We all know of at least one or two cases of well planned crimes. We just heard of one such that happened recently in the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa where one suspected drug lord was killed. Till now, no one knows the real story that transpired, despite the many hours spend in the notorious Senate or Congressional investigations.
Planned for, plotted, and perpetrated ... It apparently took months of planning for, with a lot of help from those who stood to gain from it all. The event is a shuddering piece of news, and a sobering thought for each one of us, myself included, who now realizes, like everyone of us, that the drug problem is not just an isolated one.
Being no spring chicken anymore, I know a little about plans being hatched, and projects eventually seeing the light of day. I know from experience, and can speak a little about dreams and visions coming to full bloom, when one has, not only the blueprint in hand, but also the grit and determination at hand, to see through to their completion and eventual fruition.
I know it from first-hand experience ...
My father came from a poor family of two boys. At age 11, his only younger brother died, ravaged by typhoid fever. At that age, the two brothers already shared a dream. In the little plot of land their parents owned, they dreamt of something bigger than their puny little bodies could possibly attain. But not quite adolescents yet, they started planting coffee. My father not only managed to make them grow. He actually became a little expert on how to care for them and make them bear fruit in plenty. From what I know, years later when we were growing up, those coffee trees they planted when they were just innocent play-age kids, were what eventually tided us over and sent us all to school.
I know it from second-hand experience and from training ...
When I got to know Don Bosco, the particular detail that remained etched in my mind was the very same concept of "dreams" becoming reality. In his modesty and simplicity, he spoke of what seemed like "heavenly visions" as simply "dreams." But it was a particular dream at nine years old that sent him soaring to the heights of holiness. He dreamt of "wolves becoming sheep, and shepherds who guard and never sleep." That dream is now reality in over 130 countries all over the world!
All of us, who turn into wide-eyed and dreamy little kids on Christmas day, have experienced a little about dreaming and making what we dream for a reality. All of us can probably tell a story or two about people who "conceived," "bore" and finally "named" the dream that has become real.
I cannot forget our teacher in Pilipino when I was but a 16 year-old freshman in college. His classes were not just lessons on making well-crafted sentences and verses in Pilipino. His sessions were all one seamless and telling lesson on life, on conjuring up lofty dreams, and on the capacity to pay the price for those dreams. Mr. Florentino Gecolea, who came from a very poor family himself, shared with us not only his literary prowess in our own native language, but his "life technology." As he taught us the beauty of prose and the nobility of poetry, our hearts were touched by his life-story. It was one of "dreaming" and aiming high, and being ready to work hard for it, neatly summed up in a very touching and moving poem that he dedicated to us, prior to his leaving for good for Canada ... "Awit ng Makahiya."
I cannot forget too, one of my teachers in Speechpower back in the day. I cannot recall her name, but I do remember what she shared with us ... how she brought herself all through the public school system, and made it to where she was then, all on the basis of a childhood dream.
I now go to the point of this reflection. In this fourth Sunday of Advent, our thoughts are focused on one who "conceived," and "bore a Son" and eventually "named" Him Emmanuel. I speak about Mary, who dreamt along with God, and who paid a handsome price for it. She conceived. She bore. And her bearing the child in her womb for nine months and introducing him to the world, caused her untold pain. In fact, sorrow, just like a sword, broke her heart and tore it apart. Only he or she who is willing to bear all, can be worthy of "naming" what that pain has brought into the light of day.
I bear witness to the power of dreams and their concomitant power to conceive, and bear, and name. I saw it from both ends: the power to make something happen as when criminals hatch up a plan, plot for it, and execute it. Selfish and greed-motivated as they are, the focus and the energy put into it can literally move mountains and cause untold havoc to the hapless victims, as happened in the story I told you above.
But I bear witness, too, to the overriding power of a dream, that rides on, and jibes, with God's dream - all for the good of others, all for the sake of people other than oneself. That was my father's dream. That was Don Bosco's dream at nine. That was my two teachers' dream, who both refused to be victims of circumstances, victims of their parents' poverty, and victims of their lack of capacity to pull themselves up from their bootstraps.
Advent, so we were told repeatedly, is a time of waiting. But let me qualify that. It is not empty waiting. It has nothing to do with futile twiddling of thumbs, waiting for something to happen. It has to do with pregnant waiting. It is "conceiving." It means "bearing" ... paying the price for what you expect and actively wait for. It has to do with "naming" - naming what one needs to get out of the way; naming what one needs to do "to fill in the valleys, and straighten the highways" for the Lord, who is coming ... as sure as night follows day ... as sure as the lessons that life has taught me so far ... as certain as the meaning of His name: Emmanuel - God is with us!
The second and third readings' insistence, not without a tone of urgency, to "rise and shine" and "conduct ourselves properly as in the day," is striking. There is no mistaking it. It is urgent. It is important. And it is imperative that one gets to realize that, while waiting for something imminent and sure, one really has no time to lose, no moment to spare, no opportunity to waste and let go.
The insistence can be summarized simply thus: it is now the hour!
It is now the hour! Whilst it is true and obvious that in our days, people are hard pressed for time, and are quite incapable of waiting, it is also true that for many people in a mad rush towards something undefined, the sense of urgency can often be more a sign of neurotic attachment to being occupied and busy with something. People rush out of their work places, only to kill time in front of the TV screen, watching and getting involved in telenovelas, or let time fritter away in some entertainment place, while nursing a drink or two in the hand. People everywhere try to cut through snarled or stalled traffic, only to get home and spend more time in front of the ubiquitous computer.
People are in a perpetual rush. And people in rush are people who cannot wait.
Henri Nouwen makes an insightful comment that in the gospel according to Luke, the first personages mentioned are all described as people in waiting ... Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna ... and, of course, Mary! I would like to suggest my own tentative insight, for whatever it is worth to you my readers. I would like to suggest that for at least two of them, their waiting was crowned with a satisfied and fulfilled sigh of more than just relief. They acclaimed and extolled God who made known His glory at the appointed time. Zechariah waxed prayerful and grateful as he acknowledged the "hour of visitation" from the Lord God: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, he has come to his people and set them free." Zechariah acknowledged that the Lord's appointed hour of salvation has come. His profuse praise is made as if to say: "It is now the hour ... it is now the hour to thank and praise God who has made good his promises of old.
Simeon, too, was a man conscious and cognizant of the "hour" of God's epiphany. Happy and fulfilled that the Lord has, indeed, chosen to favor him with his timely self-manifestation, Simeon poured forth his thanks and praise for his "hour" had already come, and that it was now his "hour" to take leave with overflowing joy and a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment. "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled." It is now the hour for me to go. It is now the hour for me to take leave quietly, for "my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people."
But Mary herself was a woman of the hour. She knew how to appreciate and acknowledge the overwhelming truth, not only of the hour, but for all time: "From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty had done great things for me, and holy is his name." Her prayer is made as if to say, "it is now the hour to give God utmost glory and praise, for he has mercy on those who fear him in every generation" ... now ... then ... and thereafter.
We are a people tired of waiting. We cannot wait a minute longer to get our favorite fast-food meal. Many of us get violent while sitting it out in snarled traffic everywhere. In the Philippines, some people can even get so worked up waiting that, in their anger, they pump bullets into other people who happen to also get very impatient and cranky while struggling for limited driving space in our hopelessly inadequate roads. Road rage is nothing more than impatient waiting turned violent. In crowded restaurants, everyone has a sense of entitlement making unreasonable demands on the oftentimes hapless waiters and waitresses who get the ire of pretentious and unsatisfied customers who all want to be served first. Again, in the Philippines, predictably, ambitious wannabes are already positioning themselves as they drool over the most coveted office in the land as we approach once more the year of national elections.
It is indeed the hour for everyone who has his or her personal agenda to take care of. It is the hour to strut one's stuff in the ramp of life. When it comes to ambition, it is always the right time. When it comes to personal dreams and desires, it is always the hour. And there is precious little time to waste when it comes to fulfilling one's overriding desires and dreams. Already, in every Senate investigation and high profile discussions done under the glare of lights and whirring TV cameras, people who drool over national positions of leadership consider it their opportunity "to strut and fret their hour on the stage" of life.
Advent has once more set in for us believers. Today, we begin that very short period of no more than four Sundays when all we do is focus on the main issue of waiting. But today's opening salvo would have us acknowledge like Zechariah, Simeon, and Mary did, that the time has come. What we are waiting for has come already and has irrupted into our present hour.
