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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

LOVE IN THE MIDST OF CONFLICT


























Catholic Homily /Sunday Reflection
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
January 31, 2010



A familiar and favorite biblical character meets us as the Liturgy of the Word unfolds with the first reading in today’s celebration – Jeremiah – young, innocent, inexperienced, intimately loved by the Lord who, on account of that same love, called him and sent him to speak against “kings and princes, priests and people.” We know that despite his initial and later protestations, Jeremiah did as the Lord had told him.

He spoke to a fickle people whose attitudes ranged from crying unabashedly as the Law of Moses was read (as we heard last week), raising their hands proclaiming unalloyed Amens to the same Law, to fighting and flailing against God’s emissaries the prophets, complaining as they also did to Moses during their wanderings in the desert.

Jeremiah was sent to an interiorly conflicted people, who gave conflicting and even contradictory responses to a loving summons from a God whose love was unfailing and everlasting!

We see the same conflicting signals/responses from a people who stand witness to a momentous, historically significant event of Jesus unfolding the scroll and proclaiming: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Now, “all spoke highly of him.” Now, “they were filled with fury.” Now they are drawn with awe by his marvelous deeds; now, they are driven with hatred by his fearless pronouncements, wanting to “hurl him down headlong” from the brow of the hill.

We are a fickle, conflicted and ambivalent people much like the Israelites; our history pretty much like theirs – a history marked by sin and repentance, disobedience and forgiveness, aversion and conversion. Now we are filled with so much love; now imbued with so much hatred. Our moral temperature rises and falls like the weather; our commitments ebb and flow with the tides. We are, indeed, a “stiff-necked and rebellious people.” But on our better, more enlightened days, we willingly proclaim: “I will sing of your salvation.”

We are a people obviously in need of salvation. We are the people to whom prophets like Jeremiah, whom Brueggemann rightly describes as a prophet “designed by God for conflict,” were sent, and are still being sent in our times. To these prophets, God assures His predilection and love: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” To these same prophets, the Lord is at once honest and straightforward. He does not promise deliverance from difficulties, but He does promise one sure thing – not one of them shall prevail; he shall not get crushed by them!

Once again, we are confronted with the message of hope despite the reality of a conflicted and a conflictual world; a world that responds in a complex – if, contradictory – manner to the call and summons of God.

Today, though, as in every Liturgical celebration, the readings do more than remind us of the need for hope. It also invites and seeks to co-opt us to make that hope a reality. It was definitely a reality for the pious Jew then, who, despite the complexity and conflictuality in their known world and in their personal and social lives, took time to pray: “rescue me, protect me, never put me to shame, deliver me, save me … for you are my rock and my fortress, for you are my hope, O Lord!” (Psalm 71)

This reminds me of the painting done by Charles Pegùy that represents the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as three little girls, three sisters who are in the act of running forward. Caridad (charity), Fe (faith) and Esperanza (hope), clasping each other’s hand, appear to be running excitedly forward, at the same time and at the same pace. But on closer look, it is actually Esperanza (hope) that takes both Fe and Caridad in tow!

How now do we allow ourselves to be co-opted in a good sense by the spirit of the liturgy, by what the readings today tell us? How do we face a world marred by conflict, characterized by a great deal of complexity, and populated by an anemic, ambivalent and non-committed people such as we are on most occasions? How do we deal with the non-accepting and rejecting side of ourselves that refuses total entry to the Lord in our hearts?

I suggest that we allow the hope (Esperanza) that lingers in our hearts, that little window that we always keep open come what may, that small sliver of belief that brought us to Church this morning, that pushes us to go on praying … I suggest that we allow this hope and this faith to lead us to where St. Paul is leading us – the way to love, the way of love, the way through love, the sister of faith and hope!

Ultimately, what is behind Jeremiah’s perseverance in his difficult, tortuous job, for which even the Lord forewarned him to “gird your loins,” that is, get ready for the tough job ahead, is reducible to the love God had for him. “For it is I this day who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land.” It is the same love that brought courage and peace to the frightened disciples caught in a squall in mid-sea, a reassuring love of presence of their master and Lord who said: “Courage, it is I!” It is the same love that gave Jeremiah the needed strength despite the torment of getting more and more enemies as he prophesied. It is the same love that brought St. Paul to go through shipwrecks, floggings and imprisonment all for Christ’s sake. It is the same love that wrought our salvation through the path of suffering, death and resurrection of the world’s greatest lover. Only love, aided by faith and hope, can give us the strength to go through this world of conflict, complexity, ambivalence and moral indifference.

St. Paul gives us a listing of at least 15 characteristics of what love is. It is a tall order to do all fifteen all at once. But Jeremiah’s example shows us that working for at least one them can go a long, long way. He stood up and told them “like it is.” He patiently persevered to the end, despite the mixed reactions of his hearers, mostly ridicule and rejection. But his love for God, shown in return for the love he received from Him, gave him the needed strength to thrive and survive in the midst of conflict!

