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Friday, December 31, 2010

VIRGO PRAEDICANDA, MULIER VENERANDA, MATER AMATA!

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
January 1, 2011

Readings: Nm 6:22-27 / Gal 4:4-7 / Lk 2:16-21

You got to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. You got to take seriously what Scripture says. You got to be non-selective for once, and take to heart what the Archangel himself says to this woman, blessed among all women: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

Maria … virgo praedicanda! Mary, the virgin who shocked the world by giving birth, has to be proclaimed. This is news that made it to the headlines of the world at that time that sent shock waves all over Jerusalem! 

This is the news that sent shivers down the spine of the evil one, long foretold in Genesis as the woman who will strike the serpent with her heels! This is the virgin that defied all worldly logic and, contrary to her feelings of fear and trepidation, threw all caution to the winds and replied with a resounding “FIAT!”

This virgin defied not only earthly, worldly logic. She defied what now everybody seems to think is the most compassionate. She did not abort the baby born out of wedlock. She did not think of what to feed the baby. She did not think of what most people now think about with so much concern and calculation.
What would others say? I know not man!

The virgin defied worldly logic, but did not defy the will of God. She listened. She experienced normal fright and worry. She asked. She begged. She prayed. But she obeyed!

Nowadays, we are in the same predicament. Population, some quarters say, is on a runaway inflation mode. Population, they say, threatens the very future of the human family. Ironically, though, their worries about  the future of the human family lead so many to eradicate the very humanity they say they are trying to safeguard. 

Mary, virgin, mother, woman, daughter … filled with trepidation, was nevertheless “filled with grace!”
By virtue of her saying “yes” she was elevated by the author of grace to the level not reached by any human born of Adam and Eve … she became thus, mulier veneranda, a woman worthy of veneration and emulation!

We all have our worries and fears. I fear getting sick and old. Gone past the stage of the morning of my life, I fear for so many things. I dread being incapacitated and rendered unable to do the things I enjoy. I fear for Philippine society and societies all over the world, apparently becoming fully co-opted by a Godless world of entertainment and showbiz. I fear entire governments no longer acting under the sway of the Christian, evangelical culture – what good old Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death.”

It is tempting to throw away the virgin and her lessons. It is tempting to treat Mary as just one of the female personages of the Bible, nice figures and images to put atop pedestals, but who really have nothing to tell us about how to live, what to believe, and what values to hold onto.

It is tempting to say “yes” to the rampaging culture of postmodernity and globalization, and just surrender to what the laws of economics seem to tell us … to wit: more people means more mouths to feed, more bodies to take care of, and therefore, more poverty. It is more than just tempting to fall for their arguments that prosperity will accrue automatically if we lessen the runaway population boom.

That seems the more logical thing to do … join the bandwagon of doomsayers and declare new babies as threats to the planet’s health, threats to our well-being.

There was this woman, worthy of veneration. She did not give in to popular pressure. She did not follow the surveys and the leading cultural gatekeepers in her time. She worried … Yes! She feared … undoubtedly! But despite the fears, in spite of the worries, she listened. She meditated on the angel’s words … and she obeyed. “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum!”

She gave birth. She became mother. And her son, being God and man, brought upon her the singular title that ultimately made her virgo praedicanda, and mulier veneranda! But beyond this, as mother of God, as mother of us all, as mother of grace, as mater amabilis, she is also mater amata … a woman so much loved … a woman blessed among all … MATER DEI, MATER AMATA, ORA PRO NOBIS!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

AS ONE WHO GATHERS TREASURES FOR HEAVEN!

Feast of the Holy Family(A)
December 26, 2010

Readings: Si 3:2-6.12-14 / Col 3:12-21 / Mt 2:13-15.19-23


Yesterday, Christmas Day, I spoke about an eclipse much like the lunar eclipse that people stayed up late for last week, mostly under the North American skies. I referred to what spiritual writers spoke of a whole lot over the last decade – the eclipse of God in the mainstream culture of postmodernity. God is effectively shunted aside by popular culture, the voice of His Church effectively muffled by the onrush of the postmodern forces of individualism, hedonism, and minimalism that Matthew Kelly wrote about so well in his book “Rediscovering Catholicism.”

All three forces are formidable, to be sure. All three are real threats to a culture that was once a mainstay of people’s social and individual lives. For what was once Christian Europe, for example, the liturgical year was what shaped people’s lives, what gave it rhythm, and what directed the daily events of people for centuries.

But all this is gone … ravaged by the forces of modernity – and now – postmodernity!

I dare not talk about which is the worst among the three in the list of Matthew Kelly. But I do venture to say that of the three, individualism seems to be the trend that hits right at the jugular of Christian family living, what effectively not only shunts aside, nor simply muffle the voice – and influence of – the Christian family, but also renders it almost powerless to propel any meaningful and lasting change to the course of society as a whole – all over the world!

Just 15 or 20 years ago, less than the number of years I have been a priest, families used to go to Christmas Day Mass together. Mother, Father, and grown-up and growing children in tow, would dutifully, solemnly, and, I must add, joyfully, do their Christmas morning rituals and worship as one, big, happy family in their parish Church. Today, mothers and fathers would do their duty first thing in the morning. Their teen-age sons and daughters presumably have gone the night before, with their friends, or would go to the evening Masses, not in the parish Church, mind you, but in the many masses that take place now in shopping malls all over the country!

Togetherness has gone the way of the extinct dodo bird! In its place is the ubiquitous individualism that puts the individual person at the center of everything that humans do on a day-to-day basis. The culture of fast-food (courtesy of microwave ovens!), the sub-culture of texting and digital personal entertainment via 3G or higher generation phones that are more than just phones, have all conspired to make the individual person feel – and behave – like he or she does not need anybody else. Institutions have effectively lost their power to influence their thought patterns, value systems, and behavior clusters.

This is the bad news. This is the horizon of human existence in the here and the now. This is the situation that Bishop Anthony Bloom wrote about many decades ago – a life like as if there were only two dimensions – the here and the now, where the hereafter no longer captivates the fancy of the young, the fearless, and the lonesome. Where personal data management and information systems, can be made to fit tiny electronic gizmos that are just bigger than one’s wallet; where one’s survival can be assured by the flick a switch or the push of very small buttons that one can push at will even without looking, the need to do things together effectively goes out the window.

But God’s horizon, that we hear about now in the readings, beckons all of us to take a second look at the reality we are immersed in. For such is the whole message of Christmas. Christmas is all about God coming and God staying. It is all about a God becoming like unto us; a God becoming man so that man might become more than just remaining helplessly and even hopelessly imprisoned in his own  self-made walls of individualism, minimalism, and hedonism.

Families are no better off now that each one can fix his or her own meals, at his or her own pace and time – and even – place! Families are no better off now that children can decide for themselves the right thing to do, that even minors can have the right to decide to abort unwanted teen-age pregnancies without the permission or knowledge of their clueless parents!

Families are no better off now that the aged (read: old “yucky” grandparents) can no longer have any say on how to discipline – or at the very least – “educate” their beloved grandchildren who have suddenly grown bigger than their breeches, almost overnight!

Families are no better off now that no one, as in no one, can anymore tell young people how to distinguish between right and wrong, between the convenient and the honorable course of action, and between the self-centered and altruistic course of action at any given time. No … individualism, minimalism and hedonism have long held sway, and  have long kept the young under their spell.