The personages in waiting as reported by Luke are individuals who wait, not impatiently, but imbued with the spirit of hope. Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna had all the time to be waiting. Luke's report tells us they were old, very old, but ever youthful in their active and hopeful waiting. Their beard and hair may have been grey, but their hope never grew grey hairs. For patient and hopeful people who know how to wait never grouse and become grouchy when the "hour" finally comes their way. Impatient people complain when the object of their waiting comes around. "Why only now?" would be their exasperated statement, most likely. But hopeful people burst forth in praise and proclamation when the much-awaited "hour" comes around.
We postmodern people just cannot wait. There was a time people said, "wait a minute" if they had to have people on hold for any reason. Nowadays, people don't even want to wait a minute. Most people would now say, "hold on a second." Just a second, never a minute ... In a world that communicates instantly "in real time," a minute of waiting is simply unimaginable and unforgivable.
But important things can stand being waited for, more than just a second, and definitely more than just a minute. Today's liturgy, the first Sunday of Advent, reminds us that it is now, not the second, it is now, not the minute, but "it is now the hour" of our salvation.
With salvation and redemption so important, a second less, a second more; a minute less, a minute more would not count as important. What really counts and matters in the long run is what that "hour" ultimately is all about - everything that our hope and patient waiting stand for - our salvation in Christ, "for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed."
Another typhoon has visited us recently. Even now, as I talk, so many still have to pick up the scattered pieces of their lives, both literally and figuratively, to get up and face life anew, despite so much loss.
I have experienced helping the very helpless after devastating storms a number of times in my life. I remember the feeling of being like those I was trying to help - helpless and dazed in apparent hopelessness.
It felt so humbling ... being literally so helpless - in the face of so many needs, all urgent and all important. The magnitude of the destruction, in many cases, was 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. Not before long, 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. For there was no waiting, no dilly-dallying.
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 lowliness, 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!
Last week, we alluded to the importance and necessity of
having perspective. To have perspective is to have a frame on which to set a
picture, a ground on which to locate a seemingly smaller reality. To have
perspective is to be endowed with a point of view, to see the bigger picture,
as it were, and not to miss the bigger forest for just a few trees.
The seven brothers and their heroic mother of last week’s
first reading, definitely had perspective. That perspective of faith in the
resurrection was what gave them the courage, the strength, and the endurance to
withstand a painful and cruel – grisly – death. On that score, the Sadducees,
disbelieving as they were, of the resurrection, lacked the necessary
perspective to see beyond earthly existence. Their ridiculous – if, impossible
– scenario in the impertinent question posed to the Lord, betrayed their utter
lack of perspective.
This Sunday, we get to understand the concept a little more
– and with a lot more graphic and concrete details to boot! That perspective
takes the form of what Malachi and the apocalyptic writers call “the day of the
Lord.” In a language that sounds as gruesome as the language of the seven brothers’
account of their martyrdom, the day of the Lord is presented like fire that
razes “all evildoers” [who] will be set on fire, “leaving them neither root nor
branch.” But Malachi makes sure that the bigger picture behind the grisly
images is proclaimed: “for [those] who fear [God’s] name, there will arise the
sun of justice with its healing rays.”
Although Marshall McLuhan quipped long ago that “the medium
is the message,” in the case of today’s first reading from Malachi, the
picturesque images used ought not to be mistaken for the message. The snapshot
ought to be distinguished from the frame on which it is set. The frighteningly
concrete images of fire and destruction ought not to obscure the bigger truth
conveyed by the passage that “the Lord comes to rule the earth with justice”
That big picture is summed up by the phrase “day of the
The truth is couched in metaphor, in concrete images that
sound frightening to modern ears. But the frame on which such images are set,
the ground on which those metaphors are based, have to do with the certain
truth that God is coming with both majesty and power to set everything aright,
to reward the good, and to punish evildoers. And the only way this can be done
is to “raze everything to the ground” and start anew on a clean slate. This
basically means to transform the world as we know it, to renew all, and restore
everything to its original state of utter blessedness.
In computer terminology, I would like to use the world
“reset.” Perhaps a close analogy to explain this truth is the concept of
“burning” rewritable DVDs or CDs. To renew the contents of a re-writable DVD or
CD, ironically, even computer parlance calls it “burning.” One cannot put in
new stuff to the disk unless one burns it, unless one very literally razes its
contents and restores it to its pristine state. Only then can one hope to put
in new data. For it to be renewed, it needs to be overhauled by passing through
“Nero’s” hands, so to speak.
Sometimes, to continue on with my computer analogy, when one
“resets,” one’s computer, one loses data. When one empties one’s “cache,” one
loses even those data one doesn’t want to lose. One very literally starts out
again, on a clean slate. One gets transformed. One gets cleansed of old “files”
that encumber one’s CPU and slows down operations.
The “day of the Lord,” pictured thus, offers us a positive
perspective. Instead of being razed, one is renewed. Instead of being emptied,
one is made whole and rendered receptive to a fresh influx of grace. Instead of
being encumbered by old data, and countless “cookies” that weigh the CPU down,
one is cleansed and made whole once again. The UPSET that took place because of
too many viruses of sin in our lives, is RESET,and the original SETUPis
Our times call for focus. Our times call for perspective. We
live dissipated lives, bombarded as we are with the so-called “info-flood.” As
the gospel of Luke says, there are too many who come and speak like they were
the true voice, who talk like they come in Christ’s name. Too many “pop ups”
clutter the screen of our spiritual lives. Too many “worms” try to (pardon the
tautology), worm themselves into the system and destroy us from within. “See
that you be not deceived, for many will come in my name …”
It would do us good to see our lives in terms of what we are
all too familiar with. Whether or not one is computer literate, one readily
understands the concrete image of razing that figuratively refers to renewing,
not destroying. In this sense, then, the apocalyptic language that, at first,
frightens, really in the end, enlightens. It brings to the light, and to the
fore the truth that stands behind our conviction of the resurrection of the
dead. It brings into relief the frame on which is set the metaphorical images
of fire and stubble that would all be consumed, the earthquakes, famines, and
plagues. That frame which constitutes the bigger, more important reality is the
second coming of the Lord, the so-called “last things” that constitute the
essential tenets of Christian faith that is expressed succinctly thus: “Stand
erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (Lk 21:28)
Today's readings remind me of people who know what they want, who know that what they want is good for them, and who also know that what they want as something ultimately good for them, is worth waiting patiently for, praying fervently for, and working feverishly for.
Where I come from, people have the utmost respect and reverence for farmers. I am one of those who look up to them with awe. My father was an accountant by profession, but a farmer by vocation. He loved to plant. He loved to till the soil and be close to nature. He began planting coffee trees at age 11, together with his even younger brother who eventually died as a boy of something that, by today's medical standards, could easily have been cured. He knew what he wanted. He knew that what he wanted was good for his future (and ours!). And he worked for what he wanted with utmost dedication, commitment, and perseverance.
For me, on account primarily, though not solely, of my father's and many relatives' good example, farmers are the epitome of patience and perseverance. They plant with a long range vision in mind. What they plant today, they know all too well, is not something they will reap tomorrow. They know how to watch and wait. And in the meantime, they fondle the work of their hands with the brightest of hopes accompanied by the most fervent prayer. Persistence and perseverance are two words that aptly describe them in general.
This kind of unflinching perseverance is what juts out of the first and third readings. In the context of a fierce battle that probably could have had something to do with a much-prized and much-coveted watering hole, Moses and his people put up a fierce resistance. Although there seems to be something faintly magical in what he does, the real focus of the passage is not the use of magic, but the persevering and long-suffering nature of what Moses does - raise up his arms in an obvious allusion to the biblical gesture of fervent prayer.
Our usual one-word summary of the first reading, is thus, none other than this simple word ... ALWAYS. If we are to take to heart the meaning behind the gesture of Moses (with the help of some equally committed aides), then the allusion to praying always could not be clearer. "As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight."