I ask you to remember today the quiet, unassuming Jeremiahs in our midst who go on and preach the Good News in the midst of so much difficulty and rejection, and the most painful of it all - indifference: the Holy Father, the Bishops and priests and deacons, religious women and men, catechists the world over, missionaries, evangelizers all – today’s unheralded heroes who stand up for the right, for the “rights” of God and of all the powerless – the least, the last, the lost and the lowest in this world! Christ’s love urges them to preach; their love for God keeps them going, despite trials and difficulties. In a very real and concrete sense, God remains their fortress and their strength.

God bless them all, and God love us all!

Monday, January 18, 2010

HOPE: JOY BEHIND AND BEYOND TEARS






















Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection on the Liturgy

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

January 24, 2010



“Preaching as an act of interpretation is in our time demanding, daring and dangerous.”

(M. Brueggemann)


A curious detail catches our attention as we reflect on the first reading. The people of Israel were then fresh from their bitter exile in Babylon. Ezra leads the whole community (take note: “men, women, and those children old enough to understand”). One would reasonably expect people to be in a celebrative mood given the fact that the Lord made good His promise to deliver them from their Babylonian oppressors. But “the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law,” the passage from Nehemiah tells us!


Weeping and tears are two things our culture would rather not see in others nor show to others. Ordinarily, people feel uneasy seeing others cry. People feel odd to be seen crying in public. The feeling of sadness, like our religious faith, is considered something deeply personal, utterly private, and ought not to be allowed to surface. Just look at the way funerals are held in the Western world. In place of legitimate grief we see a lot of somber, hushed and eerily quiet formality characterized by clockwork efficiency and cold professionalism. The business of funeral services has taken over the whole culture of death and dying – and the inevitable process of “dispatching” people to their so-called “resting places.” The semblance of unfailing professionalism and utmost efficiency have covered up for what ought to have been most important – helping people in the process of grieving and helping them come to grips with the loss, and make sense of it all.


The Israelites today are shown to be “weeping as they heard the words of the law.”


Whilst I am not sure as to what explains the tears and the people’s emotional outpouring, whether it comes from guilt or remorse after being convicted by the word of the Lord, or whether it springs from joy at the realization that they have been greatly favored by the same Lord with the gift of deliverance, I am sure of one thing. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were unanimous in telling the weeping assembly: “Today is holy to the Lord, your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep […] rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.”


It is easy for the reader to see in this the language of “denial.” It is easy to go to the conclusion that “weeping” per se ought not to be part of the Israelites’ – and our – lives.


But the words preceding the exhortation “do not be sad and do not weep,” actually proves that shallow interpretation wrong. Ezra and Nehemiah were not telling people to deny their tears. No, they were actually telling them to “make sense of their tears,” to look beyond their tears, and put their tears or their sadness in the right perspective. “Today is holy to the Lord your God.”


Ezra and Nehemiah, being the Godly people that they were, were actually leading their people to “reframe” their current experience. They were leading them to see whatever it was that led them to tears, to see things from the viewpoint of their spirituality, of their faith, their conviction that their God was a God of fidelity, a God of righteousness, a God of overflowing mercy.


Ezra and Nehemiah, among other things, were challenging the people’s “hopeful imagination.”

It was very easy to lose such an attitude of hope given the fact that they were no longer exiles. A lot of complacency could easily set in when one’s object of longing is firmly set in place. A life of comfort and relative material wealth; a culture of instant gratification on all fronts; a society that fosters the belief and the corresponding attitude that everything is attainable and within reach … all this cancels out the need for a “hopeful imagination.” One does not need to hope. All one needs to do is to “pull the right strings,” make use of that “can-do” attitude and go out there and grab for oneself, and be number 1. Self-reliance and a great deal of self-confidence can make one go a long way.


Indeed, they can, and they do. The current craze now, “Reality TV” is what this “can-do” attitude is all about. They can make one go places. They can make one go beyond the “fear factor,” be a “survivor” on one’s own, and aim for that tantalizing 1 million dollars … that is, until reality sets in at some time or other. When the dust has settled; when the seemingly inexhaustible power of youth, beauty and brilliance has subsided, the reality behind what Karl Rahner wrote strikes us with piercing clarity: “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”


The “symphony” of Israel’s deliverance from Babylon by no means ended with the benevolent edict of Cyrus in 587 B.C.E. Freedom from foreign oppression definitely did not mean freedom from the sway of God’s law! After Ezra’s reading of the Law, in fact, the Israelites, with “their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen, amen.’” And it was the priests’ and the prophets’ job to keep the people’s hopeful imagination alive, at a time when bitter exile no longer constituted their daily experience.


It now falls on the Church and her ministers to do as Ezra and Nehemiah did. The Word of God speaks to people then, and the same living, unchanging Word speaks to people now. It is not a simple matter of reminding people now “what it meant” to the Israelites. Neither is it a simple matter telling people pointblank “what it means” at this very moment. Interpreting God’s Word is not a simplistic matter of searching for historical “parallels” between “then” and “now” and force-fitting Scripture to the events past and present. That would be to “accommodate” Scripture, and make it serve as a tool to support current ideologies, political or otherwise. No, the Word of God is alive. It speaks to the ancients even as it addresses itself to the men and women of all races, cultures, times, and places of the here and now! It speaks to us now wherever we are, and it speaks about timeless and ageless truths, and is thus always contemporary, current and convicting!


