “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” There are things that defy our understanding every day. In our selfishness and pride, we do not understand why we need to forgive and live in peace with those who cause us harm, for example. We cannot understand why we need to respect authority – even those, and especially those – who, in our mind, do not deserve to be lording it over us. We do not understand why we need to “turn the other cheek” to those who wish and do us evil. We do not understand why we need to have second thoughts about wishing the deaths of so many evildoers who make life even more miserable than it already is for so many millions of people all over the world.

There are so many things we just do not understand…And precisely for this reason, we need to beg the Lord for wisdom. This wisdom will guide us to discern right from wrong. This same wisdom will lead us to accept basically unacceptable things in God’s own good time. This is the same wisdom that will find solace and joy in God’s commands, despite the initial protestations and questionings that fill our minds and hearts. The psalmist declares today: “Lord I love your commands!” For one who has integrated the disparate parts and parcels of his life, for one who has broadened and deepened – with God’s help – his view and perspective on life and events in the world, for one who has opened himself to the reality of God’s loving intervention in his life, “the law of [God’s] mouth is more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Indeed, everything works for good, for all those who love God.

This is the wisdom all of us should pray and beg God for! This wisdom, more than just opening us to accepting difficult events in our lives, will lead us to an even greater vulnerability – the capacity to risk ourselves for “a pearl of great price.” This wisdom that now acts out of the conviction that all things redound to good for those who love God, will lead us to accept everything God sends in our lives: all sorts of fishes – including those we do not like! People will invariably come into our lives: people we like and people we do not like. There will even be those who will make us suffer. The wisdom that God will give us will make us accept them all, as part of the whole package. For some, it may be a sickly child who demands extra attention from parents. For others, it may be a hard-to-please neighbor – a difficult character we have to love and live with. For still others, it may be a partner in life and in love that for years has become a real pain in the neck for a variety of reasons. Sicknesses, relationships turning sour, failed friendships, broken promises and vows… they are all part of the total loving package from a God who makes the sun shine on the good and the bad alike.

I started out this reflection with the admission that I – and all the rest of us – do not understand many things. Indeed, we still don’t. For all the catechisms and homilies and religion subjects we have undergone, we still do not understand a whole lot of things. I suggest that it may well be because we really do not know what it means to understand. We postmodern people, learned in so many ways and schooled in the finer nuances of logic and scientific discourses reduce understanding to a matter of the mind. But in stark contrast to this outlook, the Bible puts understanding as a matter of the heart. The heart stands for the center, the seat of the total person. It is where decisions and choices emanate. It is, for the Bible, the privileged place for wisdom to take root, from which all actions and decisions take their origin. It is no wonder then, that Solomon begs the Lord: “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”

We need all the wisdom we can get from the Lord these days. There is a very real temptation for us, for example, to fall deep into despair, in the face of so many seemingly insurmountable problems, both personal and social. There is a very real danger for us to become cynical at the sight of so much graft and corruption, at the sight of so much suffering and pain that millions of us have to face on a daily basis. There are a thousand and one reasons to come to grief, to become less trusting, less spontaneous, less warm, tender and loving to our fellowmen.

I would like to share with you the words of an ancient poet, Rumi by name who wrote in the 13th century:

Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round
In another form. The child weaned from mother’s milk
Now drinks wine and honey mixed.

God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
From cell to cell. As rainwater, down into the flowerbed,
As roses, up from the ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
Now a cliff covered with vines,
Now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
Till one day it cracks them open.

Part of the self leaves the body when we sleep
And changes shape. You might say, “Last night
I was a cypress tree, a small bed of tulips,
A field of grapevines.” Then the phantasm goes away.
You’re back in the room.
I don’t want to make anyone fearful.
Hear what’s behind what I say.

Ta dum dum, taaa dum, ta ta dum.
There’s the light gold of wheat in the sun
And the gold of bread made from the wheat.
I have neither, I’m only talking about them,

As a town in the desert looks up
At stars on a clear night.