The Gospel passage, like the first reading, leads us to reflect on patient, persistent prayer. But there is more than just persistence in both readings. Beyond speaking of persistence, both readings allude to one obvious trait that accrues from, and accompanies, persistence - the capacity to conjure up various means and methods to achieve one's end. Moses' aides resorted to the ruse of propping up his hand(s). They took Moses' noble cause and made it their own, by taking part in Moses' ministry of intercessory prayer. The widow spoken of in the gospel did all her best to talk the wicked judge out of indifference and carefree insouciance, and cajole him to take action in her favor. Wicked though he was, he fell for the various antics and persistent ways of the widow. ALL WAYS is an apt phrase to summarize both readings. Persistence and perseverance are shown in creative and proactive stances to take up God's cause - in many ways more than one, just in order to advance one's vision and achieve one's legitimate aim. Some Sundays back if you remember, the gospel spoke all about the steward who wisely did EVERYTHING possible to save his own skin (25th Sunday, Sept. 23). St. Paul, too, alludes to this equally multi-faceted power and incisiveness of God's Word that works in "all ways," because it is "inspired of God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction and training in righteousness" (2nd reading).
A pray-er prays always and in all ways, and is "persistent, whether convenient or inconvenient" (2nd reading), as St. Paul continues to remind us.
Inconvenient is an apt word to describe many situations of our times. The growing traffic snarls all over the world, particularly in developing - and, I must add - corruption-ridden countries, the unabated rapid destruction of the world's delicate ecological balance, epitomized by the raging - if, irreversible - phenomenon of global warming, along with many others, are all in function of the overweening desire to reduce or banish whatever is inconvenient. Inconvenience, too, is what draws people away from church, or from personal prayer. Inconvenience, too, is what explains the loss of sacrality and solemnity in our hurried and harried Masses in far too many churches in our times. Inconvenience, too, is what explains the loss of the culture of "Sunday best" in people's attire in Church on Sundays. It's too much hassle to dress up properly and go to Church Sunday in and Sunday out. It is too inconvenient to be spending quality time each day for personal prayer and reflection, when that precious time could be used to be more productive and economically fruitful. I have heard quite a number of people complain vociferously when the priest, in his homily, does so much as add a minute or two to his "ten responsible minutes." And those who complain, by the way, are usually also those who come late for Mass - precisely for the same reason as "inconvenience."
When convenience and the search for quick results become the true protagonists in the daily drama of life, the "always" and "all ways" character of prayer bows out of the stage of everyday life. Like the proverbial dodo bird, they just fade away from the scene, and their absence is effectively masked and covered over by the more attractive pull of what gives comfort and convenience for the here, for the now.
Where I come from, I saw many years ago (don't ask how many) very good examples of these "always" and "all ways" of prayer that is as persistent as it is creative and proactive. My grandmothers of both sides were women of prayer. As a boy, the most vivid memories I have of both of them were when they were praying. Like most old people I knew back then, they were praying when they were not working, and they were working when they were not praying. And it was hard to tell the difference between one and the other. Of course, my mother who knew what she wanted at all costs, prayed fervently for what she wanted above all - the grace of a happy peaceful death. And we all think she got what she prayed for ... every day, in every way, all the way.
There is something very real and concrete in what is proposed to us by the readings. Times are both "convenient and inconvenient" for the most dedicated and pious pray-er that, I would like to think, all of us at least fancy ourselves to be at some point or other in our lives. With climate change and its effects hanging like a Damocles' sword on each and everyone of us, with the specter of so much self-destructive behavior that societies are all too prone to, with so much corruption in and out of governments, along with the progressively diminishing natural resources that more and more people are vying for and even fighting for, like fresh water, less and less time and energy is given to what is perceived as a non-productive activity that prayer is perceived to be.
But we just have to take God's word for it. We simply have to make good what we, in fact, pray for each day: "Give us this day, our daily bread." Such daily insistence and persistence ... such daily perseverance are of the essence of prayer. Peter John Cameron is right ... "The heart of prayer is praying with our heart." It is praying with all our heart, with all we've got ... time, means, effort, faith, and all ... We need to stow it in our hearts and show it in our lives ... pray with persistence and perseverance ... ALL DAYS, ALL WAYS, and for ALWAYS.
Today, the readings speak about something totally unexpected, something unpredictable, and utterly surprising from all points of view. Naaman, a foreigner, a non-Jew, and a non-believer, is healed of his dermatological problems of depressing and alienating proportions (1st Reading). What makes it surprising is that a foreigner is deigned worthy of being healed by God. What makes the story unexpected is that he, a man of means and a man of influence "went down and plunged himself into the Jordan seven times," - a possible allusion both to embracing humility, and doing as he is instructed by Elisha, that is, physically going down the waters of the Jordan. What makes it unpredictable is the total and complete turn-around of somebody who was not expected to believe and embrace the faith of Elisha and all those the prophet stood for.
Naaman's story is a story of reversals par excellence.
The Gospel story, too, is one whose element of surprise is more than just a cute literary device designed to impress, drive home a moral lesson, and function like one of the stories that make up the highly popular "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series. The parallelism between the story of the named Syrian (Naaman), and that of the unknown and unnamed Samaritan, is too striking to be missed and glossed over. Both men, though unworthy, were healed of their maladies. Both returned to give thanks. And both stand for important truths that ought to be of much help to us - here and now, as they were - there, and then.
What truths do we see jutting out of the pages of today's readings? What truths can we see as we take a backward glance to what transpired then, so that we could gain insight as to how we ought to value, and thus, learn precious lessons from what transpires in the here and now? What parallelisms appear to us now between the two lepers' stories and our ongoing stories now in this place, in this time?
We can focus on the more obvious elements, to start with. It is no secret to many of us that anyone who had any type of sores on the skin was not just labeled a leper, but, more so, considered unclean. Unclean people were supposed to be shunned and kept at more than just an arm's length away. They were to be actively avoided. They were pariahs, outcasts, and deemed non-entities, walking zombies - in effect, considered dead, though still physically living. They were to be treated as separate, as on the other side of the great, though imaginary divide between healthy people and the scum of society, which they effectively, were.
But we really are all lepers and outcasts on account of the greatest separation we are capable of heaping upon ourselves - SIN. Sin isolates us. Sin separates us from God, the All Holy One. And sin is something that we all have, whether we are fair or dark skinned; whether we are rich or poor, dull or intelligent. Naaman, though rich, was really shunned, avoided, and kept at a comfortable distance by the rest of humanity. Riches were no guarantee he was to be treated differently and mercifully. This is the first word in our three-word summary of today's liturgy - SEPARATED. Our ongoing experience of sin brings into relief the egregious truth that sin separates, that sin isolates, and that sin alienates. When we sin, we lose our lifeline. We lose our status. We lose self-respect. And we lose the respect of others.
But the surprising thing that the readings today tell us is that, though separated on account of sin; though isolated by our sinfulness, and though alienated from God, others, self, and nature, God's love and His gift of salvation know no boundaries. Of all people who ought to have been healed, it was the foreigner Naaman who got healed. God's saving mercy knows no bounds, and is given to Him whom He wills, to anyone who is honest enough to acknowledge the deep and big chasm that divides and separates him and the God of mercy.
This brings us to the second important truth - the second word in our three-word summary - SAVED. More than just physical healing took place for both Naaman and the unnamed Samaritan. Healing constituted being re-instituted as a subject of rights, a person worthy of attention, an individual that ought no more to be considered separated and isolated. Healing restored both persons' dignity. They were both rehabilitated before the society which before, they could have no dealings with whatsoever as lepers. Healing constituted earthly salvation for them. Once healed, they were free in senses more than just one. They were saved from a lifetime of insecurity and utter alienation from others. They were saved from a status of rejection to a status of acceptance. This is what St. Paul so gratefully speaks about in his hymn-like passage in his letter to Timothy: "Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory" (2nd Reading). This same reality of being saved by God is the same joy that emanates from our response to the first reading: "The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power" (Responsorial Psalm).
But there is more ... Sinners like all of us are, though separated once, were brought closer to God and to each other by the gift of salvation. But the story does not end there. Having been favored with a clean slate by the gift of salvation, having been made recipients of a great gift from above, the two lepers found it in themselves to go back and declare undying gratitude. Naaman swore to worship the only true God, as symbolized by his carting home soil from Israelite land. The unnamed Samaritan, only one out of ten, came back to give thanks to the Lord. And this is where the third word, SENT, enters in.
Like grateful former lepers-made-clean; like former pariahs and outcasts, but rehabilitated by the gift of salvation in Christ, we come back and gather together to give thanks - to do Eucharist. This is what the Holy Mass essentially is. We come back to the house of the Father to give thanks. But we gather and unite ourselves to God and to each other only to be SENT once again. We gather, not in order to glory selfishly and revel solipsistically in our good fortune. We gather only to be sent forth. At the end of the Mass, we are told: ITE, MISSA EST. Go ... you are sent ...
