31 December 2009

Mary and the New Year

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God (C)

Readings: Nm 6:22-27; Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21

Today we celebrate Mary as Mother of God.

This feast is already celebrated in Rome on January 1 even before the 7th century. However, for much of the Universal Church and for centuries, the date of this feast falls on October 11. January 1, the Octave (8th day) of Christmas, was the celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, since traditionally Jewish children are circumcised on the 8th day of their birth. The circumcision of Mary’s Child is also the occasion when He is formally given the name Jesus.

In 1974, following the reforms of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI replaced the Feast of the Circumcision with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The title Mother of God is the highest honor given to Mary. It is a rough translation of the Greek “Theotokos”, which literally means “God bearer”.

Theotokos is how the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) describes Mary, a logical conclusion to the doctrine of faith that Christ is fully human and fully divine. If Jesus Christ is God then Mary is the Mother of God.

There is also something to be said about celebrating Mary in her highest title at the start of the civil year.

1. Mary as Mother of God is spiritual Mother to us all.

In the novel “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd, one of the main characters, August Boatwright, narrates the story of Our Lady of Chains, and the extraordinary devotion to her among the slaves of South Carolina and their descendants:

"Back in the time of slaves, when the people were beaten down and kept like property, they prayed every day and every night for deliverance. On the islands near Charleston, they would go to the praise house and sing and pray, and every single time someone would ask the Lord to send them rescue. To send them consolation. To send them freedom.

One day, a slave named Obadiah was loading bricks onto a boat that would sail down the Aisley River, when he saw something washed up on the bank. Coming closer, he saw it was the wooden figure of a woman. Her body was growing out of a block of wood, a black woman with her arm lifted out and her fist balled up.

Obadiah pulled the figure out of the water, and struggled to set her upright. Then he remembered how they’d asked the Lord to send them rescue. To send them consolation. To send them freedom. Obadiah knew the Lord had sent this figure, but he didn’t knew who she was.

He knelt down in the marsh mud before her and heard her voice speak plain as day in her heart. She said, ‘It’s all right. I’m here. I’ll be taking care of you know.’

Obadiah tried to pick up the waterlogged woman who God sent to take care of them, but she was too heavy, so he went and got two more slaves, and between them they carried her to the praise house and set her on the hearth.

By the time the next Sunday came, everyone had heard about the statue washing up from the river, how it had spoken to Obadiah. The praise house was filled with people spilling out the door and sitting on the window ledges. Obadiah told them he knew the Lord God had sent her, but he didn’t know who she was."

The storytelling is punctuated with almost everybody in the room chanting over and over: "Not one of them knew".

"Now the oldest of the slaves was a woman named Pearl. She walked with a stick, and when she spoke, everyone listened. She got to her feet and said, ‘This here is the mother of Jesus’.

Everyone knew the mother of Jesus was named Mary, and that she’d seen suffering of every kind. That she was strong and constant and had a mother’s heart. And here she was, sent to them on the same waters that had brought them here in chains. It seemed to them she knew everything they suffered.

And so the people cried and danced and clapped their hands. They went one a time and their hands to her chest, wanting to grab on to the solace in her heart.

They did this every Sunday in the praise house, dancing and touching her chest, and eventually they painted a red heart on her breast so the people would have a heart to touch.

Our Lady filled their hearts with fearlessness and whispered to them plans of escape. The bold ones fled, finding their way north, and those who didn’t lived with a raised fist in their hearts. And if ever it grew weak, they would only have to touch her heart again.

She grew so powerful she became known even to the master. One day he hauled her off on a wagon and chained her in the carriage house. But then, without any human help, she escaped during the night and made her way back to the praise house. The master chained her in the barn fifty times, and fifty times she loosed the chains and went home. Finally he gave up and let her stay there.

The people called her Our Lady of Chains. They called her that not because she wore chains…"

The people in the room chanted: "Not because she wore chains..."

"They called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke them."

The image of Mary as mother evokes blissful feelings generated by memories of the goodness and generosity of mothers everywhere, multiplied a thousand times and more, for after all she is the Mother of God.

Because she is the Mother of God, she plays a part in our redemption. Because she is the Mother of God, she becomes a sacrament of grace. Because she is the Mother of God, she is mother to us all and companion in the way, especially in the darkest parts of the journey.

2. Mary reminds us that we too carry Christ in us.

Mary carried Jesus in her womb for nine months. She also kept in her heart all the things that were happening around her Son. She was Theotokos in so many senses of the word.

Her feast now reminds us that we too carry Christ in us. Gal 4,6 (in the Second reading) says: “As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’”

The shepherds, the wise men and all who came to gaze upon the baby Jesus, left carrying with them not just a memory to keep but a good news and spirit to share. Christ’s spirit is in us, and like Mary, the shepherds and the wise men, we are tasked to share Him with others as well.

As we begin this new year, let us renew our commitment to grow closer to Jesus and share His presence and good news to others. May we be less cynical and more at peace, less angry and more forgiving, less self-absorbed and more passionate at helping others.

The popular Christmas carol goes: “Bagong taon ay magbagong buhay nang lumigaya ang ating bayan. Tayo’y magsikap upang makamtan natin ang kasaganahan!”

As we go about this task, our celebration of Mary as Mother of God on this very first day of the year, assures us of her maternal and constant protection and guide.

A blessed New Year to all!

27 December 2009

What makes a family holy?

Feast of the Holy Family (C) – 27 December 2009

Readings: 1Sm 1:20-22, 24-28; Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10; 1 Jn 3:1-2, 21-24; Lk 2:41-52

The Sunday right after Christmas Day is celebrated as Holy Family Sunday. Today we honor the family formed by the birth of Christ, the “earthly trinity”: the family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

Here's an aside: as a child I had mixed feelings about the Feast of the Holy Family. Because when we get home we are sure to get a second sermon from our father on why and how we should be better children.

Since today we also remember our own family, the question almost begs to be asked: “What makes a family holy?”

The Gospel today narrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and their losing him in the crowd, and eventually finding him (after three days!) in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers and conversing with them. This story, apart from prophesying Jesus’ future ministry, also has a message to tell both parents and children.

1. The parents of Jesus brought him to the temple.

As devout Jews, Joseph and Mary made annual visits to the temple at Jerusalem during Passover. On this annual pilgrimage, they usually brought along their son Jesus from the time they formally presented him to God. The presentation of a newborn son 40 days after his birth is a way of acknowledging that he is God’s gift to them. Conversely, every time the parents brought along their son to the temple -- the place considered by the Jews as the symbol of God’s presence in their midst -- God was also introduced to the child.

Aside from providing for the welfare of their children, it is the responsibility of Christian couples to introduce God to their children by having them baptized, bringing them along to the church, teaching them our prayers and traditions, and witnessing to them what it means to live as Christians, in words and, especially, in deeds.

2. Jesus went with his parents home to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.

Sir 3:3-5 says: “The LORD sets a father in honor over his children; a mother's authority he confirms over her sons. He who honors his father atones for sins; he stores up riches who reveres his mother.”

Children have an obligation to obey their parents, especially when they are young and much in need of guidance. This, of course, also means that parents have the primary duty to be selflessly loving and concerned about their children. Consequently, when the children get older, they will then have the obligation to take care of their parents, at the very least, out of gratitude for the many sacrifices done for their sake by their parents.

Sir 3:12-16 says: “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as a sin offering – it will take lasting root. In time of tribulation it will be recalled to your advantage, like warmth upon frost it will melt away your sins. A blasphemer is he who despises his father; accursed of his Creator, he who angers his mother.”

3. A Christmas story…

There was an old widow who has three grown-up sons. All of them were successful in life and loved their mother very much. But their jobs, businesses and many other concerns keep them from being with her as much as they should.

Now Christmas was the time when they would really find ways to be with their mother for a family reunion, together with their wife and children. However, this Christmas they were so busy that not one of them could come home for Christmas. So each of them just decided to gift their mother as lavishly as he could.