We all need to beg the Lord, for this wisdom and understanding. Together with Solomon, we ask the Lord to give us that understanding that would be able to see beyond our little concerns, our pains, our sorrows, our worries - and see “God’s joy from one unmarked box to another,” that “gold” that shines out in wheat and bread and other ordinary things in life that we take for granted. We beg the Lord for this wisdom that makes even people in the desert of their lives look up with hope “at stars on a clear night.” This, as we all know by now, is the understanding of those who have decided to love God. And because they have decided to love God, they now see everything in the light of that love. They have become wise for they now see the role of everything that takes place in their lives. They know, and are convinced, that for those who love God, everything works for the good.

Give me more of this wisdom, Lord! Give me more of this understanding heart, O God!


Monday, July 14, 2008

I WILL PRAISE YOUR NAME, O LORD, FOR ITS GOODNESS!

Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
July 20, 2008

Readings: Wis 12:13, 16-19 / Rom 8:26-27 / Mt 13:24-43


We all had our own favorite teachers in the past. Or at the very least, we all have an image of a good teacher, mentor, leader, father, or superior – as the case may be. I am certain that for most of us, if not all, our image of a good parent, or teacher - or superior – for that matter, is one that espouses a healthy balance between two seemingly opposing poles as in gentleness, on the one hand, and firmness, on the other.

I have it on the authority of Carl Jung and other less known psychologists, that mental, psychological health is basically toeing the middle ground exactly between two polar opposites. The word they use for this is integration. It has to do with the practical ability to put together seemingly conflicting elements of both, and knowing when to emphasize one and downplay the other depending on the circumstances surrounding the person at any given time. Psychology calls it integration. The Bible has another word for it. Although it means a lot more than its psychological counterpart, wisdom captures some of the elements of the former. Scholastic philosophy would rather refer to the same concept as prudential judgment. Whatever term we use, what we would like to see in a leader, or parent, or teacher is that combination of a universe of attributes in perfect proportion, without that obvious swinging of the pendulum from one extreme to another. Another useful word for it is equanimity.

Current postmodern Tagalog slang would probably use what Pop Cola has popularized, of late: tamang tama ang timpla! Pag tama lang ang timpla, hindi labis, hindi kulang. (Everything fits just right; nothing is out of place).

I would like to think that the first reading today, not inappropriately taken from the book of Wisdom (12:13.16-19), partly refers to this healthy state. Obviously, from the foregoing, it probably would be more accurate for us to speak, not so much about a healthy state of balance, as a state of healthy tension, between two poles. Dynamic tension would be a more exact phrase. “But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; for power, whenever you will, attends you. And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind…”

Those who are just must be kind!…What an indictment for all of us, who either are too just and demanding, or too lenient. Traditional moral theology makes much of the so-called sins by excess or by defect. Yes, most of the sins we commit either fall on our overzealous attachment to one principle, to the detriment of others, or our lackadaisical attitude towards each and everyone of them. We sin either by excessive attachment to something, or by being sorely deficient in it. The technocrat excels in systems and organization skills, but fails miserably in warmth and human relational skills. The person-oriented individual excels in warmth and diplomacy, but would bend and adjust rules and principles to cater to each and everyone’s whims and fancies. The former could be obsessed with rules. The latter may abhor all kinds of rules and systems. This reminds me of the statement, (Rudyard Kipling’s?) “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.”

This same attribute of mercy in dynamic tension with justice in God finds graphic illustration in the Gospel according to Matthew. More than just this, it also illustrates the long-suffering nature and utter patience of God. However, it would be a mistake to think of this patience of God as an act of weakness on his part. On the contrary, it shows his power, for all throughout that time, the householder was in control. He had the power to order the weeds to be pulled out, but he chose not to. This behavior stands in stark contrast with that of anxious – if, insistent – servants who early on, wanted to do the most logical thing: pull out the weeds. Again, here, it is not logic that triumphs but mercy.

This decision of the householder defies reason. It is downright unreasonable. Who among us who has ever tended a little garden would agree to this? Who among us would agree to be at the mercy not only of illogical, but downright harmful people out to pull a fast one on us? Who among us would allow the seeds of future big problems to grow alongside our well tended seedlings and saplings in the garden that is our life when you have the chance to weed them out early on?