The Gospel passage could not be clearer on this aspect, at least. The Samaritan who was healed, the only one out of the total ten who received a great favor, came back to give thanks. But he came back not in order to stay. He came back only to be told as, indeed, all of us who attend Mass, are told: "Stand up and go ... your faith has saved you."
This, unfortunately, is the ultimate litmus test of total healing. He who is restored to total healing is sent forth to mission. He who has been restored to God's good graces cannot remain unaffected, uncommitted, and disengaged. "Stand up and go ... your faith has saved you. ITE, MISSA EST.
For once we were separated from God, but now are restored and saved in Christ. In His name, and on account of Him, we cannot but see ourselves as a people sent to give to others the same good news we ourselves have received and benefited from.
What, you might ask, does being saved and sent lead us to? What fruits can we reasonably expect from doing a Naaaman and acting magnanimously like that Samaritan who went back to give thanks? St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, could not be clearer: "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with him" (2nd Reading).
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time -Year C Sept.18, 2016
WHEN "WISDOM" GOES WRONG
There is a contemporary "ring" to all the scenarios described by the first and third readings today. They sound so real and current they could as well be said of what goes on in people's lives, all over the world - the references to cheating on the side, to dishonesty, to a little manipulation with the figures, a minute adjustment with the scales, and putting to use one's foresight, practical wisdom, and abilities to get maximum advantage for oneself.
They sound so realistic and so contemporary that one is tempted to ask ... so what's wrong with being smart and using one's talents to gain personal advantage? One even feels affirmed when one realizes that in the gospel parable, the Lord recounts how the master even "commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently." One initially gets the impression that, for so long as one "prudently" thinks and plans ahead for one's future gain, one is simply putting to good use his business and managerial skills, and, therefore, is worthy of praise. "For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light."
But wait a second. As is true of all parables, the illustration does not constitute the fullness of the message. The message comes from the totality, and not from an isolated portion of the text. Placed alongside the condemnation of the prophet Amos on those "who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land," - the mendacious and cheating merchants of his times, we have here in the Gospel a case of a steward who "squanders" his master's property, but who mobilizes all his inner resources including his practical wisdom (phronesis, translated in our text as "prudence") when his pocketbook and financial future was at stake.
The Gospel commends him for being smart and alert to conditions that may spell good or harm to his personal concerns. The same Gospel, however, condemns the smart-alecky, selfish, and insensitive steward who uses all his abilities only for his own sake, to the total disregard of others' benefit, including that of his master.
Now, this really sounds so contemporary and so real. Nay more, it sounds so personal and so true for each and every one of us. For in truth, in all honesty, in the secrecy of our own hearts alone with the God we claim we believe in, can we ever claim we have not acted at any given time in the past in a similar fashion as the dishonest steward? Can we honestly take exception to the rampant practice of using what we know and capitalizing on what others may not know to gain unfair advantage over others? How many unsuspecting clients have been victimized by the so-called "fine print" in which fair-sounding contracts hide veritable traps under legal gobbledygook? Even TV commercials portray the glorified cheating that takes place in the market place ... "Where's the catch here?" "There is a catch here somewhere." How many of us have not fallen to the temptation of not telling the whole truth when doing so would be favorable to us and our concerns? Examples abound ... examples of "wisdom" used for one's benefit ... examples of "prudence" and "wisdom" gone wrong.
Today's readings give us a context for the same wisdom used properly and well - the sort of wisdom that would merit total commendation instead of condemnation. They give a call, not to the surreptitious use of wisdom for one's dark and hidden motives, but that which is worthy of "children of the light." We are exhorted to use our talents and abilities, not only for self-serving interests, but also for the interests of others, of the common good, above all, that of God. Wisdom used surreptitiously for selfish ends is wisdom gone wrong, and is proper of those who prefer to live in the dark, and not in the light. Contemporary moral reflection has a word for this - the sin of manipulation. It is that sin - all too common in our days - that capitalizes on others' ignorance and one's own information-rich position to pull a fast one on others, and gain unfair advantage over others. This is practical wisdom used solely for one's own practical ends. The political and business landscape is dotted by such smart alecks who constantly feed on the blood of suckers. In their mind, a sucker is born every minute, and each one of them is fair game to the antics of these worldly-wise people of little conscience.
Today's readings also give us the wider context in which to put our practical wisdom to good use - the arena of the common good, the good of society, the good of everyone in the same society. St. Paul admonishes us: "I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity."
It is interesting that Paul singles out especially "those in authority." Yes, we do need to pray for those who live "out in the open," as it were, those who live in glass cages, who, by their positions, are living their lives under the scrutiny of the public gaze. We do need to pray for political leaders. They are in a position either to use practical wisdom for themselves (corruption) or for the good of whom they claim to serve. In the Philippine context, with corruption institutionally built into the system at all levels, both local and national, it is most difficult not to be tainted by high profile crimes that are never prosecuted, and for which no one, at least openly, feels guilty of. We ought to pray for Church leaders, the men of the cloth, who, caught as they are in the trimmings and trappings of power and authority, may lose touch of the concerns of those whom the responsorial psalm refers to as the "lowly," and those in the "dunghill."
We ought to pray for ourselves, that in our legitimate quest for material prosperity and financial security, we may never lose sight of our sense of priorities. We pray for ourselves who are caught up in the concerns of daily life, that we may keep in mind that the dishonest steward's greatest mistake really had to do with not acknowledging who the real master was. He had a master who paid him his legitimate wages, who even praised him for his being smart and wise, who only had good words for him who knew exactly what to do in order to safeguard his financial future. He managed his affairs well. He was a darn good financial analyst and investor! Wall Street would look benignly and glowingly at him and his fearless - if selfish - forecasts! The Apprentice reality show would most likely hire him.
His mistake, though, was simply this. Ultimately, he did not work with his master's good in mind. He worked for himself. His master was his own welfare, his own gain. His master really was Mammon. He had practical wisdom. Kudos to that! But he missed the calling that transcended such worldly wisdom - the calling to be part of the children of light.
In the end, it was a case of "wisdom" gone wrong, priorities skewed, motives forked, and allegiance misplaced. For "you cannot serve God and mammon."
All three readings today refer to one salient theme: God's forgiveness. God is portrayed clearly for what He is - a compassionate Father, a God who is ready and willing to relent, for as long as sinful man repents and thinks better of his/her sins.
The first reading from Exodus reminds me of a carabao (Philippine water buffalo used as a beast of burden) that we had in our bucolic College-seminary in the first few years of my priesthood as a teacher and formator. The strong and self-willed carabao suffered from a torn nose right where the noose ought to have been --- all for one reason. He hemmed and hawed and protested continuously against his masters. At some point, the nose tissue that tethered him to the ground gave way. A gaping, open wound thus made it impossible to keep the animal on leash, making it impossible to further train him as a beast of burden to help us till the soil and plow the ground. He was literally a picture of that biblical metaphor of a "stiff-necked" people that the book of Exodus speaks of. Sadly, the seminary authorities had to dispose of the hapless beast, sold to interested parties who, we knew, would literally make minced meat out of him. It was the most natural and logical thing to do, as far as we were concerned then.
It sounds so counterintuitive, but this is what the biblical good news is all about. Like the stiff-necked carabao, sinful Israel (that is us) would have easily been given up by God as bad job. "I see how stiff-necked this people is. Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them." Sinful disobedience does have a price tag ... "the wages of sin is death."
But, thankfully, the story does not end in tragedy. The theme of sinfulness that juts out repeatedly in the whole of Scripture, is more than amply balanced by the theme of forgiveness. Let us take a quick look at what the readings tell us on this.
First, we see the figure of an intercessor, a mediator - Moses, who "implored the Lord" and begged Him to reconsider by an act of remembrance: "Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self..." We know the story all too well ... "The Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people."
Secondly, Paul, a self-confessed "blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant [man]," was "mercifully treated" on account of Christ Jesus who "came into the world to save sinners." Paul was profuse with praise for this God, "the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God..." In this first and second instance, forgiveness comes to sinful men and women from God, but a forgiveness mediated and channeled through Christ and the man who foreshadowed him - Moses.