The eldest son gave her a new house and lot; the middle son, an expensive new car; and the youngest, a beautiful talking bird to keep her entertained.

The mother was naturally disappointed by the turn of events but still graciously accepted their gifts. However, she has something to say about each of their gifts.

To the eldest she said: “My son, I am old and happy with our old house. Besides I know all our neighbors, and they check on me and occasionally keep me company. So thank you but I cannot simply leave our house and our neighbors.”

To the middle son she said: “My son, I am old and the only places I frequent these days are the church and my doctor's clinicl, which are just nearby. So thank you but I don’t have any need for a new car.”

To the youngest she said: “My son, of all the gifts I received this Christmas yours was the one I like best. The bird you gave me was wonderful… The maid cooked it for noche buena, and it was delicious.”

Brothers and sisters, what makes a family holy?

It is the realization that every family member is a gift from God. Thus, life within the family should be more about caring for each other and building-up each other, and less about getting what each one wants over the others.

To those who have difficult family members or who happen to have a dysfunctional family, remember: You may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose what kind of family member you want to become.

To those gifted with a close-knit loving family, thank God and love each other even more. And remember: Charity begins at home, it means it should not end there.

Even as we pray for own families, let us remember the many families affected by Mayon's eruption and are now huddled in cramped evacuation centers. Let us think of ways on how we can be of greater help to them. Those of us who can may even choose to adopt an evacuee family and welcome them into their homes.

During Christian funerals, when we gather to pray for a loved one who passed away. The liturgy asks us to pray for the deceased family member as our brother or sister, no matter how he or she was related to us. In a way this is to remind us that indeed we only have one Father in heaven and we are all his children.

1 Jn 3, the Second Reading, tells us: “Beloved we are God’s children now… We have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And His commandment is this: we should believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as He commanded us.”

This is what makes families holy.

The Gift of Christmas

Christmas Day (C) – 25 December 2009

Readings: Is 52:7-10; Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18 or 1:1-5, 9-14

After four weeks of advent, nine days of Misa de Aguinaldo, and last night’s noche Buena, Christmas is finally here, the most awaited time of the year.

The word Christmas originated as a compound meaning "Christ's Mass". It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. Its very etymology reveals the two most important elements of the celebration: “Christ” and attending “Mass”.

There are actually four sets of Masses for the Solemnity of the Lord’s Birth. The Vigil Mass & Midnight Mass on December 24, and the early Morning Mass and Mass during the Day on December 25. In the other three Masses, the Gospel passages are narratives centered on the birth of Jesus. However, for our Mass today, instead of a story, we get a theological assertion:

“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God…” (Jn 1:1)

What is a word? A word is a jumble of meaningful letters, a symbolic representation of an idea. But this is no ordinary word we are talking about for it represents the very idea and essence of God. This Word creates, reveals, speaks through the prophets, becomes flesh, teaches, heals, forgives, calls to discipleship, sends to mission, suffers, dies and rises to new life.

Jesus as Word is the human symbol of the Father. The Preface for Christmas in the liturgy says:

“In Him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

It is no wonder then that our Christmas celebration abounds with symbols: the nativity scene, Christmas tree, Santa Claus, parol, Simbang Gabi, and many other traditions that vary from country to country. All of them, even the most mundane and materialistic, signify in varying degrees the presence of God in the world. For such is the power of the Christ: he can turn even our imperfect thoughts and impure motivations into vehicles of the Good News.

1. Christ’s presence brings joy.

A couple of nights ago, police officers in Santa caps came to the evacuation centers and entertained the people there with song and dance numbers. There were also those who went to these centers bearing gifts and cheer. The local governments also went out of their way to help the evacuees celebrate noche buena.

This is the joy of Christmas, not a joy founded on the absence of loneliness, poverty, or fear – but one that is given us by God precisely because there is loneliness, poverty and fear. Jn 1: 5 says Jesus is “the light (that) shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

Remember: the first Christmas was fraught with difficulties – Joseph and his pregnant wife were forced to go on a long journey, there was no room at the inn, they have to make do with a manger. But when Christ was born, an infectious joy spread in the heavens and on earth. Glad tidings were brought to the shepherds. The angels sang “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth!”

2. Christ’s presence brings transformation.

First a story… In 1914, during the darkest days of the First World War, in the Western Front, the British and the French soldiers were entrenched on one side and the Germans were on the other side. It was Christmas Eve and the weary soldiers thought they had enough of war and violence. They decided to hold a ceasefire, a Christmas truce.

The leaders of the French, British and German forces met in the center of the battlefield – while around them the bodies of the dead lay lying under cover of snow – and agreed upon their improvised rules for their improvised peace. Spontaneously, the soldiers from different camps started chanting: “No more war! No more war!”

It was Christmas, and after so many months of fighting, they felt a sudden rush of relief… and joy! They laid down their arms, buried their fallen comrades, then sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, and played football.

The scattered acts of friendship went on for several months till Easter. The superiors from the different sides didn’t like it. And the war still raged long after those incidents. But the memory of those brief breaks of joy was enough for the many survivors who were there to overcome the horrors of war and made their healing faster.

Christ’s presence this season transforms even the most jaded and bitter experience into a moment of triumph, a graced time to learn lessons in life.

The spiritual preparations of Advent and the Misas de Aguinaldo aim to transform us into a people ready and waiting for Christ’s coming. The call to repentance, the experience of light amidst darkness, the spirit of kindness and generosity all around – all of these seek to move us into becoming better Christians. The Tagalog carol says it for us: “…at magmula ngayon, kahit hindi Pasko ay magbigayan.”

3. A Christmas Prayer

To sum up our reflection, I would like to share this prayer written by Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Loving Father,
help us remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of angels,
the gladness of the shepherds,
and the worship of the wise men.
Close the door of hate
and open the door of love all over the world.
Let kindness come with every gift
and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil
by the blessing which Christ brings,
and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.
May the Christmas morning
make us happy to be Thy children,
and the Christmas evening
bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts,
forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus' sake, Amen!"

23 December 2009

Advent and the Little Things

Fourth Sunday of Advent (C) – 20 December 2009

Readings: Mi 5:1-4a; Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45

The Gospel passage this last Sunday of Advent is the familiar story of the Virgin Mary’s visitation of her cousin Elizabeth to help during the latter’s pregnancy. Elizabeth called Mary “blessed among women”. There is something more about these small acts of kindness and gestures of affection between these two little women.

Little and insignificant is also how Bethlehem of Ephrathah is described in the First Reading from the Book of Micah. Yet from this place, the awaited Savior will come.

In the Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the grand sacrifices and sin offerings of Israel were described as not much delightful to God as the singular obedience of Christ, the once-for-all offering that consecrates us.

The readings this Sunday present to us the God of small things, one who turns our smallish human efforts into things big and monumental. Let me tell you three stories:

1. Glenn and Baby

Last Friday, I was privileged to concelebrate in a wedding of two friends, Glenn and Baby Palma-Miranda. In my homily, I explained that fidelity in marriage is not so much measured by the length of years spent together, as it is defined by the everyday instances of kindness, the daily gestures of affection, and the small acts of self-sacrifice the couple does for each other and their children. When these happen, the days turn into weeks, the weeks to months, the months to years, and then they will realize they have been sharing a lifetime of fidelity.

Little did I know how much fidelity has figured in this couple’s relationship. As the bride thanked everyone during the reception, she mentioned that in their 10 years (12 if you include the period of courtship) of being in a relationship, they also had their ups and downs, but that there was never any doubt in her heart that her groom was faithful to her.

She added that he was the one who prepared practically everything in their wedding. Since she was new at her job and still adjusting, he told her he didn’t want her to be further stressed out and anxious about the wedding. So he did most of the preparation and coordination himself. As I was listening to their story, I knew they were off to a good start.

Love and fidelity in marriage are made out of the little things couples do for each other.

