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Monday, December 29, 2008

A TREASURE WELL-KEPT IN THE HEART



The Greek Inscription Says "Mother of God"

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflections
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
January 1, 2009


We all have our own storehouse of what we consider precious in our lives. I remember my maternal grandmother had a wicker chest (baul) full of a great many and varied stuff, from pieces of cloths (retazos) to old clothes, and a number of old little boxes containing more trinkets. It dawned on me only when I was already an adult that that chest was grandma’s storehouse of memories of times gone by.

Up until quite recently, I, too, had my own version of this chest. It contained a whole lot of memorabilia from my first assignment as a practical trainee in a small start-up parish that was no more than 3 years old then, as a student of theology, as a young priest, of my various travels in the U.S. and in Europe. Everything precious…everything memorable…everything worth reminiscing…we keep them for posterity. We treat them as some kind of a priceless treasure.

But there are things that we cannot keep or hold on to. We cannot hold on to certain things for one simple reason: they are not things. Stuff like memories of events in the past, or values that we have learned to cherish… they cannot be kept in storage. Though they are treasures all the same, they can only be cherished in the greatest and unlimited storehouse available to humans alone – the storehouse of the heart.

The heart, both traditionally and Biblically, stood for the core of the person. It stands for what and who the person is essentially, the summation of everything that a person is, or is perceived to be. What is in the heart of the person is what the person is worth, in the long run. What the heart is full of, the mouth gives utterance to (cf. Luke 6:45). The heart represents the person for all he or she is worth.

The Church presents to us today, a towering figure of a woman who has a big, big and magnanimous heart – Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God.

To be magnanimous is the opposite of being pusillanimous. For us to see whether we, or others have enough magnanimity of heart, we only have to look at the treasures kept in that unlimited storehouse of our own hearts. What sort of a treasure trove do we find therein? What sort of trinkets do we consider important enough as to crowd out other objects or considerations in that heart? What kind of memories do we hold on to within that heart? What dreams and plans do we nourish and nurture in our heart? What would we rather rehash and remember in our quiet moments?

Puny little hearts beat mostly for self-centered concerns. They are always only a heartbeat away from what benefits them, aggrandizes them, and fulfills them – temporarily, that is. They aim mostly after ephemeral stuff, things that do not last, all the temporariness of life in this world: power, glory, the adulation of men, material goods and “carrion comfort.” Herod, the one who got pretty much insecure at the news of the birth of a boy whose coming was signaled by a star followed by wise men from the east, was a clear example. His heart was no bigger than the worms that eventually consumed his body in life and in death. The storehouse contained nothing more than selfish concerns. So, too, was the fate of Julius Caesar, whose heart nurtured ambition more than anything else. He sacrificed truth and justice on the altar of his personal desire to wield power.

Pusillanimity of heart abounds in our society, in our times. Just look at how many programs meant for the common good get stalled, if not shot down, all because of too many people with puny little hearts who could not find it in their heart to allow room for dreams whose benefits extend far, far beyond their own immediate and personal good! How many of those who lord it over others, whether in government or in the Church, whose hearts are so tightly packed with their egos that they seem unable to expand their horizons, broaden their concerns and squeeze in some good initiative or good idea simply because it is not theirs! How much longer are we to wait before we can get a set of lawmakers, judiciary people, and executive people in government who are magnanimous enough to let go of their own agenda and really work for that which benefits the greater majority of our people – the poor?

Pusillanimity is all about hemming in, fencing in, gathering in for oneself – and obviously – closing in on oneself! Pusillanimity is all about selfishness and getting caught in a rut of utterly personal concerns. It has to do with constriction of heart. There is a virtual narrowing, not only of the arteries understood as conduits of good towards others, but also a constricting of pursuits and dreams and visions that all are reduced to a myopic search for more, for oneself, that is.

Magnanimity, its opposite, is all about opening up, expanding, giving! Magnanimity of heart has to do with a broadening, not a constriction of dreams and visions and programs. Magnanimity is all about pushing up and not shooting down! It is all about leaving wide room for others’ initiatives and ideas that are for the good of others, even if they are not one’s own!

Magnanimity of heart is all about motherhood and fatherhood! It is all about giving and not counting the cost. It is all about doing, while not fully understanding the whys and the wherefores, provided one knows it is God’s will. Magnanimity of heart is being like Mary, the Mother of God, the Mother of divine grace, the woman above all women and men!

Today’s solemnity, then, is a feast and a song to magnanimity and motherhood! This is a song about the magnanimity of Mary’s Divine Motherhood. This is, plain and simple, about a Mother, a woman, who held nothing back, who held onto nothing for herself, whose storehouse of everything good – her maternal heart – only contained “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Phil 4:8). This feast is to extol the praises of a woman and mother who stood like a towering figure who represented to the full what the Gospel speaks about: “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

There surely is something for us here to learn today. Mary’s heart was a storehouse of veritable treasures the world may no longer consider as such. The Gospel of today reminds us: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary’s heart contained the treasure of God’s word and promises proclaimed through the angels and the prophets. Mary’s heart was a storehouse of all that would redound to the good of others, not her own – for generation upon generation! Mary’s heart held on, not to doubt and uncertainty, not to questionings and self-centered political posturings, but to openness and readiness, availability and willingness, to do God’s will so that others may live!

