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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

GIFTED AND GIVEN



Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
Pentecost Sunday May 31, 2009


Pentecost Sunday liturgy makes much of “speaking” and “hearing.” These are two human activities most of us who can talk and who have good ears most likely take for granted – on a daily basis! Just imagine how hard life would be if we suddenly lost the capacity to speak, and the capacity to hear!

“Speaking” and “hearing” … these are the two nodal points of the miracle of Pentecost. We are told that “each one heard them speaking in his own language.” They even asked, “Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?” From the report of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, it seems hard to decide which is which. Did the disciples suddenly learn to speak different languages or did the people hear them each in his or her own language? Was the miracle on the side of those “speaking” or on the side of those who were “hearing?”

The issue may not be easy to resolve. And neither may it be an important one to resolve at all. As a non-biblical scholar, I lack the tools to even essay an educated guess. But I do know that it was a miracle wrought by no less than He who promised to send the Spirit “who would guide [us] to all truth” (Jn 16:13). That may be all we need to know for now. It was a miracle plain and simple, a miracle with two sides, a twin-faceted wonder involving two sides of the same reality, two complementary truths that point to a picture of what humans are like in the long run, and what ought to characterize the human response to a miracle from above.

I would like to suggest that the miracle of Pentecost, which is basically that of God’s generous outpouring of His gifts to His people, has to do with both “speaking” and “hearing.” It has to do with one giving, and another one receiving. It has to do with one talking and another one listening. It has to do with one “acting,” and another one allowing himself/herself to be “acted upon.” It has to do with ACTION and PASSION. It is all about divine-human cooperation. It is all about God taking initiative on our behalf and us responding to his grace. What good is a gift without a recipient? What good is a recipient without the gift? Giver and gifted … both ought to interact with each other. The giver’s graciousness is acknowledged only if the gifted receives the gift with open hearts and arms. And the gifted glorifies both giver and gift when he becomes himself given to others as gift in return. A gift is freely given. The gifted acknowledges the gift and perfects it by being given in return.

There is no mistaking what the disciples did. Just as soon as they received the gifts that came as a strong wind that “filled the entire house,” gifts that “appeared to them as tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them,” “they began to speak in different tongues” and “each one heard them speaking in his own language.”

As a middle aged man and having been teaching or forming young people for more than 30 years, (ten years as seminary formator), I have gotten to slowly realize how hard it is for modern women and men to do so much as acknowledge with gratitude all the good things we get from whomever. I have heard parents complain about children and adolescents not seemingly able to appreciate the many sacrifices they do for their children. I have heard so much complaint about the painful lack of gratitude from the very people they have done so much good to. Modern people seem to be less able to acknowledge, let alone appreciate, the good that others do for them gratuitously. We all have lost the art of saying, “Thank you” at the very least.

Reciprocity is the right word to encapsulize all this. Reciprocity speaks of mutuality. It speaks of “return” for favors received. It speaks of a reciprocal commitment from both giver and gifted.

Today, Pentecost Sunday, it is definitely good to dwell on the nature of the gifts we all have received. St. Paul today names some of them. In fact, he says, “there are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

But it would also be beneficial for us to dwell on our responsibility in the face of all this giftedness of ours. Mere acknowledgement or appreciation of the said gifts just would not do. Something more is expected of us … something more than just saying a casual “thank you.” That is very clear in today’s alternative second reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Being “guided by the Spirit,” Paul tells them to avoid certain forms of behavior, and in their place, exhorts them to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

Gifts, these all are from the Spirit. Gifted therefore, is what we all are. And given – that is, committed - to the same spiritual values and gifts, this is what we all are called to be. “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.”

I perceive a clear call from the liturgy today to be “doers” and not mere “hearers of the Word.” (James 1:22) I perceive a clear reminder for us to be part of this ongoing miracle of Pentecost by being both, in our own little ways, “speakers” and “hearers.” The speakers would not have been able to do their part had they not gone out to preach in obedience to the Holy Spirit. The hearers would not have heard had they not left their homes and listened to the disciples set on fire with the Spirit’s gifts. The Pentecost day miracle, among other things, was a miracle of reciprocity, mutuality and cooperation. It was a miracle both on the part of the disciples and on the part of those who heard them speak. And the point of commonality was openness and receptivity to the same Spirit who was behind both activities. The Spirit was behind the ACTION of the apostles. The same Spirit was behind the PASSION, so to say, of the Jews who stood ready and open enough to listen to them.