I, for one, would probably agree with the anxious tenants. Who among us would not? Often with real or feigned self-righteous indignation we cry against so much injustice in the world. We complain about so many things. In our shortsightedness, we see so much potential evil and harm. And we even rail impatiently against God for allowing evil to happen in the world. How many times have we blamed God for all the problems that have befallen our nation and people? How many times have we joined the ranks of those who, deep inside, really call on God to destroy all evil doers? Blinded as much by self-righteousness as a distorted notion of God that stems from our own inability to integrate the dark and light aspects of our personhood – our incapability to live that healthy, dynamic tension of sin and grace inside us, we beg and pray God for certain things. But we really do not know what we are asking for. We really do not know what to pray for. Somewhere in the core of our being, our petitions leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth. We beg God to banish all evil in the world. We beg Him to punish all those who wreak havoc in the lives of so many people. Armed with our perceived strengths of character, we look with disdain at all the rest who are not like us. The technocrat abhors the people pleaser. The people pleaser would rather do away with those who talk and live systems in organizations. How we loathe one another at times. Unable to acknowledge that our very strengths are also our own weaknesses, we fail to appreciate what precious lessons others can teach us. And so we fail to integrate and live – actually no longer two polar opposites, but really two faces of the same reality, points in the same continuum. At bottom, all of us really have the same strengths and weaknesses in varying degrees, acknowledged or unacknowledged, accepted or denied. It really does no good to the pot if it keeps on calling the kettle black.

Those of us who want the “big sinners” to die are missing the point of today’s liturgy. Those of us who ask some heads to roll all the time in this Church of his, that – undoubtedly – always needs reformation, do not seem to understand what the readings of today tell us. With all the clamor against sinful and bad priests and laity alike in the Church, with all the finger-pointing going on here and abroad, what with so much of that blaming culture being doled out – sadly – even by well-meaning preachers and pastors and journalists alike – one wonders whether it is the same batch of anxious, pestering and insistent tenants begging the household master to weed out all the undesirables in his garden all over again.

Away with bad priests! Away with bad bishops! Away with bad Christians and catholics! The good Lord has a sobering reminder for all of us today. We really do not know what we are asking for. For what we are asking for might well really refer to all of us. “Let him who has no sin, throw the first stone.” (Jn 8:7) “Learn from me, for I am meek and gentle of heart!” (Mt 11:29) Take note: today our response is: “Lord, you are good and forgiving.” “Though you are master of might, you judge with clemency.”

And as if this were not enough, St. Paul prophetically states: “we really do not know how to pray as we ought” – or what to pray for. “The Spirit,” he says, “comes to the aid of our weakness…The Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.”

Today’s liturgy is as much a sobering reminder about our human nature as steeped in sin and the reality of grace; the human condition of light and shadow, and the need for us to integrate the two, - as a reminder about the nature of God: just as He is merciful; good and forgiving, one who is master of might, yet judges with clemency. Faced with such a conviction, the sensitive heart can only utter together with the psalmist: I WILL PRAISE YOUR NAME, O LORD, FOR ITS GOODNESS!

Monday, July 7, 2008

NOTHING COMPARED TO THE GLORY TO BE REVEALED TO US

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
July 13, 2008

Readings: Is 55:10-11 /Rom 8:18-23 /Mt 13:1-23

One experience we are all too familiar with, but which we’d rather not have to go through is the experience of failure. Students dread the thought of all their efforts at mastering the subject matter all coming to naught at the end of the term. Farmers need to do their sowing of new seeds at the right time, lest their seeds, for lack of sufficient moisture, wither and die. Parents go through their task of raising children with fear and trepidation because failure in this regard may spell a lifetime of regret - if not, recrimination.

We all dread failure. We do not look forward to wastage of any kind, least of all our human efforts. We desire that all human effort expended in whatever field of endeavor, would turn efficacious, either for ourselves, or for others. We long for success. Students look forward to a diploma. Farmers want a bountiful harvest – and a good supply of new seeds besides, for the next planting season. Parents work hard to assure themselves of having responsible, productive children in future. No one wants to fail. No one wants his efforts turning futile, and producing nothing but wastage. Like the little farmer in each and everyone of us, we all look forward to a bountiful harvest.

