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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

THE PEOPLE THAT LONGS TO SEE GOD’S FACE























Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

Solemnity of All Saints

November 1, 2009


Readings: Rev. 7:2 -4,9-14 / 1 Jn 3:1-3 / Mt 5:1-12a


I’d like to start this reflection by making a little confession. I don’t particularly enjoy anymore reading the lives of saints. Please don’t get me wrong. It is not like I don’t believe in their holiness. I do. I really do. But whilst I believe in saints and their closeness to the God they believed in, I don’t as easily believe in how hagiographers (those who write their lives) report their lives to be, anymore than I believe that those wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s are real people.


But I do know that people who admire other people have a tendency to overblow things, a penchant to make them appear larger than life. And I do know how we all could blow things up for effect, carried as we are, at times, by good old emotions that can go overboard in not a few occasions.


St. John the Evangelist could have been a little carried away by the overwhelming truth that he speaks about – a vision … an image … a picture of how heroes are rewarded by the only author and source of all heroism. John’s book of Revelation, from which the first reading was taken, registers an out-of-this-world image of where heroes are meant to be – in heaven, together with the One they died for, side by side with all those who suffered, shed blood, offered their lives – every minute of it – longing to see the face of God, and working so that others like them in search can one day see the face of the Lord!


Many saints were reported to have “bilocated,” that is, some of them were reportedly at two places at one and the same time. Whilst I do not have reason to disbelieve those who documented such events in the lives of saints, the “miracle” alone does not leave me in awe. It does not excite me, for I know that such miracles could not have happened on account of their humanity, the very same humanity that you and I have. Such miracles, of their very essence, could only have been wrought by God’s grace, by God’s power, and by God’s mercy, in accordance with God’s infinite wisdom, and for a noble purpose, that goes beyond the person of saints like St. John Bosco, who was among those reported to have bilocated, at least several times.


But I am awed by saints who plodded their way through this valley of tears doing things that were patently unpleasant. I am awed not by saints who levitate (or levitated by God’s grace and power), but by saints who gravitate towards those who made their lives basically uncomfortable and humanly speaking miserable. I am awed by St. Damien the leper of Molokai, who lived an anonymous, unsung existence in the remotest of islands far from any thing that approximated human consolation. I am awed by the likes of Mother Teresa who slugged it out with the least, the last, the lowest, and the lost – and let me add – stinking sea of humanity that occupied the lowest rung in the order of respectability. I am awed by the likes of St. Maximiliam Kolbe who could probably have gotten away from it all, by simply not saying anything, by simply adapting to what the cruel guards expected. But no … he stepped forward and stepped up to the plate, to certain death by proxy, for someone whom he thought, had more reason to live. I am awed by the likes of Pier Giorgio Frassati, who, despite having the wherewithal to enjoy life to the hilt – material, secular life, replete with wine, women, and song – and yes – the devil’s shit called money, decided to spend his short life for somebody bigger than him, larger than the world, larger than life itself!


Yes, I am in awe. I am in awe of the 144,000 who were washed in the blood of the lamb, who followed the lamb wherever he went. These are the saints, of real flesh and blood, who suffered like hell on account of man’s inhumanity to man. I am in awe, not because they were both in Turin and in Barcelona, (like Don Bosco did), but because they, all the saints without exception, were really people out in search, in search for the pearl of great price, the treasure par excellence …


They were people who longed to see God’s face!


What do I long for? I long for so many things. I long for recognition, to be treated as someone special. I long for comfort. I long for security. I long for a thousand and one things that all of humanity also long for. I am not a saint … definitely not one who levitates, and not one who bilocates. I am more like politicians who bifurcate, and speak with forked tongues all the time, leaders who titillate the masses but who always vacillate in the end, and like every Tom, Dick, and Harry who claim to believe, but are yet unable to live fully as they believe.

I long, however, to be part of the 144,000 – a number that befuddled the average Jew – a number of perfection, a number that did not stop at some point, but more like a number that did not need counting, for it was a dream, a vision, an epitome of God’s own passionate and intense longing for the people He has called His own.


I am an object of God’s longing! I am part of those whom the same St. John addresses thus: “Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we shall be has not yet been revealed!”

Yes … like the saints who levitated and bilocated, like the saints whose stories might have made them appear more like Madame Tussaud’s wax figures, I am an object of God’s longing, a focus of God’s love and predilection, called to be saints, called to become what we already are, by God’s grace!