The Gospel takes the topic of divine forgiveness a notch higher, and clinches the nature and extent of this forgiveness from a loving, merciful God. The parable of the "prodigal father" shows us in no uncertain terms what the one, true mediator Jesus Christ has revealed His Father to be - a compassionate, loving, and forgiving God who, despite the protestations of an older brother who sensed some type of misplaced justice, declared: "Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."
Celebration ... the readings seem to point to the not-so-obvious consequence of God's forgiveness. Wherefore celebrate? The younger "sinful" but repentant son in the parable offers us a clue ... "I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Herein is the clincher. Our sins separate us from God, but it is the same God whom we have offended that draws us near to Him, in His Son, Jesus Christ. Through no merit of our own, save that of His Son, we have been deemed worthy of forgiveness. We celebrate the character of God - His loving kindness, His mercy, His unparalleled love for His wayward creatures. We celebrate the nature of Christ His Son, whose grace "has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." He "came into the world to save sinners."
But celebration can only come after confession. Celebration can only happen after we realize just how far we have been from this loving, pursuing God, referred to by the poet Francis Thompson as the "hound of heaven," whom we try so hard to evade, elude, and escape. But just like the proverbial hound, God in and through Christ, continues to search for us, to go after us, and to be solicitous for our welfare. Celebration follows confession. Just look at how we do liturgy ... we begin with the Confiteor, the confessing of our sins at Mass. Only after that can we sing Glory to God. Only after the acknowledgment of our sins, can we sing the Alleluia, and be ready to break the bread of God's Word and the bread of the Eucharist. St. Paul gives us a perfect example as he acknowledges: "Of these (sinners) I am the foremost." The younger son could not have even dreamt of a party put up by his father until he sadly acknowledged before him: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."
There is little celebration in the world everywhere. There is little trust between and among peoples. There is precious little harmony and love. In their stead, we see a whole lot of violence, terrorism, wars and everything that smacks of a culture of death. For many people, they take all this to mean that God does not care; that God is indifferent to what suffering humanity undergoes on a daily basis. People are prone to condemn God, and to lose faith in Him and in His love. If God really loves us, they say, how come He allows all these things to happen? Failures of men are attributed wrongly as failures of God.
Today's readings take exception to such a worldview. Today's readings unmask human sinfulness for what it really is - a form of slavery that God takes pains to deliver us from. Today's liturgy takes us away from a culture of blame - a tendency to deflect responsibility onto others, including God. Instead, the readings lead us to claim, and tame that which we so easily heap onto others outside of ourselves in the form of blame - our own sins.
There is little celebration in the world for people who do not invest in confession. There is little love in the heart of one who does not open his/her heart enough to feel the onrush of God's forgiving love. He who is forgiven much, loves much. He who is forgiven little, loves little. And forgiveness begins with claiming one's sins as one's very own.
The parables of the Lord that speak of losses and findings all end with a celebration ... the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son of today's gospel. Only those who acknowledge their loss in the first place are worthy of participating in the celebration. Only those who seek, find. And only those who acknowledge that they are lost, are found by God. Only those who repent can rejoice.
For once they were dead, but have come back to life again. Once they were lost and have been found. Losses, findings, and rejoicing ... this is the story of God's love in three short chapters. Man's sinfulness ... God's searching ... Mankind's repentance ... and great rejoicing in heaven.
Have you found enough reason to rejoice together with the Church today?
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) September 4, 2016
BORN TO BE FREE!
There is something heartwarming in today's readings, particularly in Paul's letter to Philemon (2nd reading). Paul, by then an old man in prison, waxes paternal and solicitous for the welfare of both Philemon and the runaway slave Onesimus. As the law would prescribe, Paul sends him right back to Philemon, but not before liberating both the master and the slave. Philemon may well have been a slave to the prevailing culture of that time that considered slavery normal. Onesimus, may well have been, not only a physical slave, but also - and more importantly - a slave to his own misconceptions about himself and his relationship with the rest of the world, including his master, Philemon.
Paul, an old man shackled in prison, bound by the dictates of an earthly law that he has spent so much time and effort enlightening people about, gives Philemon, Onesimus, and the whole believing world for posterity, a great lesson on personal deliverance, freedom, and total human liberation.
The recently concluded Olympic games are a minefield, not only of gold medals, but also of golden opportunities to illustrate inner personal freedom and the liberating force of love for others. I have no idea whether those athletes who became clear icons of interior freedom have ever heard of the Christian gospel, but what some of them did in the playing fields are definitely supportive of the Christian good news that has to do essentially with liberation.
In a hotly contested arena that makes vying for the coveted gold, silver, or bronze medals a matter of both personal and national pride, it is so easy for any athlete to go for drugs as much as he/she goes for gold. Where everyone cheers and eggs them on to be "swifter, higher, stronger," athletes can really be tempted to fall slaves to dopes and drugs, slaves to the idea of victory at all costs, enslaved by lies, even as they bask under the glow of fame and - for some - fortune. But in this same arena awash in potential cheating of all kinds, there appear, time and time again, shining examples of values that proclaim the dazzling beauty of liberating truth, and the interior glow of honesty, good, clean, hard work, and the rare flash of magnanimity that comes from the most unexpected players.
In the 2004 Olympics, the Greek weightlifter named Dimas, in his fourth time as Olympic contender, given a standing and raucous ovation for tens of minutes, a brilliant example of one who refuses to go by the hidden rules of doping, older than most of his counterparts, tries one last time to lift that enormous weight over his shoulders. His Atlas-like prowess is long gone, as is obvious to everyone in the stands. His body all but crumpled under the weight, but Dimas came out a golden medalist in the hearts of everyone, not only in Greece, but all over the world. His wife and three children were there, crying for joy and sadness. The crowds at the Panathenaiko stadium were on their feet, cheering him on. The rest of the people in all the fabled motley islands of Greece must have been stomping their feet in honor of one who could no longer go "swifter, higher, and stronger," but who towered over everybody else due to his unflinching code of personal integrity, pristine honesty, and devotion to his family and adopted homeland. (He was a migrant from Albania, of Greek grandparents).
But there were others who stood out, not only because they won medals, but also because they showed the world and were never ashamed of their faith. Names like Usain Bolt, they gymnast named Simone Biles, and others stood out both for their prowess and their Catholic faith.
Who says interior freedom is no longer in vogue? Who says that the liberating power of moral truth is no longer relevant?
Can anyone say that freedom is not a value to those two women from Afghanistan, whose quest for gold ended after just 45 seconds of competition, reviled and hated like anything, for having gone to Greece to follow their heart, and share in the "glorious liberty of the children of God," despite a culture that is willing to kill them for doing the unthinkable? Can anyone fault the bemedalled and universally adored lanky 19-year old kid then from Baltimore, (Michael Phelps, dubbed the Baltimore Bullet) who gave up the chance to increase even more his stature, by giving his fellow team-mate the chance to compete in the 200 meter relay in swimming? The whole world took notice of him this time around in Rio for he came out a winner, not only of 25 gold medals, but also because he allowed faith to triumph over depression and suicidal tendencies. Can anyone fail to see the force of interior freedom shining in the hearts of contenders who simply have no chance, but who plodded on all the same, in quest, not so much for the gold, as for the golden opportunity to do one's best in the midst of the world's finest?
We live in a world dotted with Olympic-sized challenges all over. They may not have to do with material gold and glittering medallions. But these moral challenges have to do with what matters, what counts, and what is most important in the long run. They have to do with treasures which no moth or rust can destroy. And like the coveted Olympic gold, or the gospel's "pearl of great price," they call on us to give our best, to do our utmost, and to plan ahead.
On other occasions, I have repeatedly said that we live in the context of a morally complex world, at best. At worst, we find ourselves in a morally messy world. In a world that is ruled by conflicting and contrasting ideologies, extremes of thought that are, at bottom, based on the same materialistic philosophical grounds, it is so easy to join the morally relativistic bandwagon and live just like everybody does, just like all of Hollywood does, just like what mass media show us - a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art. In a country that considers graft and corruption the "normal thing to do," it is so easy to "join them, if you cannot beat them." And in this surging sea of relativism, all is alright, everything is OK, and sin is nothing more than a label to be done away with, an unhealthy guilt that must be banished from our neurotic minds.