But God’s horizon tells the Church never to give up even what appears to be a losing battle. God’s horizon keeps on beckoning us, men and women of good will, to put up a gallant fight and keep up a stiff resistance to the forces of individualism, minimalism, and hedonism.

Today is one such occasion. Today is one such “teachable moment,” a privileged moment of evangelization. And as a priest, I would like to call you to task. Yes … you! I would like to remind you that evangelization is not mine alone, but yours and mine to do. And the family that needs most to be the focus of evangelization cannot be reached if the Church does not co-opt you, if the Church does not call each one of you to task, and if you don’t allow yourselves to be taught precious lessons by the Holy Family of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary!

We must do a fusion of horizons. We must get up and gather the scattered pieces of our societal lives. We must become family again. Humpty Dumpty must pick up the scattered egg shell pieces and make himself whole again.

Life can be more like we are Humpty Dumpty’s most times. Everything is broken and tattered courtesy of individualism, minimalism, and hedonism. Everything seems in disarray.

But no! Christmas is about broken humanity getting a boost because God chose to be broken and become finite like us, so as to make us whole again. And if family reunions take place and we are able to make them happen during Christmas time, it is because deep inside, we all know, that God has the power to heal brokenness, that God gives us the graces we need to make more than just Humpty Dumptys to be whole once again. That we, on account of Christ’s birth, are now empowered to work together to make the world a better place of everyone … and that this can only happen if we start with the family, as God wants it, as God wills it, as God will do eventually and definitively, with a little help from each of us!

How about giving God a hand? Now. Here. The "thereafter" is assuredly ours to get ... for "he who honors mother (and father) is like one who gathers treasures for heaven!"

Friday, December 24, 2010

CERTAINTY, SURETY, PAGEANTRY, & MYSTERY

Christmas Day Year A
December 25, 2010

Midnight Mass: Is 9:1-6 / Titus 2:11-14 / Lk 2:1-14    Day Mass:  Is 52:7-10 / Heb 1:1-6 / Jn 1:1-5.9-14


Preaching on Christmas day is doubly difficult, at least in the culture I am most familiar with, Philippine culture. Although I have spent more than enough Christmas seasons outside of my home country to know the difference, preaching is a little more challenging in my home country for a variety of reasons. For one, most people who are in front of me right now have been at it for nine days – attending Mass and doing the Simbang Gabi (Misa de Gallo) either at early dawn or late evening – everywhere in the world, where there are Filipinos! Secondly, with so many last minute Christmas parties galore everywhere there is a semblance of a group or club, or clan, or work-related associations and assemblages, (not to mention hordes of balikbayan relatives to do family reunions with!), people are generally tired, weary, and sleepy on Christmas day itself. Thirdly, especially for the early Christmas morning masses, armies of excited kids, and wide-eyed youngsters take the Churches by storm, before they attack their harried godparents, to get their wherewithal to spend the rest of Christmas day with, in the many bursting Malls all over the country!

Let us face it … your attention span is close to zero by this time! And the chattering, blubbering kids, each one with his or her own story to tell, does not help this equally harassed preacher and presider any!

But as priest, prophet, and king, albeit unworthily, but truly, ontologically – in an analogical and participative sense like unto Christ the Supreme High Priest, the Prophet and King par excellence, I have to do my duty today, the second most important feast of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar.

Now, let me wax a little more theological … After all, this is what the liturgies of Midnight Mass and Mass during the day tell us, each one with its own focus and slant. The Midnight Mass gives us all the elements that make for pageantry: crèche, swaddling clothes, fully occupied inns, shepherds keeping watch at night, manger, and animals for good measure!

But behind the seeming pageantry, and poetry of Christmas night, the readings evoke certainty and surety! “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” This light is not like the tentative, oftentimes fleeting light that the moon showed last week during the much awaited lunar eclipse. Many of my friends in California were frustrated. After staying up all night, they failed to see the eclipse, for the simple reason that rain clouds covered the show of almost four centuries! Not even those who saw the live stream webcast saw the whole proceedings with surety and certainty.

Christmas midnight Mass revels, as much in surety and certainty, as in pageantry! Yes … quite unlike the lunar eclipse last week, the light shone … with definitiveness, with certainty, and with surety! This  is the certainty of faith that sees, notwithstanding the seeming signs to the contrary, the outcome. This is the surety of a faith that comes from Him, who fulfills His promises of old … promises that we heard repeatedly over the past nine morning or evening Masses!

But lest we get lost in mere pageantry, and miss the forest for a tree, sort of, the Mass during the day, takes us further out into deep waters, or higher up the mountain of mystery, as the case may be. Yes, mystery takes the place of shallow pageantry on Christmas morn. And it is simply ironic that when the Church revels in mystery, and proclaims the depths of the meaning of Christmas, she does so just when noisy, ebullient, and energetic kids are on the prowl for their godparents, and their older counterparts wistfully longing for the comforts of bed to recover all the lost energies of the frenetic pre-Christmas novena period in the Philippines!

For the sake of the richness of the liturgy of Christmas, let us ask ourselves: what exactly is this mystery all about?  The first reading from Isaiah puts us right into the heart of it all … salvation! “The Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations; all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God.”

Why is this “mystery” a “mystery” at all? John answers this for us … it reveals and hides all at one and the same time. It gives away clues, but it does not and cannot give it all away all at once, for it something so profound, so vast, and so far-reaching that we need a lifetime and a day to fathom it, yet not fully … John speaks about the Word … the Divine utterance taking on flesh. The big word for it is INCARNATION … It also talks about light … “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Whilst the Midnight Mass liturgy revels in pageantry, the Christmas Day Mass glories in mystery. It builds on an event. It bases itself on a fact of the birth of the most awaited one. It builds on history. It rallies on the majesty of a newborn King, but the Christmas Day liturgy tops it all up with a word on mystery.

But mystery, per se, does not mean abstruse and incomprehensible. It does not mean something vague and unbelievable. It is something that reveals, even if the fullness of what it reveals is not yet perceivable and perceptible, not on account of its being unintelligible, but on account of our human debility and finitude.

We celebrate Christmas year in and year out. And despite the “repetitiveness” of it all, we never tire of it. The child in us never ceases to wonder. And it is in the wondering that faith is enkindled all over again, so that its light shines even brighter and clearer, even in the new forms of darkness that envelopes the same world we belong to – a world in search, a world in waiting, a world in expectation that the certainty and surety of all this pageantry-cum-mystery, would one day bloom into unspeakable reality, untold glory, and utter majesty!

The angels knew it. The shepherds felt it. The animals in the manger proclaimed it. And the whole Church militant now cries: GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO, ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS BONAE VOLUNTATIS!

And yes … did I mention it? MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ONE AND ALL!

Postscript: The Salesian Philippine Province of the North welcomed the pilgrim relic of St. John Bosco yesterday. I would like repost the montage of images on Don Bosco with the official hymn for this momentous visit of the Father, Friend, Teacher and Intercessor of the Young to his beloved young people of the Philippines and the world in over 130 different countries!



Tuesday, December 14, 2010

CONCEIVE, BEAR, NAME!


