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Monday, November 24, 2008

THE WAY OF THE PILGRIM; THE WAY OF HOPEFUL WAITING


Catholic Homily/Sunday Liturgical Reflections
1st Sunday of Advent - Year B
November 30, 2008

Readings: Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7 / 1Cor 1:3-9 / Mk 13:33-37


Waiting is not one of the virtues of postmodern women and men of our times. Perhaps quickness of response to communication is, but not waiting. We want instant results. We want instant information. At the press of a SEND button, through the wonders of WAP, we have instant access to info about entertainment, about the weather, and a whole lot more.

That may well be one of the reasons why the telenovela, the teleserie, the protracted soap operas of our times attract so many viewers. They have taken the place of the more difficult discipline of reading full-blown novels. Reading is no longer one of the more popular pastimes among our people. Sitting it out on a prolonged basis, allowing the mind to be taken up and transported to a different world, is something we would rather not do. We want to do multi-tasking. We want to watch and still be up and about, doing other things while keeping oneself entertained. We wait, but we also cannot wait. We watch passively, and yet we also want to be active in other less-focused ways, like poring lightly over glossy magazines that seem to be increasing by the day.

One thing seems clear: we do things that require little focus and less intense concentration. We do many things, but none of them really well enough to merit an excellent rating. Students do their homework with music blaring, with cell phone on the ready, oftentimes even with the TV on. Those who are better equipped would most likely have the computer on all the time. Nowadays, it would not be rare to see students who could engage in internet chat and still claim they are doing school work.

Waiting is a focused activity, for sure. This may well explain its unpopularity.

The Good News, however, is never dependent on current fads and trends. Year after year, the Church, during Advent, counsels us to reflect on the idea of waiting… a special kind of waiting, to be sure. It is a type of waiting which is just as active as the type young people, especially in our days, do. It is active waiting. But it is active not in the sense of multi-tasking, or in the sense of one spreading himself thinly all over the place, lacking in focus and sufficient attention in what one does. It is focused waiting, attentive waiting, a waiting in faith, and hope, a waiting suffused with longing, with a certain conviction that what one is waiting for already has come and happened at least in germ.

This is the essence of Advent waiting. We wait for what has come. Salvation has dawned upon us. But we still wait with eager longing for the full consummation of that which has been given to us. Advent thus refers to the fact that as Christians, we live in the in-between time of Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, and his yet-to-be-fulfilled return at the end-time. The fact that we live in a “frontier-world” as it were, makes us temporary sojourners in this present time. We are a people on the move, a people in pilgrimage, a people in perpetual journey. We are an ever-moving people. We, too, are a people ever hoping. With all due respect to St. Augustine, I suggest a re-wording of what he said. We are not just an Easter people. We are also an Advent people, and Maranatha is one of our songs, in addition to Alleluia.

The hope of a people in pilgrimage is evident in Isaiah’s prayerful words begging the Lord for help so that they might not stray from His ways: “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?…O that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds for those who wait for him.”

The responsorial psalm, for its part, confirms this prayer and wish to be brought back to the right path, to the way of the pilgrim, the way that leads to salvation. Again, it evokes the idea of going through the right way: “Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.” This is further deepened by the verse before the Gospel: “Show us, Lord, your love; and grant us your salvation.”

A people on the move, a people in pilgrimage cannot afford to lose precious little time in too much sleep. A people on the watch is a people awake and mindful. They are always ready to hit the road, to be on their way at short notice. They are alert for the changing conditions of weather, of the times. They have a very keen sense of proper timing. They know when to start out early, and when to start out late.

Such is evoked by the words of the Lord: “Be watchful; be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servant in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Advent is a time for us to learn the important lesson of waiting. This is the way of all pilgrims; the way of sojourners like we all are. Simone Weil rightly writes that “waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Waiting smacks of hope, no ordinary hope that is nothing more than wishful thinking, but a hope that already claims as its own what is for the meantime (in this in-between time of the Church) only given in germ. This is how this Mass on this first Sunday of Advent ends. After communion, we join the whole Church in prayer: “Father, may our communion teach us to love heaven. May its promise and hope guide our way on earth. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

LOST, BUT FOUND!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
Solemnity of Christ the King (Year A)
November 23, 2008


We all have had the experience of something we so dearly cared for which we lost or misplaced at some time or other in our lives. It may be an object to which we have attached a deep sentimental value. The more we cared for it, the more we missed it and looked for it. This is all the more true for persons who are important to us for one reason or another.

The depth and intensity of caring, the love and solicitude for persons – these are what distinguish a genuine leader from a role or bit player. The depth of concern a leader has, the readiness he or she shows for selfless service – these are what make a King, more than just a king, but a servant leader, a figure worth emulating and looking up to for total support, not just someone to fill up our need for someone to rule over us.