The solemnity of all saints is not a day to wax sad and sallow that we cannot talk to animals like St. Francis did. This is not a day to extol what appear to be humanly impossible feats of the saints. No… It is a day filled with real red blood … stories of real people who, on account of God’s longing, and their longing to see God’s face, paid the ultimate price for their other-worldly dream. They paid with their time. They paid with their good name, like St. John Bosco who was considered a candidate for the mental asylum. They paid dearly with their right to be comfortable and honorable, and popular. They were hated. They were declared blessed, not because they levitated like St. Joseph of Cupertino, but because they were precisely like him, poor, suffering for righteousness’ sake, persecuted on account of God, meek, merciful, clean of heart, insulted, and falsely accused. The list is endless. And that list is not topped by incredible reports about flying like flying saucers from outer space.

They were blessed, declared as such by God who was the first out in search for them, for us, for every man born of woman, of the stock of sinful Adam and Eve.


They were blessed because they were graced, favored by a God of plenty, a God of life, a God whose mercy is everlasting.


I may not be a saint but I know I am an object of God’s longing. His longing for me translates into a call, an ongoing and patient call for me to go join the tour of a lifetime that lasts till eternity – the journey of the uncountable 144,000 whose dress and demeanor speak to me, not of silly reports of miracles that count not as most important, but of reports about a God, who reveals Himself and shows Himself to all those who long to see His face!


Friends, these are the saints! They are our models. They are those who share with us the longing for God and the fruition of such longing. They are now in the holy presence of God, that we share partly and really in grace brought to us in sign and sacrament.


These are the people that long to see the face of God!

Monday, October 19, 2009

CLARITY OF VISION























Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflections

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time(B)

October 25, 2009


Clarity seems to be the banner-headline of today’s liturgy. Mark the evangelist, for the brevity of his account, shines out in at least this one aspect – the clarity of detail about a blind man whom he took pains to record by name – Bartimaeus! Blind persons tend to lose their identity and individuality in this cruel world. People often just refer to the handicapped as the “blind man,” the “limping girl,” or the “one-eyed swordsman,” or any other unsavory appellation other than their own names. Somehow, it is almost like as if people with marked handicaps lose their right to be unique, to be worthy of being known, to be treated as individual persons.


But if Mark was clear on the name, I must add that the one he named for posterity showed even greater clarity … on two counts. First, Bartimaeus called on Jesus as “Son of David.” Bartimaeus was clearly knowledgeable about Scriptures and about who the people of Israel were waiting for. Bartimaeus clearly saw the unfolding mystery taking place ironically before his sightless eyes, a mystery that was spoken of by the prophets of old, a mystery which, to his perceptive mind, was becoming a reality in the person of Jesus from Nazareth. But there was a second more important clue to Bartimaeus’ clarity of vision. He knew what to ask the Son of David! Thus he cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”


Clarity of vision … this is the crying need of our times. We would do well to dwell a little longer and deeper on what Mark, Bartimaeus, Jeremiah and the letter-writer to the Hebrews can teach us as we go through our daily lives.


First, I would like to refer to the so-much muddled state of faith that most of us Catholics find ourselves in. It is not uncommon for us priests to hear people ask questions about the Catholic Church, the Papacy, the sacraments, statues, and sacred images. They are for the most part questions designed not to find out the truth, but to insinuate what they think is wrong with the Church and her doctrines. Their questions start out from a lack of clarity in terms of what they really believe in, for one simple reason … they did not do their homeworks and learn enough of their faith. These people really do not hate the Catholic Church per se, but they hate what they mistakenly think is the Catholic Church. Blindness, the kind that comes from ignorance that can easily be helped with a little honest and sincere investigation, is the kind that Bartimaeus’ example speaks so eloquently against.


I therefore direct my thoughts and words to those of us who may share this type of spiritual blindness. Even as Bartimaeus helped himself and looked for means to approach the Lord, we, too, can exert the needed efforts to really get to know our faith. As I always tell people who speak my native language: ang natatanga ay natatangay! (suckers in the faith are easily swayed by the “winds” of newfangled doctrines).