2. The Roseto Mystery

In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the concept of an “outlier”, i.e., something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body, by telling the story of the town of Roseto in Pennsylvania, USA.

Roseto is populated by Italian immigrants and their families, most of them came from the province of Foggia in Italy in a village called Roseto (they named the town after their village in the old world).

Here is what makes Roseto extraordinary. In 1961, a medical study was made on its residents. The results were astonishing. Virtually no one under 55 had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65, the death rate from heart disease was roughly half that of the US as a whole. The death rate from all causes, in fact, was 30-35% lower than expected. There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have any case of peptic ulcers either. In short, people were extraordinarily healthy and dying practically of old age.

There were several hypotheses as to how these came about. Maybe it was their diet and exercise. Then the researchers found out they were eating high fat, high cholesterol food on a regular basis. This was also not a town where people wake up early to jog or do yoga. The Rosetans were heavy smokers and many were struggling with obesity.

Next, they considered genetics. So they tracked down relatives of the Rosetans who were living in other parts of the US to see if they shared the same remarkable good health as their relatives in Pennsylvania. They didn’t.

They also looked at the region were the town is situated. However, a study of the medical records of the two towns closest to Roseto, and with roughly the same size, produced this result: for men over 65, the death rates from heart disease were three times that of Roseto.

So, it was not the diet, or exercise, or genetics, or location. A closer look at the town made them understand the phenomenon.

The Rosetans are friendly and warm to each other – visiting one another, stopping to chat on the streets, inviting each other over backyard dinners. Many homes have three generations living under one roof. Meals were eaten together. Grandparents command respect. Extended family clans underlay the town’s social structure. The researchers also acknowledge the “unifying and calming effect” of their parish church. The Rosetans have created a powerful protective social structure based on traditional values they have carried over from their old country.

The little things they do that define the good relationships they have with each other make them live healthier and happier lives – and turned them into a medical phenomenon.

3. Mayon Volcano Eruption

As Mayon Volcano started showing signs of erupting, the provincial government responded with a big goal in mind: zero casualty and no-rescue scenario. The success of this goal depends largely on the many contributions of various groups: the timely response of the PNP and AFP personnel, the careful planning of the various disaster coordinating councils (PDCC, CDCC, MDCC, etc.), the cooperation of barangay officials and residents of affected communities, the readiness of the schools turned evacuation centers, the prompt and regular provision of the evacuees’ basic needs by social welfare personnel, even those who decide to spend their Christmas parties cheering up and giving gifts to the evacuees.

Our cooperation and the many small ways by which we support those affected by the current eruption will enable us once more not only to cope with this calamity but to triumph over it. Not because we are stronger than the volcano, but because we know that our concerted efforts, strengthened by God’s grace, will make us overcome any adversity and enable us to accomplish our goals.

Our God is the God of little things. Mary said yes to the Lord. Joseph overcame his prejudices to accept Mary and the child in her womb. Zechariah and Elizabeth trusted in God. John witnessed to the Messiah since he first leaped in his mother’s womb upon hearing Mary’s greeting.

Then as now, God have been involving men and women, and using our little contributions, in order to bring salvation to all.

How have you cooperated with God lately?

The Joy of Advent

Third Sunday of Advent (C) – 13 December 2009

Readings: Zep 3:14-18a; Is 12:2-3, 4, 5-6; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

The Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice”. It comes from the Latin verb “gaudere”, “to rejoice”. Gaudete is in the imperative mood, which means that it is not a simple statement of fact but a command – rejoice!

In Phil 4:4 (in the Second Reading), St. Paul tells his audience: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”

Now we ask: What if I have just lost my job or failed in my business, do I have reason to rejoice? What if I have lost a loved one, or my spouse left me, or my beloved rejected me, do I have cause for rejoicing? What if I were seriously ill or some misfortune fell on me, should I just grin and bear it?

St. Paul and our particular celebration this Sunday do not teach us to resort to denial or to a form of spiritual escapism. Rather, the readings this Sunday tell us that Christian joy is in the heart. And it is not incompatible with physical and emotional pain or difficult situations. The problem is when we have become so fixated with our troubles that we forget or fail to sense the general positivity of life. Or if we identify our happiness with people or things we don’t have and most likely can’t have.

Where then can we find true joy?

1. There is joy in right living, or living righteously.

(Ever notice how people tend to avoid using the word “righteously”? Maybe for fear of being judged to be self-righteous. There is a clear but often overlooked distinction, but that is for another day.)

In the Gospel passage, John was asked by three different sets of people (the crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers), the same question: “What should we do?” While his general message was a call for radical change and repentance, his answers to the question were not so much extraordinary as sensible.

Share whatever extra you have to one who needs it most. Do not cheat and steal. Do not use power or violence to have your way.

The unsaid message is: do what is right and just in the eyes of God and you will have His peace. Remember Zacchaeus and how his repentance prompted Jesus to say: “"Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9).

Even worldly happiness is founded on doing the right things and being consistent with them. A local taipan once said in an interview: “He who does not have discipline, do not deserve to dream.”

2. There is joy in knowing the Lord.

Most, if not all, of us are familiar with these lines from a Christmas song:

Whenever I see girls and boys
selling lanterns on the street,
I remember the child
in the manger as he sleeps.
Wherever there are people
giving gifts, exchanging cards,
I believe that Christmas
is truly in their hearts.

Let's light our Christmas trees
for a bright tomorrow
where nations are at peace,
and all are one in God.

In these popular lines, Jose Mari Chan sings of how the many scenes of Filipino Christmas lead him to the presence of God – which is the point of celebrating Christmas. Christ is with us. He has made his presence known. And so we rejoice at this great and singular grace.

There is joy in knowing the Lord. And when we worship and adore God, we become like the God we worship and adore.

On a similar vein, this is also how we may describe our joy at the Installation a few days ago of our new Bishop of Legazpi, Most Rev. Joel Z. Baylon. It was not only an expression of how we feel at finally having a new bishop, it was also a reflection of our optimism and high hopes for the kind of Church we wish to become. We become the kind of Church we dream about and get involved with.

The more we get to know our God and get closer to Him, the more God configures us to Himself and makes our heart like His own. Thus even our following His ways becomes not a burden to follow, exacted by a God who demands, but a labor of love, a happy thing to do.

A blessed cycle emerges from this realization: We get to know God. We live righteously. We find joy in it. The cycle goes on and on.

In every prayer and every song
the community unites,
celebrating the birth
of our savior Jesus Christ.
Let love like that starlight
on that first Christmas morn
lead us back to the manger
where Christ the child was born

So come let us REJOICE…
come and sing a Christmas carol,
with one big joyful voice,
proclaim the name of the Lord!

06 December 2009

Advent and Repentance

Second Sunday of Advent (C) – 6 December 2009

Readings: Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Phil 1:4-6, 8-11; Lk 3:1-6

In the Gospel this Sunday, Luke presents to us John and his message of preparing the way of the Lord. How do we prepare the way of the Lord? The Gospel says John preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3,3).

Repentance is the great call of Advent.

1. Repentance means coming home to the Father.

In the Old Testament, the concept of repentance is represented by two Hebrew verbs: shuv (to return) and nicham (to feel sorrow). In the New Testament, Jesus taught about repentance in the parable of the prodigal son. The highlight of the story is when the wayward son, felt sorrow for his sins, owned up to his mistakes, and returned home to his waiting father.

The logic of repentance and forgiveness is not “repent and be forgiven” but rather “you are forgiven, and therefore now free to repent”.*

So, if you’re looking for gifts to give this Christmas, why not decide first on the best gift for yourself this Advent: the Father’s gift of the sacrament of reconciliation. Come home this Christmas.

2. Repentance means leaving sin behind.

Prov 28,13 says: “He who conceals his sins prospers not, but he who confesses and forsakes them obtains mercy.” There is a rather earthy instruction on this text from the Talmud: “He that confesses his sin and still clings to it is likened to a man that holds in his hand a defiling object; though he bathes in all the waters of the world he is not cleansed; but the moment he casts the defiling object from him a single bath will cleanse him.”

