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Friday, August 30, 2013

THE VIRTUE OF THE STRONG


22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
September 1, 2013

THE VIRTUE OF THE STRONG

Lisa Fullam makes a distinction between a pilgrim and a tourist. A tourist, she says, goes to places to see something new. A pilgrim, instead, goes some place to become someone new.

I have been a tourist myself countless times in my life. Having been there, done that, I now realize that getting some place and seeing new places alone by themselves do not necessarily make me a better person. Being a tourist makes me see new places, indeed, and I can make the necessary check marks of those places I have seen in my Michelin guide. But time eventually wears off the initial sense of novelty, and people are not really impressed by what one has seen, or where one has been, no matter how many times we tell friends and foes alike that we’ve “been there; done that.”

But friends and foes alike are impressed by what and who we have become, not because we have been to places, but because we have seen the light after we have been to those places or even if we have not seen those places.

These days, the issue of larceny on a grand scale, perpetrated by individuals in and out of government, has occupied center stage in our national consciousness. We are a forgiving and tolerant people. Truth to tell, we have always known, and tolerated the fact that many of our so-called public servants have always been engaged in some form of thievery which we love to call corruption. But there is something beyond corruption that raises up the ante of our collective indignation, and that has to do with the uncaring arrogance that some public figures seem to show in their statements and behavior. The stealing of public funds is one thing; but the issue of lying through their teeth and their uncaring, cavalier attitude towards those who pick on them, especially in social media, are quite another. In truth, such thick-faced pride, lack of empathy, and gross insensitivity to what we all feel is what angers us the most.

Nietzche, who never believed in God, also never believed that humility is a virtue. For him, humility is weakness. It means to give in to our already rotten situation of being condemned to our existential angst and loneliness as humans. Humility, for him, is to weaken even more our already rotten humanity. It means being a cop-out to what we should fighting against with might and main, and make of ourselves more than what fate has condemned us to.

Today, all three readings remind us in faith, that humility has nothing to do with weakness, with rottenness, with being less than we really are. Humility, for one, is a virtue. And this virtue is not one for the pushover and the clueless. As a virtue, it is one for the strong, the determined, the focused, and the one who knows what he wants in life.

The first time I was a “pilgrim” in Europe, many years ago as a young student priest in Rome, I was on my way toward Fatima. Coming as I was from Madrid, I took the train. I was in a compartment with four others. As we neared the border, immigration officers came and asked all four of us what nationalities we all were. One came from the US. Another came from Spain. The third came from Argentina. The man took the three for their word. When it was my turn and he asked where I was from – the Philippines, he asked to see my passport and proceeded to examine it carefully from cover to cover, something he did not do with the other three.

It was humbling to be subjected to this seeming psychological torture. I was tempted for a short while to feel humiliated, but the better side of me took over and realized that I could not be humiliated without my permission. I was humbled, but definitely not humiliated.

Being humble, according to Sirach, has nothing to do with being weak and powerless. It is a choice one makes. He lovingly speaks to us as children: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” The common trend among so many of us is to simply follow the bandwagon – to be like everyone else and be caught in a rat race of sorts, towards some elusive goal or summit. There is no strength in following the current. There is no heroism is doing like everybody else does. There is no greatness in following the mainstream. But again, Sirach, nails it down for us. Humility is being different … for a reason. It is in being strong, and making a dent in society, for daring to be different: “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength, search not.”

Humility, according to the Lord, pays in the long run. It does cost temporarily. For a while, one feels like the world has edged him or her out of the race. For some time, one may feel left out as a non-entity. That is all true.

But the strength of the humble is not what he or she can do in the end. In the final analysis, the strength of the humble really comes from God, whose dwelling is not in this earthly city, but “Mount Zion and the city of the living God.”

The strength of the humble comes ultimately from Him who “puts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly to high places.”

Be humble. Be strong. And be ready for the best: “Come on up, my friend, to a higher place.”


Friday, August 23, 2013

STRIVE TO ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW GATE


21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
August 25, 2013

STRIVE TO ENTER THROUGH THE NARROW GATE

The vision spoken of in the first reading is an event that was close to impossible during the Old Testament times. Jews would have nothing to do with gentiles. They were snobbis and definitely self-focused. If you want a 64 dollar word, here it is … they were ethnocentric. They looked at others not just with suspicion, but something stronger, more like disdain.

