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Monday, March 22, 2010


Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection

Passion (Palm)
March 28, 2010

Today, Holy Week opens with a drama in two acts. The first act is nothing short of triumphant and glorious. Palm fronds and branches, traditional and universal “buntings” that speak of joyful celebration, are swayed, swished or “swooshed,” as the case may be, in heartfelt welcome to the coming of the most awaited one. Men, women and children who, for centuries have been patiently awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah, spill out in full force into the streets, bidding welcome to him “who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The joyful and exultant hosannas though, abruptly recede into the background, as the drama moves into its second act. This time around, exultant rejoicing is replaced by awed and respectful silence, as people’s initial – if, misguided – enthusiasm, gives way to a more realistic appraisal of him who entered the city of Jerusalem for the last time. Historically, some of those who gushed and raved as Jesus rode into town astride a colt, may well have cried out later for his blood, or at least watched in stony silence as “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness … becoming obedient, even unto death on the cross.”

The people were right in welcoming their “King.” He has come to finally fulfill the long-awaited promises of old, relative to their expectation of total liberation and definitive salvation. But they kind of missed the bigger picture that had to do with the meaning of this integral salvation that he has come to bring.

Today’s second act is what this important realization is all about. It is all about joyfully joining in welcoming Jesus, the Christ, and singing hosannas of praise to the one who comes in the name of the Lord. But it is also all about transcending initial misconceptions or misunderstandings as to who Christ was, and is, for us.

It would do us good, if today, as we start Holy Week, our awed and reflective silence, would lead us to take a deeper look at him to whom we sing hosannas to. With so many things running through our minds, so many worries, so many work-related projects, so many personal and collective dreams for our families, our communities, our societies and nations, precious little time is left for us to do any form of solid reflection on the contents of our faith. With so little reflection and careful study on the person of Jesus Christ, God and man, savior, redeemer and Lord, many Christians (and Catholics) get to know only partial truths about Christ. Small wonder then, that, like the Jews of old, our warm and lusty hosannas can turn abruptly to cold and silent indifference as quickly as politicians can change their loyalties to opposing political parties.

Many of those who laid down their cloaks on the streets to give honor to Christ thought of him as their political savior, a messiah endowed with earthly power and authority. Their disappointment probably gave way later to indifference to the person of him who said “My kingdom is not of this world.” Sadly, their understanding of Christ revolved around the mere satisfaction of an earthly need – the need for political salvation.

In our times, there are those who subscribe to an equally less than integral image of Christ, reducing him to a mere friend, whose Lordship takes a back seat, a friend who is there just to stand by us, to be with us, to journey with us. This “sweet friend” makes no strong moral demands, and his teaching can be summarized into what is known as the “gospel of prosperity.” For them, the best way to worship Christ is to be joyful and upbeat all the time, and “medieval practices” like fasting and abstinence have no place in the life of a Christian. Life, for these people, is nothing more than an endless celebration devoid of any semblance of sacrifice. Penance and self-denial do not in any way enter into their scheme of things and value systems. In essence, all they have is a “cross-less” Christ, whose passion and death would rather be glossed over than meditated on. These people would most likely be scandalized by such movies as “The Passion of the Christ,” and would be bored to death during the Good Friday services.

Similarly, in our times, there are those who emphasize, to the neglect of others, the image of a suffering Christ, for whom imitation of Christ, solely means joining him in endless fasting, penance, and all sorts of bodily deprivation. The best image of the Christ they know is the suffering and bloodied “Nazareno,” or the “Santo Sepulcro.” It almost looks like the good news of the resurrection has not yet reached them. These people go through life like as if they were programmed to be depressed, and suffering has to be welcomed with resignation, if not looked for. For these people, life is nothing more, nothing less than an endless soap opera where tears of sorrow are the best things that could ever happen to them and their relationship with Christ. They have emphasized a tad too much the “gospel of suffering,” finding intrinsic value and goodness in suffering per se. The more suffering they can inflict on themselves, the holier they feel themselves to be, and the closer they get to the suffering Christ.