During a recent debate of presidentiables on TV, a young man asked the candidates: “What vice or luxury could you not live without?” (or words to that effect). On a similar vein, let us ask ourselves: “Are there sins that I find difficult to leave behind?” Think about some sins which tend to be a regular fixture in your confessions, and reflect whether you are making enough effort to resist them.

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus told the woman: "Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more" (John 8,11). When we repent, we have to strive to leave behind our sins totally, so we can embrace grace fully.

3. Repentance means having a change of heart.

The translation of repentance in New Testament Greek is metanoia , i.e., an afterthought, a change of mind and heart. It means acquiring a new way of seeing, a new way of being.

At the start of the Gospel passage this Sunday, we are presented with a gallery of the most powerful men of the time: Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate; the tetrarchs Herod, Philip and Lysanias; the high priests Annas & Caiaphas. Then Luke presents to us the prophet John, the “voice crying in the wilderness”, a rather unlikely figure of power.

Commentators say the contrast was intended as a lesson on the pettiness of what many of us regard as great and powerful, compared to the cosmic significance of John’s message of salvation. A change of perspective is required to fully understand the Good News.

Repentance leads us to appreciate the things that really matter, to recognize and set our true priorities, and to discover and take new and better paths in our journey through life.

4. A Prophet in our midst today

I would like to conclude this reflection by pointing out one modern-day John the Baptist. He may not be preaching directly a baptism of repentance, but he does preach about the good news of education for all and the greatness of the human spirit. I am referring to Efren G. Peñaflorida Jr., a 27 year-old teacher from Cavite, who was recently named "CNN Hero of the Year" in 2009 for his outstanding advocacy to educate Filipino out-of-school youth through "pushcart classes".

Efren grew up in an urban slum near an open dump site in Cavite City. As a child, he was shy and introverted, and would fall victim to bullying at school and in the neighborhood. As a young teen, he thought of joining a gang for protection, but eventually realized that was not the life for him. He founded the Dynamic Teen Company (DTC) at the age of 16, together with his high school classmates and friends. Their aim was to divert students’ attention away from street gangs, and towards community service and personal development. Among the brilliant ideas they came up with was the classroom-canteen-clinic-rolled-into-one kariton.

CNN's recognition came with a cash prize of $125,000. Efren gave 90% of it to the DTC, the 10% he donated to the church, leaving nothing for himself. With the media exposure, their good works are now inspiring people from all walks of life and all over the world to triumph over adversities, change for the better and make a difference to others, especially those in need.

When asked to comment about his recent success, he replied: “I just represent all the selfless and hardworking Filipinos”. Here is one who knows how to prepare the way of the Lord.

For Efren and the DTC, for the children they are helping, for those who support them, and for all of you who wish to celebrate a meaningful Advent, I would like to offer St. Paul's prayer in Phil 1,9-10 (in the Second Reading):

“May your love increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”

*from http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2006/06/ten-propositions-on-preaching.html

04 December 2009

Morning Benediction

Blessed be the Lord,
the God of mornings, sunlight
passing through curtains,
suffusing the room with the
glow of possibilities.

He gives me strength,
unmerited like the dawn,
makes hard work bear fruit.
I drink the cup of morning's
goodness, as I bless the Lord.

/October 2009, Banaw, Bacacay, Albay

29 November 2009

The Violence of Advent

First Sunday of Advent (C) – 29 November 2009

Readings: Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

Six days ago a crime that cries out to heaven was committed in the town of Ampatuan in Maguindanao. As the events that happened gradually came to unfold before the rest of the country and the world, most, if not all of us, watched and discussed the news with shock, anger and grief.

57 bodies were found in shallow mass graves in a remote village. Most of them were women, at least 30 were journalists. They were participants of a convoy of vehicles who were planning to register the candidacy of a local politician running for provincial governor. The members of the media were there to cover the event.

The massacre is now being called the single deadliest event for journalists in history. The Philippines now outranks Iraq as the world’s deadliest place for journalists.

Several more gory details came into view: It was not only members of a powerful clan and their private army that were allegedly involved, but also several police officers and soldiers. Not only were the victims killed, many were also tortured and mutilated. Several women were sexually assaulted. Even passing motorists were not spared: all occupants of a car who were rushing a stroke victim to a hospital were also killed. A backhoe was used to dig the grave; it started digging the day before.

It is with this jarring experience in mind that we enter into Advent.

There is more to the theme of preparation in Advent than just anticipating the festivities of Christmas. It is a season of soul-searching and spiritual preparation in order to fully grasp the meaning of Christmas, thus, to fully celebrate it. Advent also reminds us to prepare for two other events: Christ's Second Coming, and our own mortality.

The Gospel passage this Sunday prophesies cosmic upheavals, a slew of natural disasters, and nations in tumult to precede the second coming of the Son of Man. It seems Scripture, nature and history all attest that for meaningful change to happen, some form of violence or crisis has to happen as well. The joy of Easter is preceded by crucifixion and death. The rejoicing at Christmas is accompanied by political oppression and the slaughter of innocents.

A soul’s journey of conversion from the old ways to new life is also fraught with inner violence as the old ways fight back and seek, time and again, to regain control over the person. Read St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, even Mother Teresa, and you will know. Ask any recovering alcoholic or addict and they will tell you this to be true. Salvation, redemption and human progress come with a heavy price.

So it seems to be true as well for our nation. For it is not only the families and friends of the victims that grieve and cry for justice, the entire country grieve and cry for justice with them. How then do we turn this sad and jarring national experience into our hour of glory?

Luke 21:28 says; “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” How do we stand erect, raise our heads and await our redemption?

First, we have to recognize that we are all involved.

The violent political dynasties and their private armies, and the national governments who coddled them and colluded with them may be mainly to blame. But we too played a part in it.

Let us ask ourselves these questions:
Have you ever thought dirty politics will never change?
Or accepted that corruption is here to stay?
Have you ever participated, willingly or unwillingly, in a corrupt practice because it is a fact of life and you can’t do anything about it?
Have you ever conceded that vote-buying and patronage will never be gone during elections?
Or considered that genuine peace in Mindanao is a lost cause?
Have you given up on politics and politicians, and chose instead not to care?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then you are partly to blame as well. We have heard this line from Edmund Burke often enough: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing.” We are as much part of the problem as the solution.

Second, we have to work on the things we need to stop doing to avert another incident like this from happening again.

Already we hear cynical talks of whitewashing and sacrificial lambs, how elusive justice will be, how the powerful will still triumph in the end, how this too will pass and be forgotten.

We need to stop believing that politics will never change for the better.
We need to stop affirming that corruption is a way of life.
We need to stop conceding that power only belongs to a few.
Even in our weakness, there is strength; in our poverty, resources within our reach; in humiliation, dignity; in naivety, wisdom.
We need to put a stop to our apathy and to not doing anything.
A culture of apathy spawns a culture of impunity.

Third, we have to get involved.

I would like to distinguish simply “being involved” from “getting involved”. I like to think the former connotes passive participation or tacit acceptance of a dominant situation, the latter is an act of the will.

In the movie 2012, the idealistic scientist Adrian Helmsley uttered this line as the drama reached its climax: “The moment we stop fighting for each other, that's the moment we lose our humanity.”

We have to start respecting ourselves and our vote. “An kwarta sa bulsa, an boto sa balota” degrades the dignity of both the voting process and of ourselves.

Our sense of sacrifice has to go beyond the confines of family and loved ones. Generosity begins at home, it means that it should not end there.

We have to hold our public officials more accountable. More importantly, we have to hold ourselves more accountable, especially, those of us entrusted with responsibility or position of authority. Ask yourself: “To whom am I accountable?” No one is accountable only to oneself. If you are accountable to your family, community or constituents, then you must be transparent and trustworthy to them.