The title of today’s reflection is really a misnomer. But I did it on purpose. Mary’s treasure, indeed, was well-kept in the heart, for her heart was that of a magnanimous mother who gave all. That treasure was well-kept in the sense of being well-thought out, well-reflected on, well-meditated on – and well-accepted as coming from the Lord! But its effects, its fruits and consequences – in the form of Divine Grace from above, the grace above all of salvation – is something well given, well-shared, well spread out, for, in the final analysis, she allowed herself to be the conduit of salvation by bringing to bear Jesus, the Son of God, the Most High!

Blessed are you among women, Mary! And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus!

Friday, December 26, 2008

JOURNEYING IN FAITH AS FAMILY


Catholic Homily/Sunday Gospel Reflections

Feast of the Holy Family

December 28, 2008


Our reflections on the family reach a high point today as the liturgy focuses on the Holy Family. Two families are offered to us for reflection by the readings today: that of Abraham and Sarah and that of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

The first reading starts out with a reminder from Yahweh to Abram: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.” Initial unbelief was Abram’s response. But “Abram put faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” The second reading from the letter to the Hebrews rightly extols the faith of Abraham and echoes the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham about his “descendants becoming as numerous as the stars and as countless as the sands on the seashore.”

The Gospel recounts the Holy Family making a trip to the temple to present the child Jesus as prescribed by the Law. Joseph, Mary and Jesus wended their way dutifully to the temple to do their pilgrimage of faith according to the practice of the times.

These two families are shown to us as families on the move, families on the go, embarking on a journey of faith born out of obedience to the will of the God they believed in. Abram obeyed Yahweh to go and become the father of his chosen people. Joseph, Mary and Jesus obeyed what was prescribed by the Mosaic Law. Being poor they offered two turtledoves or two pigeons again, as prescribed accordingly.


There is a very real possibility about many of us missing the point of today’s feast by allowing ourselves to idealize the holy family and put all three on a pedestal, as it were.

Today is a good day to dismantle such idealized images we may have about the holy family! I would like to start with a curious question for your reflection. Did the holy family ever experience what we now call family crisis? Was there any dysfunction in that little family at Nazareth? To be sure, there is precious little we really know and can really know about the so-called “hidden life” of Jesus. There are no historical accounts we can consult that would show “snapshots” (or MPEG files!) of the holy family enmeshed in crisis situations that would make them lose their porcelain, picture-perfect composure as often presented in holy images, stampitas, and paintings from a bygone era! All such renditions and portraits would invariably present them in very pious poses that would show them always in their best elements!

But I would like you to consider the following for a short while…just look at the sacrifice they offered…two turtledoves…something they could hardly afford. That alone must have cost them a lot, not counting the running cost of a lengthy journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem. The fact that they joined a caravan, as can be gleaned from a separate story told about the young boy who, at a certain point in the journey, parted ways with them and then was found to be in the temple with the wise old men. Joining a caravan was meant for mutual protection, mutual security, something the poor definitely ought to be doing in order to get strength from numbers, a get-up that normally could be afforded only by the very rich!

Consider, too, the answer given by the 12 year old boy to a worried mother who asks him: “Son, why have you done this to us?” Jesus’ answer, even for ancient standards must have sounded very painful to a parent’s ears: “Why did you have to look for me? Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?” I challenge every mother and every father here in this church… isn’t this something you would most likely feel sore about? And isn’t this something potentially crisis-inducing?… a 12-year old son of yours not only talking back, but also speaking about things you have absolutely no idea about?

From these two alone, your idealized picture of the holy family in a state of unsullied perfection already is bound to crumble! But consider this some more. When Jesus and his mother attended that famous wedding at Cana and the distressed newlyweds who were probably casting furtive and worried glances at the fast-diminishing wine in jars and Mary, feeling for the worried couple, tried her best to save the newlyweds from a potentially embarrassing situation, ended up getting very much embarrassed herself. I ask every mother here in this assembly… what would you have felt when, at a situation when you wanted to be very much of help, and the only person you could confidently ask is your son, and your son snaps at you with an answer like: “Woman, what is it to me and to you? My hour has not yet come!” Just how would you, as a mother, have felt in such a situation? There goes our idealized, over-romanticized image of the holy family!


And there’s more! What about the feeling of Joseph, an accomplished carpenter, at the sight of his son, not following his footsteps, and at a certain time, began to be walking about all over Galilee, calling disciples, and talking about them becoming fishers instead of becoming carpenters? Just how would you as a father who had woven countless dreams for your son, and finding out your son is interested about doing something else, perhaps starting a ragtag band of followers who preached, taught and did marvels like their master? Had Joseph been alive then in Jesus’ public life, what would he have felt?