Secondly, there is that type of blindness that comes from a sense of complacency brought about by a culture of relative wealth, affluence, consumerism, and an uncritical dependence on what modern technology can offer. So many people now feel invincible. So many believe that science and technology can give all the answers to people’s questions and problems. Decades of a culture of comfort and ease have blinded millions who live in affluent countries to the reality of pain and suffering of many more millions in the third world who make do with the crumbs that fall off their tables of plenty. Years of exposure to ease and comfort have blinded millions to the importance of the other-worldly, that is, the spiritual mode of existence. So many of us have taken to living their lives only for the here and now, conveniently taking God out of government, out of our classrooms, public places and even our homes! The glamour and the glitter of shopping malls; our almost obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with cleanliness that is paradoxically behind the throw-away culture that, in turn, explains the world’s increasing and phenomenal creation of garbage, have blinded us to the reality of our wanton abuse of the earth and its natural resources. We live like as if there were no tomorrow, and no future generations that also have the right to enjoy what we are enjoying now. At the rate modern societies all over the world use and abuse the earth and its non-renewable resources, there is reason for the more forward-looking amongst us to worry and ask questions like: “Will there be enough for the coming generations, or are we acting and behaving like the world and its riches are unlimited?” Affluence and the growing need for more comfort have indeed blinded most of us to the reality of a planet that sags under the weight of so much abuse and wanton destruction. If anything, the recent massive floods that inundated Metro Manila and the northern provinces of the Philippines, are partly a wake-up call for us all in this regard. Ironically, the relief goods being distributed to victims are packaged in the very same plastic bags that partly caused the floods in the first place!


Third, there is that subtle and curious type of blindness that stands behind the rebuke that Bartimaeus received from people around him. “And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.” This is the blindness of those who were unwilling to give credit to someone who was being recognized for who and what he is. This is the blindness of those who were unwilling to acknowledge Jesus and his mission, those who were really rejecting him. This is the blindness of people who have taken concrete steps to cause the “eclipse” of God in our everyday culture and lives. This is the blindness that has effectively shut off any form of consciousness of the presence and activity of God in our world.


The world we live in is also full of this type of blindness. When we deride those of us who, in their simple faiths, resort to prayer and rituals to commune with the God they believe in, this, is no different from what Bartimaeus got. When we poke fun at others simply because they have recourse to “old-fashioned” prayer, this is exactly what people who rebuked Bartimaeus did. When we pose obstacles to people’s growth in faith and prayer, invoking the laws of the land in order to effectively persecute people’s faith and beliefs, we are no different from those who rebuked Bartimaeus in his simple prayer of faith.


The world has become too pluralistic, too enlightened, too wise and calculating. We have become experts at splitting hairs, and in the process successfully edged God out of our daily lives. God has no more place in our court rooms. God has no place in our classrooms, in parks and public places. Ironically, we have retained “God” in our minted money, but for who knows how long? The world has become too “educated.” But for all the enlightenment it has received, it has lost real clarity of vision. It has lost clarity of heart and mind, for it has lost the wisdom that is a gift from above. It has lost perspective for it has lost its spiritual and moral moorings. The here and now, the quantifiable, and the palpable have all become the end-all and be-all of human existence.


Today, Bartimaeus invites us to recapture and reappropriate the necessary clarity of vision. The world may not keep pace with us and our efforts, but our personal individual efforts at reclaiming what we have lost are bound to go a long way.


Bartimaeus did it so simply and disarmingly. He did it with a simple prayer from the heart, a prayer that was as powerful as it was direct and clear. “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”


The answer of God is just as clear. Speaking through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, today we are told: “Behold, I will bring them back from the land of the north …I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst, the mothers and those with child; they shall return as an immense throng.”


Truly, clarity is what we bask in today: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” This same clarity is what we pray and beg God for as together with Bartimaeus, we cry out: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”

Monday, October 12, 2009

FULL SERVICE


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

October 18, 2009


The world values service a whole lot. People are willing to pay good money provided they are given a full complement of services everywhere they go, whether in a restaurant or a hotel. We just love to be pampered by service even if, deep inside, we know we are really paying dearly for it. Being served somehow makes us feel good about ourselves and gives a boost to our self-image. No wonder cruises, some of which are not called “celebrity cruises” for nothing, all go for the topmost quality in quality services that make one feel, at least for a short period, like celebrities, if not royalty.


It is thus also not to be wondered at that two of Jesus’ close-in followers – James and John – who probably felt important enough after being identified with someone whom crowds adored and adulated, as to ask a big - if pretentious - favor from the Lord: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Mark’s recounting of the story seems significant even to a non-biblical scholar like me. James and John asked the Lord to “do for [them] whatever [they] ask of him.” It was “service” they wanted. They wanted the Lord to do for them something they must have sorely valued and thus, very much desired.


I see two aspects to the self-centered request of the two brothers: service from their Lord and Master in the form of an honorable place beside the same Master when the right time comes.