Today, the liturgy teaches us that, whilst the Olympic games have ended, the moral challenges of daily life go on. The call to genuine interior liberation goes on. And examples both from Scriptures and daily life in our times are never wanting. These are examples of people, who, while physically challenged like Paul in prison, nevertheless come out interiorly free. These are examples of people who have chosen heavenly "wisdom" over earthly and material cunningness and skills. They have chosen mystery over mastery, ever ready and willing to be guided by the ineffable counsel from above: "Who can know God's counsel or who can conceive what the Lord intends? ... Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?"
Those great men and women who competed at the summer games did not go there without undergoing grueling training and preparations. Some of them got what they prepared for - medals of metal and adulation from adoring crowds.
In the greater and bigger arena that is the world and life in its fullness, victory lies, not so much on those who excel in physical powers, but on those who have understood that what counts in the long run, is the freedom that comes from above, the freedom that is both a test and a trust - a gift and a responsibility. This is the gift of Christian, interior freedom that comes with the very nature of our being human, created as we are unto God's image and likeness.
Born to be free, humans like us, are called to ever deeper, ever broader, and ever more liberating freedom. Onward, then, Christian soldiers to the fight of our lifetimes! Swifter, higher, stronger!
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time -Year C August 28, 2016
Readings: Sir 3:17-18,20,28-29 / Heb 12:18-19,22-24a / Lk 14:1,7-14
GETTING BEYOND, NOT ABOVE, ONESELF
Today is a Sunday of highs and lows. Sirach counsels us to find meaning in being "low," a trait which he says, should be inversely proportional to our being "high" up there. "Humble yourself the more, the greater you are" (1st Reading). The letter to the Hebrews takes as a given our having "approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God." In and through Jesus, "the mediator of a new covenant," we have received the singular grace of being in the presence of the "ecclesia" - the gathering of "countless angels in heaven" (2nd reading).
At first blush, there seems to be something incongruous, if not contradictory, in the first two readings. The first extols lowliness and humility. The second proclaims the singular grace of Christians being able to go up the mountain of the Lord - Mount Zion. The first glorifies lowliness, and counsels us to seek not, and search not, for what is above our strength. The second simply declares the egregious fact of our having been made close to God. The two readings seem to be saying in effect: we are lowly, but we are exalted by no less than God in Jesus Christ, and thus, made worthy to approach the city of God.
This is definitely a day of lows and highs.
But more seeming contradictions are in the offing. The Alleluia verse, which comes right after the 2nd reading upgrades us, so to say, and lifts our morales up by speaking of our closeness to the living God who dwells in the highest heavens, puts us back down once again: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29, Acclamation before the Gospel).
Indeed, today is a day of highs and lows.
But the Gospel passage seems to be the real clincher. Where society's usual tendency is to seek for places of honor, and for people to exalt themselves, the Lord does the exact opposite. By means of the parable, Jesus counsels us to seek for the lowest places. This is counterintuitive. In a world where "everybody loves Raymund" seems to be the centerpiece of our "self-promoting and narcissistic culture," Jesus tells us not to get above ourselves. He apparently tells us to avoid the "highs" and prefer the "lows." But the parable has a surprise, almost "fairy tale-like," ending, as if to tell us: "Don't get above yourself, so that God could set you beyond yourself."
So, is this Sunday's liturgy really one of highs and lows?
Yes ... God wants and wills to exalt us. This, the letter to the Hebrews declares matter-of-factly. We have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God. He has come to draw us up higher in and through Christ.
No ... God does not want nor will that we should get above ourselves. Today's liturgical readings are a reality check. We are wisely counseled to take care that we do not exalt ourselves unilaterally: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Gospel). The reality is that, being poor and lowly, powerless and small, we can only proclaim in profuse thanks the equally egregious reality that all we have is God's generous gift: "God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor" (Responsorial Psalm). And what is that place, according to the Bible? "Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19).
Yes ... God does want us to go up higher. This much, the parable makes clear and sure. After putting oneself in the right place - the lowest, the least, and the last - the Lord tells us: "Amice, ascende superius" (Come on up, my friend, to a higher place, Lk 14:10). God tells us to follow not the ways of the world, which tends to always seek selfishly for endless self-promotion, but to follow his ways, for he "humbles the mighty, and exalts the lowly to high places." It is God who exalts. It is God who gives, and it is He who alone does for us according to what we all deserve.
Yes ... today is a day of highs and lows. We are all high in the estimation of God. "We all share in the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). We have God-given dignity and freedom both of which are "inalienable," that is, things that cannot be forcibly and unjustly taken away from each one of us. This is a day that speaks rightly of "highs" as far as our dignity as human beings is concerned.
But today, too, is dedicated to our rightful "lows." Dignity does not give us a blanket permission to treat ourselves more than we really deserve. Pride is not to be taken as part of the package of God's gifts to us, for God's favorite virtue is humility.
Pride is to close oneself in on oneself. Pride is self-love pushed to the "highs." When one is proud, the thermostat of one's personhood "overheats" and the flames of self-promotion pushes the temperature through the roof. When something overheats, the whole system suffers a meltdown. The higher one goes, the lower one goes crashing down the lowest place of humiliation and embarrassment.
Yes ... today is a day of salvific and redemptive "lows." Jesus tells us to "take his yoke and learn from him," for he is "meek and humble of heart."
Yes ... there is something salutary and beneficial in being in the "lows" of self-estimation and self-aggrandizement. For when one is down there, there is no way but up. But when one has put oneself up there, there is no way but down. At this point, Jose Garcia Villa, the famous Filipino poet who wrote his poems in English, comes to mind. One of his more memorable lines says: "How high is low, if it resembles high yet not grows? ... It expires, as it aspires." Taking Christ's yoke is clearly a precondition to "learning." One can grow, only when one learns to be low. For what good is it even if it "resembles high, yet not grows?"
Humility is being in love with the reality of the lows of our human lives. Humility is truth and the truth is that it is not up to us as human beings to raise ourselves by our own bootstraps, but only up to God, who would tell us at the proper time: "Amice, ascende superius."
Josh Groban is right. We do not raise ourselves up. No ... only God deserves the accolade that he sings about: "You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; you raise me up, to walk on stormy seas; I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; you raise me up to more than I can be."
This Sunday of highs and lows thus reminds us of one important thing. We ought not to get above ourselves but go beyond ourselves, beyond power, beyond position, beyond promotion that is shallow. In a word, God calls us to transcendence ... "Amice, ascende superius!"
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C August 21, 2016
Readings: Is 66:18-21 / Heb 12:5-7, 11-13 / Lk 13:22-30
ROBUR AB ASTRIS (STRENGTH FROM THE STARS)!
Last week, I wrote about the difficult struggle of a climb I did with friends at Mt. Ugu in Northern Philippines 26 years back. The support of my own little version of my "cloud of witnesses" kept me going, until we all safely made it to the destination, where we were able to celebrate Mass. One thing beautiful about trekking up heights is the difference that is made when one keeps the goal in sight, when one sees the ultimate destination in the looming, but beckoning distance. The sight of the summit, as much forbidding as inviting, keeps one focused on the goal. The view of one's destination, though seemingly unreachable, keeps one pining for more, walking some more, putting in just a little bit more effort each time, at least to put one foot before the other, "one step at a time."
The big difference is made by one's ability to keep the goal in sight, both physically and figuratively. One gains strength by merely focusing on the ultimate goal. This happened to me the first time I climbed Mt. Kanlaon in Negros island in southern Philippines. The smoldering, smoking crater, that sharply jutted out of the relative flatness of Margaha valley, was something one saw for a long, long while, as one inched his or her way toward the smoke-smothered summit.
Our readings today continue the theme of difficulty taken up last week. But this Sunday, the focus in on one having the strength to face that very difficulty. Where last week, we read that Jeremiah suffered and paid a very high price for his "prophetic criticizing" and for preaching the truth, this Sunday, we get a glimpse of the hopeful imagination of Isaiah, and his "prophetic energizing" as he speaks of a vision of a great "ingathering" of peoples from all corners of the world.
What Isaiah sees ... his vision, his reporting - in God's name - of God's dream, is what energized, not only him, but the people he was - and still is - speaking to. Strength comes from what one sees. When one has a vision of what's coming up ahead, one gets the necessary push to go on. The ability to face difficulties has to do a lot with what one sees, and where one is going to.
The letter to the Hebrews (2nd reading) takes up the same thematic as it reframes the issue of suffering as discipline that comes from God himself. Discipline of all kinds, is ordinary cause for "pain, not joy." But in the same breath, the letter declares, that "later, it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it." Whether it will all turn out for "joy or pain" depends a whole lot on how one sees it all. It is all a matter of vision.