But then, let us face it. Not everything we do ends in success. Not every seed we sow germinates and grows and bears fruit in plenty. Even in our families, members grow in the same environments, eat the same food, hear the same admonitions from the same parents, but we all know how children grow up to be different from one another. For one who have been planting various types of plants over these past so many years, I do know that not every seedling turns out to be a healthy tree or a good shrub. As a teacher for well over 30 years by now, I do know that not every student I taught turned out to be responsible and caring individuals – the honest citizens and good Christians Don Bosco wanted every Bosconian to become.

Wastage and failure are an ineluctable part of human experience.

Today’s Gospel parable – no less – speaks about this. Some seeds fell on rocky ground, on the footpath, or among thorns. They ended up as wastage, failures. Some seeds fell on good soil. They bore fruit in plenty. They were not wasted. The Gospel puts us face to face with the idea of failure. Despite the very upbeat tenor of the first reading today, the Lord would have us understand how even the best efforts could turn into failure and wastage.

The second reading is some kind of a reality check for all of us. Paul speaks of “sufferings of this present time.” He refers to creation as “groaning in labor pains” like we ourselves, he says, who “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Take any good dictionary. Groans refer to cries of one in pain. All of creation is groaning in expectation, in waiting, in anticipation. Science has not found a way to really predict twisters and sudden squalls at sea. Volcanoes and tornadoes have caused and still will cause a lot of destruction all over the world. In a very literal and figurative sense, the whole of creation is also waiting for deliverance. Cancer and HIV patients all around the globe are still waiting for a breakthrough discovery of a cure that really works. And all of us, still in this valley of tears, are waiting avidly in hope for the fullness of salvation. Waiting in deep expectation…waiting in hope…hoping even against hope, at times…this is how we all are.

One of the most moving descriptions of waiting in hope I have ever encountered, is found in the lengthy poem The Wreck of the Deutchsland by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In moving poetic language, Hopkins recounts the ordeal and eventual death by drowning of five Franciscan nuns traveling from Germany to England on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 7, 1875. The Deutschland ran aground in a shoal, caught by a severe squall, and 50 out of 200 travelers met their untimely death (Incidentally, this tragedy pales in comparison to the more than 6,000 that perished in four shipping accidents that befell the Philippines’ Sulpicio Lines, the last one being late last month). What caught the attention of the poet was the bravery and holiness of one of the sisters named Gertrude, who, with courage and hope did her best to help save the lives of others but lost her own and that of her co-sisters. This, she did, despite the fact that, in the words of Hopkins, “hope had grown grey hairs, hope had mourning on, trenched with tears, carved with cares, hope was twelve hours gone; and frightful nightfall folded rueful a day nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone, and lives at last were washing away…”

Gertrude, the towering nun, took charge “a prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told” and, not minding the sea water that blinds her, she sees one thing only: God, and the “call of the tall nun to the men in the tops and tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.” Courageous and heroic efforts from a nun all turning to naught… She died, along with the other four, along with 45 others… a story of wastage and failure.

Failure, yes…but only in the eyes of men. Hopkins’ perspicacity saw beyond the seeming failure. He saw – rightly – a picture totally different, a story patently similar to what St. Paul, Isaiah and Jesus Christ are recounting for us today. For they all recount a story of hope. They all speak about a power and efficacy that triumph in the end, despite the seeming failure all around.

