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Monday, December 30, 2013

TREE, FRUIT, SOIL


MARY, MOTHER OF GOD (A)
January 1, 2014

TREE, FRUIT, SOIL

Romano Guardini’s image is striking. Talking about Jesus, the Christ, is a lot like talking about the tree, along with its blossom and fruit, he says. But it won’t ever be complete unless we also talk about the soil that enabled the tree to grow, blossom, and bear fruit. Jesus is the tree, blossom and fruit all at once. But Mary was the soil that enabled the fruit-giving tree become truly what it was meant to be.

Today, our focus, being on the exact octave (8th day) after Christmas, is as much on the Son, as on the one who brought forth the Son of God. Mary is not God, let me put it as clearly at the outset as possible. Today, we do not venture into idolatry, for a creature cannot be superior to the Creator; a human person cannot have ascendancy over the Divine Person, even as one does not pick apples from lemon trees. Mary is not God who gives birth to a God, in which case her Son would be of lower rank than his mother. No … but Mary was Mother, very simply put. And Jesus was her Son, equally very simply put. But Jesus was God and Man, and He is the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity. Jesus, the Christ is Son of  God, and the Son of God, through the mystery and unfathomable grace of the Incarnation, was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is definitely Mother to Jesus, the Christ. Motherhood is essentially giving birth to someone, and she did so in the case of the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. And it is in this sense that long standing tradition, right from the start, calls Mary, Mother of God, not simply Mother of the body of Jesus Christ, but the Mother of the totality of the Person of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.

But I am getting to become too boring, I submit.

Ok. So let’s go poetic for a change, a poem from someone we don’t know, passed on to us by tradition …

Today’s solemn feast is nothing else and nothing less, but nothing more, than giving fitting honor (not worship) to Mary. The tree cannot form roots and trunk and stems and blossoms and fruits without an essential life-giving base – the soil. The soil does not a tree create, but God does. The soil does not give life, but God does, too. But without the soil, the tree’s life cannot be enabled, cannot take root and cannot bear fruit. May was vessel. Mary was channel. Mary was conduit. Mary was bearer of God. Let us use a fancy Greek word for now – Theotokos, which means, precisely, God-bearer.

Please do not confuse the soil with the tree, but please do not also make light of the soil in comparison with the tree. We adore Christ and we praise Him, for by the tree of the Cross, He had redeemed the world! We honor Mary and we venerate her, for she was Mother to the scion of God, through whom the Christ was born, on account of her laudable and praiseworthy cooperation!

Today, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, we do not detract from the true worship due to God alone, and due to Christ Her Son. But we do not do wrong in honoring the Mother through whom the miracle of the Incarnation took place. Liturgy is official worship of God, but worship of God is also served by honoring and venerating those whom God made use of to fulfill His plan of salvation for the world and for all of us.

Enough of that trashy talk about us Catholics worshiping Mary and thus, being guilty of idolatry! That is not true. And that is definitely not what we do today, as everyday.

But I do take offense at the new forms of idolatry of our times. Elizabeth Scalia has a list of them modern-day idolatries that we may be guilty of. And last time I checked, venerating Mary, Mother of God, is not one of them, despite the repeated lies being peddled by haters and naysayers, who base their beliefs on destroying those of others they don’t like. And here’s the list:

The Idol of I, The Idol of the Idea, The Idol of Prosperity, The Idol of Technology, The Idols of Coolness and Sex, The Idol of Plans, The Super Idols, etc. Just look at your facebook and instagram posts … It’s all about “I” … or let’s see … what’s the latest running total of your selfies? Just look at your gadget! Even in Church! Even here. Even now! Can’t easily part with gadgets, right? Just look at how much space and bytes are given to making oneself look cool and sexy and desirable! The list goes on … We have so many idols …

And venerating Mary is not one of them!

Oh, here’s the poem …

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!

Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!

Mary the wheat, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the stem, Christ the Rose blood-red!

Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood!

Mary the temple, Christ the Temple’s Lord;
Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored!

Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!

Mary the  Mother, Christ the Mother’s Son;
By all things blest while endless ages run. Amen!

Does this sound like idolatry to you? Not by any stretch of the imagination! Blessed be God! Blessed be Christ His Son! And praised be Mary His Mother!

Friday, December 27, 2013

RISE, FLEE, AND STAY!


Feast of the Holy Family (A)
December 29, 2013

RISE, FLEE, AND STAY!

Something serious and potentially far-encompassing in scope is happening in our culture. Today’s issue of Pugad Baboy captures some of it, but not fully. People still flock to the Church during the nine-day preparation period, but there are serious signs worship of God, honoring the saints, and participating in the liturgy are not their topmost goals. Many don’t even care to go in and use the pews inside … no, they stand outside or sit on a bench, ready to respond to texts and Viber and Tango alerts. According to Pugad Baboy comic strip, there are those who drive in, remain seated in their cars, and look more or less toward the direction of the altar, and “attend” Mass from a distance.

