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.
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.