There, too, are those who look on Christ as a punishing avenger, one whose anger at the world’s sins could no longer be held back except by our endless acts of reparation. Seen as the ultimate “judge,” this angry Christ needs to be appeased with endless rounds of penitential acts, year-round fasting and ceaseless prayer. Fed by questionable “visionaries” who make much of their “private revelations,” they go through life under a perpetual cloud of uncertainty, insecurity, and wonder whether they have been forgiven by God and whether they have done enough to merit his love. Frightened like children who have misbehaved and terrified of the dire consequences of their sins, these people do not feel worthy enough to receive Christ, and so they need to do repeated acts of penance, prayerful rituals and would go to confession every day if they could. They are a walking lesson summed up in the car bumper sticker that says: “Jesus is coming soon, and boy, is he mad!”

The drama in two acts that Passion Sunday liturgy is, puts us into the heart of a balanced acceptance and outlook on Christ our Savior, Lord and King. Here, we find a glimpse of who he is, and who he ought to be for us who believe.

The first gospel passage from Luke shows Christ as King, who enters triumphantly into the city that would condemn him. As King, he takes possession of the “city” that represented the world that he was to save – a world made up of saints and sinners. But the rest of the carefully chosen readings show us how this King was to effect that work of salvation.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us that military and political might is not the way this Savior was to follow, but the path of self-emptying and humble obedience – obedience even unto death. The other two readings further show us his status of exalted savior, by way of suffering and death. He redefined triumph not in the sense of conquering opponents, but in his readiness and willingness to be put down first himself – to die so that others might live. His exaltation took place by allowing himself to be lifted up on the cross.

As we open the protracted drama of Holy Week, it would do us good to check on what type of savior we are expecting. Failure to reflect on and understand the fullness of Christ’s image in Scripture would lead us to any of the various excesses cited above. Palm Sunday is a good day for us to find our sense of balance in the welter of these theologically unsound excesses and abuses.

Jesus presents himself as our King. To him we pledge allegiance. He also presents himself as savior, an exultant one, but without the usual earthly trappings of power and might. This savior chose to follow the way of exultation through the path of self-emptying, through the path of freely accepted suffering and death, not because suffering in itself is good, but on account of a greater good that is our salvation. As King and Savior, as Lord and Redeemer, he went to where salvation was most needed. He went to the poor, the broken, the humiliated, the distressed and the marginalized. He went to those who suffered unjustly; he sided with those who were persecuted and who had no one else to rely on but God. He made salvation happen where it was most needed.

Perhaps those who cultivate an image of a Jesus that is merely sweet and kind and someone to relate to in private could be led to a more complete image of a Jesus who saves, who goes where salvation has to take place – in streets and homes and communities where there is little love and concern for others. Perhaps, too, those who follow the image of an angry Jesus who needs to be appeased constantly, could be led to a more complete image of Jesus who “wants our love and not our sacrifices.” Again, those of us who are too comfortable with an image of Jesus who gives us what we ask “in full measure, in cups overflowing,” may be led to transform their “gospel of prosperity” to a “gospel of social responsibility” that makes the work of salvation the inclusive work that it is meant to be, which includes the less privileged and the neglected of society.

Palm Sunday liturgy boils down to one important question for us… What type of savior do we have in Jesus?

Monday, March 15, 2010


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

5th Sunday of Lent Year C

March 21, 2010

Gratitude, they say, is the memory of the heart. Memory, at least in the usual sense, has to do with things past, events gone by, favors completed, and deeds done. A grateful heart remembers with fondness, with joy, with thanksgiving. Today’s readings, however, go beyond mere “remembrances of things past.” All three, in fact, transcend mere gratefulness, and all three probe deeper into the territory of exultant rejoicing, pretty much in the same tradition of last Sunday’s Laetare Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent), which we touched upon last week.

Wherefore rejoice? Isaiah gives us an opening salvo for reflection: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” Isaiah seems to tell us… No, do not get overly focused on the great things that God has done for you. Do not be merely satisfied with Divinely planned wonders like the escape from Egypt, the miracle of the manna, the abiding presence of God as “cloud by day and fire by night,” etc. Although we recognize, as the Israelites, indeed, recognized that “the Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy,” there is something more … a great many more surprises are in the offing.

St. Paul affirms the need to look at things from a broader perspective and “consider everything as loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” If we think we have seen the ultimate, think again; look again; and know that a world of difference exists between mere “rubbish” (the modern equivalent would be more like “shit”) and the “righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God.”