I talked about this issue on Christmas morning, when huge malls like the Mall of Asia, were slated to be open all day of Christmas. I said that children behave in exactly the same way they do at malls as they do inside Churches. First, they have lots of food with them. Second, with their toys in tow, who would ever feel bored at Mass in Church? They run around, scream to their hearts’ delight, and protest angrily when they don’t get to play, or eat, or otherwise do their thing, including competing with the priest’s homily by making tantrums for the whole world to hear. And if all else fails, why, there is the ubiquitous iPad, or android tablet, to keep them entertained while Mass is going on, and the elders are sleeping.

Trouble marred the Holy Family’s life early on. No sooner had the boy been born than Herod started getting anxiety attacks on account of insecurity issues. The boy was a threat, and threats need to be done away with. The culture of insecurity, the malady of anxiety, psychologists now say, seeks its own level. Anxiety needs to be bound, and the more one binds it, the more it spreads like wildfire; the more people get to be anxious themselves. And anxiety naturally looks for someone to dump itself on – primarily the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most powerless.

But God, the Bible says, is always on the side of the weak, the helpless and the hopeless. God is on the side of the poor, the suffering, the downtrodden, the widow, and the orphan. And God sends His messenger to the head of the family, Joseph, who once was also afraid, mortally afraid, and on account of fear, almost dumped the girl of his dreams. This time around, fear was no longer the issue, but prompt action: “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.”

The culture was not helping them any. The culture was oppressive, and very literally, deadly to the boy. He needed to act, and fast. He was told to “rise.” He was told to “flee.” Action … positive action in defense of life … in defense of what was right, and rightfully the helpless child’s.

This is what the culture is like in our times. It is deadly … deadly to mores, deadly to right worship, when just about everyone now simply stands and refuses at least to bow down or kneel in the presence of the Divine. The culture has been secularized by the cathedrals of commerce, the malls, and what is right is rendered wrong, and what is wrong is declared right.

This is the culture one “flees.” Ancient spiritual writers have one common sensical advice everytime, to “run away from occasions of sin,” to run away from those who lead one to sin, like one flees from the plague. There is nothing cowardly in this. Even Joseph was told to “flee” and save mother and child.

But Joseph was also told to “stay” … to stay where it was physically safe for his family … to stay where it was culturally and psychologically safe for the child. But more than merely staying, he was really told to be still in God, to be calm and devoid of sinful anxiety, to stay the course and stay in God’s guiding hand.

Families in our times are tempted to veer away from the right course. We are being tempted left and right to do what the rest of the world does, to just follow the blowing of the wind, and the path of least resistance. Everyone is simply told to follow the bandwagon.

The Holy Family was told to make a difference. Joseph was told to rise and flee and stay … to rise and flee from what does not lead to life, to flee from whatever leads to death or “to put to death everything that is not life,” to use the famous words of Thoreau.

I pray that all families today might learn to do the right thing, like what that Fil-Am taxi driver from Pampanga did in Las Vegas. He found 300,000 dollars in his cab, left by a rider. He gave them back. He said he just needed “to do the right thing.”

Joseph, the just man, an obedient man, just did as told, for that was the right thing to do.

Rise now, take our dreams along, and flee from the paths that lead to darkness and non-life, and stay the course with God!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

GENERATIONS AND GRACE


Christmas Day
December 25, 2013

GENERATIONS AND GRACE!

Christmas is at one and the same time, an easy and difficult occasion to be preaching. It is easy as everyone is well-motivated, eminently receptive, and for the most part, responsive. But it is also difficult as the occasion is so rich, the readings so varied, and the themes so multi-faceted that it becomes hard to focus on just one, without feeling like not doing justice to all others.

But focus, we must, and speak of just one basic idea, we ought to, lest liturgy becomes, not primarily worship that it has to be, but another entertainment package or an opportunity for information overload.

The Gospel passage of the Vigil Mass is a repeat of what we heard in the last nine days – the story of the generations that led to the birth of the Savior, clustered in three groups of 14 each. The meaning of those generations is just as obscure as the names themselves of the people who, otherwise, we would not have known were it not for Scripture, and, in this particular instance, the painstaking reportage done by Matthew.

Truth to tell, I enjoy reading the Lord’s genealogy aloud. I also enjoy hearing it read by an educated, rehearsed, and accomplished priest or deacon. It is a torture for me if the priest, or deacon, wastes about 3 to 3 and ½ minutes of my time, agonizing through and stammering through the names of the 14 generations times three. I would like it to be read flowing smooth. I would prefer it read with poetic cadence  and deliberate pace, pregnant with pauses on the right portions, and with the right balance of  earthly pomposity and ultra-worldly poise.