 This reflection obliquely touches on St. John Bosco, Father and Teacher of Youth, whose relics are now making a tour of the Salesian world. I would like to share the official MTV and official song to commemorate this once-in-a-lifetime event for the young, for the world, for us who are willing to dream and ready to pay the price for that dream.


4th Sunday of Advent (A)
December 19, 2010


You all have probably heard about it, read it, or got to know about it somehow … the grisly, gruesome deed … the cold-blooded murder of a 28 year-old husband and father of four young children, apparently planned and plotted and perpetrated by someone so close, so unexpected, so unbelievably on intimate footing with him, for years!

Planned for, plotted, and perpetrated … It apparently took her only a few months to plan for, with a little help from someone who stood to gain from it all. The news of the cold-blooded – if, so shoddily planned – murder of this young man out in Las Vegas, is a shuddering piece of news, and a sobering thought for each one of us, myself included, who happens now to live just a few miles away from where he grew up.

Being no spring chicken anymore, I know a little about plans being hatched, and projects eventually seeing the light of day. I know from experience, and can speak a little about dreams and visions coming to full bloom, when one has, not only the blueprint in hand, but also the grit and determination at hand, to see through to their completion and eventual fruition.

I know it from first-hand experience …

My father came from a poor family of two boys. At age 11, his only younger brother died, ravaged by typhoid fever. At that age, the two brothers already shared a dream. In the little plot of land their parents owned, they dreamt of something bigger than their puny little bodies could possibly attain. But not quite adolescents yet, they started planting coffee. My father not only managed to make them grow. He actually became a little expert on how to care for them and make them bear fruit in plenty.  From what I know, years later when we were growing up, those coffee trees they planted when they were just innocent play-age kids, were what eventually tided us over and sent us all to school.

I know it from second-hand experience and from training …

When I got to know Don Bosco, the particular detail that remained etched in my mind was the very same concept of “dreams” becoming reality. In his modesty and simplicity, he spoke of what seemed like “heavenly visions” as simply “dreams.” But it was a particular dream at nine years old that sent him soaring to the heights of holiness. He dreamt of “wolves becoming sheep, and shepherds who guard and never sleep.” That dream is now reality in over 130 countries all over the world!

All of us, who turn into wide-eyed and dreamy little kids on Christmas day, have experienced a little about dreaming and making what we dream for a reality. All of us can probably tell a story or two about people who “conceived,” “bore” and finally “named” the dream that has become real.

I cannot forget our teacher in Pilipino when I was but a 16 year-old freshman in college. His classes were not just lessons on making well-crafted sentences and verses in Pilipino. His sessions were all one seamless and telling lesson on life, on conjuring up lofty dreams, and on the capacity to pay the price for those dreams. Mr. Florentino Gecolea, who came from a very poor family himself, shared with us not only his literary prowess in our own native language, but his “life technology.” As he taught us the beauty of prose and the nobility of poetry, our hearts were touched by his life-story. It was one of “dreaming” and aiming high, and being ready to work hard for it, neatly summed up in a very touching and moving poem that he dedicated to us, prior to his leaving for good for Canada … “Awit ng Makahiya.”

I cannot forget too, one of my teachers in Speechpower back in the day. I cannot recall her name, but I do remember what she shared with us … how she brought herself all through the public school system, and made it to where she was then, all on the basis of a childhood dream.

I now go to the point of this reflection. In this fourth Sunday of Advent, our thoughts are focused on one who “conceived,” and “bore a Son” and eventually “named” Him Emmanuel. I speak about Mary, who dreamt along with God, and who paid a handsome price for it. She conceived. She bore. And her bearing the child in her womb for nine months and introducing him to the world, caused her untold pain. In fact, sorrow, just like a sword, broke her heart and tore it apart. Only he or she who is willing to bear all, can be worthy of “naming” what that pain has brought into the light of day.

I bear witness to the power of dreams and their concomitant power to conceive, and bear, and name. I saw it from both ends: the power to make something happen as when criminals hatch up a plan, plot for it, and execute it. Selfish and greed-motivated as they are, the focus and the energy put into it can literally move mountains and cause untold havoc to the hapless victims, as happened in the story I told you above.

But I bear witness, too, to the overriding power of a dream, that rides on, and jibes, with God’s dream – all for the good of others, all for the sake of people other than oneself. That was my father’s dream. That was Don Bosco’s dream at nine. That was my two teachers’ dream, who both refused to be victims of circumstances, victims of their parents’ poverty, and victims of their lack of capacity to pull themselves up from their bootstraps.

Advent, so we were told repeatedly, is a time of waiting. But let me qualify that. It is not empty waiting. It has nothing to do with futile twiddling of thumbs, waiting for something to happen. It has to do with pregnant waiting. It is “conceiving.” It means “bearing” … paying the price for what you expect and actively wait for. It has to do with “naming” – naming what one needs to get out of the way; naming what one needs to do “to fill in the valleys, and straighten the highways” for the Lord, who is coming … as sure as night follows day … as sure as the lessons that life has taught me so far … as certain as the meaning of His name: Emmanuel – God is with us!




Wednesday, December 8, 2010

FEEBLE HANDS + WEAK KNEES = FEARLESS HEARTS!

3rd Sunday of Advent Year A
December 12, 2010


They simply don’t seem to add up! Problems today … challenges here …  obstacles there … worries here, there, and everywhere … they don’t add up. No … if you think otherwise, you’re not odd. You are just one of us lesser mortals … at times cautious, many times afraid … and most times worried sick.

At 55, I am worried about getting sick and unable to do what I mostly enjoy doing everyday. At any age, people everywhere worry about the future. Everywhere, people now, who know enough and are observant enough to take notice, do wax worrisome over the fast degradation of the only place we call home – mother earth!

Take the case of people in the Marshall islands – the Mashallese – whose tiny island atolls are predicted to be the first to disappear with the rapid onset of global warming. Already now, shorelines are being reclaimed by the ocean, rocks and solid land are crumbling before the eyes of residents who now worry about their legal status, should the time come for them to leave the place they have been calling home for generations!

Take my case … I have been an educator for decades, and a teacher for 33 years! Like the “oldies but goodies,” songs “the likes of which nobody makes anymore,” as my fellow baby boomers generally lament, children and young people in general, just seem to us to be growing more and more distant … more and more different from years past … more and more given in to entering into their inner worlds, inner shells, and inner sanctums! The “narcissism epidemic”  (Twenge & Campbell, 2009) is now widespread, and we educators are helpless and clueless about what to do to stem the tide, much like  the hapless Marshallese who are at a loss as to what to do about water tables getting more and more salty by the day, due to ocean water seepage deep in the bowels of their disappearing islands!

There are reasons galore to be worried!

But no! Today, the liturgy takes on a different stance. Like always! Like before! And like it would, till kingdom come! One thing about the Church’s liturgy is it does not follow the bandwagon. It does not echo the pessimism of the times. It, in fact, echoes down the good news for all times, for all seasons, despite all the reasons to the contrary. Liturgy is prophetic. It refuses to give in to the times, even as it seeks to “read the signs of the times” and tries to offer an alternative view of things, a transcendent one, if you will … a  view that makes us take a second look at things, and see beyond crumbling rocks and disappearing islands, and tries to make us worried people see a glorious future, that goes far beyond the here and the now!