Be that as it may, the vision speaks about even gentiles and pagans brushing shoulders with the Jews to offer sacrifices to the Lord. It is therefore a heartwarming vision – something we all are looking forward to, something we all dream of, and long for in our lives, here and now.

Even as I write, Christians are suffering in Egypt. The “goyim” – that is, the non-believers, or more precisely those who believe in something else, make the lives of Christians a living hell. On the local scene, too, people are angry, people want justice done, after knowing just how much legislators and government leaders, along with a few private individuals have consistently pillaged and plundered money that rightfully belonged to the people.

But what really angered many, particularly the netizens who got plenty of information from social media, many of whom have lost trust in manipulative mainstream media, was the apparent hemming and hawing and the seeming indecision of the top leaders to do something about it.

The road to corruption is wide open, and the road to redress and retribution is so narrow, in a country where corruption and dishonesty and lack of loyalty are the rules of the game.

The road to everything other than that which leads to gospel liberation is indeed, very broad. It is easy to fall into the trap of all that glitters. Most of the names that surface in the emerging bigger picture are people who once “fought” for freedom and “worked” for justice. But the system, so deeply mired in a culture of impunity has taken the better of many of them.

They soon trodded down the wide open road of traditional politics, or business as usual, where being honorable was tantamount to being crooked, wicked, and greedy.

There, but for the grace of God, go you and I!

But I refuse to give up hope. The recent events show that, the narrow road notwithstanding, there are still people who choose and decide to follow it. The massive indignation of people who feel betrayed once more emerged and only the most dense and most insensitive could remain unaffected.

I would like to hold on to Isaiah’s vision. I would like to revel in Isaiah’s dream. Call me naïve, but faith calls for a certain naivete – that somehow the Lord can write straight with crooked lines, that one day, people who do not see eye to eye will offer the same worship together in the same temple.

I would like to hold on to faith. I would like to hold on, too, to our people’s innate inner strength that comes from an unlimited capacity for joy, even in the midst of pain. This is something that the second reading capitalizes on: “Do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him.”

But there is work to do. There is something else we all need to do. We need to “go out into all the world and tell the Good News.” And that good news is not the absence of pain, or the absence of trials. It is good news even despite all the challenges and difficulties that beset us as a people.

Nice girls they say finish last. Good boys seldom make it to the top, at least not as fast as one might expect. Cheaters, by cutting corners and edging others out of line, by pushing and shoving, get to the finish line ahead. Smart Alecks definitely make it to Hollywood or Wall Street fast and, brilliant schemers and cheaters definitely get all the breaks and all the perks, as the story of the notorious and much hated Napoles family shows. Who says the road to success is narrow? No, if you have the right connections, enough gall to edge everybody out of the game, by hook or by crook, or if you have deadened the voice of conscience inside you, the road to perdition is wide, and the road to heaven is narrow and dark and difficult.

Courage, little flock! What road are you on? Whose side are you on? This is the basic lesson from today’s liturgy: Strive to enter through the narrow gate. For at the end of it all, is not the proverbial pot of gold, but something infinitely greater that what glitters – life as envisioned by Isaiah! Care to join him in his dream?

Friday, August 16, 2013

CALLED TO BE A FIREBRAND


20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
August 18, 2013

You know the kind … they come into your life and that of others and they don’t leave without getting you affected in a good way. They leave you all fired up; all geared for action … You find yourself raring to do more; be more, and dream for more, aim higher and do better in every way.

They are called firebrands. They are also called visionaries. Some call them leaders. And these leaders are such because they are primarily servants. They do more than just talk. Talk is cheap, as they say. They talk the talk and walk their talk. And in the process, they show us the way to the higher, the greater, the nobler and the better.

Leaders like them are not wishy-washy. Neither are they mere romantic dreamers who cannot do more than pen pushing. Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast we celebrated just a few days ago, they are ready and willing to lay down their lives like Christ did, for their sheep.

Today’s readings are unsettling – even frightening. The Lord talks about “divisions” and about “setting fire on earth.” St. Paul, too, talks about “perseverance” in “running the race.” And  the first reading would have us think about the fate Jeremiah suffered – ending up in a muddy hole, just because he wouldn’t say what the power-that-be expected him to say, and what he wanted to hear.

They talk about heroism. They speak about daring to be different. They follow the beatings of a different drum. And just what do those drums sound like?