I am referring here to the power and efficacy of God and his word. The first reading states in no uncertain terms: “my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” (Is 55:11) Such is the power of God’s utterance. The Genesis account of creation tells us how God’s word was behind all of creation. In poetic language, we are told how the world and everything in it came to be: Let there be… and there was…This dynamic reality of the word per se, and the creative character of the divine utterance, as believed in by the Old Testament Jews, find numerous echoes in the New Testament. Jesus, whom John the Evangelist calls the Word incarnate, is often portrayed as one who spoke with authority, whom “even the winds and the sea obey.” (Mt 8:27) He was seen, not only as one who spoke with authority, but one whose words effected what they signified, as is clear in the many passages that recount his healing acts for the sick. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, "Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I will do it. Be made clean." (Mt 8: 2-3) The same truth is affirmed by the Letter to the Hebrews: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in a recent book, recounts another moving story of a young seminarian who wanted to become a priest. Unfortunately, in an out-of-town trip to visit an elder sister who was a nun, together with his family, the van they were riding on met an accident. Of all those inside the van, only he was hurt seriously and was paralyzed from the neck down. The whole family being known to everybody in the parish where they came from, the whole parish was brought down to its knees in prayer for him, begging the Lord for a miracle. When they gathered again for what they thought would have been a thanksgiving prayer service for the expected “miracle” weeks later, in came a wheelchair, bearing the once athletic, handsome body of this young man now almost unable to move, but who spoke thus: “You all came here for a service of thanksgiving, but, as I was wheeled up the aisle, you all thought, ‘Thanksgiving for what? This young man is a quadriplegic, and will be for the rest of his life. His promising future is destroyed. This is hardly an answer to our prayers!”… I must admit to you that I have felt the same way every once in a while these last ten weeks since the accident. In other words, like the apostles in the Gospel in the midst of that overwhelming storm we are tempted to think our Lord is asleep and couldn’t care less. Hope, my friends,…hope is the gift that keeps us going when we think Jesus is asleep, and let us thank God for that great gift of hope!”

Archbishop Dolan recounts, one could have heard a pin drop in that jammed church, as this young man gave the best discourse on hope that made the words of the psalmist ring true: “In God alone is my soul at rest, my help comes from him. He alone is my rock, my stronghold, my fortress, I stand firm.” (Ps 62).

I would like to take back what I started out with in this reflection. No, the readings do not speak primarily of wastage and failures. They all speak primarily about bearing fruit in plenty. At a time when we are tempted to think that “hope is growing grey hairs” in the Philippines, politically, economically, culturally and in a host of other aspects, we are reminded: “my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” I would like to think that the dark clouds that hover over the Church in the Philippines in these difficult moments do not represent at all hope being 17 years gone (after PCP –II), or that things have gone totally hopeless. No, they goad us on to hope even more, to trust God even more that He will keep his promises. This is the same hope that, together with St. Paul, declares unflinchingly: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

To all of you, who like me, are tempted to think the Lord is asleep and does not care a fig about us and our human condition, I would like to say, take heart, take courage…and, take heed! Your pains, your worries, your hurts…all of it, is nothing. Nothing compared to the glory to be revealed to us!

Alternative Reflection:

THE STORY OF OUR LIVES

All three readings today speak of two aspects of human experience – success and failure. The first reading refers more to success. It refers to the power and efficacy of the divine utterance.

Comparing God’s word to rain and snow that falls down from the heavens, that word, says Isaiah, will never go back to the heavens without first achieving the purpose for which they came.

The second reading though, taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans, offers us a reality check. It speaks of “sufferings in this present time.” Although it speaks of something that people would rather not have to undergo, Paul’s letter nevertheless, waxes hopeful as it frames suffering in the bigger context of God’s call – the glorious destiny that God has in store for all of us.

The Gospel passage combines the pictures of success and failure in one interesting parable - the parable of the sower and the seeds. Failure … some seed fell on rocky ground; some fell on the footpath. Those seeds stood very little chances. They grew up fast, but they also withered and died even faster. No sooner had they sprouted than all sorts of obstacles stood in the way of their coming to full term. Success … some seeds fell on good ground. They bore fruit in plenty … a hundred, sixty, or thirty fold!

This is the context in which we live our human and Christian lives. We are all an ongoing story of success and failures.

There is much to praise and thank God for. God’s word continues to be sown in many places all over the world. That same word sprouts and takes root in the lives of many people. The Church continues to grow at a pace that no one could readily imagine, let alone predict, as manifested in places like Nigeria in the African continent, in Korea, and elsewhere. True to Isaiah’s words, the word does not go back where it came from empty handed. It achieves and effects its purpose. God’s divine utterance continues to be creative … not only creative, but salvific. Everywhere around the world, God’s word produces the results for which they were uttered. His original “blessing” that was behind the creation of life, continues to produce new life. “Let there be …” “and there was!”