And then, there is this other incident when Mary must have felt greatly embarrassed. When Mary sent a messenger to tell him: “Your mother and your relatives are looking for you,” Jesus brusquely replied: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” If you were in Mary’s place, what would you have felt?

As human families, we all go through such daily rounds of dysfunctionality in various forms. We all pass through difficult moments when verbal abuse seems to be the easiest way out of an impasse. We often are tempted to just resolve things through violence, verbal, emotional or physical. Where there is movement, there is friction, and where there are people, there is bound to be relational problems. It is all part of our human existence.

And that is precisely why the Church presents the holy family as model for all families. The holy family had their own share of difficult moments, their own share of disappointments and hurts. Abraham did not find moving to Ur a breeze, given his old age and his attachments to the land of his birth. It was not easy for Joseph, in his old age, too, to be taking care of a fledgling family and facing so many threats and challenges early on in the life of Jesus. The high and the mighty of the time, like Herod, already felt threatened by this seemingly insignificant boy born in marvelous circumstances! It was not easy to obey something one did not fully understand. But Joseph and Mary obeyed, despite all that lack of sure understanding!

Our families now are besieged on all fronts by immense challenges. They are being swayed to and fro by so many conflicting movements that all claim the family’s allegiance all at the same time. As families journey on through their civil and social lives, their values are sorely tested by the appealing values of consumerism, materialism and hedonism.

This is where the holy family of Nazareth comes in as a shining example and model. They stayed in the right course, as they journeyed on, because they followed the path of faith, and the obedience of faith. They obeyed at times against all reason. They just followed in faith.

Families, I suggest you take if from Joseph, Mary and Jesus… far from God, you run the risk of committing mistakes, even losing your way altogether. With God and His Church, you can never go far wrong. All it takes is a little humility, obedience, and a lot of faith in God, who can neither deceive, nor be deceived.

Monday, December 22, 2008

WORD BECOME FLESH; JOY BECOMES US!


Festive Well-Lit Lanterns Epitomize Christmas Joys in the Philippines

Solemnity of Christmas
December 25, 2008



The fulfillment of something so long-awaited and expected is bound to engender joy aplenty. A promise makes one expectant; gives him or her a lot of excitement and anticipation. But fulfillment suffuses one with overflowing JOY.

Such is the spirit of the Christmas liturgy! It is so full of JOY that traditionally, the Church has four different sets of Masses to do justice to the occasion: Vigil Mass, Mass at Night, Dawn Mass, and the Mass of the Day. Something so richly meaningful, something so effusive of joy deserves no doubt four different celebrations, each with its own emphasis, focus, and set of readings that are bound by a common theme.

The Vigil Mass looks forward to the hour of celebration. It has come because the promises of old are fulfilled in Jesus. Quiet waiting gives way to a cry of joy: “For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord!” Anticipation is the key to understand the meaning of this mass. A repeat of the Matthean account of Jesus’ genealogy shows that he, indeed, is the most awaited one, the anticipated fulfillment of the promise.

The Mass at Night (often referred to as Midnight Mass) gives us all the “romantic” or the more popular elements of Christmas; the pageantry which revolves around certain material details surrounding the birth of the promised Messiah which have become firmly embedded in lore: the crèche (crib), the angels, the shepherds, the star, and the animals are almost always part of the manger scene. The Mass at Night revolves around the materiality of the STORY of Christmas. This story, everyone knows by heart, including – and, especially – children! Were it not for the late hour, this Mass is the perfect setting for children. They would readily see the familiar images and symbols associated with Christmas in the tender minds of children. This is the high point (the summit) of the nine-day preparation for Christmas. This has traditionally been accorded by the Church corresponding solemnity, as befits what it stands for. This solemn Mass at night is best epitomized by the image of an angel who, “with a multitude of the heavenly host” praised God saying: “Glory to God in the highest…”

The Mass at dawn, very literally, revolves around the obvious idea that the birth of the Son of God made flesh is the dawn of salvation that will shine forth in the glorious manifestation of the Lord, his glorious epiphany. This is made clear in the responsorial psalm: “A light will shine on us this day: the Lord is born for us.” (Ps. 97). This more sedate Mass at dawn sees more simple folks – the shepherds – as the focal point of attention. Simplicity, however, was no obstacle to joyful proclamation. Apart from the fact that they “went in haste,” “they made known the message that had been told them about [this] child” (Lk 2:17).

But it is in the Mass during the day that joy is found in greater strength. Not only is joy portrayed more clearly. It is also presented more deeply. The other three Masses tell a glorious and joyful story worthy of proclamation. This Mass during the day tells us the meaning of the whole event – the meaning behind all that joy. And the liturgy tells it from a higher vantage point, so to speak. It soars high theologically speaking. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ as “the refulgence of [God’s] glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word” (Hebrews 1:3). John, the most theological of all the four evangelists, speaks of the mystery of the Word Incarnate. All through what is known as the prologue to the gospel (Jn 1:1-18), John sings some kind of a contemplative hymn to Christ, the Word made flesh. From the poetic point of view alone, one can sense the depth of John’s words in the beautiful cadence and choice of words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).

