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Monday, August 24, 2009

DOERS, NOT MERE HEARERS!




Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

August 30, 2009



Words inundate our lives ever increasingly as days go by. We see a plethora of words in print, we hear words uttered around us everywhere we go, at home, at school, at the malls, at work, in and out of the radio wave lanes, whether in AM or FM, or in VHF or UHF channels. Words are not only uttered in “real time.” They can be recorded through a variety of electronic means, either “analog” or “digital,” which is the current mode in use.


So many words written or uttered, transmitted by wire or “beamed” via satellite, using “wi-fi” technology, indeed, may well have contributed to the phenomenon of making words sound cheap, making them less powerful, and giving them less and less impact. The daily barrage of words may have lessened not only appreciation for them, but also, their innate power to symbolize the true inner state of the people who utter them or use them. Words – a great abundance of them – may be behind the eroding loss of credibility society now ascribes to them.


The post 9/11 society all over the world, for one, has become less trusting, less accommodating, and definitely less believing in ways more than one. It is not enough anymore just to go by “one’s word” and get access to many aspects of our societal lives that used to be open to everyone. We need to show more “words” to prove our real identity. Merely opening a bank account would entail the need to prove one is a bona fide resident of a particular address. And banks would settle for nothing less than two identity cards … valid, not fabricated and faked, as often happens in the Philippines. Getting by on “someone else’s word” is no longer as easy as it used to be.


Words have lost a lot of their original power to convey truth! There was a time airlines only did a series of serious questionings to a potential client in order for them to weed out potential problem-makers. After the onset of terrorism, and most especially after 9/11, mere verbal statements do not suffice. One can be thoroughly searched, despite one’s perfectly honest and sincere declarations.

One’s word needs to be matched by reality. What one says one is, must be matched by concrete signs that support the veracity of one’s word. This is the run of the day as of the present times. One not only talks about who one is, and who one is not. One proves it by his deeds, by his actions, by his showing concrete signs and corresponding proofs.


I should like to think that this thought could be a very good starting point to speak about what the readings today all point to - the need to tell and show; the need not only to hear, but also do what one hears: “Now Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you […] Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”

Words have become cheap, indeed. Today, however, we are reminded about what never gets cheap, what never loses its savor and flavor, what never becomes powerless and useless – the word of God, who is the author of “every perfect gift from above […] with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firsfruits of his creatures.”


The unchanging word of God, with its power and the brilliance of its saving truth, now confronts us and convicts us: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” In the midst of so much wordiness that we experience daily, we are reminded to stick to the word that comes from him alone “who can neither deceive, nor be deceived,” as one old, traditional prayer, the Act of Faith, puts it.


Our words, mere words of mortal, need not become cheap. Our utterances need not become symbols of deceit and masks of insincerity. Our pronouncements need not anymore lead to death – our won, or that of innocent others. What we say need not become occasions for suspicion, mistrust, or utter unbelief. When what we say is patterned after the word of God, then we mean what we say, and say only what we mean. We would then be unlike the Scribes and Pharisees who really were resident experts on the words – understood as the material letters of the law! They were so cautious about what the law literally prescribed on every human action imaginable to the point of adding more and more words to the law, that Jesus deemed it proper to speak about them thus: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”


In the case of the Scribes and Pharisees, their words were not matched by deeds. Their inner disposition, attitudes and intentions belied what they were saying and teaching with utter external dedication, almost to the point of obsession.


But there was something, of course, more important than mere external show of concern. And that which counted far more important, had to do with the inner reality deep within the person. It is not what one observes on the exterior plane, but what one observes deep within one’s personhood, the seat of real values, virtues, and interior dispositions. It is not what comes from the outside that counts as important, but what comes from the inside: “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”


Last week, St. Paul reminded us to “watch carefully how [we] live.” This Sunday, we are reminded to watch carefully what we say. We are reminded further, to watch carefully for what God says, and to be careful not only to hear His word, but also to act accordingly based on what He says. This is what true religion is. It is not principally rituals, although they constitute an integral element of religion. It is not primarily what we do but what we do based on what we hear from the Lord. Thus, James reminds us: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”