Last week, I reported to you, my readers,  a world of powerful feelings, associated with people in pain, people who have more reasons than I can ever muster, to throw in the towel, and crumble into a heap of despondency and depression. I see it every day … people who live on a hand-to-mouth basis, who may have something to eat now, but nothing sure and certain for the morrow … people who may stand stolid and stable now, but who may not know what to do with their sense of utter loss when they get back home and face the reality of an unreplaceable personal loss!

I see it in the likes of Elizabeth Edwards, who, just seven years ago, was a bubbly and bright companion on the side of a vice-presidential candidate. Back in my Baltimore days, she was a picture perfect icon of a rich, powerful, and brilliant woman who had everything going for her … a rising star political bigwig for a husband, a bright future, a successful personal career, and a host of other “enviable” privileges, rights, and accomplishments.

But God had other plans! I saw it, too,  in the life and death of my older sister who died 7 years ago at age 56 of the very same cruel disease that cut short the otherwise idyllic life of Elizabeth. I saw it in the pained looks of the 3 boys and their mother I told you about last week. Today, I received a follow-up plea for further help. I knew it … their lives have been transformed into a big heaping crumble of a mess … a far cry from what they were enjoying just a month or so ago, suddenly cut short by “man’s inhumanity to man.”

But I told you that the liturgy takes a second look at things. And this is what as a priest, as a preacher, teacher, and as counselor, I would like you all to take notice too. We see now, mostly through the eyes of our raw sinful humanity, prone to hopelessness, depression, and despondency.

But to look again, to take a second look (respicere in Latin, which is the root word of “respect”) is to respect the “imago Dei” deep within us all – the image of God deeply embedded in our personhood and creaturehood.

I would like you to look again at the formula above … the first two addenda represent what all of us are saddled with … feeble hands + weak knees.

Feeble hands … I have been toiling in the field of education and teaching much longer than many of my readers have been in this world. My hands are feeble … for educating young people seems more like pouring water off a duck’s back. What it all reminds me of is a ferris wheel or a merry-go-round. I seem to be just going around in circles, and it all does not seem to work in the end.

Weak knees … I used to play some soccer when I was younger, and climbed a lot of mountains of yore.  But age seems to be catching up with my lofty dreams. My knees wobble. My legs tremble. And my resolve gets me into a double trouble. How now do I go on educating young people who don’t even seem to appreciate what I do for them, preferring to remain in their mind-set that I am there to make their lives miserable?

“Lord, come and save us,” is a very real prayer for me, not just  a feeble response after the first reading today. Lord knows how often I prayed it when we siblings were at my sister’s bedside, praying for a miracle, hoping against hope, that, somehow, my prayers as a priest, will reverse nature and keep the cancer cells miraculously on hold. Feeble hands + weak knees do not equal a miracle. Feeble hands plus weak knees equals tears, copious tears, and bitter tears!

But despite – and, precisely because of these tears, I come to you as messenger of a God who stands by us in pain and sorrow, and I say, with Paul the Apostle, “Gaudete” – “rejoice!” I say it again, rejoice! I repeat what last week’s readings already said, “They will bloom with abundant flowers … “

Yes …I submit that feeble hands and weak knees do not add up and make for joy. But God does. God is. God will. Surely. Definitely. With finality and utter fidelity! For it all has nothing to do with us. It all has to do with Him. Life as we know it, life as God wills it has nothing to do with additions and subtractions, divisions and multiplications. It has to do with more, not less; with a resounding reality, and not with subtrahends and dividends; with infinite joy, and not pointless products and multiplicands!

It has to do with final, utter, and unspeakable joy – perhaps not now, but forever; perhaps not here, but for always; perhaps not today, but for all days. And so I say, with James: “Be patient until the coming of the Lord.” And so I say with Isaiah: “Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing.” And yes! As two and two make four, feeble hands + weak knees, over faith, hope and trust in God, will always result to FEARLESS HEARTS! GAUDETE IN DOMINO!

Paranaque City
December 8, 2010
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

MAKING THE IMPOSSIBLE, POSSIBLE!


2nd Sunday of Advent(A)
December 5, 2010


Two things I like most about Advent season are: first, it is real short … just four short weeks and Christmas comes around without further ado! The second is, it brings in a whole lot of reasons that fit in nicely with the season!

Let us go straight to the point … Advent is all about coming, and coming points to waiting, and this is the whole point … Advent is all about waiting that goes beyond merely twiddling thumbs expecting for something to happen!

Today, the readings sound like things are happening right here, right now!  Isaiah talks glowingly about the coming Messianic times. He speaks in terms of images, graphic symbols that only serve to whet the appetite for what is to come … surely, definitely, without fail.

The first reading’s images remind me of a farm, a farmer, and his menagerie. It speaks about what pass for strange bedfellows. Isaiah speaks of sprouts from lifeless stumps, wolves living alongside lambs, lions lounging with carefree calves, and teething babies bantering with otherwise cruel cobras. The set of images are a lesson on clashing contrasts. In a word, they speak of something impossible.

Last Sunday, 1st Sunday of Advent, I saw pretty impossible images that stand more like closer to our reality. I presided over a moving funeral Mass at early morn. The sight of the young bereaved children left behind by a man even younger than me broke my heart. It was a picture of impossibility. How would a single mother now continue to send them all to school?

Later that day, I saw another impossible sight. I dwas asked to do a family therapy session for three young adolescent boys and their mother after their father much younger than me again, was ambushed and killed. Knowing in my heart that “it is such a secret place – this valley of tears,” (The Little Prince) I thought it was an impossible situation! My heart got broken a second time all in the course of a day’s work for me! And it had to happen when I, together with the whole Church, am supposed to preach about hope, about patiently waiting for what is to come surely and without fail.

This second Sunday of Advent, the readings convict my lack of hope and faith. But even before they did, the “impossible situations” I saw last Sunday already brought me face to face with my waning and wavering hope.

Today, I stand up with the courage and faith that I learned from people whom I ministered to last Sunday. I saw images of my father, a natural-born farmer by vocation, and an accountant by avocation, who first taught me precious lessons on hope. I saw images of Mang Jess, an old, retired public school teacher, who volunteered to help us develop the farm in Canlubang many years ago when I was there. I saw images, too, of my two grandmothers during my childhood, who literally made sprouts out of stumps, and raised a menagerie of cats and dogs, and free-range chickens and all, and figuratively made “a hundred deserts bloom” by sheer hard work and a lot of patience and more patient waiting. I remembered Mang Jess, who at way past 72 years, was still planting fruit trees for the future, who still raised animals and cultivated vegetable plots for others to enjoy. I remembered by grandmother who, long after her death, left us so much mementoes of gardens abloom, and fruit trees bearing copious and luscious fruits.

They all conjured up images of hope and patient waiting for me. They turned the impossible possible. They made what was, for all intents and purposes, meaningless into something real and meaningful. For the bereaved children of those I ministered to, I saw the tenacity of hope in the face of so much uncertainty, suffering, and pain.

Yes, dear friend … “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.”

Today, as I reflect together with you on the second Sunday of Advent, I am once more convicted by the readings and the whole tenor of the liturgy. My experience last Sunday assures me that it has nothing to do with empty promises, and that it has everything to do with reality. And it happens, not in an indefinite future, but a definite time, “in GOD’S time,” which means NOW.