Our experience of loss, along with the confusion that such entails, especially in most painful personal losses like to the loss of loved ones and persons most important to us, the reality of failed friendships and broken relationships – all sorts of losses that strike hard and deep into the core of our personhood, at times so heart-rending that they may shake us to the core – are, in reality a picture of what we all are in the eyes of God. Born as we all are with the stain of original sin, we were all lost. We are all sinners. “All men have fallen short of God’s glory.”

The figure of Christ, the King that the liturgy today presents is a study in contrasts. Popular reckoning would place the figure of a king seated on a mighty throne, possessing might and power and sovereignty. Indeed, the language of the Gospel text today could easily be misread in favor of such an image of a king, lording it over the whole of creation. Whilst such an image of Christ, as Lord of all creation would not be heretical, such does not seem to be the main focus of the readings today. I would not be at home with the idea of dwelling on such a triumphalistic – if, a little irrelevant – image of Jesus as king.

In fact, the passage from Ezekiel speaks more of a shepherd-leader who would “look after and tend” sheep. Ezekiel speaks of a God who would “pasture and guide” and who would “seek out the lost” and “bring back the strayed,” “bind up the injured,” and “heal the sick.” This is definitely not the language of strong leadership, but that of deep caring and loving solicitude.

This is the image of Christ, the shepherd-king, the servant-leader who seeks out the lost, and who, therefore, finds us. We were once lost, but we are found over and over again, by Christ. We are lost, but found!

Being person-oriented, we Filipinos find it hard to accept leaders who are too bossy, too result-oriented, too authoritarian and who, otherwise, comes in too strong all the time. We love leaders who are a bit condescending in a good sense, who brushes shoulders with the rank and file, who show personal concern for our welfare. Rightly or wrongly, we easily take to the style of populist leaders who act more like one of us, rather than one who strikes us as too detached, aloof, and uncaring.

I would like to think that today’s readings paint this other side of the picture of Christ as our King and Lord. We are given the tender side of servant-leadership that highlights the traits of caring and solicitude of the divine shepherd. Without falling into the trap of mushiness and maudlin sentimentalism, the readings also apprise us of the nature of God to seek out the least, the last, the lowest and the lost. A very clear current of predilection for the poor, the sick, the widows and orphans is readily visible in Biblical tradition. Against this, there is no convincing argument. God loves the poor, the lowly. He even declared them blessed, along with those who suffer for righteousness’ sake, and other beatitudes. God is on the side of those who mourn, who suffer, who are downtrodden, or who are brokenhearted.

We all know what it means to lose something or someone, whether temporarily or permanently. We also know what it means to be lost, to be forsaken, as when we feel people ignore us, or do not take us seriously, or who just do not seem to appreciate who or what we are. Few of us cannot lay claim to the experience of being somewhat denigrated and looked down upon by others, or who may have been downright put down by some who may feel superior to us in some way – real or imagined. Whether our subjective feelings may be based on reality or perception does not really matter. What matters is the reality of what we feel, which is in a very real sense our own.

The feast of Christ, the King who comes to the rescue of the lost, like we once were, and still we all are at some time or other, fills us with no small consolation. Our God is a gracious and loving God, who seeks out the lost, who heals the sick and pastures his sheep.

As we bask in this deeply consoling truth, however, there is equal need for us to pay attention to another reality that we need to prepare for – the end time. This King who is servant-leader, is pictured by the Gospel as he who would separate the sheep from the goats. He has a mission to fulfill. Knowing, as we do through faith, that when he comes again, indeed as King, in the end-time, we will be well advised to be prepared “for we do not know the day nor the hour.” The thought of his coming need not foster fear in our hearts, but love, for as shepherd-king, he will come not to enslave us, but to liberate us. He will come not so much to punish us, as to deal out justice to us. And biblically, God’s justice has always been equated with his mercy. God is infinitely just, as he is infinitely merciful. For once we were lost, but now are found by no less than Christ our King who, Francis Thompson aptly refers to as the Hound of Heaven. Like a hound, a hunting dog, he goes “through the nights, and through the days; he goes through the labyrinthine ways” all in search for his beloved – the last, the least, the lowest, and the lost – which we all were and are one time or other, as we journey through the highways and byways of life.

I would like to share with you this beautiful prayer from Melanie Svoboda. It refers to a God, who is ever searching for us, asking us, as he did Adam, “Where are you?”