I might not be able to describe it but I can tell you what it is not like …

It is not following the bandwagon. It is not about business as usual. It is not about following the fad and getting co-opted by what is fashionable.

It is about making a stand. For the right … for what is moral, not simply for what is legal.

We live in a wicked world. The trouble in Egypt is much too biased against Christians, and on the whole destructive of human dignity, for all, not just for believers. The news of organized and unparalleled corruption in high places in our country is news that is not just shocking, but dream-shattering, and morally enervating. Mainstream media and show business culture is progressively dehumanizing. Sin is slathered all over the known institutions of so called civil society and beyond. And it is spelled, more often than not, as greed and selfishness.

The Lord expects us to take a stand. The Lord counsels us to “set fire on earth.” And he even adds for good measure that nepotism, relationships, by blood or other forms of affinity, should not cover for what is objectively wrong. We are called to stand up for what is right, cost what might. And here blood affinity and the like, should not overshadow what is right.

It is difficult not to follow the trend. It demands heroism and entails suffering – exactly the same suffering that Jeremiah got when he refused to kowtow to the wishes of the King. He landed in the muddy well.

I ask my readers to pray for Egypt and our suffering brethren therein. And may I add for you consideration the country I belong to and love, now seething with muffled rage at so much institutionalized corruption involving people in high places. May that fire that we are called to set keep burning in our hearts and may the same hearts be perpetually lit by zeal for what is right.

Friday, August 9, 2013

GIRD YOUR LOINS AND LIGHT YOUR LAMPS


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
August 11, 2013

GIRD YOUR LOINS AND LIGHT YOUR LAMPS

When I was younger, I used to do a lot of climbs up mountains, both high or low. Fun climbs that lasted no more than a day didn’t take too much preparation. All one needed was a small rucksack, a day’s supply of personal water, some food to keep body and soul together for a day, and very light clothing.

But things can get a little more complex when you set your sights to places higher. You need to analogically gird your loins and trim your lamps. You need a stove, or what climbers or campers refer to as a “cook set,” a sleeping bag, a tent, and a pair of good sturdy shoes, and don’t forget a set of clothes that would allow you to do what in our jargon, we also call, “layering,” as needed or as dictated by the fickle elements.

But anyone who has climbed anything higher than his rooftop knows that beyond all these accouterments, equipment, or high tech gadgets, there is need above all of something that no high tech gadget can give – something that one ought to possess deep within, some trait that one cannot do without. And I refer to the capacity, physical capacity or strength along with the inner energy that would make it possible for anyone to put one foot ahead of the other, and start on a journey of a thousand miles.

Abraham had one such essential trait. He had faith. By faith, he set out on a journey towards an unknown place. By faith he sojourned in the promised land. By faith he had power to generate. By faith, we are further told by St. Paul, he offered up Isaac when put to the test.

The life we all know is not a walk in the park. It is actually more like doing an arduous climb up a treacherous mountain. There are challenges every step of the way, and one cannot take things easy at any given time. One needs to be ready for any eventuality. One must be physically and psychologically prepared. And by preparation, I don’t mean gadgets and equipment, along with food and drinks galore.

The Gospel tells us what this preparation is like … no money bags that wear out … no possessions and nothing superfluous, nothing else but treasure that no thief can reach and no moth can destroy. Preparation, yes, and it has nothing to do primarily with possession.

I remember a major climb many years ago. Some “guest climber” fresh from the US barged into my group one day, just before embarking for the long journey up the second highest peak in the country. Coming as he did from abroad, he had first class equipment, clothing, backpack and all. He was prepared to the hilt!

But his so-called preparation soon proved unequal to the task at hand. At a more treacherous portion of the climb, he panicked. He was shaking in fear and was paralyzed. He wanted to go no farther. And everyone in the team was getting affected negatively by his fear.

I would like to think of myself as a relatively well-prepared man, in some aspects at least. Been there; done that … But I must confess that at times like now, I feel discouraged, even outraged, at the sight of much poverty, so much corruption, and so much crime and indifference in my country, neatly divided between the few rich and the teeming masses of poor people, thanks to a dysfunctional political system and elections that are, for all intents and purposes, a structure of evil.

I need more than just worldly preparation. I need something that Abraham and Paul had, something that Christ has come to bring to a world that “walks in darkness.” I need to have faith.