“Preaching as an act of interpretation,” says Brueggemann, “is in our time demanding, daring, and dangerous.” As a priest over the past 27 years, I can vouch for the veracity of Brueggemann’s insight. How often have I been both praised and cursed by people who belong to both extreme sides of two conflicting ideologies! A more socially aware and more enlightened believer would expect to hear a more “socially and politically committed” homily. Someone who identifies with a more “traditional,” more vertically focused type of spirituality that emphasizes the “other-worldly” aspects of a more “privatistic” faith would cry “foul” every time there is mention of politics, whether tangentially or directly.

Incidentally, it has never ceased to make me wonder how certain people identified with the so-called “religious right” rant and rave against abortion but who never do so much as make a grunt when it comes to war and capital punishment! In the same vein, it has never ceased to surprise me how people can be so vociferous about animal rights and yet at the same time be so callous to the deaths of the unborn (humans!). Again, it seems so odd that some parish priests and pastors insist that parishioners obey and respect them, while at the same time, bad-mouthing and disparaging the authority of their bishops, and even of the Holy Father!


We are figuratively out of the Babylonian exile but we are equally enslaved by a whole lot of conflicting political ideologies that have gradually seeped into every single facet of our mainstream culture that encompasses even our lives as Christian believers. Given the so-many conflicting, poorly digested and ill-understood ideologies that have affected even the “theologies” of many pastors and members of the flock alike, people end up being polarized, with many taking refuge in either an “ultra-traditionalist” mode of thinking, or to an “ultra-liberal” way of looking at things. The traditionalist behaves and believes in a more “rigid” cut-and-dried manner. The liberalist sees everything as tentative, as fluid and, therefore, not to be taken seriously.


In this “Babylonian exile” of our theological and pastoral confusion, the Word of God – that is, what it meant and what it means - has been made to take a back seat. Both the rightists and the leftists tend to make use of it as a tool or even a weapon to drive home its own brand of truth. In the process, something that is basically living has been treated as a dead document that serves an inanimate ideology instead of being at the service of a living faith community. That is essentially what fundamentalism is all about. Fundamentalism is all about extremes. It is all about being either black or white, with no shades of gray in between. It is all about being categorical and cock-sure about most everything in this world. Just look at the “religious terrorists” in our midst! What is more “religious” than killing yourself and others (the more the merrier) and being sure of going to heaven? What is more “religious” than killing in God’s name and being proclaimed a martyr after the gruesome deed?


God’s people, as a whole, whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or belonging to any other religious affiliation is “weeping by the rivers” not of Babylon, but by the rivers of division, uncertainty, polarization, and utter confusion! The tower of Babel has grown even taller in this fractious and fragmented world. Catholics are divided into categories like “religious right” and “religious left” with the greater majority caught up in a culture of poorly understood ritualism and sacramentalism with hardly any commitment to societal, much less, political issues. Morality is reduced to personal ethics, with no bearing at all on religious and social (and definitely not political) ethics. Spirituality is then consequently reduced to “feeling good” with a lot less emphasis put on “doing good.” Just about the only thing they “fear” is “missing Mass” on Sundays which they take part in physically but not “worthily, actively and devoutly.” These are the people who get “scandalized” when preachers relate the Gospel to current political and social issues, branding them as “rebels” and “activists.” By and large, their sole focus is on a “feel good” spirituality with no real connection to the real world of gross social inequality where political power is concentrated in the hands of a few elitist rich.


This is the arena into which the “hopeful imagination” of Ezra, Nehemiah, Paul and Jesus is directed. This is the arena in which we, as God’s people find ourselves in, the very same arena where we ought to “work out our salvation” where we are called to participate in God’s salvific work begun in Jesus Christ.


This cooperation with God has to begin somewhere. Today’s liturgy tells us where. Like the Israelites who “rejoiced in the Lord,” we must find “strength” in His Word, in His law. “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life.” We have to begin in honest-to-goodness discernment of God’s Word, through the teaching mediation of the Church, Christ’s mystical body.


Jesus, we are told today, began His ministry by unrolling the scroll of God’s written Word. Reading Isaiah’s passage, he spoke of “glad tidings, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed” – all in all a “time acceptable to the Lord.” Jesus made it happen. He committed himself to what he read. “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”


Tears of uncertainty and maybe sadness flow down our faces as we hurdle the challenges of our world in our times, as the massive indescribable human suffering of the people of Haiti shows us these days. But behind and beyond the tears, today, we find quiet but sure strength as we rejoice in the Lord who assures us: “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Joy behind and beyond tears … this we can experience here and now in this Eucharistic assembly.


Monday, January 11, 2010

DESOLATE NO MORE!





















Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

January 17, 2010


N.B. In the Philippines, the third Sunday of January is traditionally set aside to celebrate the Feast of the Santo Niño (the Holy Child, that is, the infant Jesus). The immediately following English reflection is for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time which is what is celebrated everywhere else in the Catholic world.