I see here a further inspiration from the Lord for all of us: the call to become “preachers and teachers” ourselves – the call to follow the command of the Lord to “preach the gospel to all of creation and to teach them all that [he] has commanded.” I see here a call to young people most especially, to become what Christ was, to become what the apostles were, what we priests and religious are before the world: evangelizers and witnesses whose lives, in varying degrees of intensity, are GIVEN to the service of the Lord and His Kingdom. I see here, finally, a reminder to young people from St. Paul who eventually turned from being a persecutor of the Church to being an apostle to the gentiles gently admonishing us: “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Romans 10:14)

Pentecost Sunday is the birthday of the Church. That was when the Church was manifested to peoples of all races and nations. Here’s hoping it would also once again be the birthday of so many vocations who stand ready to commit themselves and not merely acknowledge the gifts they have received and their wonderful giftedness, but also their givenness to the call of the Spirit who “guides us to all truth.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

EMPOWERED, NOT ABANDONED!



Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

Ascension Sunday, Year B
May 24, 2009

It is easy to fall into the temptation of thinking that the Ascension of the Lord has to do with good-byes, with departures, with going away, with disappearance of someone we hold dear – never to be seen anymore. It is easy to think that such a departure means loss, a certain deprivation, an impoverishment. Such a thought would be a perfect story line for telenovelas, perfect for a society like ours, which, owing to labor migration, may be said to be a people in diaspora, ever on the move, ever in search for greener pastures, for whom physical separation counts among our set of daily experiences. Who among us does not at least have a relative, close or distant, who is not in some distant country in this shrinking world?

Departures connote disappearance from sight, and disappearance entails sadness.

But today’s solemnity has nothing to do with either of the two. Ascension is not about disappearance from sight, but all about a new presence. Ascension is not about endings but about new beginnings. Ascension is not about good-byes, but about ongoing good news! Ascension is not about sadness, but about joy. Ascension is not about disappointment but it is about an appointment with truth.

What sort of truth does the Ascension offer us?

I would like you all to look back at the immediately preceding days up until yesterday. The Gospel readings, all taken from the Gospel according to John, chapter 16, speak of Jesus preparing his disciples for two other aspects of the mystery of his glorification connected with his resurrection: his ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Last Monday, we hear him speak about “endurance in the face of persecution” because of the Spirit whom he would send. On Tuesday, he spoke about “returning to the Father” and the sending of the Paraclete. Last Wednesday, we were told about who this Paraclete is, “the spirit of truth who will come and guide [us] into all the truth.” On Thursday, the Lord assured us saying that “in a short while we would lose sight of him, but soon [we] would see him again.” On Friday, he was more specific: “after suffering for a while, Jesus will return and transform pain into joy that no one can take away from us.” And yesterday, we were reminded that no longer would the disciples ask questions nor would Jesus speak in veiled language. All of Jesus’ teachings would be seen in a new, direct and wondrous way.

Today, Scriptures tell us: “as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.” (Mk 16:19)

Based on the carefully sequenced set of readings, then, it is clear that at least biblically, the ascension of the Lord is not about disappearance, but about a promise of ongoing, albeit new, presence of the Lord in our midst. It is not about endings, but about a new power given to us his disciples. St. Paul describes this power of his presence to us thus: “This power working in us is the same as the great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age, but also in the one to come.”

All this is matter for hope, I guess. Everyday, we face that great temptation to make our daily lives come close indeed to, and reflect the reality presented by telenovelas and soap operas in our times: endless psychic pain that comes with a series of never-ending twists and turns in the story line. This may well explain the popularity of telenovelas. It may well be a case of life imitating art, (or art imitating life!)

The lesson of today’s liturgy seems clear enough for us all. No, there is no room for hopelessness, no room for despair and sadness. There is no reason for us to feel left in the lurk. Ascension tells us today to claim that power that has been given us by Jesus died, risen and ascended to the Father’s right hand. Perhaps the words of the angels could help us here: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11) Why sulk? Why wallow in despair? Why grovel or shrivel in sadness? Why stand there petrified and paralyzed? Rise up in hope. Rise up in a fresh resolve to live fully. The Lord is risen and ascended, not to disappear but to be with us in a new way, for in truth, we are all now empowered, not abandoned!