We would do well today to reflect on the joy that is in us, the joy that has become us, thanks be to God who made it possible for us to bask fully in this joy. The Liturgy of the Mass during the day literally whisks us up to heaven. It fills our minds with lofty ideas and images. But such lofty - theological thoughts, if you will - are really based on concrete, palpable events. Even John says this: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:3). The Word was present in the center of creation. “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him…”(Jn 1:10). He is also present in our midst …then and now! “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” (Jn 1:14).

JOY… this is what Christmas day should be all about! Today, as the Liturgy makes us understand, we ought to be joyful because of God’s presence in our midst. The joy of Christmas is all about presence… the presence of a God who has made his dwelling in our midst. This becomes doubly meaningful when we see the so many forms of absence so many people experience in their personal and communal lives: absent fathers and mothers; absent pastors; absent teachers; emotionally distant fathers; absent leaders, etc. ..even priests absent from their parishes…bosses who hardly show up in the office…mayors who spend more time taping shows for TV rather than attending to the affairs of the city or town…The incontrovertible fact of today’s celebration is this, no less: GOD IS NOT AN ABSENT PRESENCE! He is Emmanuel, God-with-us!

Today, Christmas day, there is no excuse not to be joyful…in fact, not only today, but everyday! William Barclay says that “a gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms.” Louis Evely, for his part says: “If you claim you are a Christian and yet find no reason to be joyful, there is nothing Christian in you!” Indeed, to be Christian is to be joyful. Children today do have an edge over adults like us. Children are the happiest people on earth mostly today. Just see them excitedly going their way to and from their ninongs or ninangs, or their doting titos and titas! (godparents, uncles and aunts).

But Christmas does not belong only to the children! It belongs to all of us. And we know we have learned to appropriate the meaning of this great day, when, among others, we have learned to find JOY and HAPPINESS behind the ordinary, usual trappings of an increasingly commercialized Christmas such as we have now outside of our churches, our homes, our families!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

PROMISE, FULFILLMENT, AND ME!


Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflections
Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year B
December 21, 2008



Prophecy and fulfillment stand out in the liturgy of today. God promised and what he promised, He fulfilled… in due time.

The promise, however, came on the heels of a flat refusal on the part of God, no doubt for a worthy, though worldly plan hatched by no less than God’s very own anointed, King David. Comfort and relative peace then enjoyed by David, led him to personally take up what he believed was God ‘s cause, and offer to build a house worthy of the Lord, or at the very least, something better than his own palace. With passion in his heart, David expressed his sadness: “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!” But despite Nathan’s nod of assent, David’s plan was not meant to be.

Man proposes, but God disposes! In a series of statements dotted with the first person singular pronoun, “I”, God takes full initiative and control, turns the tables, as it were, on David, and declares His will to “establish” a house for him instead. God even makes a promise, not only to David, but also to the kingdom he represented, a kingdom that shall “endure forever,” and a “throne [that] shall stand firm for ever.”

What great and noble deed which David wanted to accomplish, God did – and a whole lot more besides! God’s limitless freedom and sovereignty shone more clearly than man’s plan, no matter how good, no matter how worthy, no matter how brilliant. Today’s first reading, among others, tells us this sublime and important truth: God, it is, and not people, not us, who does the choosing; who takes the initiative. He, it was, who built David and his scions a house, from where the promised Messiah was to spring forth, as indeed the Gospel events, one thousand years later, would show. Fulfillment is among the unmistakable themes that today’s gospel passage would have us notice. “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David….”

With God in firm control, with God Himself doing what He knows best, with Him as the author of both a promise and its fulfillment whose benefits extend beyond David and his erstwhile, earthly reign – with Him as Father, and all of us in and through Christ, as His sons and daughters, what better response is there than the profuse song of praise that the responsorial psalm of today represents? “Forever I will sing of the goodness of the Lord?” Why not? “The promises of the Lord I will sing forever; through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness…”

St. Paul, who understood this sublime truth more than any other, offers his own version of thanks by glorifying God who manifested this “mystery kept secret for long ages [ …] made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith, to the only wise God through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

The Gospel passage, for its part, records for posterity the fulfillment of the promise that took place through the instrumentality of key personages: Joseph, of the house of David, and Mary, who, in the same spirit of St. Paul’s obedience of faith, said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Luke, ever the careful writer with an eye for important details, took pains to include those words that point to the fulfillment of the promise of old: “The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Promise…Fulfillment…God in control…God taking full initiative on the course of human history, our story, our personal stories… God is fully in charge. God knows best. He intervened, and continues to work quietly in and through the course of history.