Last week’s solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord allowed us to reflect on how God the Father, “took delight” in Jesus, His Son, revealing him for all present to hear: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” It led us to reflect also on how important it is for everyone to be “blessed” and “affirmed” by people who matter most to us. Children ought to be blessed by their parents. Parents need to be blessed by their children. In the final analysis, we all need to “take delight” in each other and speak the best of one another if we are to give the best of ourselves.


God was at His best when He blessed creation into existence. “Let there be life … Let there be light.” That was God’s “original blessing.” In last week’s solemnity, the Father blessed His Son and inaugurated him to public life, to his mission, by revealing him to the world for what and who he really is, the Son of God.


This Sunday, the readings further unfold the mystery of the same Jesus who was manifested to the gentiles (Epiphany), even as they give more insights about the nature of the Trinitarian God.


The first reading from Isaiah stirs into a flame our “hopeful imagination” as believers. Whilst it does not give us details, Isaiah’s passage speaks about a God who will “vindicate” His people, and offer “victory like a burning torch.” Using images related to marriage and conjugal intimacy, Isaiah reminds us of a “new name” symbolic of a new beginning, a new creation, a fresh encouragement, a novel impetus: “No more shall people call you forsaken, or your land desolate.” In unmistakably endearing and intimate terms, God professes His love, His “delight” in His people!


God takes delight not only in His only begotten Son. God takes delight in every one of us for whom His Son Jesus Christ has been sent to give “new life.” The Liturgy of today is a making present and a making real and concrete in our own personal and ecclesial lives the “blessing” that the Trinitarian God continues to give His people.


What constitutes this collective “blessing” that is worth our singing joyfully today as we say after the first reading: “Proclaim his marvelous deeds to all the nations?”


St. Paul offers us some important clues. He refers to “spiritual gifts,” “forms of service,” and “different workings” from the “same Spirit,” the “same Lord,” and the “same God.” He refers to gifts such as “wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy” and others. God, through the Spirit, generously gives each one a gift or other for the good of the Church, for the good of oneself and others.


The Gospel reading shows us what all these gifts point to and lead us to – our entry into a new beginning, a new creation, a totally new set of conditions that the Messiah has come to inaugurate in this present world. The first miracle performed by Jesus, which St. John calls the first “sign” – the changing of water into wine – represents the beginning of the “messianic times,” the time of salvation. Given the culture of the Jews at that time, the image of overflowing wine could not have been a better choice to represent the joy, the celebration, the rejoicing at the start of God’s “ultimate blessing” for His people – the gift of incipient salvation, and the revelation of his “glory.”


I would like to suggest that once more, God offers freshness and novelty to a world grown tired, old, and rather worn-out despite the daily barrage of material novelties, fads, and cheap gimmickry that abound everywhere. In a post-modern culture deeply steeped in an infinite variety of consumer goods and creature comforts, people easily get tired of old stuff. The engine of consumerism is fueled by the daily creation of new gadgets and new products that, thanks to expert marketing strategies, literally convince people that such items are absolutely needed. The variety of cleaning materials alone that are now mostly “throw-away” disposable items is mind-boggling! The choices people have even in such basic items as toothpastes, shampoos and soaps to which new brands and new “formulas” are being added by the day all seem to reflect the very strong longing in men and women of today for “all things new,” and all things different from what they were before. The global society where we belong cannot stand old stuff; why it finds it hard even to accept the inevitable fact that every one is bound to get old. Our society is obsessed with keeping youthful, staying young, or at the very least not appearing old.


It is good for us today to reflect on the good news that the liturgy today offers for our reflection. The Good News is this… With the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, a new creation has been set into motion, a new order of things, a new life … “A people who walked in darkness has seen a great light!” The readings today tell us that “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” (Gerard Manley Hopkins) and that this freshness and newness is not to be found in mere novelty items that the consumeristic world offers us. That newness is to be found, not in the shallow and mad rush for anything that is the opposite of “old” but in allowing the same “Spirit,” the same “Lord,” and the same “God” to lead us to a fresh appreciation and use of the “spiritual gifts,” the “different forms of service,” and the “different workings” of God in our lives.


The world easily tires of “new products.” What was touted as revolutionary and avant-garde yesterday is condemned as harmful today. (Remember Ephedra?) The throw-away, disposable cleaning items of today are the problem garbage of tomorrow’s generation, a future ecological nightmare. The solutions of today become tomorrow’s problems! Novelties do not last as such. They become old, useless and thus ultimately unwanted.


We need to look for “the dearest freshness deep down things.” And we need perhaps to rely more for guidance on Him who says: “Behold, I make all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega!”


All this is to suggest that the ultimate newness and freshness can be had only in God who is the “beginning and the end.” Novelties alone will not satisfy the ultimate longings of our hearts. Mere possession of whatever is the latest can never make us happy on a lasting, permanent basis. “The world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away.” Everything created has an end, everything but God who has no beginning nor end.


The first reading from Isaiah puts us back into the right perspective. The “desolation” has ended. The barrenness and the shameful status of being “forsaken” have been “vindicated.” God professes his “delight” in His people, and pronounces them “espoused,” saved from sure-fire embarrassment and utter shame.