Monday, May 11, 2009

LOVE WITHOUT BORDERS



Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
6th Sunday of Easter May 17, 2009


One group among several that I admire is Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), a group of volunteer doctors and health workers who offer a portion of their otherwise most productive years doing service where they are needed most in any portion of the globe, with absolutely no consideration given to personal gain of any sort whatsoever, including monetary. They serve regardless of political, economic, religious and other affiliations and allegiances people may have. They just serve and help those who are needy of medical help. Period… Anywhere… Everywhere... To whomever.

Universal may be the right word to use with regard to the scope of the help they are willing to give – and, in fact, give.

As universal as the scope of God’s salvific love for His people. As universal as the reality of God’s call which He gives to all His creatures.

Today’s first reading shows this universality of God’s choice and God’s grace. Cornelius, the Roman centurion, a God-fearing man, along with his whole household (and apparently neighbors and friends) submitted themselves to Baptism and received an outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. On that day, a motley group of Jewish Christians and those of pagan origin, became equal in God’s eyes and saw God’s wonders being distributed to everyone in the household. Indeed, “the Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power!” as our response to the first reading puts it.

This saving power characterized by universality, is God’s love. Such love, we are told, “was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.” He was sent to the WORLD, the cosmos, inhabited by women and men of all races and nations. Such love that was given had no bounds, no limits. Concretely, the love that was shown by Jesus was just as boundless: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This, no doubt, is good news to us a boundary and class-conscious people. We build walls and ramparts to fence out and fence in people, to preserve all sorts of man-made distinctions and separations between and among us. In almost all cities all over the world, particularly in the developed nations, the phenomenon called “urban sprawl” has, for years, been fueled by one single influential factor – the desire to get “far from the madding crowd,” to be different, to preserve one’s jealously guarded privacy, so as not to tarnish one’s image, one’s status and privilege in a world marked by so many class distinctions.

Let us take a serious look at what this universal love of God entails. Jesus tells us: “Love one another as I have loved you.” The phrase “as I have loved you” is the important qualifier here. We moderns speak a whole lot about “love.” Many of us can honestly say they “love” Jollibee. We believe them. This is what, truth to tell, keeps Jollibee posting enormous profits year in and year out – the only corporation in the whole country that can boast of such growth rates in times of economic meltdowns! Still others say they love this or that movie personality. We believe them, too. How else explain their movies’ success at the tills, even rivaling those produced and filmed in Hollywood? Love is a very much bandied about word, used and overused to the point of becoming almost meaningless and devoid of its real original meaning.

We have to go back to Christ to restore its original and real meaning. We need to “start afresh from Christ” who showed us the meaning, extent and repercussions of that love given us by His Father, through him and in union with the Holy Spirit. We need to go back to the examples of the first disciples, who journeyed “from being loved into loving” in return. We need to go back to this God who showed his love not only as everlasting, but as universal … universal enough to call Cornelius and his whole – mind you, pagan – household! … universal enough to do away with man-made class distinctions and separations, enough for them to be receiving the same outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And here is where we might need to understand a few things about Christian love that is commanded of us by the Lord, “as he loved us.” It has nothing to do with vague, general feeling of compassion. It has nothing to do with superficial liking, like we prefer Jollibee to KFC chicken. It has nothing to do with just superficial emotions that come and go. Loving as Christ did means doing as Christ did, suffering as he did, saving as he did, doing good as he did and working for others’ good just as he did. Now that is a difficult thing to do. But very rewarding …”If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” There’s more! … I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.”

Loving without borders … loving without preconditions, and loving as Christ did. Medecins sans Frontieres give us a glimpse of this universal love that is also expected of us. These doctors show us that it is possible. The fulfillment that they get from doing this is non pareil. Signs these are of what is also in store for those who love really from the heart, soul, mind and with all one’s strength – joy, complete joy, along with other gifts that come from the outpouring of the Spirit given to all who are open enough to receive them!


Monday, May 4, 2009

REMAINING IN THE LORD!




Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections

5th Sunday of Easter(B)

May 10, 2009

The world we live in is in too much of a hurry. The new generations, born in an era of jet and space travel, seems to be in perpetual hurried – and harried – motion! There is motion everywhere we go … mobility … movement … To sit still, be quiet, be stable and meaningfully connected is almost countercultural. What does one do all day at home? How does one spend the long weekend merely at home, when even the official government policy emanating from the highest executive offices of the land encourages movement, domestic tourism, and mobility on days when feast days and civil holidays are – you guessed right – “moved” to more auspicious and economically productive days? How does one expect to be sedately happy when “nothing’s going on” at home … where there’s no “happening,” no “gimmicks” taking place?