I have said more than enough. Multiplying words at this time, I guess, would run counter to what I just developed in these few paragraphs. Words do not become cheap when said and fulfilled with the “yeast of sincerity and truth.” No … not mere hearers, but doers. This is what we all ought to become.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

MAKING LIFE-ENABLING CHOICES


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

August 23, 2009


All three readings today revolve around the basic idea of choice. In the first reading, we are presented with a dramatic call made to the tribes of Israel by Joshua, asking them to decide, that is, to make a choice between two false gods. Joshua, the same passage tells us, was clear about his own choice: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, illustrates as best he could, culling from the culture and practice of his times, what choosing to “live in Christ, as Christ loved us” meant. Choosing to live in Him entails, in concrete, a life of mutual fidelity to one another, a life of mutual service. Nowhere is this love of mutuality and selfless service to each other, coming closest to taking part and sharing in Christ’s paschal mystery – His death and life – as in the love that ought to reign between husbands and wives. The Gospel, for its part, presents Jesus asking his disciples after a great many from the erstwhile enthusiastic crowd of followers chose to leave – unable to take the “hard sayings” of the Lord: “Do you also want to leave?”


Today’s readings portray monumental and decisive choices made by several individuals: Joshua, the Israelite tribes, Paul, and Jesus’ disciples. All their choices were clear: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods.” “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”


All choices were made in the context of a very clear and distinct call from above. “Decide today whom you will serve,” Joshua said unequivocally to the people. “Live in Christ as Christ loved us […] This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” Nowhere is this distinct and clear call from above more evident than in what the Lord Jesus Christ told his temporarily wavering disciples: “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” Jesus, indeed, was speaking like he was presenting his case before his listeners, pleading with them to decide and choose – choose to follow Him and His words, and live!


Life-enabling choices! … This is the stuff of which these decisions and choices are made! These are choices that lead to life, to grace, to growth, to goodness, to perfection, and – ultimately – to God!

We all know what its exact opposite is – life-disabling or life-draining choices. These we do when we mistake the means for the goal, the tool for the target, the tree for the forest. These happen when we, in short-sighted fashion, “work for food that perishes;” when we substitute creature comfort and material goods for the ultimate Good, when lesser good becomes the end-all and be-all of our lives. The Bible has a name for this. It is called sin, which, among others, means “missing the mark.” It means to absolutize what is basically relative and contingent, to give them a value far beyond and above what they really all are: material, and therefore, dispensable reality.


We live in a world that is awash in choices. An endless array of options captivates our eyes each and every single day. A great many of those choices, needless to say, really do not have great impact on our lives, like the daily choices we make about what to eat for breakfast, and the like. But there are indeed choices and decisions that have a lot to do with the overall tenor of our lives. These are some kind of umbrella choices that cover for all the rest of the little, seemingly insignificant choices we make every single day. Theologians, for years, have been talking about this phenomenon, calling such a choice “fundamental option.”

This is the choice that either leads to death or to life. This is the choice that puts our life either in union or “out of synch” with that of Christ, and His Spirit who dwells in the Church. This is the sort of choice that makes us real sharers and partakers of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.


The fact that certain choices can make or break us in the long run is easy enough for us to understand in our daily lives. No one decides one day to be fat and overweight. One simply makes a series of seemingly insignificant choices every day, choosing to eat in an unhealthy manner, choosing certain foods that make for empty calories. or choosing to live a lifestyle devoid of healthy exercise and some form of what psychologists call “eustress” or good, necessary form of healthy stress. Similarly, no one decides to be a bad man in an instant. One simply chooses to act in a way that is less than good every single day. One simply chooses to follow the call of evil, that may seem, on the short haul, as something too insignificant, too trivial, or too flimsy to matter at all. In the same vein, one does not decide one morning not to be a good and practicing Catholic. One simply decides not to live the way he or she believes on a daily basis. Daily prayer goes out the window gradually. Soon, Sunday duties take the back seat of one’s priorities, replaced by a life of sports and leisure, perhaps. And soon enough, not living the way one believes, would make one believe the way he or she lives. One simply decides to make choices that are life-draining, rather than life-giving. One makes a fundamental option, albeit subtly and unwittingly. And such a fundamental choice is not traceable to one single isolated choice in the course of one’s life, but is made up of a series of single choices all stacked together, as it were..