I like it to be read with enough dramatic solemnity as befits the one important theological truth that hides behind the seemingly boring list of names of people we do not know from Adam!

And what is that basic, essential and foundational theological Christmas truth behind the story of obscure generations?

Before we answer that, first a disclaimer … Christmas is not primarily about a cutesy stable beside equally cutesy farm animals. The image may be romantic and may make us teary-eyed, but no, that is not what Christmas primarily is about.

Second, whilst the Lord and Savior was born and laid in a manger inside that romantic stable, the idea of glorified poverty is also not the essential image of what Christmas is all about. Christmas is not primarily about the Lord glorifying poverty and want. It is not worth celebrating solely because someone “rich” and “glorious” decided to condescendingly become what the “poor” and the “lowly” were, not by choice, but by necessity. Christmas is not a feel-good story for those who have no choide but be poor, and for the rich who, once a year can experience vicariously at least being ideologically “poor” and romantically identified with the glorified poverty that is wrapped in dainty foil and delightful tinsel.

No, they may all be good “sub-themes” for Christmas, but Christmas is not all that primarily.

Christmas is about gift. It is about grace, which is essentially gift. And this great gift was granted gratis by a gracious God of mercy and compassion and infinite love, through the mystery of the Incarnation, through the wonders of God becoming flesh like us, becoming man like each of us, so that we might become what He is – divine!

And since becoming flesh cannot take place without the help of mortals – men and women of flesh and blood like the 14 generations x 3 – then the story of the generations is essentially the theological story of grace unfolding, grace becoming, grace taking flesh, in and through the lives of those obscure people listed down by Matthew.

The names may remain obscure, save for a few familiar ones that we love to associate with the Christmas of tinsel and foil. But the theological meaning of those names cannot remain obscure … and that essential foundational theological meaning is all about grace becoming, grace taking on real flesh and blood, and grace coming down on Christmas day.

Generations and grace … the two are inseparable. The generations that went before  Jesus belonged to individuals whose names are those of imperfect, even sinful, people. The four women mentioned in the list were interesting characters, if you know what I mean. Two were harlots, in fact. David had a brush-in with a voluptuous lady already taken in marriage by someone whom the King sent to the frontlines, for obvious motives.

But God was born of these 14 generations x 3! Grace came down on Christmas day, courtesy of the cooperation of these people in the glorious genealogy of the Lord!

And this is the only story that we need … the only story that matters … the story of God writing straight with crooked lines … the story of grace triumphing over sin .. the story of grace shining through the limitations and imperfections of generations that have trod the face of sinful earth, populated by sinful people like you and me.

There is hope for the likes of you and me. Grace is more powerful than sin. God is more powerful than us all put together.

Merry Christmas to one and all!


Saturday, December 21, 2013

BETWEEN PROMISE AND FULFILLMENT


4th Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013

BETWEEN PROMISE AND FULFILLMENT.

Prophets definitely lived in interesting times. Isaiah was no exemption to this. He prophesied – or at least, tried to – during times when the southern Kingdom of Judah was in dire straits, threatened by dissolution by the powerful Assyrians. But interesting times are brought about by interesting characters – by individuals whose claim to big power is just matched by their big egos.

Ahaz was one such narcissistic leader. He wouldn’t listen to anyone, least of all Isaiah. He wouldn’t trust anyone, including the Lord Himself, who was ready to give a sign just so the Kingdom wouldn’t perish and go down in shame.

Our society and culture now, are full of such narcissists. In this age of selfies, where the case called “impression management” is the name of the game in social media and everywhere, leaders who make it on top, business people who reach the pinnacle of success, and dreamy-eyed idealists whose dreams are taller than the tower of Babel, apparently rule the roost.

Bu the God of humility cannot be overrun and downtrodden by the gods and goddesses of pride, hubris, and self-centeredness. “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

That was the sign that sounded more like a promise. It was a promise whose fulfillment historically took place many centuries later. It is a sign whose actualization and full realization is still unfolding, even here, even now … in history, as well as in mystery.

Today is the last Sunday of Advent. History makes us look back and the sign and promise of the virgin giving birth has taken place one dark, cold night in Bethlehem. But today, too, precisely being 4th Sunday of Advent, we celebrate more than just a historical fact. We celebrate and look forward – not simply backward – and set our sight using the eyes of faith on something yet to happen, something yet unfolding, something yet becoming real in our lives, in our present, and in our future.

Let us put it bluntly. Christmas is not just simple history. There is more than just backward memory in our faith. Our Christian faith is one that does not make sense just by spelling it backwards. Backmasking is not what Christianity is all about. Christianity is about the past, the now, and the coming times – the end times!