We all cannot sit still, immersed as we are in a world of malls with perpetually moving, whirring, humming and gyrating escalators, elevators, fun rides, computer games and roaring videoke machines kept in motion by patrons who are otherwise bored stiff at home, where “nothing worthwhile takes place.”

There is no sitting still for postmodern women and men – and kids all raring to grow up and be counted ahead of time!

And yet, the Lord talks about stability, connectedness, sitting still and being with Him! “I am the vine, you are the branches. “Remain in me as I remain in you … Remain in my love.”

Physicists talk of two types of forces: centrifugal and centripetal forces. The former refers to a moving away from the center. The latter refers to a moving toward the center. One wonders whether all this moving hither and thither, all this movement and mobility taking place in this noisy world, all this mad rush for something to perk us up and prime us for more draining activity upon activity, takes us nearer or takes us away from the center of our being as creatures of a God who revealed himself in and through Jesus Christ. The world and the culture in vogue seem to be like a giant centrifuge machine that spins us out of the center of our lives as believers.

There is in today’s liturgy an invitation for us to set our priorities right. We are asked to remain, to sit still, to stay connected, to keep in touch, to maintain our links with the only valid, life-giving URL in this WWW – whole wide world of relationships, where the only real and valid SITE that counts as most important is that which hosts the God of hosts, the God of relationships, the God who alone can give us the information and the LINKS that count and point to our salvation.
“Remain in me as I remain in you.” There is mutuality here, not a one-way traffic. God is always there, with us… God is always present. Our God is a God of fidelity. Such is a well-established truth that comes out over and over again in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, such a divine trait shone out most explicitly and eloquently in the example of fidelity of Christ, who suffered death, even death on a cross.

Remain in me… How does one remain in the Lord when all we do is get away and get as far as is possible from what leads to him. We are used to SURF around. We change allegiances and alliances as fast as we click the delete button. We move in and out of temporary relationships as fast as we can change our SIM cards. And we can cultivate multi-level relationships as efficiently as we can introduce polyphonic tones in our cell phones. Fidelity and constancy do not seem anymore to attract the fancy of postmodern men and women. What sort of remaining in the Lord can we expect to do when we cannot even maintain long term relationships with people who are perpetually on the move?

Signs are afoot that tell us that the single most important trend and reality in the world now is movement and mobility. Young couples in the Philippines do not dream of a house of their own. The first thing they want to have is a car, preferably an AUV – or both! Young people do not dream of becoming topnotchers in the board or in the bar. They dream of moving out, being an OFW, traveling, getting elsewhere. How else explain the brain drain that is happening in the country? Apart from economic motives, there, too, is that desire to follow the trend, go with the flow, and that is to be on the move, to go elsewhere, never to be fossilized where there is hardly any future.

All this mobility is not bad in itself. But unless fully understood in terms of its consequences, it can impinge upon our spiritual life. That is where the liturgy today becomes meaningful for us. We need to remain in Christ. Remaining in Christ means, that in the midst of all this culture of mobility and motion, we ought to have a stable foundation that will help us navigate through the ups and downs of this world in perpetual motion. That foundation is union with God, in and through Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Remaining in Christ is the foundation of our stability and fidelity that ought to help us go through life and the temptations if offers to the contrary. A throw-away world of consumerism hardly preaches thrift, constancy and fidelity. A text and cell phone crazed world cannot pass on in earnest the values of honest, sincere and meaningful communication. To get these values and live them, we need the foundation of a deep and real union with God that would then model all our relationships.

All this is to say that life needs a solid anchor base, a focused ground on which to attach one’s self and one’s life, instead of forever fluttering around like a butterfly, ever on the search for what temporarily fills and fulfills, and then moving on again when there is nothing anymore to wait for. There is so much that life offers us: new age, newfangled spirituality fads, new movements, new groupings and associations. Unless one is solidly based on a firm relationship with a personal God, one will forever be shifting allegiances like we change channels on TV. We need to make God a permanent fixture in our heart. We need to be solidly rooted in him if we want to bear fruit in plenty.
It is about time we settled in on Jesus. It is about time we focused our attention on him alone. It is high time we stopped flitting and fluttering like butterflies on a roll, sucking on and savoring the nectar of this world in constant motion. It is high time we understood that life at bottom, is not a matter of motion, but a matter of being at rest in God. For “restless are our hearts until they rest in God.”