But wait! This unfolding drama of glorious and majestic proportions has some key players other than God alone! David, for one…He wanted to be the protagonist and do God some real good; something that after all, God deserved – a dwelling place for the ark of the covenant. There was Joseph…and there, too, was Mary! They were part of the long story: from promise to fulfillment! Their role was to live that “obedience of faith” that St. Paul speaks about in the second reading. The promise of old would not have come to fulfillment had it not been for these key personages who showed us the way by which God, “the only wise God,” could “bring about the obedience of faith.” Promise became fulfillment because David, Joseph and Mary cooperated wholeheartedly with God’s plan. God’s will came to be because there were individuals who were obedient enough and cooperative enough to do as God bade them, each in their own special way.

Today, just a few days shy of Christmas, the liturgy reminds us of the importance and depth of meaning of the complex interplay between divine will and human cooperation – the unfolding drama of the God-human interchange that has far-reaching consequences for ourselves and others.

Promise…This is God’s initiative, God’s prevenient grace, if you will… This is God’s and God’s alone to do. Our plans, our proposals, no matter how well-thought out, no matter how cogent and convincing from our point of view – they all pale in comparison to what He wills…He, not us…He, “the only wise God,” as St. Paul describes Him.

Obedience of faith… This is our response… the only valid response, as David, Joseph and Mary showed us. This obedience is what should be behind our cooperation, our joining ranks and being with Him who willed long ago to be “father to us.” This is our role as free and intelligent beings. This is what we are expected to pitch in, our own mean little share, our contribution, our participation.

Fulfillment…This is once more God’s role. What begins in God, ends in God. He is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6). His is the promise. His is the fulfillment. And in between the two, there lies our human effort, our share by way of our cooperation. This is what we, as members of the Church militant, caught in this in-between time of promise and fulfillment, ought to be doing. This is what David, Joseph and Mary did. This is what the thousands of saints in the roster of the Church did. This is what being about “our father’s business” really means. This is what Christmas, at bottom, ought to mean for us…Incarnation…God taking on flesh, God becoming man like us, God doing what only humans like us ought to be doing…”Christ became like us, in everything except sin.” He was up and about, doing his Father’s business. Both promise and fulfillment himself personified, he also worked so that fulfillment takes place for you and I… soon! Yes, soon, for true to the spirit of Advent, we all pray with fervent hope, “Come, Lord, do not delay!”

P.S. I have added a little footnote to this somewhat lengthy and rather serious reflection…for those who love poetry. I have always wanted to share what I enjoy most, in the hope that, like me, you can also find the power and the beauty of what others have worked for and took pains to share with us. This time, a short poem taken from the French breviary, the hymn from Sunday evening, Week 1:


Reste avec nous, Seigneur Jesus,
Toi, le convive d’Emmaus :
Au long des veilles de la nuit,
Ressuscite, tu nous conduis

Prenant le pain, tu l’as rompu,
Alors nos yeux t’ont reconnu
Flambee furtive ou notre cœur
A pressenti le vrai bonheur.

Les temps est court, nos jours s’en vont.
Mais tu prepares ta maison;
Tu donnes us sens a nos desirs,
A nos labeurs, un avenir.

Toi, le premier des pelerins,
L’etoile du dernier matin,
Reveille en nous, par ton amour,
L’immense espoir de ton retour.

Stay with us, Lord Jesus,
Welcome guest at Emmaus:
All through the watch of night,
Risen, now you lead us.

Taking the bread, you broke it
‘Tis then our eyes recognized you
Hidden blaze, where our heart
Has felt true happiness

Time is short, our days go by
But you prepare your house;
You give meaning to our longing,
And to our present toil, a future.

First among all pilgrims
The star of this morning last,
Awaken in us, by your love,
Endless hope of your return.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

PREACHING WITHOUT SPEAKING



Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
3rd Sunday of Advent - Cycle B
December 14,2008


A whole lot of joy pervades the Liturgy today. Traditionally, the Church has, for so long, set aside this third Sunday of Advent as a reflection on, an exhortation to, and as a paean to joy. Thus, the reason for its being known as Gaudete Sunday, from the word used by St. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians in today’s second reading, right from the first sentence of the passage.

This, we all know by now. We have heard this so often, year after year. But perhaps, what we have not heard as often is what should be behind all that joy; what should go together with that joy, and what one who is joyful ought to be doing, or in fact, really does in effect.

If we are to go by that old scholastic philosophical dictum, bonum diffusivum sui, goodness is self-diffusive; the tendency of good is to spread itself, then today’s exhortation to joy is a clear and convincing example. Goodness comes in clusters, and anything good carries in its train a host of other goods.

Let us hear it direct from St. Paul: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances, give thanks.” Joy. Prayer. Thanksgiving. These three form an inseparable cluster for one who has “tested everything, refrained from evil, and retained what is good.” Serious discernment can not but lead to the light, and being in the light makes for freedom and gladness of heart.

Isaiah’s careful discernment led to the proclamation of what is behind all this joy: the discovery that “the spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.”

A similar discovery of God’s mysterious will on Mary’s part also leads to an even more profuse proclamation of joy: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This is what we all exultantly proclaimed as response to the first reading.

