A certain continuity spans the themes of the liturgy this week and last. If you remember, I alluded to a situation of darkness last week, a darkness that is met, not necessarily with optimism, but with hope. I was trying to suggest that Christians are not, and ought never, to be bleary-eyed optimists alone. Whilst optimism can help us all face the destabilizing waves of challenges that rock the boat of our life and our faith, ultimately, it is not what we wish to see that would strengthen us, but what God wants us to see through the eyes of faith – and HOPE!
We remember it, I am sure … the resounding voice amidst the engulfing and frightening waves … “Why are you terrified?” We remember, it, too, I am sure … the stentorian voice of the fearless shepherd calling on his flock from St. Peter’s square, back in 1978 … “Be not afraid. Be not afraid. Be not afraid.” (JP II, on his inauguration homily).
I am one with Richard John Neuhaus in suggesting that optimism was never a Christian virtue. I suggest it is nothing more and nothing else than part of the American “gung-ho” and “can-do” spirit of rugged individualism. Neuhaus specifically states that optimism is but a matter of optics … one sees what one wants to see … one does not see what one doesn’t want to see. Optimism has a ring of denial to it. It sounds to me, more like putting on colored glasses, when we don’t want to see things around us.
Hope, instead, is grounded on reality. It sees. It knows. It accepts the real, the painfully and the joyfully real, the unalloyed reality, no more, no less.
I start with the glaring first in this Sunday’s list of hope-filled and hopeful realities … “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (1st reading). Over the past 24 years I have been a priest, this has been a recurrent question and complaint against a God of freedom, a God who sometimes is perceived like Christ “sleeping on a cushion” somewhere at the back of the boat being tossed about by murderous waves. Where is God when we need him most? Where is God on the day the twin-towers fell to smithereens? Closer to home base, in a retreat I was preaching to a group of professionals less than three years ago, a lady accosted me with manifest, ill-concealed anger on her face: “Can you please tell me Father, how I could tell the children in Leyte (Southern Philippines) that God is alive and that he loves all when mountains of mud fell on them one sunny and bright morning?”
I was hard pressed to give a quick and convincing answer. I wanted to tell the honest lady, honest in her pain, and honest in her disappointment, that I, too, shared her pain… that I, too, grappled with the same questions … that I, too, wanted quick, not round-about answers that all led to the depths of mystery, the twisted and convoluted pathways of an answer to a question that had bothered, and still bothers the best and the brightest of minds down through human history.
My own pain and disappointment with humanity, with my fellow human beings purportedly on the same quest for happiness and well-being, and yet are all too willing, it seems to me, to inflict pain and destruction to other people, even in the name of God, leads me to the second in the list of realities of today: “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.”
I don’t need to wax optimistic today. I don’t need, too, to deny the reality of pain and suffering that continue to buffet the boat of human existence in this confusing, and morally complex world. I don’t need to repeat to you all the abstract philosophical and theological principles that have gone to the countless books and tomes that philosophers and pundits have written down through the centuries on pain and the race to obliterate pain. Some of my readers know them better than I do.
But today, there is something that goes beyond optimism. There is something that goes beyond mere philosophical and theological optics. I call it experience. I call it learning at the school of hard knocks. I call it starting out from where it all began, from the day we were born.
No, I don’t take recourse to your stock knowledge. Many of my readers are far more learned than I am, far wiser, in both age and wisdom perhaps. Even St. Paul mentioned it: “As you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you, may you excel in this gracious act also” (2nd Reading). Yes, I ask you to draw from your personal experience. I know for a fact that many of my readers are themselves immersed in situations of darkness, beset and besotted by “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number.” I know for a fact how many of you have faced tremendous odds. I know what I am talking about. Having been a priest all these years and a counselor all these fewer years, I have seen human travail first hand … my own, and that of others.
Karl Rahner had interesting questions to help us make sense of experience, and to make for experiential learning. When was the last time you felt trampled upon, and you found the heart to suffer in silence and to forgive your tormentors? When was the last time you felt so cornered and hemmed in from all sides, and you found it in your heart to be grateful to God on account of the fact that what others undergo are still worse than you have undergone? You have just experienced God! You have just met God face to face … really … experientially … truly. This explains the hope-filled and hopeful declaration of the psalmist … “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.”
