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Thursday, March 29, 2012

FOLLOWERS, NOT ADMIRERS!


Passion Sunday (B)
April 1, 2012

You simply have to give it to the excited Israelites, city dwellers all, residents of the famous Jerusalem, for taking time out to welcome the Lord in his triumphant entry to the royal city! Rich and poor, young and old, shod and unshod, elite and hoi polloi alike, they all came in full force, lustily singing “hosanna in the highest!”
It was a moment of triumph. It, too, was a moment of truth – at least, for him alone who knew all along what this entry would mean … in just a matter of days!

Triumph can make anyone among us lose one’s head in glory. Triumph can make us proud, conceited, and given in to megalomaniac tendencies. And so, there you have it … a number of them in the euphoric crowds were singing paeans to him who would be King, who would liberate them from whatever enslavements they thought they had. Triumph can make our heads swell with misguided self-importance.

But not if it is counterbalanced by truth! And truth is what Jesus who-would-be-king had, and held onto, taught, and lived. Days after this tumultuous welcome, the man-who-would-be-king stood face to face with Pontius Pilate, who would ask him that monumental question: Quid est veritas? What is truth? It was as much philosophical, as whimsical and sarcastic. But it was a question answered fully by him who stood right in front of him, as if to say, as opined by St. Augustine: “Est vir qui adest!” – making a play of rearranging the letters of the very same question … Truth, he, in effect says without saying anything, is the very man who is in front of you!

A popular homespun Chinese saying is worth quoting at this point. Talk, they say, does not cook rice. Talk is cheap, and words at times, are just – well, words. But so, too, is admiration. Merely laying down one’s cloak for the Lord to walk on this day, Palm Sunday, does not make us get anywhere near his stature. Buying that fancy palm frond, painstakingly made from coconuts that don’t fetch much money anymore, does not make us any better than when we decided to come to Church today, and go through a liturgy that is beyond the understanding of most of us. They can all speak for how much we admire the triumphant Lord in his equally triumphant entry to the city of Jerusalem. Doing all that puts us all in league with his legion of admirers.

But I have it on the authority of Soren Kirkegaard that the Lord never wanted admirers, but followers. Jesus, he said, used the word “follower” consistently, and never asked for admirers, adulators, and facebook friends!

Now, I submit, we have a little problem with Twitter “followers.” Words have changed, indeed, and postmodernity has put a new meaning to every term, to every word, and to every utterance.

We need to go back to the Word par excellence – the Word of God as read today in the liturgy. What do we see? We see for one, an image of the Servant of the Lord who dares not utter any word, dares not disobey, and dares not return spite for spite … “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” Now, this is a far cry from the twittering generation, where every twit needs to be re-twitted, replied to, or commented on! In this world of online and real time instant communication, waiting won’t do … tarrying won’t do … and ignoring messages just won’t pass muster! One now feels obliged to “like” something, to “plus 1” something, or simply to “forward” something else. One’s feelings of popularity, however, has not changed … it still has to do with numbers, with warm bodies, with the number of “hits” or “visits,” or at the very least, “likes” and “plus 1’s”

Admirers … legions of them … One feels sad if one is not re-twitted, google plussed, and liked! One feels bad if one is not elevated to the status of going “viral” in cyberspace, and not winning the most coveted number of hits that made instant celebrities of virtually unknowns, that is, before they uploaded that Youtube video that went viral worldwide!

Admirers is all we often want. Admirers is all we really are now. We admire Jesus, but we keep him at arms’ length. We admire the Lord, but no, thanks, but no thanks! I am not ready to give up my android based tablet and listen to some boring homily in Church! I know I need to pray, but this twitter thing keeps on bugging me, and telling me things I really do not need to know, for dear life.

Admirers was not what Jesus worked for … “though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at.” In fact, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” No, he does not care much if you push that “like” button in a cybersurvey that seems to be found now in every site.