God, you ask me,
“Where are you?”
And I reply,
“What need have I to tell you where I am,
when you know, who know the whole of life,
know better where I am than I?”
And you reply, “That’s true. I do.”
But then you add,
“But do you know where you are?”
And I confess, “I don’t.”
And quickly add:
“I think I hide from you and from myself,
with all the things I have to do
or choose to do.
And things can sometimes stand between
The who I am and the who I want to be,
And the who you want me to be.”
“You’re right,” you say.
And then it all comes clear to me,
What I must do to become the who
We both want me to be:
I must walk with you and talk with you,
In the warmth of the morning sun,
Or in the cool of the evening breezes.
God, when you ask, “Where are you?”
May my answer always be:
“With you, my God. With you.”
Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

TRUST AND RESPONSIBLE INITIATIVE

Catholic Homily/Sunday Gospel Reflection
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
November 16, 2008


It always takes two to tango, as they say. There are always two parties in an agreement, two people at least in a partnership, and two sides of the same coin. Traffic, unless declared otherwise, is always a two-way affair, and in this world of “come and go,” there has to be some form of investment from one AND the other party – trust on the part of one, and responsibility on the part of the other.

The ancient Romans had a concrete axiom that epitomizes this need for mutual cooperation. MANUS MANUM LAVAT! Literally, it means “one hand washes the other hand.” Try washing only one hand. It is really impossible. You have to use both hands, for the two really wash each other…a perfect image of what cooperation is all about.

We Filipinos have an equivalent image to convey a similar concept – a riddle (bugtong in Tagalog). “Takot ako sa iisa; matapang ako sa dalawa.” (I am afraid of only one, but I feel courageous in front of two). The answer to the riddle is a bamboo bridge, as all of us know. Now imagine a bamboo bridge over a deep ravine and that bridge is made up only of one bamboo pole! Don’t you think you need at least two for a little more strength and stability?

Our two hands, the bamboo bridge – they both convey the need for cooperation and synergy, the importance of coming together and pooling efforts together if results are to be expected. This is true of most every human endeavor.

The same is true of our relationship with God!

The Gospel parable, among other things, impresses upon us this dual polarity in our relationship with God: God’s trust as represented by the man going on a journey entrusting all his possessions to his servants, on the other, and the responsibility and initiative (or the lack of it) which was shown by those who were entrusted with such huge amounts. The details could not have been clearer. The Gospel account says that “he went away” soon after entrusting the 5, 2 and 1 talents to three different individuals – a clear clue of the full trust he gave the three servants. (Talents were used to refer to sums of money that were far beyond what ordinary daily commerce would require at that time – huge amounts, by any measure). This speaks about the TRUST that God has for us when he made us “in his image and likeness,” that is, free and intelligent creatures.

But that divine TRUST, the same parable tells us, has to be reciprocated. This is represented by the other details said about what the three servants did with what was entrusted to them. Two of them were praised for investing and thus doubling the money. Their responsibility and initiative earned them praises from the master. But one who just buried the sum, who showed no initiative and no responsibility got the ire of the same master.

The lesson and its concrete applications in our lives should be clear to us. We are talking here about the classical discussion on the issue of divine-human cooperation. Since we humans were created by God as free and intelligent, we enjoy and “share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) As such, God does not impose himself on us. God respects our freedom. Grace, which comes from God alone, cannot work unless there is human cooperation. The classical Latin dictum GRATIA SUPPONIT NATURAM (Grace builds on nature) epitomizes this need for the delicate interplay between the twin powers of human nature and divine grace. God meets us halfway. And He meets us where we are at, not where we think we are, or where we have placed ourselves to be. Our human nature needs to take part in this partnership, in this work of salvation. Thus, in a very real sense, salvation is as much God’s work as our own work. This is what cooperation with God’s grace is all about.

Complacency has no role to play in this common effort. Speaking about waiting for the anticipated return of the Lord, St. Paul cautions us against this complacency when he wrote: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (1 Thess 5:3) A sign of this responsible initiative, too, is what we reflected on last Sunday – mindfulness and watchfulness. “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” (1 Thess 5:6)

A homespun saying that best expresses the need for human cooperation puts it so nicely and succinctly: “When your motorboat engine conks out on you and you are stranded out in the open sea, pray hard to the Lord, but keep on rowing to the shore.” Again, we Filipinos have an equivalent aphorism that best expresses what we are talking about: “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.” (Divine compassion and mercy are never wanting, but man has to do what he can).


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

GRACE FLOWING LIKE A RIVER


Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
FEAST OF THE DEDICATION OF THE LATERAN BASILICA
November 9, 2008

People value water everywhere. All over the world, the availability of precious life-giving water is among the top in the list of items that would spell the birth or demise of new or old communities. Some say wars in the future will be waged on account of water, now fast becoming a scarce commodity in many places. Still, water is seen to stand for so much more than life itself. Water is taken to symbolize peace, purity, cleanness, to name just a few.