Gratitude is looking back with satisfaction and appreciation. Exultant rejoicing has to do with looking confidently at what’s coming up ahead, without in any way denying what has gone before. Gratitude, the logical offshoot of a history of favors received, however, takes a back seat to exultation and rejoicing for the coming marvels that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard.”
But Jesus, being the prophet par excellence that he is, gives us a glimpse of what’s coming up ahead … he makes all things new! He treats a potential dilemma of a problem in the person of the woman caught in adultery as a powerful way to show that God follows a different set of criteria … “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” Using what they thought was a perfect case to pin Jesus down, the Pharisees and scribes brought an adulterous woman in order to be stoned to death “as the law prescribed.” As the people watched this unfolding drama of “fidelity to the law” with bated breath, a story widely expected to end in a tragedy of soap-opera proportions, Jesus “bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.”

There is a very real tendency in all of us to write off people in our lives, as quickly and as definitively as we erase their names from our electronic address books or mail boxes. In our condemnatory and unforgiving tendencies, we may easily write the “final chapters” in our relationships with others. In this world marred by fragile relationships; in this society where brokenness and all sorts of rifts characterize many of our contracts, promises and vows; in these times when we can very easily walk out of permanent commitments in the name of “forging new grounds,” “redefining oneself” and “re-engineering” just about everything, there is a seeping and lurking danger of facetiously dispensing with those who do not follow our own “script,” who “follow a different drummer,” or who seem to be odd or different.

The self-righteous Pharisees and scribes, following old, cut and dried rules, were trying to “permanently delete” the adulterous woman, like an unwanted file or a dreaded virus from their moral “hard drive.” Rancor, anger, condemnation, revenge, and unforgiveness … all these constitute the equivalent of our own “search and destroy” “weapons of mass destruction,” that we employ to write off people in our lives, to destroy all semblance of exultant rejoicing, and to maintain in our memory banks, both random and remote, an image of a world that is beyond help and beyond hope.

The world, for decades, has gotten to be “hard wired” for violence and destruction. Thousands of studies all over the world, have proven beyond doubt the “correlation” between violence in mass media and violent behavior of children and adolescents, who, on average, see at least 20 hours of violence-filled shows on TV each week. Societies the world over are witnessing the progressive programming of whole nations and populations towards more violence, more brokenness, more vengeance, and more hatred.

In such a situation, gratitude for things past grovels. The memory of past marvels shrivels; and exultant rejoicing all turn into mere drivels.
Hope “grows grey hairs;” and faith and love turn into mere platitudes … that is, if we persist in merely pining for St. Paul’s “rubbish,” and Isaiah’s “events of the past.” Despondency and despair are bound to get the upper hand, for as long as we think that “righteousness” is basically the fruit of our own efforts, of our own feverish strivings. Discouragement will remain our lot if we think that the newness that Scripture is talking about depends solely on us.

Perhaps it is time that we looked closely at the surprises and wondrous deeds the Lord Jesus Christ wrought at the representative of sinful sorrowing humanity – the adulterous woman! I do not know, nor do I care, about what the Lord wrote on the ground as he bent down while the woman’s accusers stood proud and mighty atop their moral high ground. But I can be certain of one thing: the Lord was not about ready to write the final chapter of the woman’s life. Without in any way condoning her sin, nor exonerating the woman, in a marvelously surprising and novel way, Jesus showed compassion with a respectful and loving advice: “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.”

The Lord was writing his outline for a world of newness, based on a new law, and a new set of criteria and values: the beatitudes, the new commandment of love, the values of a “coming kingdom” that elsewhere in Scripture is portrayed as “new heavens and a new earth … for the old order has passed away!”

Dwelling on things past makes for gratitude. Hopeful attachment to the God who continues “to do great things,” “who makes all things new,” coupled with our own human, earthly efforts at participating in God’s work by “straining forward to what lies ahead” makes for exultant rejoicing.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

4th Sunday of Lent (C)

March 14, 2010

Sometimes I do love reading that glossy mag called “Consumer Reports.” I love the look of new products and I love even more the ratings the magazine gives to those same new products. The pictures are tantalizing; the products themselves are mesmerizing, and one wonders with all sorts of new things that come the consumers’ way, people can ever hope to be satisfied with what they have at the moment.

The thing is, we all love new things. Who would not want to sport a new outfit on occasion? Who would not want to get the ultimate, the best, the newest, and the most chic? Even now, millions are drooling this early for the much awaited iPad of Apple, which makes all others pale in comparison, and gives Amazon’s “Kindle” a run for its money!