I have it on the authority of schema therapists, that many of our problems can be attributed to what they call false schemas or "cognitive distortions." What one sees is what one gets. False belief systems that remain embedded in one's psyche dictate one's feelings, and both cognition and emotion then influence greatly what one does. Healing, according to the same therapists, could only take place when one heals one's sight, and makes one capable once more of seeing wholes and not disparate parts.
We all have the tendency to see the pain and never the gain that can accrue from it. We all can very easily look at life as represented by a narrow door that the gospel speaks about. We can get so focused on the reality of the "narrow door" that we fail to notice the other side of that narrow door - a path that leads straight to glory, a straight road that leads direct to God.
I have reported to my readers on several occasions my recent experiences of deep pain and personal suffering. One in pain is hurting in many more senses that just one. One can feel abandoned, rejected, unwanted, and uncared for - rightly or wrongly. But the deepest hurt takes place in one's ability to see rightly. One's tears can truly cover one's eyesight literally and figuratively, on the one hand. But on the other hand, these same tears could become the "telescopes by which we can see far into heaven" as one writer has said many years ago.
It is all a matter of vision ...
What then would offer us the strength to be able to enter through the gospel's "narrow door?" What would it take us to gain strength to squeeze oneself through our own "cistern" experiences of rejection and personal suffering?
The readings today seem to offer us a clear answer. They counsel us to change eyeglasses, to change the way we look at things, to see beyond, and see things that most people do not see, do not want to see, or cannot see, for one reason or another. They tell us to see rightly, to see more, not less, given the eyes of faith that have been given us as gift.
Superstitious Roman pagans of old can teach us a lesson or two. Believing in fate and the positioning of stars, in the pseudo-science of astrology, they found solace and strength in the stars up in the firmament. Robur ab astris ... they would say. ... strength from the stars.
Ironically enough, this is exactly what I suggest the readings tell us today. They counsel us to see more not less. Pain is not mere earthly suffering. Pain is reframed by God's Word as "discipline," as a stepping stone towards greatness and holiness. "So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed" (2nd reading).
The star of our faith is worth giving a second look to. It helps us see the whole instead of parts. The whole does not consist of that "narrow door" alone, but what lies behind that narrow door. But we need eyes to see. We need to set our sights on the goal.
What or who then is our goal? ... no less than the Lord who reproves us because He loves us, who, on account of that same love, disciplines us, and who scourges every son or daughter he acknowledges.
Perspective was what we reflected on last week. It meant having clear eyes to see the difference between what lasts and what doesn't last ... like the dew that with the early morning sun passes away. Qoheleth reminded us last week: "transitoriness of transitoriness!" ... "Vanity of vanities!" ... Jesus, too, would have us set our sights beyond earthly greed, beyond working for mere accumulation of material things. "Take care that your heart is not overtaken by greed."
Given the right perspective, we know that man ought to work for his keeps, not for his greed. Merely working for one's keep means one gets to a point when he has to say "enough." People who work on account of greed never will have enough, for the pull of the more, the better, and the greater simply does not reach a point of satiety.
This Sunday, another perspectival concept juts out of all three readings. And the perspective does not have to do merely with things that last, but more so with the very "last things" - ta eschata - the ultimate realities of human creaturely existence. Wisdom refers to it in symbolic language as the time for the "the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes" (1st Reading). The Letter to the Hebrews refers to it as "a better homeland, a heavenly one," and speaks of God who "has prepared a city for them" (2nd Reading).
Something so important and valuable is not to be taken lightly, but prepared for seriously. Thus the reminder from the Lord: "Stay awake and be ready! For you do not know on what day the Lord will come," (Alleluia verse) repeated one other time in the Gospel passage from Luke: "You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come."
But I would like to take a little step forward this Sunday. These two Sundays, we have been talking about the importance of having good vision ... that is, seeing rightly. Indeed, as the GUI mantra puts it: "what you see is what you get." Values seen for what they really are worth, are values we work for, strive after, and aim at with the totality of who and what we are as persons. But what we value, we also love. Knowing always leads to loving. A known good is a good that attracts, that pushes us to act towards attaining it. Knowing-good cannot be far from wanting-good. What the mind sees as good, the heart wants as value. Insight cannot be far from heart-sight.
Antoine de St. Exupery, in his famous work "Le Petit Prince" puts it so well: "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye." Mind-sight (or what we often call insight) is not all there is. We also need heart-sight. We also need to see clearly with the heart, as we need to see with the mind. We need as much evaluative knowledge, as conceptual knowledge.
The first lines of today's gospel passage clearly point to the need for this heart-sight, as much as the need for insight: "For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be."
Peter Kreeft, writing about discernment in daily life, speaks about seven foundational guiding principles. The first, it turns out, is what he calls "hermeneutics of the heart." The very first rule to follow is literally counter-cultural, so against the grain, as it were, as to seemingly be against common sense. People in our times would rather go for statistics, for scientific, verifiable, measurable, and quantifiable data. People would go generally for what the polls point to - the most popular decision and what would make the majority of people happy. But Kreeft wisely counsels what mass media does not counsel: follow your heart. Follow where your heart leads you to.
And this does not mean being led by subjective and fleeting emotions. Far from it! It means, first and foremost, having heart-sight, being in love with God, being in touch with God in and through our capacity for a decision that springs from the biblical center of our personhood - the heart.
St. Augustine knew it by experience. And he was right all along ... AMA ET FAC QUOD VIS! .... Love and do what you will. When we love, we see more, not less. We see what is right and proper, what is honorable, what is worthy of honor and praise. With proper heart-sight, we will be led to do only that which is right and proper ... what is godly, what is honorable and worthy of praise. For it is only with the heart that one sees rightly.
Today, the Lord invites us to see life and all it offers from the right perspective. And that right perspective is born from one's ability to allow room for the heart to do its proper role. Allow me to enumerate some of the characteristics of a person with the required heart-sight and in-sight ...
First, the gospel passage tells us not to be afraid. One who sees rightly with the heart has a heart full of courage: "Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom."
Second, the Lord reminds us that a heart full of love is also a heart full of excitement and readiness for the coming of the Lord: "Be like servants who await their master's return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks."
Thirdly, a heart full of love is one imbued with a deep spirit of faithfulness: "Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so" (that which is expected of him).
Knowing what's coming up ahead makes for good vision. Knowing what one ought to do because of what's sure to come, and doing accordingly both make for heart-sight. In Christian life, we need more than just insight. We need heart-sight. For it is only with a believing and loving heart that one sees rightly and fully.
All of us mortals long for the more, the better, the greater, and the ultimate! The history of the world, and our own personal histories reflect this timeless and ageless truth - we look
for fulfillment, for what satisfies, for everything that gives lasting
meaning to our existence. We even pine for immortality, for the
proverbial fountain of youth, physical prowess, and beauty. We hanker
for everything that lasts, and all things that lend perfection and
lasting dignity to our person.
All that we long for, and all that we look for are not bad in themselves. They are legitimate ends for men and women created by God with the natural tendency towards "self-transcendence." This includes our legitimate desire for material wealth and prosperity.
liturgy, though, offers some kind of a warning. Today's readings would
have us take a second look at what we consider as the "ultimate." The
Lord, today, would have us reflect a little bit deeper on the values we
hold dearly, on the priorities we have set for ourselves, on the targets
we have focused on, and on the bases of the happiness and
meaningfulness we have pegged ourselves and our lives on.
For, truth to tell, there is so much blindness in the world, so much lack of clarity, so much lack of perspective.
The view from Hollywood, for one, is an absolutist one. Entertainment and fun is the ultimate gauge of one's happiness and well-being. Everyday, we are bombarded by pictures of svelte, upbeat, and perpetually smiling actors and actresses, whose lives appear
to revolve around party upon glitzy party, their seemingly happy and
ever smiling faces paying tribute to the mantra of youthful life based
for the most part on the culture of fun.
So is the view from Wall Street. Wealth and fortune, and the examples of those who made
it, constantly hog the infotainment headlines. They act as the
modern-day prophets of the capitalist gospel of prosperity and financial
This absolutist culture is nowhere more visible as in the marriage of capitalism and entertainment
in the many shows that dot the prime time landscape: reality TV and
shows that consistently gravitate towards Hollywood, New York, Chicago,
and, of late, Las Vegas - all centers of commerce, entertainment, and
fun. In many other places all over the world, entertainment and shows
mostly revolve around the so-called "primate cities" which function as
hubs of development, wealth generation, and the place where to get the
"proverbial pot of gold."