But we have to come to the meat of this reflection. This Sunday, Passion Sunday, we need to realize that what we are called to do is not to simply push the “like” button. This the Jews did, when told to choose between Jesus and Barrabas. They did the equivalent of an online poll. They did the equivalent of a survey done in real time. And all those who cried out “crucify him” much later, were the very same one’s who “google plussed” him, or “liked” his status, and laid down their cloaks and palm fronds in his path towards Jerusalem. 

But whilst there were many who accompanied him in his entry to the city, there were but few who followed him to Calvary.

Lesson for today then? Let us hear it from Soren Kirkegaard … The Lord needs followers, not admirers … so get your butt of that couch, and get rid of that iPad or android tablet. Stop “liking” Jesus’ status, and, go, take up your cross, and follow Him!
He needs followers, not admirers!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

HOUR OF DREAD; HOUR OF DECISION; HOUR OF DELIGHT


5th Sunday of Lent (B)
March 25, 2012

Readings: Jer 31:31-34 / Hebrews 5:7-9 / Jn 12:20-33

Today’s liturgy begins with something hopeful. Jeremiah gives words of comfort to his people with his “spiritual testament,” some kind of a last will that he gives to his beloved. He speaks of the coming promise, in God’s name, as “new,” that is, “not like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt.”

The hour has come for Jeremiah to speak clearly about what is to come. It is, undeniably, an hour of delight, of promise, and of glory. In Jeremiah’s glowing terms, “all, from the least to greatest, shall know [the Lord].”

People who trek up mountains can relate to this. There is in every climb, an equivalent of the moment of dread. Many times, on the way up (or down, for that matter), one momentarily hesitates … one feels like retreating and retracing one’s steps. As one progresses in the journey, one’s courage, at times, or at a certain point, regresses, especially when one meets up with a particularly difficult portion of the climb that would demand all the best of your skills, strength, determination, and derring-do.

It is the hour of dread. But it is also the hour of decision. Turning back is foolish, but moving on ahead might be foolhardy. One is caught in between the classical horns of a dilemma.

Julius Caesar, more than a decade before the birth of Christ, had his “hour of dread” and “hour of decision” – the crossing of a tiny river that changed the course of history – the Rubicon.

We are deep into our forty days of preparation for the hour of delight – the hour of glorification of the Lord in His glorious resurrection. There is no turning back, of course. But we can slacken. We can slow down. We can pretend like Lent is going nowhere, and refuse to take any more beatings from a discipline that is ancient, or medieval, in some people’s minds, or so out of touch with post-modernity, and all. We can do like the three disciples were tempted to do – stay up there on Mt Tabor and build three comfortable tents, and remain transfixed by the hour of delight, the foretaste of better things to come, and refuse to go back down where the action is.

The good Lord was having his hour basking in the limelight of popularity and fame. People wanted to see him. People wanted to touch him, even tug at his tassels, and be cured. Curious individuals even asked the help of resourceful disciples like Philip, who were asked by some Greeks: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus!” Jesus was the man of the hour! He was much sought after, being the wonder-worker that he had been in those days. Jesus could have basked in the sunlight and warmth of adulation and attention from the crowds. Jesus could have remained up there on the pinnacle of worldly fame and glory.

But He had come for something else … That, he made sure people understood. That, he made certain even Philip, for all his brokering skills, knew and understood.

“The hour has come,” he said. But this hour, he knew very well, was one of dread and one of decision, before it was something else. It was, in point of fact, an hour of tension.

How would you feel diving and delving into something that you know would lead you to harm? How would you react if you were facing a tough decision that once done, would lead you into a “damn if you and damn if you don’t” situation? How would you like having to deal with a situation in which it would be foolish to return, and foolhardy of you to go on?

This is life, with a mission that was not self-imposed, but received from above. This is life when you are an apostle – that is, sent by Someone. This is life when your faith and conviction tell you to bite the bullet and go on, despite all the conditions pointing to the contrary. This is life when you have given it all for a cause, for a person, for a dream that is bigger than you, bigger than the world, and bigger than life itself.