I don’t ask you to deny the uncertainty that hovers over the world and life in this valley of tears right now … yours and mine. I don’t ask you to pretend not to see everything that sucks the marrow out of a serene and happy life that is ours by birth right. I don’t even ask my readers to gloss over the reality of sin – both our own and that of others – and thus, give you the impression that suffering is always inflicted by others, and never self-inflicted at all. I just ask you for acceptance, for acknowledgment, for hopeful, steadfast, and courageous acceptance of God and his inscrutable will.
There is oftentimes no logic, no rhyme nor reason to his will, even as there is no rhyme and reason to the death of the Lord … “though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. Not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs, that there be equality.”
I only ask that you be attentive, soulfully attentive to your experience, to the gentle stirrings of God within you, and the gentle reminders that your experience brings you. I only ask you to listen to someone who had his own experience of “our savior Jesus Christ [who] destroyed death and brought life to light through the Gospel” (Alleluia verse).
Today, Mark reports about two women. Unknown to each other, they were actually sisters in pain, bound together by the same experience. It was not desperation that brought them to the Lord. It was honest acceptance that they were in pain. And because they accepted they were in pain, it was not blame that came out of their lips, but a prayer of faith, a plea of hope, and a request born out of love.
A painful experience, accepted wholly, gave way to exhilaration and joyful exclamation. Fear and trembling, on the part of the first woman with the hemorrhage, eventually turned to joyful acclamation. Weeping and commotion, on the part of the little girl’s household, were replaced by a similar joyful emotion. “And they were utterly astounded.” In both cases, personal experience became a learning experience, a faith-filled declaration of what the Old Testament reading prophesies.
In the end, abstract answers really don’t matter. High falutin philosophical and theological tenets won’t clinch it. But one’s personal experience accepted and reflected on in faith is what leads us all to live what Jesus Christ, Paul, Peter and all the saints, and John Paul II told us with both passion and panache: “Be not afraid. Be not afraid. Be not afraid.”
Freed from darkness, we are now kept by the light of Christ in the radiance of his truth.
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection12th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year BJune 21, 2009
More than just uncertainty fills the air heavy with reports of new and developing terror cells all over the world, with one prominent world leader even speaking of possible nuke warfare all over again. Fear and trepidation can grip the hearts of people who live along notorious geological “fault lines” that can snap any minute, and send miles and miles of land to a screeching, grating, and gyrating swath of destruction. Recent earthquakes in Pakistan, in Indonesia, in China, Italy, and elsewhere around the world send shivers of anxiety down the spine of countless people who live in the so-called “ring of fire.” Volcanoes acting up, “sleeper cells” of terrorists awakening to a potential scenario of more destructive and violent acts, and the restless world churning up new and more frightening possibilities ought to be enough to make of our presence here today in Church, more than just relevant and meaningful.
I will be direct with you. The Liturgy today goes right to the point when it starts with a plaintive prayer: “God of the universe … From this world of uncertainty we look to your covenant. Keep us one in your peace, and secure in your love” (Alternative Opening Prayer).
There is something about celebrating Eucharist together that is eminently real, existential, and totally attuned to our human condition. If liturgy is an encounter between God and humanity, then it must be an encounter that takes place between a real, personal God, and equally real, and existential human beings like us, who are situated, “thrown into” a world mired in complexity, confusion, and – yes – a whole lot of uncertainty! Liturgy was never, and is never, meant to be an encounter between two phonies, between two fakes who continually wear masks and who live in splendid denial, and stale – if Pollyannish – wishful thinking.
Liturgy is all about sinful, erring, violence-prone, and selfish human beings reaching out, and being reached out to by a God who saves, a God of life and love, a God who offers “peace” and “security” in love (Opening Prayer).
Today’s liturgy precisely recounts that story of a saving God who stills the raging seas (First Reading). In the heels of a storm-tossed experience, both real and figurative, Job is confronted with a searing personal question: “Who else but God?” Who else but God can be relied on to do His wonders? Who else but God can be counted on to come to the rescue of suffering humanity? Who else but God can love us despite the many “uncertainties” we cause upon ourselves and bring down on others?
This is the same God we encounter here and now. This is the same God to whom we utter this stirring response: “Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.” Setting aside, or bracketing apart all the growing uncertainties that dot the radar screen of our busy and complicated lives, there are, indeed, reasons to gather and give thanks in today’s Eucharistic celebration.
St. Paul sums up all these reasons into one foundational truth. “[Jesus] died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was buried.” (2nd Reading) On account of his death, “new things have come” for us all.
I would like to suggest that among these “new things” counts the newness and freshness of Christian hope, a hope that thrives in the midst of decay, a hope that flourishes even in the midst of darkness, a hope that grows even in the midst of so much uncertainty.