Desolate no more … That is what we as individuals, as Church, and as a people ought to be. To all of us who may have suffered, or may still be suffering from some concrete form of desolation and abandonment, there is good news worth proclaiming to the world, and singing a new song to God for. There is hope. There are gifts in our person worth our while appreciating and using. For with the coming of a new creation wrought by God in Christ, through the Spirit, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” If only for this, the world and its people, are “desolate no more.”


P.S. I would like to quote in toto the poem entitled “God’s Grandeur” of Hopkins for your reference:


The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, and the brown brink eastward, springs –

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

TAKING DELIGHT IN ONE ANOTHER






















Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
Feast of the Santo Niño (C)
January 17, 2010

N.B. The following reflection is valid only for the Philippines where the Feast of the Holy Child (el Santo Nino) is celebrated every third Sunday of January.


This year’s feast of the Santo Niño finds the whole Philippines once more caught up in a frenzy, as much of dancing and celebration in honor of the Child Jesus, as of a lot of political posturing, positioning, and an ongoing realignment of forces and the forging of new alliances in preparation for the forthcoming national elections.

We are back once more to the Philippines’ much awaited event that comes our way every three years.

As expected, this year’s elections promises to be “star-studded” in all senses of the term, as TV and movie “stars” cross over from the “make-believe” world of entertainment to one that is not any less detached from reality – the world of Philippine politics. As things are going this early in the race, politics Philippine style, now seems irreversibly tied up to the business of entertainment. The unwritten rules of the game seem to be dictated not by great and noble visions, brilliant rhetoric and far-reaching, forward-moving platforms, but by popularity, name recall, and utmost media exposure where the distinctions between what is real and what is fictional become an absolute blur. Wait … there is yet another extreme factor … the billions of pesos in the war chest of at least one aspirant for the highest office in the land, who keeps on talking about free college education, while throwing away billions for his media blitz and maximum manipulation through sound bytes and brilliant images.

Growth and progress towards maturity are not among the words one can equate with the path that politics in the Philippines has traversed ever since we gained independence and self-rule. From a figurative budding and hopeful young adult raring to catapult itself and carve out a niche for itself in the international family of nations, it has become more like a helpless child, cute and chubby, but quite helpless and close to being ineffectual, and to not being taken seriously by the family of nations who have gone far ahead in the path towards progress and political maturity.

We Filipinos sure love children. We spend a whole lot of time being with them, playing with them, cuddling and caring for them, being entertained by them, etc. Small wonder the image of the Child Jesus has captured the attention - and the undeniable devotion, of millions of Filipinos.

But let us take a close look at our devotion to the Child Jesus and allow it to give some insight into how this could help us in our search for growth and maturity as Filipinos and as Christians.

I take my cue from the fact that this historical child eventually “grew in age and in wisdom” before God and men. The boy Jesus grew up to be, first, the pre-teener who “went about his father’s business” and discussed “grown-up issues” with the wise (older) men in the temple. We see a growing young man who was willing to leave the comfort zone in close proximity of his parents in order to do a “trial run” of the mission that was gradually becoming clear in his consciousness. This boy Jesus eventually became the fully grown man who offered his life in obedience to his Father’s will at Gethsemani and Calvary. This is the same Jesus who, when he submitted himself to be baptized by his precursor John the Baptist, was “blessed” and affirmed by no less than God the Father: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The Father’s “taking delight” in His Son capped a lengthy and gradual process of growth, maturity, and the gradual attainment of consciousness of his identity and mission as both God and man. The Father’s blessing catapulted and inaugurated the fully grown man that Jesus was when he started his public life.

Like I shared in the past two reflections, we cannot underestimate the power of the biblical concept of “blessing.” We cannot underestimate the power of the spoken word, especially God’s word!

This is where I suggest we as a people can take a clue or two from today’s feast. First, even as Jesus “grew in age and wisdom,” our Filipino Catholic faith needs to grow from a mere ritual-based (at times bordering on the fanatic and the superstitious) and mere intellective faith to a more fiduciary (personal and affective) and performative (that is, effective), faith that embraces and includes more civic, social and political responsibility. For far too long in our history, we have gotten by with a model of faith that is mostly individualistic and privatistic, one that allows us to separate politics, business, leisure and other aspects of our personal and social lives from the moral demands of the Gospel. This privatistic faith has been the long-standing reason why mistakenly in the past, the Church has been accused of “playing politics” when she preaches and teaches as she ought to, about responsible voting and about social justice. We pastors and priests humbly acknowledge the institutional Church’s dismal failure of evangelization over the past recent decades that is behind the piling social-moral problems that plague our perilously fractious and fragmented nation.