It is just that type of joy that leads to prayer. What the heart cannot contain, the mouth and the whole body declare. The heart and mind are lifted up and the entire person, “spirit, soul and body” becomes involved. Prayer that is marked by thanksgiving is what one engages in “in all circumstances,” that is, come what may, happen what might, for “this is the will of God for [us] in Christ Jesus.”

What then is behind our joy? It is in knowing God’s will through careful discernment. It is in knowing that we all have been redeemed, liberated as captives are, healed and “wrapped in a mantle of justice.” The conviction that nothing happens to us by accident, that everything is a fruit of grace, that one’s life rests on one who is in firm control of the ultimate finality of events and history, is behind every man’s rejoicing, every man’s prayerfulness and every man’s thanksgiving. Goodness comes in bundles! Joy, prayer, and thanksgiving do not come in separate, and isolated packages.

So far, we have established the following: God’s will and the knowledge that one does God’s will are behind one’s joy. Secondly, joy comes along with prayer and thanksgiving. What remains to be seen is what one does in consequence or because of that joy.

John the Baptist gives us a clue… being true to oneself, being definite about who one is, being honest about who one is not…Again, it is in knowing what one is supposed to be doing, and in being faithful to that thing one has been sent to do. Joy…inner joy that resides in the heart of John the Baptist is what is behind his testimony…”to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” John the Baptist’s joy – remember, even as a child, he already “leapt for joy” in his mother’s womb! – led him to preach, that is “to testify to the light.”

The priests and levites had every right to ascertain who he was. They asked him a barrage of questions. (I guess the equivalent of all this is the grilling one gets at the Immigration counter of Canada and the United States during these terrorist-crazed days!) With definitiveness and a deep sense of self-security and self-identity, he denied for three times: “I am not the Christ;” “I am not Elijah,” and “I am not the prophet.” But he did declare one thing for certain: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.”

This then is what one does as a consequence of joy! One preaches; one proclaims and points to someone greater than himself – like John the Baptist who said, “there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” John the Baptist, it seems to me, did not talk much. He preached by doing. He lived in the desert and had locusts and honey for food. He baptized people. He preached without talking much. And people followed him, even if he was not, as he expressly declared, the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet!

Perhaps there is something in this that merits a little more of our attention. For one, John the Baptist’s pristine honesty that comes from a well-defined sense of personal identity – that must have captured the attention of people who could tell the real from the fake. Inner joy radiates from within. No amount of empty, backslapping type of superficial and cheap humor can take the place of genuine peace associated with interior joy. John the Baptist was convincing, for he was authentically what he was: what you saw was what you got! “He came for testimony, to testify to the light,” – and testify, he did!

Good old Blessed Teresa of Calcutta must have had a flash of inspiration from above when she was heard to say at one time: “the one who is joyful, preaches without speaking.” REJOICE, REJOICE!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

SERVANT, SOVEREIGN, VIRGIN, VESSEL









Catholic Homily/Marian Reflection

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

December 8, 2008












N.B. I am posting a reflection I wrote in Long Range, NJ, USA back in November 28, 2006.



Two words reverberate in my ear as I sit down to pen these reflections, while tucked quietly in this Atlantic coast retreat house of the Redemptorists (Baltimore Province): emptiness and fullness. The Song of the Virgin Mary, the Magnificat, constantly resounds in the silence. And the two seemingly contradictory concepts of utter emptiness and total fullness weave in and out of my mind caught up by the simple joy and utter peace of being washed away figuratively by the gentle waves that toss in and out of the shore, a few hundred yards from my bedroom window.

A line from one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lesser known poems keeps on hitting me like waves that persistently wash ashore …


“Myself unholy, from myself unholy,

To the sweet living of my friends I look;

Eye seeing doves bright counter to the rook.”


The poem’s wave-like cadence, reminiscent of the repetitive and persistent push and pull of the surf on the patient shore, reminds me, at one and the same time, of Mary, the woman of faith, and of human life as a whole.


Yes … human life is like the waves that toss and turn, that pull in and push out, that come and go, but the never-ending push and pull of the surf shows us all that life ends where it begins, that our “endings are really beginnings,” and that, like the waves that return to the bigger ocean – their source, all of life ends in God, in whom it all begins.


And yes … those same waves remind me of her who is definitely the Queen that reigns supreme in this relatively small piece of Atlantic shoreline, surrounded though it is by at least two towering Resort Hotels – Mary, the Queen of the universe, our Lady of Perpetual Help, whose giant, glittering mosaic image glistens as the beautiful late autumn morning sun bathes it, thus making it reflect in earthly splendor the glory that befits whom it represents – “the woman clothed with the sun.”


I am humbled by Hopkins’ words that speak of a realization that each one ought to have. “He has a sin of mine; he its near brother …” Using the contrasting images of white doves and black rooks, Hopkins speaks of our universal tainted nature, our sinfulness as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. The pounding waves that batter the shore, on the other hand, predictable in its consistency, remind me of the undeniable sin-prone reality of the human condition that Hopkins writes about. We all are servants of sin. We all have acted exactly unlike those “doves bright” who were “counter to the rook.” “All men have fallen short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul writes.


