14 September 2009

Faith, Good Works and Suffering

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 13 September 2009

Readings: Isaiah 50, 4-9; Ps 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; James 2, 14-18; Mark 8, 27-35

The Gospel this Sunday has three parts:
1. Jesus’ asks His disciples: “Who do you say that I am”. Peter’s response: “You are the Christ.”
2. Jesus speaks about what His being Christ means, the suffering and death He has to endure, and His rebuke of Peter.
3. Jesus teaches his disciples and the crowd the way of the cross and self-denial.

The three-part Gospel passage practically describes what Christian faith is and what it entails.

1. To be a Christian means to believe in Jesus as Christ, the longed for Messiah of Israel and the rest of the world, even when they don’t know it.

To be Christian means to seek to get know Christ, and the will of the Father which He has faithfully obeyed, ever deeply and more intimately.

Apparently, Jesus as Christ identifies Himself with suffering, and suffering humanity.

2. It is not enough that we believe. Our faith should be expressed in good works, i.e., in the way we think, say, act and live.

James 2,14, from the Second Reading, says: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”

Romans 2,6 says God “will repay everyone according to his works".

Acts 9,37-42 tells the story of the saintly woman Tabitha who was “completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving”. Because of it, she was well-loved by her community in Joppa. When she fell seriously ill and died, the community fell into deep mourning and went out of its way to invite Peter to Joppa. When Peter arrived at the upper room of Tabitha’s house, where her body was laid, he did as Jesus would have done: sent them all out, knelt down, prayed, then said: “Tabitha, rise up.” She came back from the dead. The story ends with: “This became known all over Joppa, and many came to believe in the Lord.”

Faith provides the roots, and good works the shoots, shoots that bear much fruit!

3. Our faith involves undergoing suffering and denial of oneself. As it was with Jesus, so it will be with those who follow Him.

Let's be clear: it doesn’t mean that God wants His people to keep suffering, or wallow in misery, or stay poor. The denial of oneself is an affirmation that suffering is real, and the Christian way is not to deny or run away from it. It is to deal with it, fully knowing that we will triumph over it and, more importantly, that Jesus made suffering as our means of salvation.

Let me share a love story (adapted from Frank Mihalic, SVD, 1000 Stories You Can Use, vol. 2)… During the 18th century, there lived a German-Jewish philosopher named Moses Mendelssohn, a brilliant compassionate man, who at that point was also starting to rise out of poverty, with but one fault: he was hunchbacked. And he fell in love with a beautiful and charming young woman named Fromet, the daughter of a prosperous banker.

The first time he courted her, he told this story: “As you know when boys are born, the angels in heaven call out for all to hear: ‘This little boy is destined to have this special girl for a wife. It is decreed for all eternity and no one may change it’. So when I was born, the angels made that announcement about me. But then they paused and added: 'But alas, Mendelssohn’s wife will have a terrible hump on her back.' Then I should have shouted out loud before the court of heaven: “O Lord, no, no! A girl who is hunchback will very easily become bitter and hard, and the object of awful jokes and hurts. No, Lord, a girl should be beautiful. O Lord, please give the hump to me and let her be well-formed.’”

“And you know what, Fromet? God heard my prayer and I was glad. I am that boy and you are that girl.”

I don’t know if the story will work with the ladies here, but apparently it worked for Mrs. Mendelssohn.

Brothers and sisters, the greatest obstacle to our attaining success and happiness in life is not poverty, nor illness, nor physical impairment, nor whatever dire circumstance we are born into, nor is it the devil himself. Our biggest hindrance to success and happiness is our “self”: our self-centeredness, our narrow-mindedness, our concern mainly for the pleasures of the here and now. The solution to this problem is simply the dying to oneself.

Mark 8,35 says “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” The saying makes sense not only when thinking as God does, but even in worldly terms. The discipline and humility required for hard work to succeed are forms of dying to oneself. Imagine what would happen if our hard work, discipline and humility, our dying to ourselves, be offered for the sake of the Kingdom.

The suffering that Jesus teaches His followers to embrace is not a static suffering or a cross-generational never-ending cycle of poverty and oppression. The suffering that Jesus refers to is the kind that, when embraced by a faith that manifests in nobility of character and good works, leads to God’s promised glory.

Are you spiritually deaf?

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 6 September 2009

Readings: Is 35:4-7a; Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Jas 2:1-5; Mk 7:31-37

The miracle account in the Gospel reading today is interesting for its explicitly physical detail. The people brought to Jesus a deaf-mute. He took him away from the crowd, put his fingers into the man’s ears, spitted, touched the man’s tongue with his spittle-laden finger, looked up, groaned and said “Ephphata” – “Be opened”. And the man came to hear and speak thereafter.

The First Reading, from Isaiah, prophesies the healing of the deaf as one of the signs of the coming Messiah. At the end of the Gospel story, the people cry out in joy and wonder, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak”, echoing the prophet Isaiah.

The miracle stories of Jesus were preserved not only for their historical value but also for their symbolic value. This was also the method of interpretation favored by the fathers of the early Church. And so the physical deafness of the man was made symbolic of the spiritual deafness that afflicts many.

Salvation is effected through the Word, and communicated through the preaching of the Good News. Spiritual deafness and muteness block salvation from happening. Thus the physical details of this miracle story is a fitting metaphor on how Jesus became flesh, subject to the conditions of the flesh, connected Himself to humanity, and earned for us our salvation.

This makes this story even more relevant today in a world where so many are unwilling to listen to the demands of the Gospel or are drowned by the noise of competing ideas and priorities.