The Liturgy of today is a clear and distinct call for us to make the choices that matter. Our response after the first reading clinches it all when we proclaimed: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” Indeed, amidst the multiplicity of daily choices that we make, there are those that lead us to taste and see God’s goodness, and those that leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth. In this pluralistic world, immersed as we all are in a sea of major and minor decisions to make, the daily little choices that we make spell life or its opposite. In and through such choices and decisions, we either draw closer to the goal of our lives, or go farther from it.


A current illustration from a popular movie based on a real story is the series of choices made by Frank Abignale, Jr. (Catch Me If You Can). Whilst the ending is a happy one, with the main character ultimately becoming reformed, successful and well-adjusted in society, his gradual descent into the underworld of professional con artists did not happen in one single instant. His defrauding society of millions of dollars, his fooling so many people so many times, were born of little choices he made along the way. Those little choices, that began when he was barely 17 years old, led him to become among the most wanted criminals in American for a long while (that is, until he found the light and reformed himself).


We become what we choose. Today, as in every other single day, we would do well to look at the choices that we make. Are they life-enabling or life-draining choices? The psalmist gives us an example to follow: “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall be ever in my mouth.” The disciples give us more: “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life; you have the words of everlasting life.” It is never too late to start making choices that really matter!

Monday, August 10, 2009

WATCHING CAREFULLY HOW WE LIVE


20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B
August 16, 2009
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection


People watch a whole lot of things. They watch their weight, for one. They watch their step, as they amble about in places that have not been designed for semi-invalids that many people are fast becoming in our times, owing to obesity. In the Philippines, people with expensive and not-so-expensive cell phones alike watch out for thugs who are ready at any given time, to run away with their coveted communication-pieces-cum-camera-and-MP3 player all rolled into one. Pedestrians, long since deprived of their rightful turf – the sidewalks – watch traffic both before and behind them, fully aware that in the Philippines, the right of pedestrians seems to have been relegated to oblivion. Although the infamous “Filipino time” still wreaks havoc on our societal lives, people keep on watching the time in an age when timepieces need not be worn, but are seen everywhere: in the cell phones, in buses, jeepneys, cars, radios, desktop computers, laptops, PDAs, netbooks, etc.

Why, people even watch their favorite movie and telenovela stars live and grow on a day-to-day basis! How else explain the popularity of “showbiz” talk shows both on radio and TV, where even the lurid details of their private lives are fair game to the prying eyes and ears of the talk show hosts and the general public? People are ever on the lookout for the latest scoop, the most recent snippets, a close look at the goings on in the lives of others, especially celebrities.

Despite so much money put into physical self-care as evidenced by the amount of commerce created by cosmetic companies and body care specialists, there is little self-introspection, little attention to one’s inner self in the prevailing culture of our times. Inner work, that capacity to make that “journey inwards,” to use the term of Dag Hammarskjold, is not the most popular pastime in this fast-paced and superficially inspired world.

There is something in today’s readings that beckons us to do just this: watching carefully how we live, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians (2nd reading). Proverbs 9 (2nd reading) confirms and supports this as it talks about the need for wisdom linked with the idea of “understanding.” Wisdom is represented as “food” and “drink” and those called to share in it are also enjoined to “forsake foolishness … [and] advance in the way of understanding.”

Now this constitutes a very good platform to base a reflection on vis-à-vis the need for us to be on the “watch.”