I believe, together with Antoine de Saint Exupery, (The Little Prince) that “it is such a secret place – this valley of tears.” But this Sunday, I also would like you to know that I believe, together with Isaiah, Paul, and John the Baptist, that this “secret place” will  not be forever. “For there will no longer be crying, tears, or pain” (Rev 7).  “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord.” (First Reading).

This Sunday, as every Sunday, but most especially through Advent season, this is what we proclaim and declare in our common worship – “that by endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.”

My father, Mang Jess, my two grandmothers – all farmers for that matter, knew it by experience and training. You plant today, and nurture and fondle what one has planted with the tenacity of hope. And this means, waiting, and waiting some more, for stumps to turn into sprouts, and everything  to bear fruit “in his time.”

Advent is all about coming. And it points to the need for waiting. And claiming what one waits for with faith, hope, and courage, is to make what seems impossible, possible. Like I personally saw last week. Like I continue to see in many of you today.




Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IT IS NOW THE HOUR!


Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
1st Sunday of Advent Year A
November 28, 2010

I am reposting what I posted as alternative reflection for the First Sunday of Advent three years ago as I am too busy these days to even think of writing a new one.


The second and third readings’ insistence, not without a tone of urgency, to “rise and shine” and “conduct ourselves properly as in the day,” is striking. There is no mistaking it. It is urgent. It is important. And it is imperative that one gets to realize that, while waiting for something imminent and sure, one really has no time to lose, no moment to spare, no opportunity to waste and let go.

The insistence can be summarized simply thus: it is now the hour!

It is now the hour! Whilst it is true and obvious that in our days, people are hard pressed for time, and are quite incapable of waiting, it is also true that for many people in a mad rush towards something undefined, the sense of urgency can often be more a sign of neurotic attachment to being occupied and busy with something. People rush out of their work places, only to kill time in front of the TV screen, watching and getting involved in telenovelas, or let time fritter away in some entertainment place, while nursing a drink or two in the hand. People everywhere try to cut through snarled or stalled traffic, only to get home and spend more time in front of the ubiquitous computer.

People are in a perpetual rush. And people in rush are people who cannot wait.

Henri Nouwen makes an insightful comment that in the gospel according to Luke, the first personages mentioned are all described as people in waiting … Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna … and, of course, Mary! I would like to suggest my own tentative insight, for whatever it is worth to you my readers. I would like to suggest that for at least two of them, their waiting was crowned with a satisfied and fulfilled sigh of more than just relief. They acclaimed and extolled God who made known His glory at the appointed time. Zechariah waxed prayerful and grateful as he acknowledged the “hour of visitation” from the Lord God: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, he has come to his people and set them free.” Zechariah acknowledged that the Lord’s appointed hour of salvation has come. His profuse praise is made as if to say: “It is now the hour … it is now the hour to thank and praise God who has made good his promises of old."

Simeon, too, was a man conscious and cognizant of the “hour” of God’s epiphany. Happy and fulfilled that the Lord has, indeed, chosen to favor him with his timely self-manifestation, Simeon poured forth his thanks and praise for his “hour” had already come, and that it was now his “hour” to take leave with overflowing joy and a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled.” It is now the hour for me to go. It is now the hour for me to take leave quietly, for “my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.”

But Mary herself was a woman of the hour. She knew how to appreciate and acknowledge the overwhelming truth, not only of the hour, but for all time: “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty had done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Her prayer is made as if to say, “it is now the hour to give God utmost glory and praise, for he has mercy on those who fear him in every generation” … now … then … and thereafter.

We are a people tired of waiting. We cannot wait a minute longer to get our favorite fast-food meal. Many of us get violent while sitting it out in snarled traffic everywhere. In the Philippines, some people can even get so worked up waiting that, in their anger, they pump bullets into other people who happen to also get very impatient and cranky while struggling for limited driving space in our hopelessly inadequate roads. Road rage is nothing more than impatient waiting turned violent. In crowded restaurants, everyone has a sense of entitlement making unreasonable demands on the oftentimes hapless waiters and waitresses who get the ire of pretentious and unsatisfied customers who all want to be served first. Again, in the Philippines, predictably, ambitious wannabes are already positioning themselves as they drool over the most coveted office in the land as we approach once more the year of national elections.

It is indeed the hour for everyone who has his or her personal agenda to take care of. It is the hour to strut one’s stuff in the ramp of life. When it comes to ambition, it is always the right time. When it comes to personal dreams and desires, it is always the hour. And there is precious little time to waste when it comes to fulfilling one’s overriding desires and dreams. Already, in every Senate investigation and high profile discussions done under the glare of lights and whirring TV cameras, people who drool over national positions of leadership consider it their opportunity “to strut and fret their hour on the stage” of life.

Advent has once more set in for us believers. Today, we begin that very short period of no more than four Sundays when all we do is focus on the main issue of waiting. But today’s opening salvo would have us acknowledge like Zechariah, Simeon, and Mary did, that the time has come. What we are waiting for has come already and has irrupted into our present hour.

The personages in waiting as reported by Luke are individuals who wait, not impatiently, but imbued with the spirit of hope. Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna had all the time to be waiting. Luke’s report tells us they were old, very old, but ever youthful in their active and hopeful waiting. Their beard and hair may have been grey, but their hope never grew grey hairs. For patient and hopeful people who know how to wait never grouse and become grouchy when the “hour” finally comes their way. Impatient people complain when the object of their waiting comes around. “Why only now?” would be their exasperated statement, most likely. But hopeful people burst forth in praise and proclamation when the much-awaited “hour” comes around.

We postmodern people just cannot wait. There was a time people said, “wait a minute” if they had to have people on hold for any reason. Nowadays, people don’t even want to wait a minute. Most people would now say, “hold on a second.” Just a second, never a minute … In a world that communicates instantly “in real time,” a minute of waiting is simply unimaginable and unforgivable.

But important things can stand being waited for, more than just a second, and definitely more than just a minute. Today’s liturgy, the first Sunday of Advent, reminds us that it is now, not the second, it is now, not the minute, but “it is now the hour” of our salvation.

With salvation and redemption so important, a second less, a second more; a minute less, a minute more would not count as important. What really counts and matters in the long run is what that “hour” ultimately is all about – everything that our hope and patient waiting stand for – our salvation in Christ, “for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

FIT TO SHARE THE INHERITANCE OF THE HOLY ONES IN LIGHT!


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
Solemnity of Christ the King – Year C
November 21, 2010



We started the month of November filling ourselves with hope-giving memories of the saints – “the holy ones in light!” The second day of this same month saw us all filling ourselves with fond and hope-filled memories of those, who, like us, once tried and struggled in this valley of tears, to be hopefully numbered among the same “holy ones in light.” We prayed for all our departed brothers and sisters, that “eternal light might shine upon them,” and that “perpetual rest” be given them.

This month is a month so given in to life-enabling memories. All of it, traditionally, is dedicated to prayerful mementoes for all those who have gone ahead of us. This month revels in memorial, and is inundated with what memorial ultimately leads to – thoughts of endings, ideas of finality, intimations of glory, and clues of immortality that await those who are considered by God, “fit to share the inheritance of the holy ones in light.”

