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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.”