The Church, the world, our individual and communal lives are exactly like what today’s Gospel passage from Mark describes – a boat pummeled and pulled hither and thither by towering waves. If there is any picture of uncertainty, it is this … a boat in distress with the captain fast asleep … seemingly uncaring … seemingly oblivious to the danger … to all appearances unaware of the clear and present danger all of us wayfarers are subjected to right now.
There is uncertainty in the Church, at least from the external viewpoint … young people are drifting away in many senses. Pastors who ought to be leaders of the flock are themselves posing as problems to their bishops, even to the Pope. There is corruption and sordid love of material gain both in and out of the Church that we love. There is politics. There is this endless jockeying for positions and favors from the powers-that-be. And to top it all off, there seem to be no easy solutions to the big problems we heap upon ourselves and on each other.
There is uncertainty, too, outside the Church. The same “griefs, anxieties, and fears” that Gaudium et Spes spoke of 44 years ago, are still the same issues we find everywhere. The disciples’ pleading then, could as well remain our own pleading here and now: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Master, do you not care that there is so much confusion and uncertainty in our times? Master, wake up and do something!
The Lord did wake up then. He rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Quiet!” He took charge. He stilled the winds and the sea. But the story doesn’t end there. He did not just take charge. He charged his disciples. He charges us now and calls us to task. He turns the tables on us, as it were, and tells us to do what we so pleadingly ask for. He calls us to take part. And like in the story of Job, he questions us, this time, not with a “who-else-but-God” type of question, but one that sears and cuts to the quick, one that hits home, one that strikes at the core of our issues and complaints: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”
The Lord has been awake, and has been up and about “his Father’s business” all along –then in that little, frail boat – and now, in the big, complex, and complicated boat of life in the Church and in the world. He was busy in the person of Pope John Paul II, Pope for all of 26 years. He envisioned and dreamed about a “springtime of evangelization” and worked toward the attainment of that dream, till his last breath. He is still awake and busy in the person of the present Pope Benedict XVI. For years, he foresaw and foretold certain elements of all this “uncertainty” in the Church and the world – the deepening opposition to God and his truth, the worsening moral relativism that envelops humanity’s attitudes and values-systems. One was optimistic … and gave flesh and blood to his optimism. He spent all his energy making his dream come closer to reality. The other seems less optimistic, but no less involved in combating this all-out opposition to the cause of God and his Church. At the end, it really is not a matter of optics. At the end, it is not a matter of being either optimistic or pessimistic. It is all about being present, being awake, being in charge, and being leader in a storm-tossed boat of life here, there, and everywhere.
At the end, it is all about being what Christ is, and was, to us and his temporarily frightened disciples. It is all about being leader, being pastor, being Master and Lord of all the elements that could beset and befall his flock. It is all about that one important message that we need now to hear loud and clear: “Be not afraid. Be not afraid. Be not afraid.”
Let us pray once more … “God of the universe, we worship you as Lord. God, ever close to us, we rejoice to call you Father. From this world’s uncertainty we look to your covenant. Keep us one in your peace, secure in your love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections on the LiturgySolemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord (Year B)
If we go by the three recent youth surveys in the Philippines done on the national level, there is some reason for us to worry. And when I say “us” I mean priests, pastors, religion teachers, religious brothers and sisters, parents – the Philippine Church, as a whole. Less and less young people are approaching the sacraments, the surveys show. That means, less and less of them go to confession, and, that means, less and less of them go to communion. As Rector in our College-Seminary in Canlubang for eight years, and as educator there for another 7 years, both as a brother and as a young priest, I stood witness to the progressively growing unpopularity of confession and communion. It was almost like we had to beg the older adolescents in the college level, especially, to take advantage of the weekly opportunity to confess and the almost daily opportunity to receive holy communion.
Today, the whole Church calls on us all to celebrate and extol the sacred Body and Blood of the Lord, (Corpus Christi), the real though sacramental presence of Jesus Christ, the 2nd person of the Blessed Trinity, under the species of bread and wine. Through the priestly power of the words of consecration, what was simply bread and wine is transformed into His Body and Blood in the Eucharistic miracle called Transubstantiation, and are then given to us and shed for our salvation.