This is Christian life at its core – a life of obedience, a life that is meant to be a path that leads all the way to Calvary.

Jesus was facing his hour. It was the hour of dread, for he knew what was coming. The second reading clinches it for us: “Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered.” He did face the music … the hour of decision, and went up to Jerusalem!

I am personally facing another difficult crossroad in life. It reminds me of one of my climbs up Mt. Pulag up north. There was a difficult portion that frightened me … terrified me would be more like it. But it was like Julius Caesar’s Rubicon. The die was cast. It was a point of no return. I had to bite the bullet of fear and hesitation. It was a moment of dread and a moment of decision.

And getting through it was all behind the hour of delight. We made it! We got through! We made it back to the plain of reality, a little bit wiser, a little bit more knowledgeable with a first-hand experiential conviction, that courage and determination that come from faith and obedience to Him who suffered like us, and faced his hour squarely, can only lead to the hour of delight and glorification. And there are no short-cuts, even as there are no ways around it.

Lent has come and is almost gone. The whole liturgy leads us to follow Christ the Lord in His journey up Jerusalem and Calvary. Among many other things, the readings today teach us the ineluctable fact of life with Christ … that it is a journey through suffering and pain, that leads to delight and glory that have no equal.

Let us hear it again from Christ Himself … “Father, save me from this hour!” – the hour of dread. But he went on: “But it was for purpose that I came to this hour!” – the hour of decision.

We all know how it ended … “Father, glorify your name!” “I have glorified it and will glorify it again!” – the supreme hour of delight and glory.

Rise up, let us journey with Him, and die with Him!


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

DOWN AND OUT, BUT LIFTED UP!


4th Sunday of Lent (B)
March 18, 2012


This Sunday, in true Biblical fashion, is a day of reversals, a day of seeming contradictions, and a day of apparently clashing images and realities. Like our lives here in mortal earth, the readings talk about seeming defeat, about being dead, yet being made alive. They talk about being thrown into exile, but also about a glorious homecoming. They speak about justice, but also about the triumph of mercy over judgment.

The Gospel passage clinches it for good measure … It speaks of being smitten and being dashed to the ground, and yet in the same vein, it talks about looking up at the very symbol of seeming defeat, and finding new life!

I am in absolute and dire need of this powerful reminder. I am dry in the mouth and longing for the regenerating and refreshing waters of newfound hope, at a time when I feel there is no other way but down, and deeper, into the labyrinth of hopelessness as far as our nation and people are concerned. I feel that Christian faith has been so far powerless at changing the dysfunctional political culture of revenge, partisanship, personalities, and patronage.

We are no doubt smitten dead by the serpentine and wily ways of the world, so immuned now to objective good and objective moral standards. We are not just smitten; we have thrown ourselves into a veritable exile – far from moral and ethical reasoning, far from God, far from the ways that lead to peace, despite the protestations from very comfortable leaders, who talk about the “good” and “welfare” of their constituents.

How true the words of the Second Book of Chronicles are for us. Priests, princes, and people alike are guilty of “infidelity upon infidelity.” Hidden dollar deposits to run away from the law, manipulative lawmakers who are really the first lawbreakers, judges in robes but who are really wolves in sheep’s clothing, and leaders who lead by bombastic speeches, belied by the same evil ways and machinations, sicut erat in principium, while brandishing the weapons of righteousness!

This is the sad backdrop of my reflection on this fourth Sunday of Lent … the reality of death, both personal and social. Personal … for we are all guilty of personal sin, like those who are on trial in the latest telenovela that we have in our society. But we also experience social death, for our social institutions, including the machinery called government is really caught up in a culture of death, and backroom deals and briberies, that are so commonplace, the Senators, and the so-called honorable men and women of Congress, are no longer scandalized about. Social, also because the personal sins that we all commit individually and secretly, are the same sins that become social, the same sins that all have a social dimension, that translate into sinful structures, that lead to the reality of politics of a sinful kind – the sinful structure of Philippine politics!