On a more optimistic note, a second point for our reflection on today’s feast has to do with the need for all of us Filipinos to “take delight” in one another. For far too long, we have bashed ourselves raw as a people. We have highlighted far too much all the negative elements and traits that characterize us. Owing to our long history of subjugation and colonization, I believe together with other analysts, that we have a collective problem of identity and self-esteem as a people. Without in any way resorting to blame at this point, the undeniable fact is that after centuries of being under colonial masters, we have lost much of what we otherwise could be taking healthy pride in. We do not even have a passable common language. We are now even losing English, as decades ago we lost Spanish. We are now left only with Taglish, and if the trend is not stopped, we will soon be the Pidgin English capital of the world.

The time has come for us to take responsibility for our future, for our growth and for our development as a nation and people. Now is the time for all of us to take delight in ourselves, to “bless” and affirm one another. In imitation of the boy Jesus, ours now is the task to “be about the Father’s business.” Ours now is the responsibility to rely no longer on whoever sits in Malacanan, in the Legislative or executive branches of government whether national or local, but on ourselves, on good old “people power.” The Holy Father offers an important word for this collective power used for the common good: solidarity.

Solidarity in the good is what “taking delight” in one another is all about. Solidarity in the name of good is the opposite of “sinful solidarity.” Figuratively and literally rolling up our sleeves and joining hands to do what needs to be done is what “blessing” and affirming one another really means for me. Given the abysmal failure of governments past and present to deliver that which the teeming (and increasing) masses of the poor in our society need, the only viable alternative is exactly the path of solidarity that the Pope has been championing since Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988).

We need to “take delight” in the average Filipino. We need to believe in his/her capacity to “grow in age and wisdom” before God and the international society. But even as we profess willingness to bless and affirm one another, we need to allow our faith to take center stage in our lives and allow it to lead us toward more concrete and palpable acts of solidarity as a sign of a mature social responsibility.

I would like to end by quoting a prayer by the Biblical professor and writer Walter Brueggemann: “There is a time to be born, and it is now.”

There is a time to be born and a time to die.
And this is a time to be born.
So we turn to you, God of our life,
God of all our years,
God of our beginning.
Our times are in your hand.

Hear us as we pray:
For those of us too much into obedience,
birth us to the freedom of the gospel.
For those too much into self-indulgence,
birth us to discipleship in your ministry.
For those too much into cynicism,
birth us to the innocence of the Christ child.
For those of us too much into cowardice,
birth us to the courage to stand before principalities and powers.
For those of us too much into guilt,
birth us into forgiveness worked in your generosity.
For those of us too much into despair,
birth us into the promises you make to your people.
For those of us too much into control,
birth us into the vulnerability of the cross.
For those of us too much into victimization,
birth us into the power of Easter.
For those of us too much into fatigue,
birth us into the energy of Pentecost.
We dare pray that you will do for us and among us and through us
what is needful for newness.
Give us the power to be receptive,
to take the newness you give,
to move from womb warmth to real life.
We make this prayer not only for ourselves, but
for our school at the brink of birth,
for the church at the edge of life,
for our city waiting for newness,
for your whole creation, with which we yearn in eager longing.
There is a time to be born, and it is now.
We sense the pangs and groans of your newness.
Come here now in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, January 4, 2010

UPHELD, EMPOWERED, BLESSED















Solemnity of the Lord’s Baptism(C)
January 10, 2010


Today’s solemnity closes the Christmas season and opens ordinary time once more. Although the malls and the air-lanes (TV and radio), based as both are on a popular, highly commercialized version of what they call the “holiday season” (for what purpose and end only they know), have effectively ended Christmas after Christmas day, the liturgical Christmas season actually extended up until yesterday.

Last week, Epiphany Sunday, we referred to the ultimate star that ought to direct the tenor of our lives. We also reflected on how the mystery of the newborn Jesus was “unveiled” or “revealed” to the whole world, represented by the Magi who came from the east bringing three symbols attached to that mystery, more than gifts to a newborn babe. The Magi were prophetic in their own right, who looked far beyond mere appearances and saw mystery unfolding before their eyes, with the help of divine guidance represented by the star that they dutifully followed.

People on pilgrimage, people out in search for truth, for life and for meaning, that is, for something that deeply matters to them, are willing to go through anything, hardships and all. It is no accident that the English word “travel” actually is related to “travail,” which evokes hard work, even pain! An ancient medieval advice to travelers puts it so nicely: “Pass by that which you do not love!” (There was little love lost between the Magi and the insecure and envious King Herod, but they passed by him anyway!)

Today, Baptism of the Lord, we are face to face with an extension and further deepening of the truth about this “unveiling.” The Father Himself takes to the task of “presenting” His Son to the world. No longer through symbols like the brightly lit star, God Himself comes down “bodily.” “The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

A “Trinitarian conspiracy” at the service of salvific truth took place. There is both “emotion and commotion” from within the bosom of the Trinity, thus leading to a self-revelation of God in His nature and in His threefold personhood!
People were in deep expectant emotion, courtesy of the humble and selfless ministry of John the Baptist. He, too, was an instrument of this unfolding unveiling. “The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” And after their own baptism by water, led by the one who pointed them to the ultimate baptism in the Spirit, the Divine and human commotion took place: “heaven was opened” and the Holy Spirit descended! God’s self-revelation, His “coming” (the 64 dollar theological word for this is “irruption”) to the world of ordinary, mortal women and men, brought about a lot more of this “emotion” and “commotion.” (Remember the commotion that took place in that other “epiphanistic” event called the wedding at Cana, when everyone marveled and murmured when water was changed into wine?)