We are numbered among this people of the memorial. We Christians are a people of the memorial. We thrive on and flourish owing to memorial. We breathe memorial in and out. But the memorial that we Christians speak of is not the kind that merely looks back. The memorial that we Christian believers are used to, is the kind that looks back, not for its own sake, but in order for us to understand the present, and claim the future.

We look back to the events that make for salvation history. We look to the present and we see connections … events past that make us understand events present … historical events of times past that help us make sense of unfolding history in the present. Adam and Eve … Abraham … Moses … David … they all were men and women with real flesh and blood whose memorial we now keep and cherish. Their life and death, struggles and successes are the very same stuff that we love to share about our own beloved dead, who, like us, once hoped to be numbered among those who now “share the inheritance” from above.

Today’s solemnity, like any feast in the Church’s year of grace, is no exception to this whole cluster of salvific memorial. But this time, we look more ahead, rather than cast a backward glance to history. This time, we don’t wallow in the past, nor get stalled in the present. We claim the future that comes with “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” We claim the future like as if it were already here, and, with the psalmist, we declare: “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord!” (Responsorial Psalm).

We must make a little distinction between mere remembrance and saving memorial … Remembrance: “in those days, all the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron and said: Here we are, your bone and your flesh. In days past, when Saul was our king, it was you who led the Israelites our and brought them back.” Memorial: “let us give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.” Memorial: “He delivered us from the power of darkness.” Memorial: “he transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption.”

Remembrance: “the rulers sneered and jeered: If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Saving memorial: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The Solemnity of Christ the King, is not a celebration of an artifact of stale history. It is a proclamation of history in the making, history that unfolds, history that happens, not just yesterday, in the past, but today, in the here and the now.

Celebrations may just be given in to looking backward. This is how we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Small wonder we think of them in terms of numbers of years: paper, pearl, silver, golden, diamond. But in the most famous act of memorial of the Catholic Church, we just don’t say, “let us remember our faith.” Instead, what we are asked to do is “to proclaim the mystery of faith.” And that proclamation crosses the past, transcends the present, and claims the future: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!”

In our times, it is hard enough to remember what happened. We don’t know our history, for the most part. But it is even harder to make sense of the present. We do not understand how we postmodern people can go on destroying the only world and the only home we know – the earth – and still claim to be Christian believers. We are afraid of the future. We are afraid of nuclear war, of terrorism, of cataclysms that are most likely going to accrue from man’s too much tinkering with the world of nature. Like Paul, we don’t even understand why we act the way we do; why we do what we hate; and not do what we love. We are torn between romantically trying to hold onto the past, and embracing the stale status quo of the present.

We need more than just a digital record of events past. We need more than just an empty promise of a technological future. We need saving memorial. We need to hold on to something more than just wishful thinking. We need signs and symbols that effect what they signify. We need a figure of someone to tell us in no uncertain terms: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

We need a King to assure us that the present fiefdoms and turfs of very powerful and well-placed people will end someday. We need a King to show us that He is here with us, yesterday, today, and tomorrow … for all ways, for always, and in all days.

This is the solemnity of Christ. King. Lord. God. Yesterday. Today. Forever. Only He can guarantee our being “fit to share the inheritance of the holy ones in light!”


Friday, November 12, 2010

EARNING ONE’S KEEP; WORKING FOR KEEPS


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
November 14, 2010


Last week, we were actually reintroduced to a topic which Christian tradition has always considered integral to faith – our belief in the end times, or what systematic theology of yore, has referred to as the study of the so-called “last things,” (ta eschata) or eschatology. Our reflection last week led us to reflect on how, as Christian followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are, in a very real sense, citizens of two worlds – earth and heaven, and that whilst Jesus’ “kingdom of God” has not fully come to fulfillment, we Christians believe that the Kingdom of God has irrupted into human history, and that we are already immersed in the “already” and the “not yet” dimensions of what Malachi and other prophets were speaking about. We are basically living in a frontier world; with eyes set solidly on heaven, but with feet fully grounded on terra firma.

It is important for us, however, not to fall naively to a too literal interpretation of the “signs” that both Malachi and the Gospel passage from Luke speak about. To err on the side of literalism is to overemphasize the “already” to the exclusion of the “not yet.” To err on the side of spiritualism is to miss the power of the meaning and the message behind the same signs, and to miss the worth and meaning of what is in the here and now. It means to invalidate the world. It means to render our human nature as embodied spirits, and life itself in this world as worthless, futile, and ultimately meaningless. At the end, it means to invalidate everything human, everything earthly, everything created by a God who “saw that [everything] was good.”

Paul should know. Paul, who preached tirelessly about the need to “set [our] sights not on things below, but on things above,” nevertheless shows us not to be so taken up with the thought as not to be engaged anymore in doing earthly things, and helping build a society along the spirit of God’s reign. Paul gives in to righteous boasting as he declares: “You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.” Paul was not busy with ministry alone. He was also busy earning his keep, so as not to be dependent on anyone.

I would consider today’s readings, among many others, as a big lesson on a Christian sense of balance in today’s complex world. A proper Christian sense of balance is the ability to keep the healthy dynamic tension between the drive for the “not yet” and the complacency over the “already.” A healthy balance would mean a proper valuation of the created world and its goods, on the one hand, and the hopeful imagination of one who knows that “the world and its pleasures are fast drifting away,” on the other. To be so engrossed in this world and what it offers is to identify the world with God’s Kingdom. To be so focused solely on God’s reign to the total exclusion of worldly realities is to act like disembodied spirits, who have nothing at all to do with life in the world. Such would mean we all have no responsibility in and for the word, in the false – if literal – belief that the end times are already here. In that view, the Kingdom of God is totally other-worldly, and has no connection with life in this world.

Christian theology does not support such a bipolar view.

Donald Messer, in his book A Conspiracy of Goodness (1992), narrates a real-life story of a man more than six feet tall, who, in a moment of a sudden boat tragedy, offered to make himself a human bridge to connect the chasm that was too wide for elderly and weak people to jump across. He literally became a bridge which spelled salvation for all those people, who otherwise, could not have saved themselves. Twenty people walked over his outstretched body. Andrew Parker by name, he single-handedly, and by means of a heroic act, changed the meaning of bridge-maker forever. He became very literally a pontifex, a pontem factor, a bridge-maker. He straddled two realms separated by a deadly, churning chasm of chaos over the waters. Messer suggests that such an image could very well represent what we as baptized Christians, ought to be – a community of bridge-makers.

As bridge-makers, we see life as just one single continuum, one reality. There ought to be no extreme polarization between earthly life in the present and the end times that Malachi and Luke’s gospel refer to. If life is just one, then we cannot say that earthly life is intrinsically evil and the other totally holy. The world, where we are all born, is the arena of our salvation. If that is so, then salvation not only begins, but also takes place also in this life, by way of life in this world. In that sense, there is potential holiness and salvation in the work we do, in the ordinariness of everyday life, in the mundane concerns that occupy us during the day. Holiness is to be sought for in the context of earthly life. Holiness is not to be divided into two types: the inferior kind which is the way of ordinary people in the world, and the superior type, which is done by people who take themselves away from the world to be “far from the madding crowd,” and perhaps spend long and sleepless hours in front the Blessed Sacrament. No, there is only one Christian holiness, and that holiness bridges the gap between the here and now, and the coming, and awaited glorious coming of Christ.