Today, the Church goes counter-cultural, as usual. Today, I am afraid, many people, especially
the young, would find the Lord's good news as one that rather goes
against the grain. However, I would like to suggest that, more than
being a put-down, today's biblical readings are an invitation for
all of us to gain back perspective, to put back the horse before the
cart, and to regain our sense of clarity.
In a culture that has
co-opted our minds, our attitudes, and our hearts, and which has
gradually led us to absolutize and prioritize our "labor," "toil and
anxiety," and all "the part of [us] that are earthly," the Lord reminds
us today through Qoheleth that "all things are vanity." In essence, what
we are told is not that all the above is bad, but that they are simply
not the ultimate, for they are nothing but "vanity," that is, mere
"vapor," "breath," something that is merely transitory. They are useful
and important, true, but transitory, not permanent. Being transitory,
they are not to be considered the "end all and be all" of human
I had the fortune of meeting and being a friend to a
Filipino couple and their children over the past 30 years. When I got to
know them, I was doing pastoral work as a substitute pastor in a big
parish in Manila, while I was preparing myself to go to Rome for further
studies. At that time, they had a booming and lucrative business that
placed them among the more well-to-do members of the parish community.
The relative wealth they enjoyed, however, did not get to their heads.
They kept a low profile, while at the same time, gave generously to the
church, while anonymously helping a number of poorer members of the
parish. As I got to know them better over the subsequent years, I
realized that their lives had been some kind of a roller-coaster ride,
with the proverbial ups and downs, failures and successes, joys and
disappointments. Their wealth and financial status shot up and shot
down, in an unpredictable cycle that would have daunted people with
lesser faith. But through all this, the family remained steadfast. They
were happy when they lived in prosperity, but they were happy all the
same when there was precious little to spare.
They were a clear
example of persons who understood the relative importance of
wealth.Unfortunately, in my experience as a priest and an
educator/teacher for so many years, I have also encountered people who
showed exactly the opposite attitude. Already having more than they
could reasonably use to live decent lives, they still want more and
more. I have seen people whose drive for more seemed to be the all
important rule in their lives, with their families taking a back seat,
and values taking a still farther slot in their order of priorities. For
some of them, the unbridled drive for wealth and/or power have
gradually hardened their hearts, making them callous to the needs of
others, and the welfare of their competitors or opponents, as the case
And neither are Church personnel and religious priests immune to such a pervasive culture
that can also lead some of us to resort to manipulation and machination
in order to safeguard coveted, lucrative posts or hold on to power. To
our shame, there are posh parishes all over the country that have become
untouchable turfs of some well-connected clerics.
But what is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce, too, for the gander. All of us Christians,
whether cleric or lay, would do well to reflect on the prayer that we
blurted out after the first reading: "If today, you hear his voice,
harden not your hearts." We would do well to remember the relative
nature of everything that we have on loan from the gracious generosity
of God. "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of
Indeed, all the parts of us that are earthly, all that we
consider important in this world, all that in our lack of clarity of
mind and heart, we believe to be the ultimate values; indeed everything
that in our shortsightedness, clouds our minds, and makes us lose
perspective and miss the forest for a tree, will all one day disappear,
for "the world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away." Sic
transit gloria mundi! That is simply the way of all earthly glory ...
like grass, they wither and die; they are here today, and gone tomorrow.
The little, the seemingly insignificant, the few, and the powerless ... those who don't seem to count; the perpetual underdogs; those whose lives don't make waves: the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the lowly ... these are those who can make a difference, those whose presence - and persistence - can mean life, fullness of life both for themselves and others, or the utter lack of it for everyone.
I refer to the "power of one." I speak of the riches behind the widow's mite, the force of puny David's stone that spelled defeat of the mighty Goliath. I point to the authority of the twelve - the Lord's "few, good men" whose conviction and faith, despite the onrush and crushing weight of the worldly power of kings, emperors, and tyrants over the past two thousand years.
The faith that we celebrate today is a testimony of the power of these "few good men" - and women - whose lives (and deaths) spelled life for all of us women and men of good will, life in all its fullness, as the good Lord would have us inherit.
Our faith, which we share with all brothers and sisters in the whole Christian world, deserves this weekly (daily for some) gathering of prayer, praise, worship, and thanksgiving. As we do Eucharist, though, we are all aware that the world we live in, is in a situation that, to be honest, leads us to ask this burning question: "Should not the judge of the world act justly?"
When we see what we are capable of doing; when we behold what we all are guilty of; when we are face to face with the reality of human depravity and sinfulness; when we acknowledge the fact that two thousand years after the coming of the promised One, the world is nowhere near being fully and definitively redeemed; when we cannot but stand as helpless witnesses to the ravages of war, terrorism, corruption, and the all-pervading signs of a "culture of death" in our midst, we are led to ask: "Should not the judge of the world act justly?" Should God not finally intervene in this messy world that everywhere seems to reek of personal, social, and structural evil?
Today stands out as a day of persistence. On the one hand, we see Abraham's consistent and constant pleadings before the Lord for the sake of "a few good people" in the city of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, we see also God's own brand of persistence in His answer that was as firm as it was gentle: "I will spare the whole place for their sake." "I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there." "I will not destroy it, for the sake of the twenty." "For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it."
Abraham's perseverance in prayer is matched by God's infinite justice. In a society and culture that prizes a kind of "corporate personality" and where "social responsibility" is highly valued, the presence of a "few good people" - along with the persistent and faith-filled intercessory prayer of one on behalf of the whole, occasions God's justice that then overflows in mercy. "I will not destroy it," says the Lord of mercy and justice.
This is definitely good news for us all. At a time when "hope grows grey hairs" and patience wears thin, when more bad than good news fills our TV screens and daily papers, when all we see seems to be the triumph of not a "few good people," but a whole lot of evildoers, when "all I endeavor in disappointment end," and faith almost becomes mere wishful thinking, the Church invites us to pray along with Abraham and the psalmist, "Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me."
You answer us, O Lord God. You definitely do. But we know all too well, that your answer has to be matched by a call on our part. We do know that reciprocity is part and parcel of the dialogue of salvation that you have come to grant us in Christ, Your Son. We do realize that this gift of salvation is both a gift and a task - Your work and ours; Your grace and our cooperation. You have done justice to us, O Lord God. Even where we were dead in transgressions, you brought us to life along with Christ, Your Son. You forgave us all our transgressions; you obliterated the bonds against us, with its legal claims, and Christ, Your Son removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.
Today is a day of persistent prayer. Today is a day when the light of faith ought to overcome the darkness of hopelessness and cynicism. And the good news is ... the Lord Himself gives us THE model of persistence prayer - the Our Father. Persistence is the character of this prayer. Perseverance is etched in the very language of this prayer that asks, not for food for tomorrow and for the distant future, but only for "today," and only for what is strictly necessary to maintain oneself in "being" (epiousion).
Today's good news includes a blanket authority for us to "pray without ceasing." Today's good news gives us the right to pelt God with prayers, for "we have received a Spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father." Today's good news offers us the privilege of drawing near to God, for "[we] were buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which [we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." Today's celebration seals our right to "give thanks with all [our] heart," "because of His kindness and His truth," for "on the day [we] called for help, God answered us."
There are enough reasons for us to approach this loving, merciful, and just God. There are sufficient reasons to continue on believing, to go on hoping, even against hope - even if, alas, there are so "few good people" left on this earth.
A few good people ... These are the men and women who continue to show that God is alive and well, and working in our midst. These are the men and women who live unheralded lives of indomitable heroism and quiet faith. These are the men and women who pray fervently and faithfully behind closed doors, before flickering candles in dark and dingy churches. These are the men and women whose earthly lives may be surrounded by every imaginable type of darkness - the darkness of personal suffering, of poverty, powerlessness, and pain - but whose hearts are aglow with the resplendent assurance that can only come from a God who declares: "I will not destroy it."
A few good people ... a few good men and women ... a few persistent souls before a God of permanent love, justice and overflowing mercy. A few good people is all we need. For their sake, for the sake of those who seek, for the sake of those who knock, and for the sake of those who ask, God and His love will remain steadfast forever!
Can we be counted along with these "few good people?"
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.