A good journalist, as the name implies, is he or she who has the knack of getting the latest “scoop,” one who is very much attuned to “I fatti del giorno,” the facts of the day, not yesterday, not stale, not old, not dated. Even good old Pope John XXIII is credited with that coined word precisely called “aggiornamento,” which roughly refers to getting the Church attuned to modern-day realities.

Well, in the name of this same Church, I would like to extend to you the ever new and ever fresh “good news” that juts out of the readings as clear as the light of day. All three readings speak, not of brand-new things, but of absolute newness – the newness that really matters.

Let’s start with something historical … Joshua speaks of something new. For the first time, the Israelites ate, not manna, but “unleavened cakes and parched grain.” They were plucked from a situation that is as much stifling as it is stale – slavery in Egypt – en route to the Promised Land!

What happened historically, St. Paul now reports as something that also took place mystically. Paul proclaims the truth about us who follow the author of absolute newness: “Behold, new things have come, and all this is from God.” “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation. The old things have passed away.”

Or have they?

Let us touch base with our so-called “reality” … Hmmm … There is more of the old politics taking shape and getting even worse, with the more moneyed and popular, and who hog the airwaves with ads and jingles galore, most likely to win. Terrorists and their supporters claim that 9/11 was a big lie … catastrophic earthquakes seem to be the run of the day … humans (including you and me) are using up the world’s resources much faster than the world can naturally replenish them … The list is endless.

But wait … this is the world that is exactly still awaiting to be born! This is the world that precisely Christ has come to bring absolute newness to. The first book of Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms: “The Spirit hovered over the chaos of the deep.” There was utter chaos before creation came to be, before the life-giving breath of God made things to be. His breath brought newness … His coming spelled the birth of the new creation, a new dispensation, a new and glorious future that unfolded with the blooming of every flower, the birth of every child, and the coming to a deeper realization of people that the change they want has to begin in them; that they have to be the change they want for the world and all that is in it.

And yes! … there is that form of oldness and staleness that is the worst of all … brought forth by the ugly one! That antithesis to goodness, who cried “non serviam” right from the start, is the one that holds on doggedly to oldness, staleness, and enslavement. He it is who tries to keep a foothold on the true, the good, the new, and the beautiful – new life as only God can give and bring to sinful humanity.

Today, this utter newness shines out in a heart contrite, who now counsels us, with as much contrition as conviction: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

This utter newness is that which emanates from an event of the day that makes all days new and each one count as a day of the Lord, filled with goodness and gladness – the day of forgiveness! … a day that shines out because someone who humanly speaking does not deserve anymore to be loved, was loved with a godly love by a broken-hearted Father, who was never heart-bitter and heartsick despite the egregious sin of a son so vile, so ungrateful, so selfish as to ask for his share well ahead of time – only to lose it all in loose living.

This is utter newness! For new life is utter newness. The grace of forgiveness is newer than new, fresher than the morning dew, and infinitely more appealing than the latest scoop from a well-informed journalist.

And I have it on the authority of the aggrieved Father himself … “My son was dead but has come back to life.”

This can never be anything other than the best and the newest news of all time. God is merciful. God is forgiving. And when He does forgive, He gives it all … not just brand new stuff, not just brand new clothes and rings on our fingers, but absolute newness.

“Behold, I make all things new!”

Monday, March 1, 2010


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

3rd Sunday of Lent(C)
March 7, 2010

However much we desire certainty and stability, the glaring truth that besets us daily is really its opposite – the uncertainty of the times, the instability of everything on which our daily earthly lives are anchored … our jobs, our relationships, everything that we work so hard for like our financial security, our family unity and integrity, the trust that friends and colleagues alike have on us … All this could be snuffed out quickly and, at times, even unexpectedly. “Here, we have no lasting city…” “The world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away.”

Certainly, those who went through a horrifying earthquake over the weekend in Chile, and the scores who perished in another earthquake more than a month ago in Haiti, experienced first hand the fragility and uncertainty of life in this world.

This offers us all a good opportunity to reflect on what today’s readings tell us partly.