St. Therese of Lisieux, who considered herself the “little flower” for the child Jesus, is a shining example of holiness in the every day, ordinary reality. She did no outstanding deeds by worldly standards. She did not even leave her monastery at Lisieux. She did not spend long hours of adoration and prayer. She did not even look for painful self-inflicted suffering or mortification. But she found union with God in simple things, in little things, and insignificant deeds, but all done with extraordinary love. Whilst she did not seek voluntary suffering, she willingly accepted it when it came, and saw in it a channel, a bridge, through which she could express her love for her savior, represented by the child Jesus.

St. Therese was a thoroughly modern and absolutely relevant saint whose sanctity fits the demands of our modern times. Dead at 24 years old, little did she realize that, in her short life, she had acted exactly like Andrew Parker, and bridged the gnawing gap created by a mistaken notion of holiness as only about doing heroic and extraordinary things.

The world and life in this complex world is so ordinary. Everybody joins the rat race for more, for bigger and bigger homes, for more and more luxury and comfort. The name of the game is competition and unbridled thirst for power and wealth. Everybody thinks it is normal and routine now to sacrifice values for the coveted more. But it is precisely in this ordinary world populated by ordinary people that sanctity is born. It is precisely in this rat race world, that people like Andrew Parker come to the fore. It is in these prosaic times that the poetry and passion of heroism surfaces, when prophets and bridge-makers like Archbishop Romero, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Ninoy Aquino of the Philippines, in a sense, even Gorbachev and Reagan, and the thousands of selfless and dedicated missionaries all over the world “stand erect and raise [their] heads, because [their] redemption is at hand” (Alleluia verse). Like Paul, like Christ, like the holy women and men known and unknown, they toil and work – even suffer tribulations. Living in this world of ordinariness, they earn their keep in the meantime. But ultimately, they all work for keeps, for eternity, in the conviction that for those “who fear [the Lord’s] name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

LIVING IN THE FRONTIERS



Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
November 7, 2010


The very pastoral and ministerial Paul continues to keep in mind his fellow believers, as today, in his letter to the Thessalonians, we once more hear him pray for them. Paul, the apostle of the Lord who, two weeks ago we heard taking leave, and almost like saying good-bye to Timothy, now prays for his disciples, and asks them to pray for him in return. Paul, who has spent his time “running the race and fighting the good fight” for the Lord, now has one foot in eternity. Whilst still living in this world, he knows full well that he is really called to live a transformed life together with the God he served so well.

Paul was in effect living in the frontiers. He was, to use the words of Countryman, “living on the border of the holy” (1999). He was straddling time and eternity. He was immersed, at one and the same time, on the “already” and the “not yet” of Christian faith.

I would like to share something personal and dear to me, what appears to me as the best exemplification of what I am talking about. Just before I got to Baltimore for studies at Loyola seven years ago, I got to see my elder sister Maria, who was then close to dying of cancer. Since I worked mostly in the Philippines, that was the only time in the five years that she struggled with the cruel disease, that I got to see her up close, at a time when death was surely imminent, no matter how much we wanted to deny it. At a private Mass that I said in her presence, one of the last three I was able to do with her in attendance, the unmistakable, undeniable, and inevitable reality hit me hard as I celebrated Mass. In her eyes, in her overall countenance, in her serene and limpid gaze, I realized that she had gone far beyond us all, who still expected to stay on for a bit longer in this world. I realized that as I preached, she really was preaching to every one of us around her. There was nothing I said that could have brought her any closer than she already was to the God whose presence I could only feebly proclaim through my weak devotion and attention. It was clear to me, then, than she was, already at that time, with one foot in eternity. She was ready to go.

It was a powerful realization at the moment of the consecration. As I held back tears, choked by the thought of the inevitable happening sooner than I thought, I got distracted by the first line of one of her favorite songs of years past, “all my bags are packed, I’m ready to go … Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane.” Her eyes said it all, as if to say with St. Paul … “I have competed well; I have run the race; I have kept the faith.” In retrospect, I realized that by then, she had already detached herself from everything and everyone she held so dear for all her 56 years of life on earth. I knew the time would come when I can make use of this somehow in my talks, reflections, and writings. The time has come. Today.

Indeed, for this Sunday is a day for us Christian believers to move forward and look forward. Today is a day of hope. Today is a day like every Sunday, when our gaze is led far beyond the daily travails of life, far beyond pain and suffering that form the warp and woof of human, earthly existence. Today is a day when our thoughts are directed toward what is “already” taking place, and towards the “not yet” of our Christian calling, which we can only possess in advance through hope and faith.

It is well for us all to remember that the liturgical celebration, the memorial meal and sacrifice that we are engaged in, this very Mass, basks in the certainty of what in our faith we look backward to, and what in our love and hope, we also look forward to, and what in mystery, is already happening in our midst.

In the liturgy, we celebrate the historical fact that we are a redeemed people. We also proclaim and enact the fact that our salvation is an ongoing process, an unfolding reality that happens here and now. This liturgy is also a proclamation in hope of that which, on account of Christ’s resurrection, we all await – His coming in glory to bring the fullness of salvation. No wonder today, we proclaim after the first reading, “Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.”

Our proclamation, though, needs to be pitted against that of the three brothers who chose to die horrific deaths rather than do something abominable to the Lord. By their martyrdom, their witness, and their death, the three pointed to their great faith in the resurrection of the dead, in the after life, in Divine justice, in His love, and overflowing mercy.

The situation of many of us may be a far cry from the courage and strength of faith of the three (of seven) brothers who all died in witness of what they believed in. Our faith may not be that strong. Our hope could easily disappear at the first wisp of the winds of trials and tribulations. Our love could easily be overcome by so much hatred, so much lack of care and concern from others, and so much violence in the world. Paul, ever the solicitous servant-leader of his fellow disciples, knew as much. He prayed for them that they “may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.”

Not all have faith. Not everyone you love share the same convictions. Not everyone in the world believe as you do. And even those who usually do have faith may not have enough during hard times. We feel encouraged by Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians and for us, that we may be granted “courage in our hearts” and “strength in every good deed and word.” We feel supported in our weakness of faith, in the times we so easily give in to discouragement, to cynicism, and to loss of enthusiasm in the good, when we see people like the three brothers in the first reading, Paul and his fellow believers, saints like Therese of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa of Calcutta who saw far beyond the reality and experience of pain, with “tears as their telescopes.” Modesty aside, and by the grace of God, my elder sister could be counted among them. In their joy, as much as in their suffering, whether personal or vicarious, they gave witness to a future that was already present in their lives of faith, hope, and love.

These were people who lived on the border of the holy. These were people, who, as every Christian ought to be, were really frontier beings. They lived in the frontier world that straddled time and eternity, the present and the future, the “already” and the “not yet.” They were prophets who bore witness as much in their life as in their death, to the justice and unbounded mercy of God whose love for us is everlasting. They were faithful souls whose prophetic imagination led them to live in hope and courage, the future that really awaits us still, a future that has actually dawned in the birth of Christ, the Son of God. Men and women of strength and courage, they lived earthly life to the full while looking forward and moving forward to life in its fullness, as promised by the Lord. With feet firmly planted on the ground, they lived life on the basis of what gave life ultimate grounding, on the basis of what Tillich calls “ultimate concern,” God, who revealed Himself in Christ. Men and women of God, they were men and women of earth who lived life to the hilt until the time came when they had to surrender everything associated with earth, including their life the ultimate gift, back to the Giver.