Certain crazy ideas do come into the head of people who think they have done something great, something worth being thanked for, something worth being rewarded. Warped beliefs about deserving to be rewarded handsomely and treated “justly” do come into the minds of people who have in the first place come to be served and not to serve. People whose focus are on themselves begin counting whatever good they have done, whatever contribution they have made. How many times people withdraw from associations both religious and secular simply because they have not been “treated fairly,” or just because they “have not been given due consideration?” Groupings and associations in and out of the Church have not been, and are not immune to so many petty intrigues, that accrue from hurt feelings, as when one feels the “parish priest just does not show appreciation for what I have done.”


As a priest, pastor, preacher, and teacher over more than two and a half decades, and as one who was in various forms of authority and leadership for almost as long, I have personally experienced what I am talking about. I have also felt sidelined. I have felt unappreciated and unrewarded. I have also seen people walk out of groups and associations for the same reason. I have seen individuals refuse to cooperate at some point when they feel they have not been justly and fairly “treated.” Pride and self-centeredness always have a way of rearing its ugly head, taking the better of us, and holding what good we could otherwise be doing, as a veritable hostage.


We have to admit that we all, at some point or other, secretly nurture that oftentimes unacknowledged desire to “sit at the right and left hand” of whoever can make our personal stature even grander and greater in the eyes of women and men.

I believe that it is no empty coincidence that the Holy Father chose more or less this time six years ago to raise Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the glories of the altar and declare her blessed and worthy of being honored in the Church. There is no denying that all her life, all her energies, talents and personal riches were all dedicated to serving others, especially “the least, the last, the lowest, and the lost.”


The life and holy death of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, therefore, is a modern icon of what Christian service is all about – a lesson far too powerful to be ignored and glossed over, the very same lesson that was impressed upon so clearly and definitively on James and John: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”


James and John, however, still had an edge over most of us. After making that self-centered request, the Lord asked them: “Can you drink the cup that drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” At the very least, I would like to think that indeed, James and John meant what they said. History tells us that they both did, thus becoming towering figures in the history of the early Church.


The question for us modern women and men is twofold. Firstly, in a world that is averse to any form of discomfort and pain; in a culture that despises any form of suffering and tries to cover it up by a never-ending search for more ease, comfort and convenience, (just look at the so many “throw-away” cleaning materials advertised; just look at the billions of dollars spent on anti-depressants and on research to further design drugs that anesthetize the soul, mind and heart to pain!), James and John, for their initial selfishness, really had the essentials necessary for service – the capacity and readiness to suffer, to follow the footsteps of their Master to Calvary. In a moment of weakness, which we all really have, the spirit simply caved in to a thirst for power and honor!


The second question for us is the more difficult one precisely because it was in exactly the same area that James and John faltered. This has to do with enough self-esteem, enough self-love coupled paradoxically with enough self-denial as to love service minus the honor, minus the external rewards of recognition from other people. The question for us is how ready we are to “give without counting the cost; to serve without expecting rewards.”

The question for us, in terms of our contemporary times, is whether we can do a Mother Teresa in the ordinary situation of our lives wherever we are.


People mistakenly think that greatness has to do with doing complicated stuff. I have it on the authority of a woman writer that nothing is further from the truth. I have it on the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta that greatness does not lie so much on heroics, as on fidelity, constancy and utter simplicity. “Indeed, nothing is more simple than greatness; to be simple is to be great.” It simply means, doing things fully and not getting by with half-measures.


Full service for the Lord, not a “self-serving” search for one’s own puny greatness. This is what we are asked to give today, all days and for always.

Monday, October 5, 2009

PREFERRING WISDOM TO SCEPTER AND THRONE


















Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

October 11, 2009



Not all that glitters is gold … That much we were told … ever since we were kids in school. Too bad, too many of us go by the standard of what is readily visible and palpable. Today the first reading from the Book of Wisdom offers us a totally different view … something that represents the total reverse of what material man usually holds on to. “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepter and throne.”


In our days and times, we know what we want … or so we think. The recent massive floods in Metro Manila are a testament to this. We think we know what we want – more comfortable and spacious homes, more comfort, ease, and convenience, more votes from what politicians call “constituents.” Real estate developers catered to what people think they want. They pampered them with huge palatial homes. And this, they did by reclaiming for them the waterways, streams, and creeks that used to be channels of nature’s bounty – rainwater that would come and bless the fertile plains as we knew them way back … in Cainta, in Marikina, in Pasig, from the beautiful undulating hills and mountains of Antipolo, Tanay, and Montalban (Rodriguez) in the province of Rizal.