I am sad. But today’s readings are clear. They don’t call me to be sad. They call me to be sorry. And being sorry is not something that institutions can do. The Senate and Congress as bodies cannot be expected to be sorry and sad and repentant. But individuals like you and me are … Individuals are called to life, new life, that can only come from an experience of death – dying to sin, and rising to new life of holiness!

The great scandal of Christianity, one writer said, is that it has proven powerless to obliterate social sin, structural sin, sins that we all do as a collective body and as a people, but tragically sins that no one of us feels responsible for.

Christian faith, to which most of our politicians subscribe to, has proven itself powerless and helpless to change the culture that leads to death and more selfishness and greed. Yes, Christian faith has failed you and I, when you see the flagrant and shameless indifference of honorable people to the equally shameless double-dealing and bullying and bribery being done in the “hallowed” halls of the legislative, judicial, and executive departments! “All men have fallen short of the glory of God!” and we all are in it together! We all are sinful. We all create those structures of sin that we all complain about.

But I am a priest … one of those the first reading harps against, thrown in together with the bunch of princes and people guilty of infidelity upon infidelity.

Yes, I am a priest, and let me proclaim today, as good a day as any other … “Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!”

And this is a humble supplication addressed to the Lord, “the God who is rich in mercy,” “who brought us to life with Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions.”

“We are his handiwork,” St. Paul says. We are loved such that “he sent his only Son, so everyone who believes in might have eternal life.”

There is hope. But that hope has to begin with you and me. Bodies and institutions find it hard to repent and say sorry, even as big ships like the Titanic hardly are able to change course drastically. But individuals like you and me can do that.

Today, all of us, individually can do precisely that. Bitten and smitten by sin, we can look up to the Lord, up on the cross … He did not die in vain. He died for you and me.

And let me add this… A big man, equivalent to a Senator, Nicodemus, came by night … He wanted to ask a question or two, curious and inquisitive … The night, an old song says, “has a thousand eyes.” But it also has thousand ears, a thousand dreams, and a thousand possibilities. For one, it is the best backdrop to speak about light. And Jesus did precisely that … “the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light.”

The backdrop I began with was dark. I talked of evil. I talked of sin, personal and social. I am part of this backdrop. I am part of this world for which the Lord has come!

And this is the light … God so loved the world that He sent His only Son. Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget this!

Don Bosco Seminary
Canlubang, Laguna
March 12, 2012
11:30 AM

Written while administering personality tests to a group of young seminarians who are the hope of the future for me and for us!

Friday, March 9, 2012

SIGN, WISDOM, OR PROCLAMATION?

3rd Sunday of Lent (B)
March 11, 2012

I generally don’t prefer eating out and patronizing big restaurant chains, even if they pass themselves off as “family restaurants” that offer sit-down dinners a la carte. Reason, you might ask? I don’t like having to choose from so many options, from starters to main courses; from sides to sauces and dips, to drinks and what appears to be an endless array of concoctions galore. Being basically of simple taste and simple, humble origins, I would rather go for simple dishes that already boast of everything in one, simple, uncomplicated platter.

Postmodernity, they say, is a world caught up in an infinite variety of choices. Everything has become a fruit of a choice. One does not take things as given. One decides to have it, chooses to hold it, and opts to keep it. Cable TV has become the epitome of what the postmodern world of choices, and unbridled freedom devoid of any parameters, stands for. Truth also becomes a matter of choice, or preference. Nothing objective holds sway over people’s minds and hearts. The band named Boyzone more than 15 years ago, already clinched it in one of their more popular songs: “No matter what they tell us, no matter what they do; no matter what they teach us, what I believe is true.”

Nowhere is this unbridled freedom that is separated from any objective standard more true as in the arena of personal and collective morality. There is no more objectively and intrinsically evil act, for many people. If everything is a choice, then what one chooses is really indifferent, morally speaking.