All the people I listed above, including the Maccabean brothers, their mother, Paul, and my sister, were not priests like I am. But although they did not have the sacramental priesthood, they really took very seriously their wider and more fundamental Christian priesthood of all the baptized. By exercising their fundamental priesthood by serving and ministering to others, by being at the service of God’s Kingdom, they brought the world a glimpse of the HIDDEN HOLY that was a reality in their lives. Without doing sacred things, they brought people to the sacral and the mystical, for they were, in the deepest sense of the terms, frontier beings who straddled the realms of earth and heaven, the sacred and the profane, the ordinary and the mystical, the present and the future. The joy that was already in their hearts, could only be made full, when the glory of God finally appears.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

SHORT IN STATURE, A GIANT IN GENEROSITY


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection on the Liturty
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
October 31, 2010
 

Reversals and paradoxes are a fixture in Scripture. We saw an example of this just last week, when we saw the great paradox of humble prayer that was answered, and the proud prayer that was no prayer at all, and therefore, remained unanswered. The tax collector, we are told, “went home justified,” while the Pharisee was left with an empty bag, along with his equally empty boast.

Today, the liturgy presents us with another interesting figure of a tax collector… No … a “chief tax collector,” in fact … a big shot of sorts (pun intended) – Zacchaeus, whose height was the opposite of his “weight” – in GOLD! (For the sake of my Philippine readers, I am tempted to compare Zacchaeus with some equally interesting personages among the top brass of our men in uniform, but I thought this was unfair to Zacchaeus). Zacchaeus, for all his wealth and stature (no pun intended, this time), was really a hated man. Seen as a servile figure acting at the behest of foreign rulers (the Romans), Zacchaeus was the opposite of what every true-blooded Jew at that time valued – freedom from any form of servitude to any foreign, especially, gentile rulers. He was despised for his work. He was hated for his servile, sycophantic attitude to the Romans.

But for all this, Zacchaeus did have some sterling qualities to match the silver that he amassed. Let us look a bit at this sterling quality that may be good for us to mull over and consider as good news to be lived.

In the final analysis, this liturgy is really not all about Zacchaeus. It has to do with God whom the first reading from Wisdom rightly extols as one who “has mercy on all,” who “spares all things,” but who at the same time “rebukes offenders” for them to “abandon their wickedness.” Liturgy is all about God manifesting His presence in the “work” (leitourgia) and worship of His people. It is all about the serendipities and surprises God works on His beloved people – surprises and wonders of His manifestation that makes humankind mutter, as we did in response to the first reading: “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.”

Zacchaeus was witness to one such manifestation and surprise. What greater surprise could one ever expect than what Jesus did to him when he said: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” What greater favor could one ever have than this? The centurion, faced with a similar potential “surprise” visit from the Lord knew the staggering import of it all: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my son will be healed.”

There is some urgency and definitiveness in the tone of the Lord. Here comes one of the tax collector’s sterling qualities. He “ran ahead.” Not only that, he risked making a comic character of himself by climbing a sycamore tree “in order to see Jesus.” The Gospel says more … In gratitude and ill-concealed glee, he promised to “give half of [his] possessions to the poor,” and pledged to pay all those he had extorted “four times over.” His generosity blossomed over into the much valued hospitality.

He who was surprised by joy, and gifted with a “divine manifestation” could not but be overcome with gratitude. And he who overflows in gratitude also knows how to give “gratis” – to give freely, that is, to be generous, and to offer that greatest virtue valued by Jews when it comes to treating foreigners and guests - hospitality. Indeed, God could not be outdone in generosity. Zacchaeus searched for Jesus. Jesus found him and declared to his newfound brother: “I must stay in your house.”

We have come full circle. Again, the liturgy points to God, by way of the example of one of His creatures, Zacchaeus. The first reading speaks of God’s gracious and generous mercy, a mercy that is as bountiful as His justice. The second reading shows us the generosity and graciousness of one who, like Jesus, offered his life for the sake of others. Paul, a minister to the Thessalonians, was praying for his flock, that “the Lord may be glorified in [them].

But this same liturgy that celebrates and enacts God “descending” on us, His people in the grace of Word and Sacrament, also makes possible our own “ascending” to Him in praise and gracious worship. We are called to the same generosity with which Zacchaeus welcomed His illustrious and much-awaited visitor. But there is something more important here – something that refers to our being priests like Christ, by virtue of our baptism, by virtue of our membership and incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. We are all called to respond to God’s Divine manifestation through ministry. We are all part of the missioning given to all the baptized, to serve the Lord in others, to do as Jesus did, to do as Paul did. This “visitation” from above is something we need to respond to much like Zacchaeus did. The Word, humbly listened to, occasions response, and gift received engenders a corresponding gracious generosity on the recipient’s part. Ministry is one such response – a response that has a tone of urgency in it (“I must stay at your house!), a response that is born of the missioning call from the Lord, a response that translates to concrete action. One is reminded by the synod of bishops declaration in 1971 that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us to be a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

There was a time ministry was thought of solely in terms of “priestly power,” that is, the so-called “potestas ordinis,” and the “potestas jurisdictionis.” Both were the monopoly of the priest “ordained for ministry.” With the rise of such a dichotomized and unbalanced understanding of Church as comprising the “clergy” and the “laity,” with the latter possessing no such “potestas” or power, ministry came to be equated only with priests and bishops.

Today’s liturgy would have us appropriate a far different vision of Church. The whole Church is called to mission and ministry. As God loves all and has mercy on all, God calls and entrusts all to the work of serving others. Jesus definitely found Zacchaeus at least worthy enough of a surprise visit. And that surprise manifestation of God right in his wealthy abode, despite the protestations of those who could not open themselves to the big surprises and reversals and divine paradoxes unfolding in their midst, produced in Zacchaeus a minister of hospitality and generosity to the poor.

Paul, the minister to the gentiles, was not talking of “potestas” (power) in his letter to the Thessalonians. He was acting ministerially to them even in the distance. He was praying for them. He was admonishing them. It was not so much power he was drawing from, as love, the same love with which he exhorted them not to be easily misled by false teachings.

Most of my readers both in America and the Philippines are lay people. Sadly, many of them still see me as a priest as one who has the sole power to pray, the power to bless, the power to intercede, the power to do things they could do by themselves. In their false understanding of what ministry is, they have forgotten that they themselves, as baptized Christians, who share the common priesthood of the baptized, are also called, first to be open to God’s surprises, and be part of those sent to preach, teach, and work for the good of others in justice and solidarity, and to help in the transformation of society. Many times, they tell me they do not know enough. Many times they say,  they might make mistakes.

My friends, you would do well to dialogue with Zacchaeus today. He had every imaginable defect in a doctor’s and psychotherapist’s thesaurus. He was shrewd. He was servile to the Roman conquerors. He scrimped the last penny out of every unsuspecting Jew. Most of all, he was short. Short in stature … yes, but a giant in generosity.

You don’t have to have “potestas ordinis” and “potestas jurisdictionis” to minister to others. All you need is gracious openness to the God of surprises, and a great generosity to God and His people. “Come and hurry down! I must stay at your house today!”