No wonder that in almost every country in the world, small, fancy, table-top gurgling fountains have become a regular feature in homes, offices, restaurants and bedrooms. Water features are an integral part of commercial buildings, parks, schools and malls, both indoors and outdoors.

Ezekiel today paints a picture of the temple from whose altar flows water … “water trickling from the southern side.” The trickle, we are told, does wonders, for it brings life to a basically lifeless world – including the Arabah desert, the “salt waters.” “Wherever the water flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, … for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.”

The second and third readings connect wonderfully with this vision of Ezekiel. St. Paul speaks also of a temple, this time, the temple of our bodies, and the Lord speaks of the temple of his body. Speaking of this body, he tells the indignant Jews who sought a sign from him: “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up.”

This is the same “temple” that was destroyed in ignominious death, was buried, and on the third day, rose from the dead, as Jesus had prophesied. This is the same temple, “from whose side, blood and WATER flowed out.”

This is the supreme temple that overflowed with life-giving grace, with salvation, with redemptive love for all peoples. Even as the water from Ezekiel’s temple brought about life wherever it flowed, Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection brought about life and salvation for all peoples everywhere. The love of God has no bounds. The love and mercy of God excludes no one. It is as universal as air, water, and sunlight. From the side of Christ, blood and water flowed out. “It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.”

For the uninitiated, today’s feast seems rather strange. Why hold a universal feast for an insignificant church in Rome? Why celebrate the dedication of a basilica over the Lateran hill that, for all intents and purposes, is not anymore frequented by worshipers as much as by mostly ignorant tourists who only come to have rolls and rolls of film exposed for posterity?


We need to pay attention to the readings of today. We need to look back at Ezekiel’s vision of the water flowing from the altar, giving life wherever it goes. We need to understand what St. Paul was referring to. We need to take a close look at what Christ was pointing to.

They were all talking about origins. They were all referring to the source, the font, the spring from which grace, life-giving grace flows in abundance. They were all talking about universality of source and origin of grace. They were all referring to the bosom of a great and loving God, who has raised the prophets, the saints, including St. Paul, and who has sent his only begotten Son, so that the world might live!

This universality is concretely represented by the Lateran Basilica, dedicated to Jesus, the Most Holy Savior and to St. John the Baptist built over the Lateran hill, the original cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father.

Symbols are always representative of a deeper reality. A concrete sign of universality as this Basilica, known as “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput,” the mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world, points to one such set of deeper realities. First, there is only one ultimate source of grace, of life and of salvation and that is God who wrought redemption in Christ, the one mediator. Second, this oneness of source assures oneness of faith, oneness in communion, oneness in belief and oneness in tradition. The Lateran Basilica stands for this catholicity (that is, universality) of our faith, worship and life. And so we look up to the Lateran Basilica as the concrete sign of our faithful allegiance to the one faith, one baptism, one Lord, one God and Savior of all, who is Father.

Let me illustrate with one current reality that has been in the news over the past weeks. This oneness in source means to say that the Catholic Church is not a conglomeration of loosely federated denominations who each follows its own theological tradition and teaching. No. Coming as we are from the one who alone founded the true Church, the teaching we receive, the tradition we are handed down, are all safeguarded by the promised gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Our faith and life is very much like that water that trickles from the same altar which flows and gives life wherever it goes. This is a far cry from the unfortunate reality of some Christian denominations who are beset by so much disagreements on basic issues on faith and morals. Since 1565, the Protestant group has branched out to thousands of different denominations and have since grown far different from their original source.

But of course, this homily is not for them but for us, who are struggling against our own little versions of protest against what we wrongly think is the Roman Catholic Church. We all run the risk of being torn apart ourselves. We are torn apart by so much hatred and indifference. We are already torn apart by so much differences in wealth and standards of living. 25 % of the world’s population use up 75% of the world’s resources, while 75% of the world’s population make do with the remaining 25% of the same world’s resources. We are torn apart also by envy and by selfishness. Even covenanted communities are not immune to so much petty squabbles and intrigues, and once flourishing communities are suddenly divided bitterly over misunderstandings, hurt feelings, a lot of unforgiveness, and so much pride. Even families are broken by the same reality and manifestation of the mystery of iniquity, lying like the proverbial snake hidden in the grass, ready to pounce at the next opportunity.

The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica is a call to oneness. This feast is also a clear reminder that grace flows out from the bosom of God for all women and men all over the world, regardless of race, color, faith and political allegiances.

Grace is flowing like a river, today and everyday. The question for us now is whether we are willing to allow this “water” to quench us and cleanse us. If we do, then let us proclaim with the psalmist: “The waters of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High.”