Politicians know what they want … rich votes and the undying loyalty of “constituents” herded in to the metropolitan centers to guarantee them victory during elections. People in and out of government know what they want – quick bucks to tide them over and elevate them to a standard of living enough for them “to keep up with the Ayalas” (the equivalent of the Joneses). In the process, they close one eye or both eyes to what they see – hordes of the poor from rural areas, reclaiming what belongs to all – the esteros, the waterways, rivers, and streams, and turning them into cramped and sub-human dwellings, to become cannon fodder to the big guns of globalization, and the so-called march toward progress.


Big media outfits know what they want … ratings that would outdo the opposing network … the power to choose and seat kings and queens on thrones … even if it means holding on to relief goods if it means getting maximum exposure for later when the idolized actors and actresses would be available for the cameras to start grinding and whirring.


We all know what we want … comfort and ease at all costs … like the ease brought about by cutesy plastic bags that do not soil us, packaging that does not make us smell like fish and stuff, bags that make us feel like we’ve been to Rustan’s (the equivalent of Macy’s), when in fact, we have just been to the wet market in Baclaran.


We know what we want … greatness minus the grease and the grime … glory minus the guts, gain minus the pain … quick money by throwing all self-respect to the winds, and making a shot for instant stardom, courtesy of inane lunchtime shows that progressively dehumanize us, without really trying hard!


We know what we want … and what we want may not be wisdom, but the scepter and the throne.


Yes … the massive floods are a testament to a culture of corruption, a culture of death, a culture that ascribes the highest value to anything that approximates the scepter and the throne.


In such a culture, all we want is to be filled. Period … Full and up to the neck with everything that glitters – preferably gold, real gold, not fancy stuff.

Today, we could use a reminder from the Lord: “Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!”


The massive floods are a sign for us … as it was during the time of Noah. We all know what that story really refers to – a calling to mind of the original covenant forged between God and Adam and Eve. All of creation was meant to be used by Adam and Eve … used, not abused. And so far, all humanity has been doing since curiosity and disobedience took the better of them, was abuse creation. Yes … abuse it by turning natural waterways into posh subdivisions that make for greater ease, comfort, and privacy. Yes … abuse it by living like as if there were no tomorrow, like as if we had all the mountains in the world to level and turn into golf courses and luxurious dwellings hanging on mountainsides, perched precariously on cliffs that once were lush and green, and grandiose forests that kept water where it should be – soaked up in rainforests that cascade down nicely and safely in picturesque waterfalls and reserved in watersheds.


We thought we knew God’s Word … “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”


We need to know in earnest … not just think like we knew. And for us to really know, we need to ask. We need to ask the Lord today, not tomorrow: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But more than just asking, we need to listen, not recite platitudes. We need to do, not just discuss with the Lord, as the young man did: “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.”


Debates and discussions won’t clinch it. More scientific reports and voluminous reflections won’t do. The time to act is now. And the place to do is here. And it starts with a look of love from the Lord, who now looks at all the millions of suffering Filipinos with love, as He looked with love at the young man who discussed theological issues with him. But doing theology goes far beyond speaking about God. It is speaking in God’s name, speaking on God’s behalf, and taking up the cudgels for God and His beloved suffering people.


After the waters will have subsided, there will be a lot of postmortems and a whole lot more of discussions. All those who know what they want – the logs and the trees up on mountain fastnesses – will be able to quote scientific studies to prove to all and sundry that they HAVE to CUT DOWN trees! All those who know what they want – the gold, the copper, the silver and all that glitters – will be able to present scientific reports that tell them that MINING ought to be liberalized, that the famous Mining Industry of Imelda and her cohorts, ought to be resurrected from the dead!


The Lord looked lovingly at the kid who asked, but, who, unfortunately, was not ready to listen (ob-audire, the root of obedience, is from the root word “audire” which means to listen, to hear!) … “You are not far from the Kingdom of heaven.”

We are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven … this is true. But it is not a question of being near or far. It is ultimately a question of trying to get there. We are called to get there … together!


And now, thanks to Peter, we know what this entails. We now know what trying to get to heaven translates into … and I didn’t say fun, frolic, ease, comfort, and everything that glitters …


Take it from Him who calls us to life – life in its fullness … “There is no one who has given up house of father or children or lands for my sake and for the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.”