But what kind of faith am I talking about? Is it the touchy-feely type that makes me feel good just because I have someone I can call as Lord and Savior? Is it the fiduciary type that gives me someone I can trust in a world where no one is trustworthy? Is it some kind of wishful thinking that somehow all the bad things in my life and in society would somehow go away eventually? Does it mean taking refuge in fervent prayer and begging God to do a miracle and one day take away all the dark clouds that hover our lives?

All this may well be important, but there is something more to faith than just wishing and wanting. There has to be more than just this. There has to be some willing incorporated into faith, just as Abraham showed, just as Abraham did. Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Lumen Fidei, tells us thus: “The word spoken to Abraham contains both a call and a promise.” The “call” has to do with an invitation to leave his homeland and a summons to a new life. This faith was a call to an “exodus” towards “an uncertain future.”

It was definitely a call to action, to a type of performative faith, not just intellective, not just fiduciary.

The world that we all know is a world in darkness in many ways. What is there fore us to do? Today’s readings show us how. Now is the time to “gird our loins and light our lamps.”

Thursday, August 1, 2013

ABAJO, ARRIBA, A DENTRO!


18th Sunday Year C
August 4, 2013

ABAJO, ARRIBA, A DENTRO!

Hispanics use this all the time when celebrating (and eating and drinking) wih friends. They sound to me exactly like what the three readings today speak about.

The first reading, from Qoheleth, tells us what it means to be focused solely on the things of this world, on things and activities below – a bajo – here on this mortal earth. And what wisdom does he offer us? He says it’s all vanity. “Vanity of vanities!”

But just like friends toasting one another before a drink, we need to raise things to a higher level. Like Paul did. He counsels us to “seek what is above, not what is on earth.” He advises us to set our sights on the higher realities of life, not merely on things that are below. Arriba! This is what he tells us to do.

But there is more … In the Gospel passage from Luke, we are confronted with two brothers who apparently are wrangling about material goods. “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He probably was a little too preoccupied with things below, with money matters, with things that no one can take along to the after life.

The Lord calls his attention to something more, something nobler, something greater … He gently leads the complaining and resentful brother to go to the heart of things … to go to his center … to go deeper into the innermost recesses of his heart and discern whether that is really what he wanted above everything else, whether that is his real goal, and whether that is the end-all and be-all of his whole existence. He counsels the young man to check out whether he is truly “rich in what matters to God.”

Truth to tell, we are all inherently human, earthly, mortal, and material, even as we are all spiritual and called to greatness. We are citizens of this world, even as we are called to be citizens for heaven. As bodily beings, immersed as we are in earthly realities, and sometimes overwhelmed by the cares inherent in this material world, we often forget that we are not meant to be focused a bajo – down here below.

This is obvious in the curious things that seem to attract our attention daily: forced evictions of informal settlers everywhere, lavish birthday parties of individuals who happen to be connected with families who seem to be also connected with scams galore. And yet, on the other side of the fence, we see Maserati cars being unveiled, for the Philippines, they say, “have arrived!” It’s out turn now to drive around in Maseratis, Rolls Royces, and other luxury cars.

St. Paul has one additional advice for us. He tells us not to remain a bajo – down below, but to rise up higher … Arriba! And he tells us why … for we have bee raised with Christ. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

There is hope for our country. That hope is you and me. But it does not come automatic. We need to reprogram ourselves. We need new APPS for life. And the killer APP that we all need is spelled A CENTRO or A DENTRO!

We need to look deep into ourselves and see what are our default programs. We need to see what values are in our keychains that boot our moral systems. For the bad news is that the original OS in our system booted us wrongly. ORIGINAL SIN, the primeval OS that ruined our system and made it so easily corruptible, is very much still working in the background.

We often stay a bajo – down in sinful culture and sinful behavior. But we can rise, go, and move up higher … ARRIBA! This is our rallying cry together with Paul who knew sin, who knew first hand what it meant to persecute the Lord.

I am intrigued by Rolls Royces and Maseratis of this world. I also am pulled by the desire for comfort, for material things, for gadgets and gizmos. I am pulled down by sin, and the very real tendency to sin.

But today, Sunday, at Mass with you and for you, I feel the pull of grace. I feel the call of God who lives in the heavens. He calls you and me. He pulls you and me up where we truly belong. Arriba!

But for us to really soar high. We need to go a centro. We need to go inward … a dentro … and meet God in the secrecy and privacy of our hearts, and walk with Him towards the heights … toward heaven that is our own true home. Amen!