We are on the watch for so many things, so many concerns most of which are earthly in character. Today we are reminded to be on the look-out for wisdom that transcends earthly interests, “because the days are evil.” We are on the watch for the latest information, the latest “scoop,” but we are reminded to look for wisdom instead of “ignorance.” This wisdom is equated with trying to “understand what is the will of the Lord.” We watch what we eat and we value pleasure and comfort all the way, but today are enjoined not to “get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”

Watching carefully how we live … There is need for us to do some serious stock-taking in terms of how we live. Decades of continual bombardment by the media, years of exposure to a mentality that, for all intents and purposes, borders on the post-modern and the post-christian, have dulled our sensitivity of heart and soul, muddled our sense of values and subverted our priorities. I love to use the word that epitomizes the current concern of moralists in our times: co-optation. For the great majority, years of exposure to what is prevalent at the moment has resulted in co-optation. People have long been co-opted into thinking that whatever is current must be correct; that what is prevalent must be perfect; and that what is socially acceptable must be morally irreprehensible! War is OK, for that is the current commonly held doctrine of the capitalist world! Swinging in and out of relationships must be OK, too, for that is the commonly lived practice among celebrities. Abortion and birth control must be alright, for that is what is dictated by “sound” economic concerns and financial planning. For many people, the rule seems to be so simplistic: less is more! Less people would mean more comfort and a higher and better quality of life for all.

We do watch carefully how we live. Unfortunately, we keep watch only on the first “half” of our lives, not the totality of it. We keep watch only on the earthly aspect of this life, not the fullness of it. We remain on the superficial, earthly level, not on the wholistic reality of human life that embraces also the spiritual, the supernatural, the divine component of our being created “in God’s image and likeness.”

Here is one activity we are all engaged in right at this moment, as we all join hands and hearts to praise God together and worship Him in this Eucharistic celebration. Here is one sure-fire way of gaining that wisdom that the first two readings are speaking about – the “food and drink” that is given “for the life of the world.” This is as much a sign of things to come as an actual sign of an unfolding reality. This is food that offers “life within [us].” Nay more, it offers “eternal life.” This is, as St. Thomas puts it, a PIGNUS (pledge) of present and future glory, for “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

There was a time in the history of Catholic spirituality when people were so enamored and so influenced by the Eucharistic, real presence of the Lord, that they spent long hours giving a “pious stare” at the Eucharistic Lord. They used to call this Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. People stayed in church for long hours enjoying the earthly – if, limping – vision of the Risen Lord’s real presence in and through the sign of bread. Nowadays, material time for this in a culture dominated by work and entertainment, seems no longer possible. But the inner attitude of one who lives in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord all day still is, and will never become, irrelevant and anachronistic. Whilst we cannot sit and watch anymore as we used to; whilst we cannot anymore stare at the Eucharistic Lord as people used to do decades back; whilst it is no longer possible to be absorbed in vocal prayer all day long, we still can – and, in fact, are called - to watch carefully how we live, in the spirit of prayerful union with the God we claim to believe in. Now is a good time to re-appropriate this faith in Jesus, made flesh, made bread for us.

Let us watch what we receive today. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever!”

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD!


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B August 9, 2009

A NOTE TO MY PHILIPPINE, TAGALOG READERS: MY KALAKBAY AT KATOTO TAGALOG REFLECTION FOR THIS SUNDAY IS AS MUCH A PAEAN TO THE EUCHARIST AS A WORD OF APPRECIATION TO SOMEBODY WHO EMBODIED AN EXTRAORDINARILY DEEP FAITH IN THE EUCHARIST - FORMER PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT CORY AQUINO. PLEASE CLICK TO THE LINK AT THE RIGHT COLUMN OF THIS PAGE.


Food, traditionally, has never been equated with pouting, with sadness, or anything that smacks of being on the downside emotionally speaking. Food has always been associated with joy, with camaraderie, sharing, togetherness, oneness and overflowing happiness. Food is associated with sustenance, replenishment of lost energy, eroded enthusiasm, and dissipated resolve to do what ought to be done.

Elijah was despondent after a day’s journey, the first reading tells us. Praying for death, he lay down under the broom tree. But the Lord Yahweh himself, through an angel fed him and nourished him and “strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8).