Ultimately, we are all accountable to God. When our hour of judgment comes, can we honestly say we have made our relationship with God relevant in our personal choices? More importantly, when people see us do they recognize Christ in us? More than ever, we have to make our Christian faith relevant in our participation in public life.

There is a way so the Ampatuan massacre victims may not have died in vain: we have to learn from this tragic experience and grow to become a better people. Tragic as it may be, this incident may just be the thing to rouse us from our "carousing and drunkenness, our petty anxieties", our mediocre citizenship, our inconsistent democracy – but only if we let God's Spirit guide us toward genuine justice-seeking and peace-making, healing and rebuilding.

When this happens, it will be the advent of our rebirth as a nation.

24 November 2009

King of Kings, Lord of Lords!

Solemnity of Christ the King - 22 November 2009

Readings: Dn 7:13-14; Ps 93:1, 1-2, 5; Rv 1:5-8; Jn 18:33b-37

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. We honor and worship Christ, our King of Kings and Lord of Lords. (I can almost hear the great chorus of Handel’s Messiah in the background.)

The prophecies of the Old Testament are replete with references to the promised Messiah as King. In the New Testament, Jesus is called “King Eternal” (1 Tim 1:17), “King of Israel” (Jn 1:49), “King of the Jews” (Mt 27:11), “King of kings” (1 Tim 6:15; Rev. 19:16), “King of the Ages” (Rev 15:3) and “Ruler of the Kings of the Earth” (Rev. 1:5).

It was Pope Pius XI who officially inserted this feast into the liturgical calendar in his encyclical “Quas Primas” in 1925.

1925 was a Jubilee Year. It was also not the happiest of times. Europe was still reeling from the effects of World War I and, in a little more than a decade, another even bigger war would start. It was also a time that saw the rise of secularism, anti-clericalism, and Godless communism.

The feast of Christ the King was instituted to rekindle the faith of Christians during dark times, and remind us of the rightful place of Christ in the hearts of individuals, families, and nations.

1. Jesus’ kingdom is primarily spiritual.

In Jn 18:36, in the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus tells Pilate that his “kingdom does not belong to this world”. Pilate didn't get it. Many Jews in Jesus’ time, including some of his disciples, didn’t get it. Many in our time still insist to see it their way. And so it is worth repeating here: Jesus did not come to assume the role of a political hero or economic savior.

Our problems of corruption in public office, destruction of the environment, break-up of marriages, killings of the unborn, and a myriad other problems, all have their roots in sin and death. Jesus came to conquer sin and death, the very roots of oppression and poverty.

Pope Pius XI teaches in Quas Primas 19: “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”

Jesus came to give us authentic freedom and authentic happiness. The Church bears witness to this commitment to authentic freedom and happiness in our teachings, sacraments, communal life, and in our participation (to some extent) in politics and business.

2. Jesus’ kingdom is universal.

When we say that Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual, it doesn’t mean that He is king only in the spiritual realm, but that since the spiritual realm encompasses everything, it means that He is the King of all - even of those who don't believe.

In both the First Reading from the book of Daniel and the Second reading from the book of Revelation, He is pictured as the Son of Man coming amidst the clouds. He has dominion over all.

He has power over demons, unclean spirits and illness of every kind. He is Lord of nature. He is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Rev 1:8 says He is "the Lord God", "the Alpha and Omega ", "the one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty".

What does it mean to have a King like this? The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that when we battle our temptations and addictions, we have a King to strengthen us. When we stand up to our faith, and to what is right and just, we have a King by our side. We are not alone. And He is bigger than our problems and any obstacle that life may present to us.

3. Jesus’ power is an exercise of love.

When we say that Jesus has power over all, we redefine what power means. Col 1:15 says He is “the image of the invisible God”. We are asked to look at Jesus and learn from him. And what do we see?

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes: “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.”

Since our idea of power has been so distorted by sin, Jesus came to teach us by His very life what true power means. True power comes in the form of a helpless child, an obedient Son, an itinerant teacher who has nowhere to lay his head, a betrayed friend, a persecuted person, a crucified convict, a dead Messiah, a risen Christ.

In short, true power comes in the form of love – self-giving, self-emptying, poured-out-for-others love. It is this kind of love that has the power to transform persons, families, communities, nations, and the world. We have seen it in the witness of Christian martyrs and saints, and even secular heroes.

St. Augustine says that sin is the separation of love from power. Jesus came to bring love back to the exercise of power, and expose power for what it really is: an exercise of love.

How do we achieve this kind of love? We become like Christ. We serve and love like Christ.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta advises: “To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbor. If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another. If each person saw God in his neighbor, do you think we would need guns and bombs?”

Let us pray then on this feast of Christ the King that our lives will be transformed, and that we will see this great transforming power in our simple acts of love.

The author and teacher Leo Buscaglia writes: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” To this we add: Our consistent simple acts of love do not just help others change for the better, they also change us for the better.

Let us pray then on this feast of Christ the King that our lives will be transformed by letting him reign fully in our lives.

Pius XI closes Quas Primas with these words: “He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, “as instruments of justice unto God” (Rom 6:13).

How do we let Christ reign in our lives? Magigibo ta ini kun kita magtubod, magsunod, mamoot asin maglingkod ki Kristo, asin hale Saiya pasiring sa satong kapwa.

Happy feast of Christ the King! Viva El Cristo Rey!

18 November 2009

Who's Afraid of the End Times?

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 15 November 2009

Readings: Dn 12:1-3; Ps 16:5,8,9-10,11; Heb 10:11-14,18; Mk 13:24-32

The readings this Sunday talk about the end times. In fact, the readings of the second to the last Sunday in the liturgical calendar and the First Sunday of Advent (the first Sunday in the calendar) both have eschatological themes. In between them is Christ the King Sunday. Christ is indeed the Alpha and Omega. But let's reserve the reflection on the significance of these dates next Sunday.

Currently, interest is being generated by a supposed prophecy from ancient Mayan literature predicting the end of days, or maybe just an era (take your pick), by 23 December 2012. A Hollywood movie just recently opened in theaters on this very premise.

The end of days has captured the imagination of many Christians through the centuries, especially those who choose to interpret the Bible in mostly literal sense. A slew of vocabularies were built up around this imagination: rapture, Armageddon, anti-Christ, millennialism, etc.

Consistently though this has never been part of the Catholic imagination. The Church fathers, among them Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Pseudo-Dionysius and especially, St. Augustine, rejected a literal reading of the various apocalyptic literature in the Bible. They affirmed what Jesus in the Gospel this Sunday says: "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mk 13,32).

What then is the proper understanding of the end times or the second coming of Christ?

1. We believe it as an article of faith.

In the Creed, which we will recite after this homily, we affirm our belief that Jesus Christ "will come again to judge the living and the dead". The longer Nicene Creed adds that "His Kingdom will have no end".

2. We look forward to it with hope.

It is supposed to be a good thing. In Daniel 12,3 in the First Reading, when the end of days happens "the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever".

It is what we look forward to when we pray "Your Kingdom come" in the Our Father.

The Gospel this Sunday uses the imagery of the blossoming of the fig tree which ushers in summer, a time of growth, fruit-bearing, harvest and abundance. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus likened it to the coming of the bridegroom which brings much rejoicing to those waiting for his coming.

It is a graced time when God will gather into the promised unity His creation separated by space and time, sin and death. It is a happy reunion of the human being's body and soul, of the entire human family and the rest of creation, and most of all, of humanity and God.

If this is what the end times is all about, why the gloom and doom? Perhaps, the fear and trembling that hounds many when thinking about the end times arise from the feeling of inadequacy and unreadiness at the prospect of facing God's judgment. Which brings us to the third point...

3. The most important time in the end of days is NOW. We need to fill it with love.

How we live our present determines how our future will be. I remember a sage line from the movie Kung-Fu Panda: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present."

One final story...