For Christmas – the kind we Christians look forward to – is all about promise. It, too, is all about fulfillment. Christ was born. Yes… Christ is still being born … Christ will yet be born in each and everyone of us. This is exactly what we mean when we say: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The present right here, right now is no different from the time of Judah during Ahaz’ reign. There is uncertainty. There is a whole lot of challenges and obstacles to living our faith as the prophets would have us do.

The Lord offers us more than just a sign. The Lord, in fact, offers us solid promises. And history is on our side as Christ, the promised One, has come in flesh.

But between promise and fulfillment, there is a big gap. But that gap is not on the part of God who is a God of promises and a God of fulfillment. That gap has nothing to do with God walking out of His “talk” … No, it has to do with the likes of Ahaz, the likes of us, individually and collectively. God did His end of the promise, but the big question is whether we do our end of the fulfilling.

There is a clue in today’s readings … Somebody listened. Somebody was paying attention. And then he did what was missing between the promise and the fulfillment … Simply put, it is this: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”

Come on guys! Let’s listen and do accordingly. Let us fill in the blanks and help make the promise bloom into reality.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

HERO OR HEEL? REED OR ROD?


3rd Sunday of Advent (A)
Gaudete Sunday
December 15, 2013

HERO OR HEEL? REED OR ROD?

I am no Justin Bieber fan. I don’t know what he stands for, but right now, he is a hero to many young people in Leyte, whom he paid a surprise visit to, in order to give his help to all typhoon survivors in Eastern Visayas.

There are simply some people who rise to the occasion and prove their worth when tested, when tried, when needed. Isaiah was one such. More than a prophet, he proved to be an enabler, who encouraged, who gave strength, and who empowered people with buckling knees: “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those who are frightened: Be strong, fear not.”

Leaders, they say, do the right things. Managers, they further say, do things right. Either of them, or both, while doing the right things and doing things right, may experience fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the process. When either, or both, surrender to fear or uncertainty, and refuse to act, potential would-be heroes crumble down to being simply heels. Some fade away from the scene. Others take resort to blame or finger-pointing, and leadership is reduced to merely holding a title or keeping an office.

They are reduced to being “mere reeds swayed by the wind,” toothless, spineless incompetents who do nothing but bark orders and berate inferiors (or enemies, for that matter) for not doing the right things and not doing things right.

John the Baptist was no such reed. Neither was he a heel, who only paid lip service to the truth. He was a rod of strength, who talked and walked his talk, till someone schemed to snuff out his life in glorious martyrdom.

Our times call for heroes, not heels. In a society and culture saturated with the need to impress, motivated by a shallow show business inspired culture, we need more than just motivational bombastic speakers who tell us the right things, but who don’t do and live rightly. We need John the Baptists who, unlike reeds swaying in the wind and shake with fright before princes and potentates, take a courageous stand and “tell it like it is.”

We need prophets who are not pushover reeds who are experts at double talk and accommodation, but straight rods of truth and justice, come what may, happen what might.

We have had enough as a people of honorable men and women who used to be followers of an old regime, but who, as if on cue, changed parties just a little before the old regime went down in shame, and who are now like reeds swaying in the new wind of compromise and political accommodation, because the new powers-that-be can now keep the juices of political patronage flowing. They are nothing more than turncoats who stand, not for objective truth and justice, but for the convenient and the personally rewarding.

So, pray, tell me … what kind of prophet would you expect John the Baptist to be? What kind of Church and clergy would you like us to be for you? Mute reeds that dance along with the prevailing wind and the tune of the day? Wimpy prophets who would tell you only things you want to hear? Would you expect the Church to only talk to you about a God of love and never even do so much as refer to a God of justice and a God who makes righteous demands on His people?

What do you expect us to be for you? Hero or heel? Swaying reed or steady rod of righteousness and justice?

Let John the Baptist show us the way. He was not a mere dude and dandy dressed in fine clothing. Last week, he referred to some as a “brood of vipers.” He is more than a prophet. He told it like it is. He was more than a leader and a manager. He was a messenger who talked the talk, and who walked the talk.

Rejoice! Today is Gaudete Sunday. Glad tidings are upon us, in our lips and in our hearts!

Sacred Heart Novitiate
Lawa-an, Talisay City
Cebu
December 11, 2013

Saturday, December 7, 2013

FLOWERING REPENTANCE; FLOURISHING JUSTICE!


2nd Sunday of Advent Year A
December 8, 2013

FLOWERING REPENTANCE; FLOURISHING JUSTICE

We have heard it once too often … “It’s not me; it’s my genes!” … “I didn’t know anything about it; my signature was faked!” “I am not a thief!” “Ooops! Sorry; I am just having a bad day!” “Is it a sin to love? What’s wrong about loving someone totally, physically, completely?”