It was not simply food, however, that lifted up the spirits of Elijah. It was food that came from no less than God, food that came from heaven, food that went beyond nourishing mere physical hunger and mere material want. It was food that was meant to enliven one’s total being, meant to offer a whole lot more than just replenishment of lost energies, but the fulfillment of one’s deepest longing.

We are reminded today of this real food, this “living bread that came down from heaven,” that is being given to us in this Eucharistic celebration. Today, we are once more face to face with the promise: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

For the life of the world … Now, this is far beyond mere fellowship, mere pleasure and mere earthly, though admittedly legitimate, fulfillment. The Lord promised bread for the life of the world!

Perhaps talking about what the Lord did not promise can make us appreciate what it was he promised. The Lord did not promise a good time with one another today. The Lord did not promise beautiful singing in this Mass. The Lord did not promise resolution of all our problems, big or small. Neither did the Lord promise that we shall henceforth live in peace with everyone we meet in our daily lives. He did not promise camaraderie, fellowship, at-homeness with each other in this assembly. He did not promise any of these things, although if they do come and are given along with the one single important promise, we would do well to welcome them and appreciate them, legitimate joys as they really all are.

The Lord promised life eternal to all those who eat of his body and drink of his blood. The Lord promised bread “for the life of the world.”
There is definitely so much death and dejection in this world as we know it. And there is more than sufficient reason for so much disappointment and lack of fervor. The world as we know it is now deeply steeped in so much evil and uncaring attitudes, that there are so many reasons why so many women and men refuse to live life fully and well. Selfishness that abounds everywhere … corruption in and out of government … so little appreciation for the value of life … so much neglect and abandonment of one another … the list is legion. There is more than enough reason for one to be dejected, be sad – even be angry, and both be aggressive and passive about so many things at one and the same time. The world, though experiencing a surfeit of abundant food, is really hungry for what really matters more than victuals. There is so much food, but so little genuine nourishment. So many fat people in fact, but so little genuine health at the same time. The world could be overfed but really emotionally, psychologically – nay more – spiritually, undernourished. The world pines for food that lasts, food that really fulfills, and not merely fills.

If the world is really fulfilled, then why is there still so much “bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling?” Such are the things that ought to be “removed from [us] along with all malice.” The surfeit of negativity constitutes the empty fullness of the world that has not “tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.” But it is really those who are “kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving [to] one another,” who are really filled with genuine nourishment from above.

There is need for all of us to discern what it is we are really aiming at and ordinarily looking for. Are we fed and nourished by the things that we fill ourselves with or are we really drained? Can we honestly say we are being enriched by our mad rush from one gimmick to another, by the time we spend on looking out to become number one, by the efforts we expend at trying to become what we really are not called to be, by our self-centered efforts at filling our sense of emptiness with so much noise, clutter and glitter? Are we indeed becoming the interiorly joyful Christians we are meant to be?

The Scriptural evidence today from St. John’s gospel alludes to people who merely received material bread, assuaged in their merely earthly and physical hunger. They were still sad and they still sulked and pouted. In fact, they “murmured” among themselves. Indeed, we people really have no satisfaction at all. There is something more than just material food that we need. Merely being satisfied with bread out in the desert did not make the erstwhile excited followers of the Lord really committed disciples of the same Lord. Satiated, they still complained. Satisfied, they still went on asking for more.

This is the story of each and everyone of us.

The ending of the story though is something we now have in our hands to control. The answer lies in our hands. This for practical reasons… For one, we might want to ask ourselves, what is it we have brought to this Mass? Did you come here with full or empty hands? Did you come here to give or to get? Did you come here to be consoled or to meet the God of consolation? Did you come here only to receive or did you come to this Mass to fill others and thus be filled by God and by others in turn? Fulton Sheen said years ago: so many people get nothing out of the Mass simply because they bring nothing to it in the first place. Eating manna alone will not guarantee one’s not dying. “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.”

What then, ought we to bring? The rest of the Lord’s statement clinches it: “this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” What then ought we to bring? Faith in him who has come down in flesh … faith in him come down as flesh become bread for the life of the world.