A lonely and miserly old man died and immediately found himself in the midst of hell. He then started to cry aloud to God unceasingly, pleading to be delivered from the torments of hell. God heard his cries and asked him what good he had done while still on earth. He tried to remember with great difficulty any good deed he had done, until finally he remembered: he once gave a string of onions to a beggar.

Surprisingly God said: "Alright, for that single act of kindness, you will get a chance to escape hell." He ordered His angels to make a cord out of the onion string and lower it to him.

As the angels lowered the cord, the man desperately grabbed it. Then the angels started to lift him up. When his companions saw what was happening, they rushed and held on to his feet. The more he tried to kick and untangle his feet from them, the more they held firmly, until finally the cord snapped, and they all plunged back to hell.

One of the angels told him: "Had you been more generous and well-disposed to share your blessing to others, the cord would have grown stronger. The more that you thought only of yourself, the more that the cord weakened." His habit of thinking only of himself caught up with him even in the next life.

There is more to now than just preceding the future. A saying goes: "Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Still afraid of the end times? St. Paul advises in Galatians 6,9: "Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up".

God is a Widow

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 8 November 2009

Readings: 1 Kgs 17:10-16; Ps 146:7,8-9,9-10; Heb 9:24-28; Mk 12:38-44

A widow is featured in both the First and Gospel Readings this Sunday. In the Book of Kings we hear the story of Elijah and the widow in the city of Zarepath. In the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus' praise of a widow and her humble offering.

Widows are not the most fortunate of people, then and now. The grief of losing a husband is not the only issue they have to deal with. In the world of both the Old and New Testaments, they are the poorest of the poor, especially if no one takes the place of the deceased husband and there are young children to raise. In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Church made it a point to take care of widows and orphans.

That is why when the widow in Zarepath took the risk of providing for the needs of the prophet Elijah, and the widow in the Gospel account dropped her two small coins into the collection box, they were making no small gestures. They sacrificed not just their meal for the day but all "(they) had, (their) whole livelihood".

What do their stories tell us? I would like to answer the question first by way of another story...

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.

The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. "I've been thinking," He said, "I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious: Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone."

1. The widows in the two readings present an image of the true disciple.

The Gospel widow's faith in God's providence is placed in stark contrast with that of the scribes - pretentious, hypocritical and exploitative. The Zarepath widow's hospitality restored the wavering faith of the prophet Elijah. When Jesus pointed out the witness of the widow to his disciples, He was giving them a lesson in discipleship.

2. The widow in the Gospel represents Christ.

The text of the Letter to the Hebrews in the Second Reading refer to Jesus as the high priest who made Himself the sacrifice for our sins. The total trust and self-giving of the widow in the Gospel account prefigured Jesus' act of total surrender and self-giving. When Jesus pointed out the witness of the widow to his disciples, how "from her poverty, (she) has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood" (Mk 12,44), He was in effect pointing His disciples to Himself and to the total sacrifice he would be making.

3. The widow in the Gospel represents the Father.

Her giving of her most cherished possession, also points to the very witness of the Father who gave the world His only-begotten Son for humankind's salvation.

The widow in Zarepath, who was gathering firewood to cook what most likely would have been her and her son's last meal, was also saved by her hospitality for a miracle happened through the prophet Elijah. "She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry" (1 Kgs 17,16).

In the end, God has revealed Himself as the God who cannot be outdone in generosity.

14 November 2009

On turning 31

"I thank thee, Author of this opening day!
Thou whose bright sun now gilds yon orient skies!
Riches denied, thy boon was purer joys—
What wealth could never give nor take away!"
-Robert Burns, Sonnet on the Author's Birthday

So this is what it means to be 31,
there is no more marking of a coming of age
nor the drama of midlife, at least not yet.
Maybe this is what it means
to be settled.

So today I make a list of things
I should thank God for. Dear Lord,
I am grateful

for the meaningful work that absorbs me
though I feel I should be doing more

for dreaming dreams for the Church,
and seeing even just a few of them realized

for the cares of family, for being able to help,
for the first instance of giving back,
for being part in shaping a future not my own

for the support of family and friends,
for the great help that critics bring

for the witness of heroes and saints,
the living and the dead

for the friendship of brother-priests,
they are flawed and understanding, broken
and able ministers of God's mysteries,
and I am one of them

for the opportunities missed, for temptations
bowed down to, for the over-all act of growing

I thank you Lord.

Thanks too for those who greeted,
please grant them twice the share
of what they prayed for me.

9 November 2009
Bethlehem Pastoral & Human Resource Dev't Center
Sogod, Bacacay, Albay

05 November 2009

Feast of Living Life Fully

Solemnity of All Saints (1 November 2009)

Readings: Rv 7:2-4, 9-14; Ps 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Mt 5:1-12a

We have just celebrated Halloween. The term, originally spelled Hallowe’en, is shortened from All Hallows' Even – “e'en” is a shortening of “even”, which is a shortening of “evening”. At the eve of All Saints Day, people celebrate and mock at death and the forces of darkness. Though it has now become a secular affair, Halloween still retains its Christian roots when it sends the message that death does not have the last word, nor is it the end of existence. The Feast of All Saints is essentially a celebration of life – life that is lived to the full.

On the mount, Jesus teaches us the Beatitudes, His way of living life to the full.

1. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Their freedom from inordinate desire for worldly gains makes them open to God’s grace and ready for God’s Kingdom.

2. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will find consolation in the kindness of strangers, the warmth of family and friends, the goodness of their fellowmen, the embrace of God.

3. Blessed are the meek, the gentle and kind, those who reach out to others, those who care. The good that they do will come back to them many times over. Christ Himself guarantees in Luke 6,38: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

4. Blessed are they who fight for justice, who stand on the side of the poor, weak and the voiceless. Their sacrifice will not be in vain.

5. Blessed are the merciful, the compassionate, the forgiving. They have shown to their neighbor the face of God, and made themselves instruments of God’s love. This is God’s promise to them: (James 5,19-20) “My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

6. Blessed are the clean of heart, free of cynicism and ill will. They see as God sees, love as God loves. They are indeed blessed. That is why St. Therese of Lisieux was able to say: “Tout est grace”: “Everything is grace”. In another writing, she says: “I wish to pass my Heaven in doing good on earth”.

7. Blessed are the peacemakers, they follow the straight and narrow way. They pursue justice without resorting to violence. They uphold the truth with fierce compassion to the lost and confused. They are exemplars of the faith, salt of the earth, light of the world. They live the words of Mt 5,16: “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

8. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Since they share in Christ’s suffering, they will therefore share in His glory. St. Paul exhorts in Rom 8,31-32: “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”

In these Beatitudes, Jesus turns upside-down what the world means by blessed and fortunate. They give hope and strengthen the resolve of those who suffer as a result of their faith in Christ. St. Paul says in Rom 8,18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

The fact that after more than 2000 years, the world has yet to fully embrace the Beatitudes means that the Kingdom of God is still at hand, present but still not yet in its fullness. Perhaps, inasmuch as many fail to embrace the Beatitudes, many also fail to grasp the meaning of being saint. In 1 John 3,1, in the Second Reading, it is written: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”

The novelist George Orwell once wrote: “Many people genuinely do not want to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.” Another writer, Pamela Hansford Johnson, infamously quoted: “Sainthood is acceptable only in saints.”

How wrong they are. Sainthood is not some inaccessible state of being reserved only for the spiritual elite. To state the obvious, saints are ordinary mortals like you and me, subject to the same conditions and temptations of the flesh. How do they differ from us? They choose to live their lives to the full.

The diversity of ways by which they lived the Beatitudes adds all the more to the richness of the Church and splendor of Christian life.

(Here I am borrowing liberally from Fr. Robert Barron*.)

Among the saints, we have St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the brightest minds that ever lived; we also have St. John Mary Vianney, who barely passed Latin in the seminary.

Among the saints, we have St. Vincent de Paul who ministered in the city; we also have St. Anthony who found sanctity in the desert.