Yesterday, I really had a bad day … no, a bad dream … a nightmare, in fact. Something really, really bad happened to somebody good. I know her and her family very well, from years back. Exactly like what happened to a young, promising lady who had a “bright future ahead of her” … that is, until a group of unrepentant young men killed her in cold blood and, when caught, had this line to tell the world: “We really did not mean her any harm!”  No remorse … no guilt … nothing … It just so happened she had the unfortunate lot of crossing their paths one early dawn, while they were cruising around town for the next victim.

Some really bad things happen to a country and people that are supposed to be the poster nation for the end of the Year of Faith that closed last November 24, 2013. These are bad things wrought by people in high places and people in low places. Legislators not admitting to any shenanigans … “My signature was faked” kind of alibi … Executives not willing to show what happened to the discretionary funds called by all sort of fancy names that change faster than a chameleon can change colors … DAP, PDAF, CDF …  Individuals, like my friend who, left alone in the house while everyone she loved worked, was mercilessly killed for a few thousand pesos in cash …

In our times, no one is guilty anymore. “It’s the system!” everybody says. “Charge it to my unhappy childhood!” others say. “I am victim here!” “I was given a raw deal by society.” Everybody is blameworthy, but nobody is guilty … Nobody is responsible …

All this doesn’t sound like good news to anyone, right? These are things that ought not be uttered in Church, mentioned in a homily like this, for people say “we expect to hear good things only from the priest, not bad news.”

Ok … so Isaiah carries a whole lot of good news … shoots sprouting from stumps; visions of wolves cavorting with lambs; calves and young lions browsing side by side; babies crawling about where cobras slither; justice flourishing and peace flowering in His time!

The bad news I said first thing above makes me cry. But so does the good news and the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah. Accepting the former does not mean denying the latter. Being in touch with the reality of evil does not mean tolerating the very same evil.

But this is precisely what makes this good news. Even the bad things that happen to good people can become good news, depending on what we are willing to do about it. The bad news of not hearing anything from his loved ones days after the deadly supertyphoon exactly a month ago became performative hope for someone I met  after the tragedy that still makes millions suffer up till now. He came to me, bringing a mountain of relief goods, far more than a single individual would ordinarily give. He was face to face with uncertainty, with the looming possibility that relatives close to him had perished. But the reality of pain led him to the flowering of acceptance and the flourishing of hope.

His coming face to face with the inevitable … his acceptance even of the unacceptable and his recognition that, indeed, bad things can happen to good people, made him become the good news that we all are longing to see.

Acceptance … recognition … repentance … These are stuff out of which individuals of character and grit are made. Excuses … alibis … lies … are what separate the corrupt from the incorruptible; the men and women of integrity from the hollow men and women of shallow show business culture of deceit and self-serving dynastic types of “public service.”

I have got more bad news for ourselves … John the Baptist sure had the right words for such. And here is where we all could be if we also did not recognize and repent … “you brood of vipers!”

No … he did not come out with exonerating sentences because “poor thing, he is just having a bad day!” … or excuses like, “We ought to give it to him. He grew up in miserable conditions in the slums.” “He means well. All he wants is to help people. What’s a few hundred millions from the public funds for as long as they are used for their constituents?”

Let us go a bit closer to home base … “I go to Church every Sunday.” “I give a lot to charity.” “I am basically a good person, but nice guys don’t make it to the top fo the heap and good girls finish last.” “I just can’t help it. What’s so wrong about loving someone other than my lifetime marital partner?”  “Everybody does it any way, so why should I be a hero?”

Justice shall flourish in His times, yes! I believe in this. But the flourishing cannot happen unless it is preceded by the flowering of virtues like endurance in working to show “God’s truthfulness.” “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” yes! … But prior to that, there is something we all need to do: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths.” “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Friday, November 29, 2013

SUDDENNESS. SURPRISE ... SALVATION!


First Sunday of Advent (A)
December 1, 2013

SUDDENNESS. SURPRISE … SALVATION!

Mountains have always mystified me. Oceans frightened me each time, but mountains always somehow make of me a little mystic. I have climbed at least 14 of them in tropical Philippines, a number of them for more than just once or twice, or even thrice, and every time I set my sights on one, I always sigh – and pine for – the heights.

The Israelites were spot on to think of mountains as a place of refuge and a place to encounter God. It certainly was – and is – refuge for me … Then and now … when times get tough and the rough and tumble of life get the better of me. It is also a place of encounter with God, especially when right from day one we started the group – and the tradition of trekking up heights at Don Bosco Mandaluyong, Philippines – we ended each weary day with a lively recitation of the rosary and the traditional Salesian pep talk called the “good night.” But the best was always the Eucharistic celebration either at sundown or at sunrise.