Christ’s sharing his body and blood in the Eucharist is basically all about God filling us up, supplying for what we most want, and providing for what we most need – and lack – as pilgrims and wayfarers, people with body and soul, and thus, living both a physical existence as much as a spiritual life. The Eucharist is all about God offering salvation to a people He has redeemed by the shedding of blood of Jesus, His Son. Reminiscent of the Old Testament pouring of blood of the sacrificial lamb, as the seal of the covenant between God and His people, Christ’s blood, poured out in sacrifice, too, sealed the new covenant and assured those who partake of it life everlasting. The Eucharist is thus the pledge of what awaits us – the coming fullness of salvation. An old Latin hymn, the Pange Lingua attributed to St. Thomas, puts it so poetically and nicely, “nobis pignus datur futurae gloriae!” (In the Eucharist, a pledge of future glory is given to us.)
But if the Eucharist supplies for a certain hunger, we need to look at precisely what this hunger is all about. Perhaps, this is what is missing in the young of today. There is a growing lack of ability to “put a handle” on many things, including the deep hunger that exists in each and everyone of us. There is the growing phenomenon of people, young and old, not being able to “name,” let alone “acknowledge” their deepest needs and wants and desires. People today may look for satiety in many ways, but they miss satisfaction. People now may long for fullness in many forms, but may miss fulfillment. People long for “solutions” to many problems, but may totally miss a basic direction, a foundational orientation that does not simply offer a stopgap measure, but an important direction that points to a total, integral resolution to humankind’s most important existential and timeless questions. People now continually search for the ultimate. There is the on-going search for the ultimate cellphone, the ultimate and the latest PDA, the best and latest technological marvel. People are vying endlessly for the most advanced, most sophisticated, most powerful computer. People are caught up in this never-to-be-fulfilled longing and hunger for everything that represents “cutting-edge technology” in all fields of human endeavor.
There is a deep hunger in the heart of women and men of our times, all over the world! Why, you might ask, are we so deeply engrossed in the fictional lives of characters who inhabit the make-believe world of telenovelas and chinovelas? Why would people be so taken up by the desire to congregate and connect with others at the end of a very busy day, willing to spend a great part of their daily income on drinks, shows, food, etc. that goes under the generic term “gimmicks?” Why, young people who never drank coffee at home, now are willing to shell out even more than a hundred pesos for a fancy, frothing, filling cup of imported coffee! They ensconce themselves comfortably in well-lighted and well-appointed coffee shops, where they can laugh and chat a portion of the evening away, only to go home tired, empty and several hundreds of pesos poorer for the experience.
There is a deep hunger in the heart of people nowadays, and this hunger is supplied for, at least temporarily, by a long line of consumer-oriented, and materialistic concerns that fill the body but not the soul.
Today’s feast offers us an alternative response to what we very easily can identify as a superficial hunger in our everyday lives. We hunger for connectivity, and so we look for it in noisy places where our “existential loneliness” can be assuaged, if only for a short while. We hunger for fullness of life, and so we look for fulfillment in food, drinks and endless entertainment. We hunger for deep union with Someone who can truly lift us up from the mire of frustration and we drown the deep hunger with one superficial activity after another.
Together with the Church, I would like to offer an alternative to all this. The Lord offers us the ultimate. The Lord goes directly to the real and true hunger that masquerades behind our superficial wanting and yearning. The Lord supplies for what stands as our deepest need, a need that springs from the depths of our nature as spiritual, and not merely carnal, persons. He offers Himself to us, as food and drink. It is food that goes beyond physical hunger, drink that goes beyond bodily thirst. The only valid response to this is what we proclaimed after the first reading – a resolute commitment: “I will take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord!”
Young people, I invite you to look beyond your hunger for the latest fad, the latest technological marvel. I invite you to look beyond your longing for short term relationships that lead nowhere but to a series of frustrating experiences. Parents, I invite you to assist your young sons and daughters and to help them realize that there is patently more to life than just getting filled with stuff, and that there is more to life than just getting entertained, and getting a kick out of the temporariness of earthly affairs. Teachers and pastors, we all need to acknowledge the singular power of influence we hold over the young in helping them shape and mold their youngish ambitions and desires. We all need to claim our prophetic role and speak to them “in season and out of season,” not to be afraid about proposing to them what is right, what is proper, what is noble, what is life-giving and enabling instead of what is life-draining and disabling. We ought to claim our role in helping them look beyond the ‘ningning’ (glitter) of this globalized and consumeristic, materialistic culture created by the mass media, an artificial world which continually creates, (but does not supply for) ever new forms of superficial hungers that only He who said “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever,” can fully fill. He alone can satisfy our deepest yearnings, for He alone “has the words of everlasting life.”