We have St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a mystic, who practiced penance and mortification in a monastery; we also have St. Hildegard of Bingen, also a mystic, who was not shy about singing, dancing and throwing flowers in praise of God.

We have St. Augustine of Hippo who spent much of his youth in pursuit of worldly joys; we also have St. Dominic Savio, renowned in holiness though he only reached the age of 14.

We have St. Peter, a simple fisherman; and St. Edith Stein, an intellectual working alongside Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, great philosophers of modern times.

We have St. Joan of Arc, who led armies; and St. Francis of Assissi, a man of peace.

We have the irascible St. Jerome (he was known to have not a few quarrels, even with some of his contemporary saints); and the almost too sweet St. Therese de Lisieux.

We have St. Catherine of Siena, who stood up to popes; and Pope St. Celestine V, who abdicated the papacy to go back to monastic solitude.

We have St. Bruno, grave and serious; and St. Philip Neri, who made a spirituality out of laughter.

Brothers and sisters, consider the saints, consider too those you know who lived their life in heroic ways. They serve as guides to remind us that living life to the full doesn’t necessarily mean living the “good life”, free of worries and fears.

Consider a saint, or several saints, and make his/her/them your patron. There is at least a saint for each of one of us. Let their example teach you that living life to the full means that God is with us, which means that we have all we need not just to face the world and its difficulties, but to transform the world as together we build God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Consider your calling to be a saint, and live your life to the full.


Amazing Grace

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 31:7-9; Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Heb 5:1-6; Mk 10:46-52

The Gospel this Sunday, like any other story line in the Gospels, is significant not only for its being most likely factual but also for its being allegorical. There is more to the blindness of Bartimaeus than just the physical. There is more to Bartimaeus than just being a footnote in history. Inasmuch as there is darkness and blindness all around us, there is also a Bartimaeus in each of us.

First a story…

A blind man and his brother-in-law decided to have some bonding time and went to go hunting together. They both set traps to catch birds. The brother-in-law caught a beautiful bird but the blind man caught a much beautiful and rare bird. The brother-in-law switches the birds thinking that the man will never know. On the way home, they have a conversation and the brother-in-law asks why people fight or what starts war between people. The blind man answers “By people doing to each other what you have just done to me.” The brother-in-law is shamed and admits to his deception. They switch birds and the brother-in-law went back to their unfinished conversation, “What do you think is the solution to the problem of war, hate and division?” The blind man says, “By doing to others what you have just done to me”.

Which of the two now is really blind? Siisay an butá saindang duwa?

In Acts 26,18, St Paul says that he was sent “to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God”.

St. Paul is talking about spiritual blindness and likens salvation to seeing the light. In 2 Cor 4,6, he says: “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ”.

God’s revelation is salvation. The more that we get to know God, the more we are assured of salvation. By knowing God we mean more than just seeing with the eyes or knowing in the mind, but living in the life of God and following His way.

God has fully revealed Himself in Jesus. But not everybody has come to accept the fullness of revelation in Him. In 2 Cor 4,3 St. Paul says: “And even though our gospel is hidden, it is hidden for those who are lost.”

Who are these who are lost or perishing or wasting away? They are those “in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (v.4).

Spiritual blindness does not only afflict non-believers or those who choose not to follow God’s law as written in the Bible. Even those who call themselves Christians can be blinded by the god of this age.

The point of the story though is not only to teach of the danger of falling into spiritual blindness but more to provide us with a way, a guide. Bartimaeus’ story is every Christian’s story from blindness to sight, from darkness to light.

1. Bartimaeus is persistent in his quest.

His faith was that of a beggar. He knows what he needs and who can grant it to him. He is determined to ask from Jesus: “have mercy on me”. In Greek it is “Iesou, eleeson me”.

We echo those words at the beginning of the Mass when we say: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison”, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”. How wonderful it would be if we take to heart these words every time we say it. And remember that indeed grace is undeserved, yet still given to us by God.

And when Jesus asked what he can do for him, immediately he answered: “Master, I want to see.” Now I would like you to take these words to heart, and say them with me: “Master, I want to see.” The question begs to be asked: Are you ready to accept the things that Jesus will make you see?

2. Bartimaeus is firm in his confession.

He calls Jesus repeatedly, mightily: “Jesus, Son of David”. We don’t know how he comes to know of this title. Perhaps it is how he heard other people talk about Jesus. But we do know that he shouted with the greatest of conviction, without a care for what others may say or think of him.

Let us ask ourselves: How have I been firm in my confession of Jesus as my Lord and Savior? How have I been consistent in my beliefs – especially when faced with a difficult situation or left holding an unpopular position? Or have I chosen convenience over conscience, practicality over Christianity?

Another aspect of Bartimaeus’ confession is that it is imperfect. The title Son of David connotes a clinging to the idea of the awaited Messiah as a political savior. But Jesus didn’t come to save the Jews from political oppression or the world from poverty and hunger. Jesus came to conquer the very root of political oppression and all the world’s social ills: sin and death.

In time, even Bartimaeus’ very idea of Jesus would change as his spiritual blindness is peeled away by Jesus’ revelation of Himself.

Let us ask ourselves: Have I made efforts to get to know more my faith in Jesus and as a Catholic by reading and studying the Bible and the catechism? Have I made efforts to deepen my faith by joining Church organizations and movements that may bring me more spiritual nourishment? If you haven’t done enough or any of these yet, don’t you think it’s about time you do?

3. Bartimaeus “followed Him on the way”.

After he received his sight, he became a disciple of Jesus. Bible scholars say Bartimaeus’ name was mentioned in the story because he himself was a known member of the community of believers.

So how do we journey from darkness to light? We need to persistently seek what can satisfy our deepest needs. It is Christ. Once we find Him, we need to hold on to Him, firmly, trustingly.

Then, we follow him on the way – upholding His will and keeping true to our being His friends.

Then, we will see ourselves and the world ever more clearly as layers upon layers of blindness will be peeled away from our eyes, until finally we get to see God in beatific vision in heaven.

I would like to end this reflection with the lyrics of one of the best loved spirituals in the world: "Amazing Grace". The life story of its composer, John Newton (b.1725), is one exemplary journey from darkness to light. But that is for another time.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

What is the point of suffering?

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (18 October 2009)
World Mission Sunday

Readings: Is 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45

The brothers James and John’s vainglorious request provides a foil, a counterpoint, to the main message of the readings this Sunday. In the verses immediately prior to the request of Zebedee’s sons, the disciples heard Jesus predict His own suffering, but the brothers could only see how this could be an opportunity to gain honor for themselves.

Last Sunday, Pope Benedict honored five new saints. Perhaps, the more famous among them was Fr. Damian. He left Belgium to go on a mission to Hawaii at age 23. While there he got to know of the leper colony in the island of Molokai. He volunteered to minister on the island and spent four years there (which turned out to be the last four years of his life). He came first as a missionary to the lepers, and eventually ministered as a leper himself.

St. Damian of Molokai’s example is a fitting allegory to Christ’s incarnation. But there is nothing glamorous or prestigious in his life choices. Pope Benedict says: “Not without fear and loathing, Fr Damian made the choice to go on the island of Molokai in the service of lepers who were there, abandoned by all.”

Even now, Christ’s – and that of His faithful disciples’ – view of honor and greatness is still a stark contrast from that of many. For Christ glory can be achieved only by way of suffering.

The First Reading from Isaiah 53 tells of the coming of the “suffering servant”.

The Second Reading from Hebrew 4 describes Jesus as our high priest who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses, (and) one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”

The Gospel ends with: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 4,45).

So what do we make of suffering? How should a Christian view suffering?

1. It is an opportunity to follow the way of Christ.

In the Gospel passage the Lord asks James and John: “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” It is an invitation not just to follow His words, but his very life. In fairness to the brothers, they did drank the cup that Jesus drank, each in his own way.