If you believe, as I do, that “love is a joyful trembling,” (K.Gibran) then we ought not to wonder at all this healthy commotion. Love is trembling happiness, and anyone who is face to face with an experience of such a salvific and loving self-revelation of an eminently loving God cannot help but tremble and mumble in glee and wonder.
And the beautiful thing is this: God Himself was no stranger to this normal flow of unending glee and happiness. Like a proud father on the day of his beloved son’s christening, His words are pregnant with the same emotion and commotion: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God the Father gets down to being in His best element – dispensing a “blessing” to His only begotten Son! Blessing!

This is God at His best. This, the Bible says, is God at His most creative, redemptive, merciful best! The world and everything in it came to be on account of His “original blessing.” “And God saw that it was good…” “Let there be light… let there be life…” God’s infinite utterance – His Divine blessing (benediction, in Latin, which literally means, to say something good, to speak well of), brought forth the world and life in all its forms. God’s Word came to be, including the Word Incarnate. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” (Jn 1:1) “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us!” (Jn 1:14)


Today, God does His best once more giving a “blessing” of approval, affirmation and loving presentation to His Son, Jesus Christ. God, to use limping human terms, essentially gives His Son the needed headstart and a gentle push before he embarks on his mission, on his public life. A blessing, indeed, as we see all too clearly and repeatedly in both the Old and the New Testaments, creates the reality uttered. The word, as ancient Hebrews rightly believed, is endowed with power. The word can make or unmake us and others. The word, once uttered, can make for healing or for destruction, for life or for death.


It might do us good to think about the ways “blessings” or their opposite, “curses,” play a role in our lives. Apart from God’s original blessing given to all of creation, we also received personal blessings from the same God. In our own baptism, we too were launched into life and our own mission “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” At confirmation, we were “blessed” and fortified with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven powerful “words” that effect what they mean. In the Eucharist, as we “bless the Lord, God of all creation,” we are blessed and touched both sacramentally and physically by the healing touch of Christ hidden in the form of bread and wine.

The words that accompany the sacrament are filled with life-giving emotion and commotion: “He who eats of this bread and drinks of this blood will have life everlasting.” “Take and eat. This is my body. Take and drink. This is my blood.”
The Lord God has blessed us and still blesses us into life!

Back in 1994, David Blankenhorn warned Americans: “America runs the risk of becoming a fatherless generation.”
Not only America, but the rest of the world needs to think about this statement very deeply. It is, in my opinion, not so much the lack of fathers in our society that is at the bottom of so many societal problems, as the lack of “blessing” from parent or authority figures. There is so much listlessness and restlessness in the world today. People go around without a clear sense of bearings and direction. People seem to be adrift in a sea of uncertainty. One sign of this is the so-called phenomenon of the prolongation of youth, the prolongation of adolescence. And this is due as much to the absence of fathers and mothers as to the lack of blessing from either, or both. At the rate we hear young and old people alike not only “dissing” one another, especially elders and those in authority, but also downright cursing and badmouthing each other, (in TV shows and movies, just about every other word is a “cuss” word, or at the very least an “f” word!), one wonders whether good, old Biblical “blessing” that leads to life and health has been sacrificed on the altar of what’s current, cute and convenient.

“O Bless the Lord, my soul!” This is our very short response to today’s first reading. This is nothing but a fitting response to a God who blessed us and still blesses us to life, to healing, to forgiveness and to peace. This is the way to go for one who has been surprised by God’s love and blessing. This is the “emotion and commotion” of one who has been favored by God in ways that go beyond one’s wildest dreams. Steindl-Rast says something so apropos this interior commotion that ought to be in our hearts: “An inch of surprise leads to a mile of gratefulness.” “O bless the Lord, my soul. Bless His holy name!”

Friday, January 1, 2010

SEARCHING AND FINDING

























Catholic Homily/ Sunday Reflection

Solemnity of the Epiphany(C)

January 3, 2009


People are positioning themselves these days on the national scene trying to find themselves a much-coveted niche from which to “serve” the people through national public office. The star of government “service” has, for some time now, been shining brightly in the political firmament, attracting both the best and the brightest, on the one hand, and the boorish and the inane, on the other.


Today, feast of the Epiphany, a day when we recall wise men going out of their way in search for what the star at Bethlehem was pointing to, it would be good for us to take a look at the presence – or absence, as the case may be – of a guiding star that also sets us on our way towards some goal or other as we journey through life.


The truth of the matter is that all men and women act for a reason, in pursuit of a particular star, in search for the achievement of some goal or other. We all are motivated to act this way or that, because we all want to achieve something, on the short or the long haul. We all act so as to attain some perceived good. We all behave in a certain way because we want to get somewhere. We all are like the fabled men from the east, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, immortalized by today’s Gospel passage from Matthew.