More often than not, we did so, facing the rising sun, “ad orientem” – towards where the light of salvation emanates.

Three weeks after the unparalleled and unprecedented devastation wrought by the super-typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines), I still find myself in tears, unable to find sufficient meaning to so much suffering and death and utter desperation for millions, not hundreds. Although I am not directly involved in relief operations, but in finding ways and means to send help to those who do direct work of helping the hapless victims, I can’t help but be moved every time powerful images of intense suffering and an equally intense spirit of acceptance and resignation, brought about by deep sense of faith on the part of so many fellow Filipinos.

Today, first Sunday of Advent, thoughts of mountains come rushing back to my mind. After all, the prophet Isaiah says so: “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills” (1st reading). Mountains definitely conjured up images of strength and power as refuge. The ancient Israelites looked up to the mountain for solace and strength: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall come my help” (Ps 121:1)

Today, we are starting afresh … a new liturgical year … another challenge … another opportunity to be prepared for suddenness, for surprises. Typhoon Haiyan caught us all by suddenness and surprise. No one of us understood fully what “storm surges” were. Many of my countrymen thought they were safe inside their own homes, unmindful and unaware of what that much vaunted “storm surge” really would amount to. I don’t blame them. I probably would have done the same.

Now, in retrospect, casting another glance at today’s readings, and reading them once again using the prism of faith, we stand to learn a lesson or two that is totally apt for the Advent Season we are just beginning.

And just what would that lesson be? Simply this … nothing beats preparation for suddenness and surprises that can spring any time in our lives. But let me clarify this a bit … Suddenness and surprises only have to do with life in this unpredictable world as we know it, in our earthly and human way of reckoning. Suddenness and surprises can overwhelm only those whose minds, hearts, and total personhood are not attuned to the God of death and the God of life – the God who can give life while killing, the God of the living and the dead.

Suddenness and surprise can defeat only those whose focus never goes beyond the here and the now … those whose take on life does not go higher than satisfying physical bodily needs and desires … those whose only preoccupation is to make the most out of life this earthly life offers. Suddenness and surprise can only thwart one who refuses to “know the time,” and who refuses to acknowledge that “it is the hour now for [us] to awake from sleep.”

Advent is an antidote to suddenness and surprises. And Advent, more than being an antidote is really a powerful vitamin booster. It does not make us immune to suddenness and surprises. We will still be surprised by suffering, even as we will still be surprised by joy, even despite the suffering. Advent will never make us immune to pain of any kind, but what Advent leads us to is something beyond the heights, beyond the mountain peaks, beyond what mortals can pine and dream about, beyond thoughts, beyond imagination, beyond anyone’s loftiest longings and expectations.

It is great and noble enough for our strivings. It is worth our while to “prepare” and “stay awake for,” “for it will come at an hour we do not expect.”

It is beyond suddenness. Beyond surprise. It is the coming of the “Son of Man.” And when He comes, suddenness and surprises pale in comparison and will have to take the back seat. For we will then be in the realm of God’s promised SALVATION.

Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord!

Friday, November 22, 2013

SHEPHERD, SERVANT, KING


November 24, 2013
Solemnity of Christ the King Year C
Closing of the Year of Faith

SHEPHERD, SERVANT, KING

I missed my weekly “pan” last week. I was taken up trying to do what in my little capacity I could, to help the hapless victims of the supertyphoon that wrought death and unprecedented devastation to many places in Central Philippines.

It felt so humbling … being literally so helpless. The magnitude of the destruction was and still is, unfathomable. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and no one plucks it out of nowhere just when one needs it, no matter how urgent, no matter how important, no matter how noble.

But at the same time, it felt so encouraging. The little that was available for everyone to do was precisely what the suffering millions needed. The power that was not anyone’s innate resource was the very same power that God needed to do His mighty works. Aid came in trickles … a little bag here; a little bag there. A few hundred pesos now; a few hundred pesos later. By Tuesday I had enough to send me to the groceries and shop for needed ready to eat foodstuffs that I felt I needed to send. Fast. Forthwith.

So to the mall I went. After buying solar lamps and sending someone to buy a Ham radio transceiver and generator sets from people’s initial donations, I proceeded to the supermarket. There I saw the power of lowlinees, simplicity, and weakness, the power of one becoming the power that God eventually needs.

I espied a group of old ladies, hardly able to push their carts. They were shopping for loads and loads of crackers and noodles. Behind them and before us were young couples with their toddlers in tow, stocking up crackers and noodles and other easy to prepare foodstuffs. I made for the beeline of people asking for boxes and boxes of the same stuff. And then it dawned on me. I was going to send them to the typhoon victims. They, too, apparently, were going to do the same.

Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King. There is ironically nothing kingly (as the world understood it) that oozes out of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The image connotes simplicity and weakness. What power does a lowly shepherd has? What force can a young smelly shepherd like David muster to frighten giant marauders and warriors like Goliath? What dent can little old ladies who could not even carry what they buy make to a gargantuan tragedy that Haiyan (Yolanda) was for millions of Filipinos that happened to be in its murderous path?

But Kingship as the Lord would have it, was not meant to be associated with power. Kingship as he showed and lived it is far from what the world prizes and values and understands. Kingship of the Lord has to do with shepherding and serving. It has to do with being lowly and low-keyed; with simply serving rather than serving self and aggrandizing and ingratiating oneself.

This King is one who established his kingship with the passport of suffering and pain. He hung on the cross, reviled, ridiculed, dissed in every way, and despised by everyone. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.”

This King is the one we honor today. He is no ruler, if what you mean is commander of armies and warrior and power wielder. He suffers in silence. He serves in his suffering and suffers in his ultimate service – the offering of his own life so that we all might live.

Our people are once again in pain. I see so much helplessness. Many lost everything including loved ones. Life will never be the same again for millions of us. And yet, those very same people in pain are the very first ones to call on the Lord that the world considers a shame. Despite all the pain, they behave like there is everything to gain, if only they held on to their faith.

Christ, the King, passed through the same path. Simplicity. Suffering. Death. Unjust treatment from everyone. He experienced no typhoon, but he is just as battered and bruised by undeserved suffering. He is King. And He is such because He is the first to show that glory, fullness of life, salvation, and God’s final victory are nothing but the flip side of what the world rejects, refuses, ignores, and intends to deny – the mystery of human suffering.

To a people so hardy and strong, steadfast and sturdy in faith, I say: “Hold on.” The King has an important message in his simplicity, suffering, pain, and ignominious death …”Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Hail King! King of our hearts, King of the universe, strengthen us in faith, hope and love!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

NOT A GOD OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING

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32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
November 10, 2013

N.B. I would like to join CNN, and the rest of the world, in paying tribute to my suffering compatriots down south in Central Philippines, who braved through the strongest tropical cyclone on earth in about three decades, by posting this pic I grabbed from CNN


NOT A GOD OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING



Despite the systematic drive of anti-Catholics, most Filipinos trooped to the cemeteries, brought and lit candles and offered flowers for their beloved dead. Many also offered prayers and had the names of their beloved deceased relatives written and brought at the foot of altars in innumerable churches all over the country. They all are symbols and at the same time, actualizations of what many of us believe – that for us Christians, life is changed, not ended, and that we owe it to those who have gone ahead of us, to intercede for them, pray for them, that they all might be granted, in God’s mercy, eternal rest with Him in heaven.



Of course, we just don’t pray for their “eternal rest.” Souls don’t have weary bodies anymore as to need “rest.” But “rest” here, of course, stands for rest with God, union with God, eternal salvation in Christ, and full redemption just as God had promised in the same Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord.



Belief has a lot to do with what we pray for, and how we pray. In Latin, that’s a real old saying that is worth remembering … lex credendi, lex orandi. What one believes shows in what one prays for and how one prays in general. So, too, with the whole community of believers called the Church. The Church’s prayer has always been attuned to the same Church’s belief systems.



What, you might ask, is the Church’s most important belief with regard to life in its fullness, as God would have us live?



Simply put, it is called the Church’s constant  teaching about life going beyond the merely physical and palpable level. It has to do with the Church’s conviction that life is a continuum and that it does not end with physical or bodily death. It has to do, too, with the fact that death for Christ and His followers is actually a bend to pass through, not an end that puts a full stop to living here and now.



Death for us Christian believers is exactly how the Maccabean brothers thought of it to be. Yes … they believed in life after physical death, life in its fullness; life as God willed it. And they stated their belief quite unhesitatingly: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”



This, too, is what the Gospel passage reminds us of. Through a dramatic,  - if, highly improbable scenario – the seven brothers who each had to marry the same woman when all of them died one after another, shows us that life here on earth is but temporary, along with what the world considers as undying bonds while on earth. But life on earth, and everything that it entails as earthly realities, are ephemeral. They are not permanent. They all can be cut short by physical death.



But there is one thing that cannot be cut short, that cannot be denied, that no earthly power can take away…



We call this eternal life – that which goes beyond earthly and bodily demise, that which happens after we say good-bye to this world. And this happens because we believe, as Christ taught us, in the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting with the Trinitarian God in heaven!



Nothing is permanent in this world. “Here, we have no lasting city.” Yes … even the billions that corrupt legislators and politicians divided among themselves did not last. Yes … even the whole corrupt system concocted by the top most powerful people in and out of government … Whistleblowers, for whatever motive, not excluding the religious motive of finally seeing the light and turning back to the Lord in repentance, managed to expose the whole abominable and abhorrent deed.