But the other side of this same reality does not fail to capture my thoughts even as I write and even as I stare at the waves that keep pushing out from shore, back to where they come from. To God I go, from Him I come. The pounding waves that batter the shore remind me that I am as much sinful as saved, as much a dove as a rook.


Though dead to sin, I am redeemed and have been paid for by the death of the Lord. For this reason, I am sovereign, not just servant, for “the Lord has done marvels for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:49).


Servant … this is what the humble maiden from Nazareth called herself. Knowing her place, Mary entertained no unrealistic thoughts and desires. Lowly people like her are those who can appreciate to the full what is eventually given them. Only the servant-at-heart could know the depths of gratitude to Him who bestows sovereignty as gift and grace … “For He has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.”


Servant and sovereign … these are what Mary was and is. Lowly but glorified … this is what we all are, too, by God’s graciousness and mercy. Sinful but saved … this, too, is what all women and men are, by Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.


Today’s solemnity of this sovereign woman above all women (and men!) comes as a gentle nudge to us who are so full of ourselves, so full of our selfishness and sinfulness. We are inundated by crass materialism, by so much jealousy and intrigue, in this fast-paced and rat-race world of individualism. Tsunamis of earthly and selfish desires literally engulf us on a daily basis. Redeemed though we have been once and for all, we need repeated reminders from a God, who, like the patient shore, is persistently battered by the waves of our infidelity and indifference. But like the ocean that doesn’t go dry, God’s love is infinite, everlasting, and never-ending. Like the patient shore that is buffeted continuously by waves, God never runs out of understanding and love for us His people.


The ocean empties itself to the shore, but continually gets filled in the process. God’s love, like the mighty ocean, keeps on giving itself out to sinful men, filling them with every good gift … “His mercy is from age to age, to those who fear him.”


But only virginal, empty vessels can be filled by all this goodness from above. Only those who are willing to be acted on, those who are ready to surrender themselves to the incoming waves of God’s gracious gifts can become full. Filled people cannot be made full. Filled people are merely satiated. They cannot be given more. Filled people have no place for more. They can only be inundated. Filled people have no more space. They are merely fed up, overwhelmed, and stuffed stiff in their satiety.


But the humble woman from Nazareth came empty before the Lord. She was a virgin, open, ready, and willing to be acted upon by God. Virginal and pure, only Mary was worthy of becoming a vessel – a vessel of God the Most High. Empty of all worldly desires, only she was worthy of being filled to the utmost: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28).


Contrary to popular wisdom, God does not love only the cheerful giver. God loves a welcoming, wholehearted recipient, who makes himself or herself a ready receptacle of His grace. Like Mary was. Like Mary is. Blest. Highly favored by the Gift-Giver par excellence.


A hymn for the Office of Readings of the French Breviary captures this truth about Mary as both virgin and vessel. It reads thus: “Elle offre a Dieu le silence ou la Parole habite” (Mary offers the emptiness of silence that was filled – inhabited – by the Word Himself). Her emptiness, her virginity, that spelled openness and receptivity, was precisely what made her so full, and so favored by the Lord.


O Mary, humble servant, sovereign and queen of our hearts, look down upon us, struggling servants of yours in this valley of tears, inundated by so much selfishness and pride. Make us imitate you in your lowliness and humility, that owing to the richness and blessedness that come from your Immaculate, virginal fullness, we may become like you, vessels of grace and sources of blessings for others.


O Immaculate Mother, full of grace, and woman above all women, help us get the wisdom of emptiness and lowliness. Devoid of all that hampers our growth, lead us to fullness of union with your Son, Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Savior of all. Amen.


I end by quoting the last strophe of the fine French hymn I referred to above:

Voici l’epouse inepoussee, (Behold the spouse who herself was not espoused)

Marie, servante et souveraine, (Mary, servant and sovereign)

Qui porte en secret le salut du monde. (Who bears in secret the salvation of the world)

Le sang du Christ la rachete (The blood of Christ redeems her)

Mais elle en est la source. (But she herself is source thereof)



QUE MARIE, LA VIERGE BENIE ET IMMACULEE, INTERCEDE POUR NOUS.



San Alfonso Retreat House

Long Branch, New Jersey, USA

November 28, 2006

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

THE LORD PROCLAIMS PEACE TO HIS PEOPLE!


Catholic Homily/Sunday Gospel Reflection
2nd Sunday of Advent (B)
December 7, 2008

There is comfort in the words of Isaiah the prophet today. “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” Isaiah, as we know, was writing to a people – God’s people – who have lost everything they valued more than anything else, everything that would give meaning to the appellation “people of God” … no temple, no land, no permanent abode they could call their own. Isaiah, speaking in God’s name, was giving comfort to a people who were far from comfortable and at ease in a land that was not theirs, sans place of worship, sans country, sans political power…sans everything. He spoke to a people whose suffering was … nonpareil … if you will … sans rival!