But there are at least two things that separate and differentiate us from the Magi … perhaps, more. For one, the Gospel calls them “wise” (Magi). Secondly, they came in search for something and someone whom they have already found in their hearts, or they would not have come bearing gifts! They went in search, not so much because there was something lacking in their lives, as because they had something to offer, something to give both from their riches, on the one hand, and, at the same time, their penury, on the other.


It is a good time today to look at the many different objects of our search. The age of computers and the world wide web that boast of lightning fast “search engines” have changed the meaning of “search” forever. Dictionaries, encyclopedias in big tomes, why even Biblical concordances, and desk references of all sorts, now all sound ancient and obsolete for millions of computer bound geeks and non-geeks alike. Gone is the patience to look for data in libraries using the old reliable card catalog based on the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress systems. Gone is the capacity to wait for things that take time to materialize. In this age of “overnight” shipping, of real time chat rooms, “instant messenger” and, at least in the Philippines, the phenomenal so-called “texting” culture that merits beings immortalized in the Guinness Book of world records, waiting, and working patiently for results that would take half a lifetime to acquire, are not among the most popular activities of the younger generations. (By the way kitchens are designed in today’s modern homes, one could tell that the closest one could get to good old fashioned home cooking that takes time to do, is to open frozen pre-cooked dinners to heat up and prepare in no longer than five minutes!)


Searching for something, too, has become a matter of money, more than anything else. Money has become the indispensable tool for all imaginable searches we can ever think of. Elections both local and national do not run on empty engines. Candidates’ paths to victory are paved with gold (In the Philippines, you add two more g’s: goons with guns!) Already this early, the political engines euphemistically called “fund-raising” sorties and campaigns are on high gear. A great deal of “wheeling and dealing” in smoke-filled back rooms are going on, far from the prying eyes and ears of the media and the rest of the masses who don’t know any better. Alliances, whether holy or unholy, are being forged by the day, to assure all and sundry that their own personal stars are kept shining brightly in the political – and economic – firmament! Like the insecure Herod, they surreptitiously and openly ask questions, not because they are sincerely looking for the truth, but because they are finding for ways and means to meet their own agenda, and assure their positions, even if it means getting a few people out of the way, by means fair or foul, mostly the latter.


But this reflection is not meant to cast aspersions only on those who openly are out in search for national power and the offices that assure the exercise of that power. This is a reflection for us all who may not have gold, frankincense and myrrh, but who, like the magi, have our own personal riches to offer the newborn King of Kings, the Lord! This is addressed to the rest of us who nourish in the secrecy of our own hearts our own little stars, our own little goals and dreams that keep us motivated to go on, to live our lives the way we live them. This is addressed to all of us who may stand to forget that not all goals and dreams are worth spending our whole lives for, worth all the energy we can ever expend in this short lifetime here in this world.


Traditional catholic philosophy and theology can help us in this regard. What is the ultimate object of our desires, of our longings, of our search? Teleology is the word used by traditional theology to refer to this ultimate goal of human striving. What is the ultimate “telos” or end of all our strivings? What is the finality of all our earthly and worldly efforts? As we recall the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus, bringing with them symbols more than just gifts, we might want to look at the clear example they are setting for us. Being wise, they knew that wealth or power alone were not the end-all or be-all of their existence. They knew there was something more to life than just position, privilege and power. And they acknowledged someone else to be the sole legitimate holder of them all – Jesus, the Prince of peace.


For many people in the world nowadays, caught as we all are in the very powerful grasp of a culture of consumerism and what some authors refer to as the commodification of society, a huge veil covers our capacity to see beyond things and events of the here and now. A dark pall stands in the way of our being able to see clearly ahead of us, and see the ultimate goal of our human existence. For many people, the immediacy of the present moment prevents them from even thinking about eternity, about the reality of the next life, about heaven, about God and His role and presence in our lives today. The eclipse of God is very much a reality in our political system, in the world of business, not to mention the world of entertainment. For many, perhaps including ourselves, the farthest our minds and hearts can set their sights on goes no further than a big, comfortable house, nice cars, a life of unlimited creature comfort and never-ending entertainment. God is conveniently placed in the back seat, and spirituality is put on the back burners.


We need to allow the celebration of today, the epiphany of our Lord, to lift this veil that blinds us and prevents us from seeing the presence of God in our own personal lives. Epiphany, we must remember, basically means “unveiling.” God was unveiled before the eyes of wise men who were out in honest search for Him. God was unveiled because there were people who were sincerely looking for a reality beyond the light of a distant star. God unveiled Himself to people who were sensitive enough to see the “sacrament” in the little shining star, the “sacrament” behind the little baby boy laid out in a manger, attended by simple folks, Joseph and Mary, and by shepherds and their flock, but whose coming was heralded and exulted by no less than a host of angels!


We now have the responsibility to take efforts to unveil some of the blindnesses that rule our lives, that prevent us from really living a spiritual, Godly life. To do this, we must be like the wise men who went out of their way to do a painstaking search. Their search was not helped by lightning fast search engines in the web. But they found whom they were searching for owing to one simple basic reason: they already had Him in their hearts! The desire in their hearts was enough … for indeed, blessed are those who seek, for they will find!