And yet, the first reading today puts us face to face with the reality of the Decalogue, or the 10 commandments. Whilst I submit it is hard to put all imaginable moral cases and scenarios under any one of the 10 “words” or commands, Exodus chapter 20 does remind us that there is an objective standard of right human behavior out there, and these ten words are “signs” that point to that objective moral order.

But it takes more than just a set of commands to establish the need, or to posit the reality of an objective moral order and standard of right human behavior. We need something more than just commandments. The ten commandments cannot vouch for themselves. They are signposts, yes, but before they are a listing of what to do and what not to do, they are first and foremost a set of signs that are best understood in the context of a bigger, wider, and more encompassing backdrop. And that background has to do with WISDOM.

For many, many people, that wisdom is primarily understood as something that has to do with REASON, with man’s innate capacity to use his intrinsic and inborn intelligence to pore through life and reality in the world in order to see a cogent, convincing bases for the said rules. This is the wisdom that even the Bible posits as starting from a truth – the truth of God, first of all, and the truth that He is behind that natural law written in the heart of everyman, and in everything that exists in the world of nature.

But many, many people, too, are not aware that in the Old Testament tradition, wisdom also stands for  Someone. Biblically, wisdom is often personified, and is taken to stand for God Himself. Wisdom, long hidden from the understanding of humanity, is gradually revealed, and that unfolding revelation points to no other than God Himself.

What the, does all this have to do with the Decalogue, or the ten words of command that we now have before us? The answer then leads me to the third word for today, which is PROCLAMATION. Yes, the ten commandments, at bottom, before being prescriptions for good behavior and proscriptions against bad behavior, are first and foremost about a relationship with that Someone. They first have to do with Someone that the whole history of salvation and the history of revelation proclaims – God and His will and desire to relate with us meaningfully and fully as His creatures, as His sons and daughters.

No, dear reader, the ten commandments are not primarily about prohibitions. Yes, dear reader, the ten words primarily have to do with signs that point to wisdom and to Wisdom – that is, to right understanding coupled with right behavior and right attitudes, and to Him who is Wisdom personified. They are signs that point, furthermore, to a way that leads to a right relationship. They are a proclamation of a God who has come to save us in Christ, and through whom He has revealed the Way towards fullness of life.

This essentially, is what the Church proclaims today. The old law and the new law are summed up in no other than Christ. In St. Paul’s words: “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” But let us hear it, too, from St. John: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.”

Need we say more?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

BENEDICTION, TRANSFORMATION, TRANSFIGURATION!






Second Sunday of Lent (B)

March 4, 2012

The readings today are all so rich a separate reflection for each one is in order. But one of the tasks of the homilist is to tie up all three in the light of the bigger mystery that the Catholic liturgy celebrates in all the liturgical seasons, Lent, most especially.

I would like to begin with the obvious – the call to perfect obedience of Abraham, who was not just called to get out of Ur. A train of other calls came his way, from no less than the same God who called him from his ultimate “comfort zone” that was Ur. This time, though, the call pierces through the roof of reason, and asks him to do the unthinkable … that is, sacrifice his very own son Isaac. The fact that he had to go up the mountain definitely was no accident. The very call at this particular instance, is all an uphill climb, much more difficult than his journey through the plains from Ur to the land of promise.

Moriah, the same mountain on which the temple would much later be built, already this early, symbolized what the call from God was meant to be right from the outset … No guts; no glory … No pain; no gain … no cross; no victory! I don’t know about you, but even a celibate like me, with no son of my own, cringes at the thought of a loving, doting father having the unthinkable task of giving up a dearly beloved, just because God said so.
But the first reading is a story of divine benediction. “All because you obeyed my command,” said the Lord, “I will bless you abundantly” … and “all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.”