All three readings are a study in contrast. The first and second readings evoke solid certainty, reliable stability, and sure steadfastness. In a world marred by tentativeness and wavering trust on all fronts; in a society characterized by doubt and fear and worry, God reveals Himself to Moses as a picture of unmistakable and stable presence: “I am who am.” With unflinching authority, God even tells Moses: “I am sent me to you… The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” In the world’s past and current atmosphere in which we find ourselves “under a cloud” and having to “pass through the sea,” St. Paul offers an analogy that speaks of solid certainty: “All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

The Gospel seems, at first blush, to stand in absolute contrast to what the first two readings speak about. A superficial understanding of the passage invariably leads to fear, taking it to mean that the Lord is warning us to repent, lest we suffer the fate of those unfortunate Galileans meted out a swift and cruel punishment by Pilate. Fundamentalists and those who subscribe to a “fire and brimstone” type of spirituality based not on God’s love but on an unhealthy and theologically unbalanced “fear” of Divine chastisement, would love to hear this passage again and again.

But the truth of Scripture comes not from an isolated parable, but on the totality of Scripture, which includes so many considerations including context and literary genre of scriptural passages. Jesus aimed not at instilling fear of being punished similarly. Jesus aimed at instilling the idea of being always prepared. Jesus was really focusing on the need for repentance and reconciliation with God so that what is considered a human tragedy from every angle, does not become worse that what it already is. The worst tragedy that can befall us is being far from God, far from the ultimate source of stability and certainty. An even worse scenario, much worse than suffering a totally unforeseen earthly tragedy, is that of being so callous and indifferent to the time given us by God, to bear fruit, as represented by His patience on the barren fig tree.

Today’s liturgy, therefore, is at once consoling and gently nudging. It speaks to us about how “merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” But it also reminds us that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It tells us through Jesus’ parable, that time, indeed, is running out, and that the opportunities to repent are not endless, and that now is the time to take part in the workings of God’s grace.

We are at the heart of the Church’s Scriptural-based teaching on the so-called “divine-human participation” in the reality of salvation. Salvation, as the readings today make clear, is eminently a divine act and eminently a human act. Salvation is both a gift and a task. Salvation is God’s work, God’s grace, but grace cannot take effect without human cooperation. Grace builds on nature. Grace is something only the good God can give, but it cannot take effect in our lives without our own personal investment. God saves, yes, but we ought “to work for our salvation, in fear and trembling.”

The word we live in is fraught with a whole lot of uncertainties. The mystery of human iniquity has made this world a very unpredictable place. Terrorists continue to pose a threat to the ordinary person’s safety. The political situation has become, to say the least, utterly deplorable in many countries. Self-centered and greedy politicians and so-called “public servants” continue to disregard the demands of solidarity and the search for the common good. In the world’s top eleven most corrupt countries, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, with the ranks of the middle class disappearing into the mass of suffering, at times, despairing populace. And the wealthy developed countries continue to live like as if the world’s resources were unlimited, continuing as they do to use up what took the earth millions of years to produce and store. It is ironic that a small percentage of the world’s population spends billions of dollars to slim down while a great majority is scrimping and scrounging for the next meal, living (or partially so) in a state of perpetual fasting and abstinence! It is even more tragic to note how much money is put to producing weapons of destruction, and so little spent to eradicate hunger and malnutrition all over the world.

The world is not only an unsure and unstable place. What makes it so is traceable to one and only one glaring reality – the mystery of sin, the mystery of iniquity, which is the situation all of us are in. “All men (and women) have fallen short of the glory of God.” Humanity, as a whole, is like a small boat, teetering in a swollen sea of pride, selfishness, greed, and the insatiable hunger for more and more. Sin has reduced life in many cases to a gamble, a bet, a journey with no sure destination.

This is the world that could use a bit more of reflection on the ultimate good news. This is the world that could use a bit more of attention on and could set its sights “on things that are above, rather than on things that are below.”

This is the alternative that today’s liturgy offers us all.

We may never know what is coming up ahead. We may never know what will happen to our family, to the nation, to the world. But there is one thing we all need to know – the utter importance of being prepared come what might, happen what may. For the Christian believer, touched by the moving spirit of God’s Word, the important thing is no longer that of trying to know what will happen, or when it will happen. What counts as important for the Christian is what he or she can do in the meanwhile, what he or she can do to contribute, to take part in the workings of God’s grace, to pitch in his or her share towards the building of a more caring and responsible society anchored on social justice and solidarity.

The journey up ahead is long and difficult. Not only that … it will remain fraught with uncertainty. Alone we cannot go far. With Christ as rock, however, we will. His life, his suffering, his death and his resurrection … they all sum up God’s self-revelation from of old: “I am who am … This is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”