Nothing lasts. Nothing remains as is. Todo se pasa, St. Teresa of Avila wrote long ago. All things change. Only God never changes. Solo Dios no se muda! And one of those Godly teachings that don’t go away with the wisp of changing wind or violent tempest is the teaching, and our conviction that the dead will rise again on the last day.



We will rise again. We will rise again. To new life. To a new heavens and a new earth! “Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.” For you are a God, not of the dead, but of the living!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

BROKEN BUT NOT BEATEN; FORLORN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN!

 

31st Sunday Year C

November 3, 2013

BROKEN BUT NOT BEATEN, FORLORN BUT NOT FORGOTTEN!



I am afraid of heights. I fell from a tree once in my life, while doing  - you know – that childhood classic Batman stunt! (I will spare you the details!) But for one afraid of heights, I think I have done a mean feat climbing 14 Philippine mountains, one of them for more than 12 times!



I am a small man, too, by any standard, including by current Philippine standards where children of people not any taller than me, end up being a lot taller than their progenies. (Did we do the Star margarine challenge right? Or we just didn’t have Cherifer “tangkad sagad” back then?)



Today, I take comfort from the story of Zacchaeus. No … I don’t mean to gloat over his height (or the lack of it!). I meant, I take comfort from Zacchaeus, not because he was just as small as me, but because he was endowed with a big heart. He was willing to go out very literally, on a limb, because he had a great desire to see, to know, to be blessed, even from afar.



Many people there are who prefer not to see, not to know, and not to be blessed by a possible serendipitous surprise of a lifetime. Simon and Garfunkel (at least before they walked out on each other’s lives) crooned about them many moons and suns ago … people looking without seeing; people hearing without listening … The Lord had better words to describe them … “they preferred the darkness rather than light.”



I am still reeling from a memorable participation at the recent Philippine Conference on New Evangelization as one of the speakers. I spoke about a Zacchaeus-like story. I talked about “growing strong in broken places,” a title I borrowed from Paula Ripple who wrote a book back in the early 80s about the same topic. I talked about my younger me back in the 70s wounding a hapless mango sapling. I tied a knot in its young trunk, when it was not more than 2 feet high, a young tree trying to find its rightful place under the sun.



It was trying to rise above the other plants and shrubs, to touch and see the life-giving warmth and rays of the sun, and become part of the grove that surrounded the public school where I taught Catechism. It was trying to do a Zacchaeus, running, huffing and puffing, and trying to rise above the crowd, for he had a desire to see, to experience what the rest of the pressing crowds were all excited about.



But the great surprise happened. People in search do find, as the Lord promised: “Seek, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” It turned out the Lord was far more in search for him, than he was for the Lord. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for I today I must stay at your house.”





I would like to tell the world today of this great wonder, this great surprise. It is not so much the fact that we are out in search, as the Lord being out to extend his compassion and mercy and forgiveness and salvation. Christian life is not so much about us calling on God, but about God calling us, beckoning us to climb down from our perches and being surprised by joy, by life, by everything that has to do with life in its fullness.



The Lord has called the mango sapling to life. But I, sinful and selfish that I was, had decided one morning to destroy it, by wounding it gravely. But many years later, when I got back to the place after my ordination, I saw the tree, fully grown, sturdy and stable and mighty and proud. I felt for the wound. It was still there – a humongous scar that became the star of its total being. It had grown strong at its broken place.



The tree now stands for me an eloquent witness of what we just heard in the first reading: “But your spared all things because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!”



A tree was trying to live, trying to rise above its natural limitations and join the rest of God’s handiwork, and find its place under the sun of God’s compassion and mercy. Like Zacchaeus, broken and sinful as he was, just like you and me, was trying to see, to behold, to touch the glint of mercy in the Lord’s eyes.



Zacchaeus got it. The Lord, who never intended to go to Jericho, ended up staying for a while to do an errand of mercy. God was in search of sinners. God still is. And he is in search of me and you up till now.



But there is one thing I need to do. Zacchaeus shows me the way. I must run. I must rise. I must climb up the tree and embrace it wounds and all, warts and all – including the tree I just wounded horribly. Scarred trees are beautiful, even as according to Fr. Guido Arguelles, scarred people are found beautiful by God, in Christ, who himself was superscarred!



I need to see. I need to hear and listen. I need to look and really behold – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!



My former student and mentee, Ronan, together with his own current students now in High School, took up a challenge I posed to them while preparing for the Conference on New Evangelization. I told him my story. I asked them to write their take on the story. And they came up with a short film entitled ANG KWENTO NI BUHOL (THE STORY OF KNOT).



I may be broken, but I am not beaten. I may be short, but I am not shit in God’s eyes. I may be powerless, but I am not forgotten. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”