Today’s solemnity can easily pass off to many as some form of mental exercise – a part of the never-ending effort at “putting a handle” of sorts to a mystery that is basically something that cannot be fully fathomed, let alone understood. Being such, there is the very real danger of approaching what ought to be a truth to be celebrated as a dead specimen to be dissected in cold blood on the laboratory table.
But the human person – heart and mind and spirit all rolled into one – was never created to dissect dogmas, at least primarily. Humans were created for love and what fulfills them is not a doctrine for the mind alone to digest, but a relationship that is savored, nurtured and enriched by their totality as human beings understood primarily as relational creatures. We do not fall in love with dogmas, but we do experience emotional affinity with relational persons. Doctrinal truths, per se, do not excite us, but the idea of a God-become-man-one-with-us-in-every-way, the thought of a God-revealing-giving-of-Himself-to-us in Jesus, the conviction about a God-dwelling-in-us-in-the-Spirit till the end of times, do make our hearts beat with action and passion!
People do not just get excited by being in relationship. People are perfected in their being in and through relationships. People need people and, when we know we belong to a family-of-persons-in-community, we know we are on the way toward fullness of our personhood. “No man is an island, no man stands alone,” as that old, old Broadway song goes! “Each man’s joy is joy, joy to me; each man’s grief is my own.”
Today is not a day for us to dwell on static truths. Today is a day to dwell on the most dynamic of all truths that have to do, not only with the nature of God “ad intra,” but with the nature of God “ad extra.” Today is a day to go biblical and see, really see for ourselves who this Trinitarian God is for us … what God does in us and for us … what He expects us to do for Him.
First things, first. There is need to establish a most fundamental truth about Him. “Prithee, tell me,” the passage from Deuteronomy appears to tell us, “have you ever seen and heard a God like your God?” “Tell me, is there a God at all like our own God?” The answer of the holy book is incontestable, an answer born both of personal and communal – and real – experience! “This is why you must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other.” Take note, it must be known by us. And not only known, but fixed, not in the mind, but in the heart. The heart is the storehouse, not of conceptual truths, but of relational, dynamic truths … truths that move, truths that care, truths that captivate! And the only response to such a truth is a declaration of the heart convinced it has been singled out, chosen, loved with a love of predilection … “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own,” as our response puts it. And why not? Just listen at the concatenated truths that flow out of the abundance of the heart of the heartstruck psalmist: “Upright is His word, he loves justice and right, all his works are trustworthy … etc.” This God is a God in action, involved, taken up by the needs of humans like us.
This God, moreover, is one who has given us His Spirit, not “a spirit of slavery” but “a spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” He is busy and “broods over a bent world, with warm breast and with … ahh… bright wings!” (Hopkins) “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (2nd Reading)
But now is not the time to wax poetic over a conceptual truth. The biblical evidence shows and tells us more about this God of action, this God of presence, this God of ongoing love for humankind. Today, we are told the disciples went to the “mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.” The mountain, in the Bible, has always been presented as a venue for divine action, a setting for his manifestation, a locus for wonders and extraordinary grace. Mountains were the launching pad of divine action and movement. It is not a place to be “building tents,” even if they were meant for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. It was a place of theophany, of contemplation-soon-blooming-into-action. It was a place from which to go forth, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] has commanded [us].”
No word like “Trinity” was ever used. But no other concept could be clearer in biblical tradition. God is revealed here in action. God is shown to be what He is “ad extra” that is, in relation to the external world He has created. God is revealed to relational women and men, as Father, Son and Spirit, ever on the move to love, save and nurture humankind.
Abstractions about God have their rightful place in the lives of intelligent and free human beings. They serve the purpose of clarifying for our basically cluttered and disorganized brains, the finer nuances of this great and glorious and loving God-with-us. Like us, His creatures, created in His image and likeness, God, the Trinitarian God is personal and relational. Like us, He is community, family, unity. Three persons but one God, active, present, loving. “See, the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him; upon those who hope for his kindness.” (Responsorial Psalm)
You who listen now to me, or are reading this … Make no mistake about it. Today’s solemnity is not all about curling oneself up comfortably in a quiet do-nothing-by nook – in church or at home. The Trinity rouses us to action. He tells us to go and do something. He calls us to Passion! He calls us to love like He did, do as Father, Son and Spirit did, and still do for those He loves. It is not about the God-idea alone. Let’s get this straight from Miguel de Unamuno … “He who says he loves God, but yet feels no passion in his veins really loves only the God-idea, not God Himself!”
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.