Pope Benedict in his homily during last Sunday’s canonization rites noted that all five saints followed the invitation of Christ: “Come, follow me.” They were a diverse group who followed the same calling, each in their own way: a bishop-martyr; a young mystic monk; a priest founder of a religious congregation; a missionary; and a nun who earned sainthood taking care of the elderly.

Jn 15,20 states: “Remember the words I said to you: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too.”

2. It is a privilege to be asked to help build the Body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:26 states: “And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.”

The tyrants of ancient times thought they could discourage the early Christians by the martyrdom of their brethren. They were proven wrong. The witness of martyrs inflamed the hearts of the early Christians and fostered the spread of the faith.

The tyrants of recent times thought they could break the resolve of those who fight injustice by silencing and killing their leaders and activists. They too were proven wrong.

Ninoy Aquino spent seven years in jail, most of the time in solitary detention. Because of his sacrifice and that of others like him, our country now enjoys (and many times takes for granted) democracy. Nelson Mandela spent almost 27 years in jail (most of his young adult life). Because of his sacrifice and that of others like him, South Africa is now free of apartheid. Martin Luther King was killed for his advocacy for equal rights to African-Americans in America. Because of his sacrifice and that of others like him, America now has its first black President.

Mahatma Gandhi, himself a victim of not a few indignities and injustice in his peaceful fight to secure independence for India, speaks of St. Damien: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”

3. It is a worthy offering to the Father.

In one of the Preface at Easter (V), these lines are prayed:
“As He offered His body on the cross, His perfect sacrifice fulfilled all others.
As He gave Himself into Your hands for our salvation,
He showed Himself to be the priest, the altar, and the lamb of sacrifice.”

Indeed, Jesus is not only our high priest who offers sacrifices. He is not only the locus, the place of sacrifice. He is Himself the sacrifice, a worthy oblation for our sins. Not that the Father demands the blood of His Son to be appeased but that by showing to humanity the extent with which Christ is willing to take so humanity could be saved from sin and death, humanity may by its free will come to accept the life God offers.

And if Christ’s suffering were a worthy oblation, would not the suffering we endure for Christ not also be considered in some ways the same? After all we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Peter 2,9).

Six Sundays ago, September 6, at around 8:30 a.m., Fr. Cecilio Lucero, parish priest of Catubig, Northern Samar, was on board his Toyota van, when he was attacked in Barangay Layuhan, San Jose town, by around 30 unidentified armed men. He was killed on the spot.

Just last Sunday evening, October 11, 79 year-old Columban priest, Fr. Michael Sinnott, was kidnapped from outside his home in Pagadian City as he was taking an evening stroll in the garden. Around seven armed men burst into the garden and bundled the Irish missionary into a pickup truck and drove to a local beach. The vehicle was abandoned and burnt. Fr Michael was taken away in a speed boat.

What is the point to these seemingly senseless stories of suffering?

Again from Pope Benedict’s homily during last Sunday’s rites: “The Church walks the same path and suffers the same destiny as Christ, since she acts not on the basis of any human logic or relying on her own strength, but instead she follows the way of the Cross, becoming, in filial obedience to the Father, a witness and a traveling companion for all humanity.”

We put our trust in God who time and again has shown us his power and might by creating good out of things evil.

And so this message goes to all who suffer:
- to those who suffer from illness of any kind;
- to those who are persecuted because they stand up to what is right and just;
- to those who toil unrecognized and unappreciated;
- to those who fell victim to injustice and cruelty; and
- to those who give up so much in order to spread the faith.

Know that as you suffer and toil humbly and silently, you are enduring with Christ and for the body of Christ. And with Christ in you, you do not suffer in vain. As Cory Aquino now famously said: “None of the good that we do is ever lost.”

Be consoled then for when you suffer for the sake of the Kingdom, you will also receive the glory of the children of God.

Romans 8:16-18: “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

The God who asks for more

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 11 October 2009

Readings: Wis 7:7-11; Ps 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17; Heb 4:12-13; Mk 10:17-30 or 10:17-27

The Gospel this Sunday is one of those Gospel stories that teach about what Christian life means. Let us mine the lessons in the sequence of the story.

1. A man approached Jesus and asked: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We must recognize that is no mere whimsical question or shallow request. Rather the man’s question is indicative of his search for something great, for an ideal. Eternal life for him is that which will give meaning to his existence. And he is not unlike most of us. Don’t we also yearn for something more than what our present life offers? Some writers call it “divine discontent”.

This universal predisposition is reflected in the way we are drawn to figures of heroes and feats of heroism and excellence, be it in sports, the arts, in school, and especially in difficult times. Maybe, you have already heard of the story of one 18 year-old boy who, at the height of the typhoon in Marikina, saved 30 lives from the flood, but who was himself engulfed by floodwaters after his last successful rescue of a mother and her six month-old baby. His lifeless body was recovered the next day. His name was Muelmar Magallanes.

We find inspiration and edification in the triumphs and tragedies of heroes. They are the ones who have truly lived life, the ones who are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to have achieved that something more which most of us yearn for.

In the First Reading from the Book of Wisdom, we listened to the thoughts of Solomon as he himself, then already a king at a young age - with power, prestige and wealth at his disposal - yearned for something else that will help him make sense of it all: wisdom.

2. Jesus, looked at him, and loved him.

When the man came to Jesus and asked his question, He looked at him and knew what it was he needed. Heb 4,12 (in the Second Reading) says the Word of God is “living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”

One of the ways by which we express our love for somebody is our desire for the best to happen to our beloved. He wants the best for the man. That is why Jesus’ response came in two stages:

3. First, He asked him about the basics.

Jesus asked him if he knew the commandments. The basics are important. They are our foundation, our guiding principles. One cannot say he is faithful to God if he doesn’t keep God’s commandments.

The man replied: “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” But he was to learn that the basics though important don’t constitute the entirety of Christian life. Observing the commandments was not enough.

4. Then, Jesus asked for more…

Because the young man asked for the greatest of grace and because Jesus loved the young man, and so he wants the best for him, He asked him to give up his greatest possession. He called him to do something heroic worthy of the grace he was asking. He asked him to give up his wealth and give the proceeds to the poor.

Indeed, if we want to achieve something great, we must be ready to make great sacrifice as well. In order to possess eternity, we have to offer the rest of our time here on earth.

5. Sadly, the rich man young man turned away because he could not give up his riches.

Many of us are full of big dreams, but what happens when we see the difficulties we have to endure in order to reach them? Do we shrink away, mawaran nin boot? Christianity is not for the complacent or coward. It is the home of the brave.

Many of us like to cheer athletes and feel the excitement of a good game but only in the bleachers or in front of the TV. Many don’t even think about entering the race, getting into the game itself. Christianity is not a spectator sport. It is a way of life.

Many of us want to reach out to those in need but only insofar as our comfort and security is not too much disturbed. Christianity is more than just a call to an occasional donation or volunteer drive. It is a call to heroic living.

6. Jesus turned the episode into a lesson in Christian life

Mk 10,25: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And riches don’t only mean financial wealth. All of us are rich, each in our own way, e.g., in family ties, talents, opportunities, etc. Thus, all of us have something to offer up to God. God is asking us to offer to Himself all that we have. Those Offertory songs about offering everything really meant to be taken not just figuratively.

Mk 10,27: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” Can we actually do it? How do we survive? Can we be happy with it? God Himself provides direct assurance. Our natural attraction to heroes (and hero worship) is indirect proof that doing the great sacrifice, required of us by God, in our own unique situations, leads to living life fully.

When Solomon didn’t ask for more power and wealth, and chose wisdom instead so he could better serve his countrymen, God was pleased. Not only did He give him wisdom, but “all good things together came to (him) in her company, and countless riches at her hands” (Wis 7,11).

When we give up all that we have for “Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel” we are actually merely giving back what God first gave us. We lose nothing. We gain everything for we will have God with us, and we will be blessed “a hundred times more now in this present age… and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10,30).