Isaiah prophesied to a people who could hardly be said to be at peace. What type of peace is there for one who has been violently uprooted from one’s homeland? What sort of peace does one enjoy, far from the typical scenes of one’s birthplace, away from familiar smells and sounds, distant from one’s family and community rituals and practices that are associated with personal and communal identity and security? What peace is there to speak of for one whose family members are scattered all over against one’s choice and expressed will?

And yet, today, Isaiah, Peter, John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus Christ… they all speak words of comfort, solace and promise. They all point to realities beyond anyone’s dreams. Isaiah speaks of every valley going to be filled in, rugged land being made plain, every mountain and hill being made low. The psalmist, for his part, confidently pursues and requests the kindness and salvation from the Lord, as confidently as he declares “kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.” Peter points to the much awaited “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” And the third reading, speaks with an air of definitiveness about “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Are these not part, too, of what we, as Filipinos, also long for, here and now? Isn’t this comfort – and the patent lack of it, for a great many of our people, what we so need to hear and appropriate in our own lives? Isn’t the gift of peace, a fruit of justice, something we all long for, pine for, and even fight for? Don’t we, at some time or other, dream of a better country, a more prosperous nation, a more united people, better leadership? Have we not prayed to be spared from all the “ruggedness” of the “valleys, mountains and hills” that seem to characterize the trajectory of our common history as a people?

Our response to today’s promise could not have been better phrased: “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation!”

Let us see your kindness, Lord! What type of peace is there for us when we are consistently in the top 15 list of most corrupt countries? What type of a new earth can we hope for when Manila is right now considered the pollution capital of the world, with pollution levels judged to be five times more than acceptable international standards? What “gospel” – good news is there to look forward to when all we hear are reports of scams and scandals and intrigues of every sort, coming from the highest offices of the land, not excluding our very own Church pastors and leaders?

Grant us your salvation, Lord. Yes, … grant us salvation, but not the type that comes like magic from the heavens. Grant us salvation, Lord – the type of salvation that is a fruit of your work – and ours… a salvation that should move us to strive to match a “new earth” with your promised “new heavens.” Grant us salvation, Lord…make of us “persons that [we] ought to be, conducting [ourselves] in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…. eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”

Do grant us peace, O Lord… the peace that is a fruit of justice, … justice that we do, not only talk about. Do grant us peace, O Lord…a peace that comes from knowing we have done our part to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “to make straight his paths” – in obedience to the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The Lord does proclaim peace… but it is up to us to do peace and cultivate peace. The Lord brings “good news” but it is up to us to live it. The Lord gives us all it takes to make a “new earth” out of this messy world of corruption and sin, and selfishness and sordid gain. The Lord has given us, and still gives us, like today, his message and gift of peace and salvation, but there is work for us to do. We cannot simply “sit and wait.” We need to wait in active hope. We need to do our share. We need to wait, but as Peter says, we need to “hasten” at the same time, the “coming of the day of God.”

There surely is something that awaits our first move in our lives: at home, in our families, in our communities, at work, in relation to others. Someone has to make the first move of reconciliation. Someone has to budge a finger to solve the trash problem everywhere. Somebody has to begin giving in in a traffic snarl. It only takes a little humility. We cannot all be stonewalling all the time. Someone has to start giving others little, seemingly insignificant acts of courtesy. All it takes is for one to start acting civilly, instead of always wanting to pull a fast one over others. Sometimes, all we need is to start treating others nicely and politely, and everything turns out smoothly.

Salvation is as much God’s work, as ours! Grace, which comes from God, is never wanting. What is lacking more often than not, is our contribution, our response, our cooperation. We need to be the ones to do the filling in, the leveling, the smoothening out of the basically man-made creases and inequalities in our lives and in the world. I would like to share with you, at this point, a beautiful image of God, the Holy Spirit, working ever so gently and unobtrusively, so that peace becomes a reality in the world, despite our protestations and complaints, despite our initial disappointments…

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of war, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does
house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

There are some things here that we ought to learn. The poem captures our disappointment: when will peace finally prevail in the world? We do not want piecemeal peace; we do not want peace that still allows the possibility of conflict. But when the Lord does take away peace, He must leave something good in its stead. HE LEAVES PATIENCE! He leaves hope and active waiting – the same HOPE that we keep alive in Advent! This patience, when nurtured is what engenders peace later. And this is the clincher. When peace does come, like a mother dove, peace has work to do, he does not just come to coo, “he comes to brood and sit.” When a mother dove broods and sits over her nest, new life comes about; new little doves arise! New life, new hope is created. Patience! Patient waiting in hope… this is what advent waiting is all about. Peace will come, sooner or later. For the Lord has already proclaimed it. We claim it now as our own. How? By working for it, in our own little way…It will come. It does come… today, tomorrow, sooner or later… in God’s own good time!