A first important lesson juts out straight from the first reading. Yes, dear reader, there is a blessing attached to being obedient. Divine benediction awaits the one who is willing to give up all for the sake of the God who calls. Let me tell you a little vignette of a story from my own life. When I was much younger, I never wanted to work in the seminary. Back then, I was doing further studies in Rome and I thought I would get back home with the much coveted three letters after my name, but to work as part-time teacher, and not as formator. But then, my superior called me back home, and told me to cut my dream short. I was needed at the formation house. I needed to get back home in time for the new school year coming. I hemmed. I hawed. I howled in protest for a while. But then obedience had to take primal place. I spent the next ten years of my life where I originally did not want to be … the most productive of my young priestly life. And when it was time to go, I did not want to budge once again. I know I did much. I know I loved every minute of it. I was blessed, because I obeyed!

The prayer that constitutes the response after the first reading applied to me then, when I did not want to budge, when going out of my comfort zone was the most difficult thing to do. But again, the idea of being in pain, being “greatly afflicted,” of having to “offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving,” and of having “to pay vows in the presence of all his people,” – exactly what Abraham did, was attached to an unfolding benediction, a blessing a-blossoming: “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living!”

Right now, I am not in the best of spirits. I am sad for so many reasons, both personal and otherwise. I am again being sorely tested to the core of my deeply ingrained values and beliefs. I am suffering once again, not on account of the wrong things I did, but on account of the convictions I stand for, and in the presence of people who impute bad will to all I do.

Many times, people who suffer innocently, are not just called to receive benedictions and blessings from the Lord. The more important thing they are called to is towards transformation. This, I would like to think, is what the second reading tells us today: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” We are called to renew our minds, and see blessings, including those that hide behind pain and suffering. And what is that ultimate blessing that is powerful enough to lead us to a personal and social transformation? Paul’s answer is unequivocal: “Christ Jesus [who] died, or rather, was raised from death – who also is at the right hand of God, and who indeed intercedes for us.”

But all this that Paul says would have remained mere meaningless words, were it not for the fact that this same Christ Jesus eventually walked his talk, and did what He, too, expects us to do on our own. Mark’s gospel was careful enough to tell us the telling detail – “Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain, apart by themselves.”

We all are in it together. We are all climbing uphill. Life, as I said last week, is not a “walk in the park.” It is a journey upwards. It is a call to benediction, yes … but there won’t be any benediction unless we are also willing to pay a high price, like Abraham did. His blessing, the same blessing we now share in, happened all because “he obeyed.” And that was when transformation happened!

The Lord’s transfiguration did not just happen without sufficient cause or reason. According to biblical commentators, it was all in view of the coming event of his passion, death, and resurrection. It was all, if you will, a prefiguration, a sort of an “advanced notice” of better and more things to come, a sign of what eventually and ultimately, He who became man like us, had come to lead us to – to become God like Him, the ultimate transfiguration and transformation that awaits us all believers and followers.

This is the good news that we need to focus on, even in the midst of all this bad news that surround us. I am personally suffering right now, threatened by certain events I have no control of, a potential victim of misinterpretation and rash judgment. In my desire to educate and form young people under my care, I incur the ire of certain personalities who don’t want things changed, who would not hear of leaving their own comfort zones, and who desire at all cost, to maintain the status quo.

I am one, too, with the whole Filipino people, now caught up once again in so much strife and disunity, mainly in the political arena. For the nth time, the ugly monster called partisan politics of personages and personalities is rearing its despicable head, as forces are realigning in view of next year’s elections. In the process, some individuals, and certain concerns that have to do with the common good, are waylaid, or destroyed, as collateral damage. We are back where we were prior to the February peaceful revolution of 1986.

The lesson seems clear from the gospel today. Yes, we are called to benediction. And yes! We are called to transformation. And Jesus’ transfiguration shows us two things: first, we, too are called to the same glory, courtesy of his passion, death, and resurrection. Second, we need to first go up the high mountain, and go down from the mountain of meeting, the mountain of glory, the mountain where even the three disciples wanted to build tents and stay therein.

For blessings to become actual and meaningful, for our own transfiguration to become real and personal, we need to go down the mountain, and live where God wants us to, to bloom where we are planted, and believe in His promise: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”