God’s word, indeed, is effective … “like a two-edged sword,” in the words of the letter-writer to the Hebrews.

But the totality of Scripture does not gloss over reality as we know it, reality as finite and limited human beings like us know it. For St. Paul, writing to the Romans, “all of creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God to be revealed.” Creation itself, “groans in labor pains” as it awaits the destiny God meant for it. We live in an unfinished, imperfect world. We live in a world, that, marred as it is by sin, is longing for deliverance.

This world is one characterized by successes and failures, by pain and endless possibility, by limitations and by transcendence.

This is the world the gospel parable speaks about. It is a world cared for by a divine sower, gifted with seeds of new life, and new possibilities. This is a world that stands before a caring God in an ongoing dialogical encounter, a world capable of cooperating with the same God, or of rejecting His loving interventions.

And this is where the greatest failure comes to the fore – the failure to respond, the failure to dance with the divine music, the failure to comply with God’s overtures of creative love.

Our lives are an ongoing example of these overtures and initiatives coming to naught on account of our non-response, on account of our indifference and downright rejection of God. In our lives, there are soils and there are soils. There are those who offer nothing more than cragged rocky ground. Rocks and stones offer not much for the seed to sprout and take root in. There are those of us who offer nothing more than the margins of our waking and sleeping lives. All we offer, at times, is the well-beaten foot path where everything gets trampled upon. No matter how good, the seedlings get trampled upon by too much busyness, by indifference, by too many peripheral concerns. The seeds do sprout, but they soon rot away, trampled to oblivion by so many concerns that take central stage of our lives.

This is the failure called sin. This is the failure also referred to as lack of capacity to respond appropriately and accordingly to God’s overtures and initiatives. This is the failure called “aversio a Deo” and “conversio ad creaturas” – a turning away from God and a turning toward creatures.

Scripture, we know, basically revolves around a few convergent themes: the theme of election, the theme of covenant, the theme of God’s choice, the theme of man’s response; the theme of sin and the theme of repentance; the theme of the fall, and the theme of redemption. It is the same topic we speak of – the story of man’s – everyman’s – successes and failures.

Successes in our context … Let’s talk about the fact that we are the only Christian nation in Asia. Not bad, huh? But let’s see the other side of the coin, failure. We happen to have a most unsavory reputation of being the most corrupt nation in the same region!

Success … we export not only domestic helpers and caregivers. We also export our world-famous Christian faith. Were it not for Filipino domestic helpers, many Churches in once Christian Europe would be literally empty. Failure? … Yes, there’s quite a few. We happen to export also the culture of “sabong” (cockfighting) and raising fighting cocks in the heart of Christian Rome!

Success … Being a poor country, we can make do with so little. We can make miracles even out of the junk thrown away by our far richer neighbors like Japan. Ships that are retired and decommissioned in Japan find new life and bloom into worthwhile use when brought to the Philippines, and retouched by creative and inventive skilled hands. Failure? … everyone knows that one shipping company has figured in about 45 maritime accidents since they opened shop. Since 1987, that same company has figured in the untimely deaths of more than 6,000 people who perished in four different shipping tragedies, the most recent of which was just last June 21, 2008.

We are a country and people carried away by stories of success on the one hand; and marred by disturbing stories of failure, on the other. We are a people characterized by situations of lights and shadows, as our most often quoted document of PCP-II puts it (The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, 1991).

But we gather together Sunday in and Sunday out, among other things, precisely to find meaning in these utterly and apparently meaningless situations. We want to be guided by our faith, and we long for the seeds of God’s Word not only to take root in our lives, but also to sprout new life, new answers, and new ways of solving the riddles of our daily existence. We want, favored as we have been, by the “first fruits of the Spirit” to “groan” like all of creation does, as it longs for the full revelation of the sons of God. Despite the pain, despite the “contours of hopelessness” all around us, we still find it in our heart to have faith, hope, and love.

This is the Good News we hold on to. Successes and failures are all around us … lights and shadows … sin and grace. But this is not the problem. At bottom, the only question we need to ask ourselves, based on today’s readings, is simply this: “What type of soil are we?” Then, and only then, can we talk about whether we are going to be a story of success or failure