So today we pause and reflect:
1. Is my daily schedule of activities and concerns leaving me too tired and stressed, and with hardly any time or energy for prayer and silence?
2. Is the amount of information that comes my way through the various media leaving me unable to discern and choose the things that are really important?
3. Is my desire for a better life and greater accomplishments leaving me unfulfilled, shallow, and insensitive to the needs of my neighbor?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may already be exhibiting symptoms of spiritual deafness.

Here’s a story:

A senior priest, a young priest, and the bishop were discussing about work and walking to lunch when they stumbled upon an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a genie comes out. The genie says, “I'll give each of you just one wish.”

“Me first! Me first!” says the senior priest. “I want to be in Europe, enjoying a nice leisurely vacation, without a care in the world.” Puff! He's gone.

“Me next! Me next!” says the young priest. “I want to be in the Caribbean, relaxing on the beach, then partying in the evenings.” Puff! He's gone.

“OK, you’re up,” the genie says to the bishop. The bishop says, “I want those two back in the office after lunch.”

Moral of the story: “Listen first to what your boss will say.”

Our being too involved with our personal priorities and the concerns of this world, and especially our slavery to sin, make us close our senses to spiritual realities and lose our connection with God.

Let's not forget another bad thing about spiritual deafness: it causes spiritual muteness. When we no longer hear the Word, we also stop spreading the Gospel. When we don’t listen anymore to the Spirit, we stop proclaiming God and His salvation.

So "Ephaphata”, “Be opened”, says Jesus to the deaf man... and to us.

True Religion

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 30 August 2009

Readings: Dt 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“The Pharisees and scribes questioned him, ‘Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?’” (Mk 7,5)

To this apparently simple question, Jesus responded with a polemic against the Pharisees and their practices.

First, a clarification. A contemporary cursory reading of this Gospel text may not make sense out of Jesus' words. Was he really against the washing of hands before eating, the washing of cups and jugs, of kettles and beds? The issue is not about hygiene. The issue is about the practices of ritual purity vis-a-vis the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

Hypocrisy here may be understood in its original Greek sense: hypokrites, an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. Jesus questions the authenticity of their faith behind their outward observance – and imposition – of their expanding universe of laws and statutes.

The readings this Sunday describe what makes an authentic faith, what constitutes true religion.

I. A Religion of the Law

True faith naturally involves the observance of commandments. In Deut 4,6 in the First Reading, Moses exhorts the Israelites to observe carefully God’s commandments “for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations”.

Further, the Law is seen as a sign of God’s love for His people. For indeed, the Law is set in place so individuals and society may live peacefully and flourish.

II. A Religion of Love

James 1,22 in the Second Reading says it is not enough to hear and believe: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only”.

James 1,27 says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.”

Using these two descriptions as a context, we observe two faulty tendencies among Christians today:

1. Overemphasis on the Law

Jesus’ polemic was particularly directed to the Pharisees’ overemphasis on the law or, more precisely, on their particular interpretation of the law.

“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.' You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition.” (Mk 7,6-8)

Today we see this tendency manifested in the way certain leaders use a fundamentalist and/or radical interpretation of scriptures and traditions to further their personal and political agenda, at times through violent means. The Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness once said: “The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.”

We also see this tendency being played in our very Filipino fondness for rituals and outward observances, and the often overlooked disconnect between these observances and so many of our moral choices. The legislators who propose the RH Bill do not see anything contrary to their faith with their refusal to recognize the constitutional provision protecting life beginning at conception. The city councilors who do not object to casino and bingo operations do not see anything wrong with their promotion of gambling. The people who participate in corrupt practices and election fraud don’t show any qualms in publicly professing themselves as devout Catholics, even Marian devotees.

2. Emphasis on Love Alone

It was the poet John Keats who may have first wrote: “Love is my religion”, but it was the reggae artist Ziggy Marley who popularized it the most.

There is also a tendency among many to view love, e.g., good works, philanthropy or just simply not causing harm to anybody, as sufficient expressions of faith, or the “only thing that all religions teach”. And to regard Jesus only as a popular teacher of love and universal brotherhood. A popular line from this school of thought: “I see myself as more spiritual than religious”. People who espouse this view call themselves Christians or believers of God but don’t want to be bothered by the moral and legal demands of religion, often to justify their morally questionable lives. They would like to treat religion the way they would eat fat-free ice cream or drink zero-calorie soda: enjoy the good without the guilt.

The author Annie Dillard has this short sketch in her book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “Eskimo: 'If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?' Priest: 'No, not if you did not know.' Eskimo: 'Then why did you tell me?'”

A recent controversial atheist advertisement on buses, which started in London and spread to other cities, goes: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Of course, they’re missing the point. Guilt is not an imposition of religion. Guilt rather is a spiritual symptom that manifests whenever we make morally unhealthy choices. Guilt is that feeling that tells us we are getting estranged from God, thus triggering the instinct to seek reconciliation with Him.

III. Ultimately, true religion leads to God. (This is almost too obvious a statement but for the two tendencies cited above.)

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

“Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space. In the truth, charity reflects the personal yet public dimension of faith in the God of the Bible, who is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word.” (CIV 3)

It is not enough that we do the right things. It is not enough that we love. Any regular sane person can do these things. A true faithful follows the law and loves because it leads him to God, and as a response to the God who loved him first. This is true religion.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - 23 August 2009

Readings: Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

Peter’s statement provides a fitting a response at the culmination of a five-Sunday Gospel series (taken from Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John) wherein Jesus speaks of Himself as the bread of life. Peter’s response is not entirely different from the Great Amen we sing at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. Both our Amen and Peter’s words mean: “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6,69).

Behind the statement is the making of a great choice: the choice either to believe or not, to follow Jesus or not. In the First Reading, Joshua asks the Israelites: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Jos 24,15).

Now this choosing, far from being a mere declaration of belief, involves practical difficulties for the believer. Jesus’ revelation of being the bread of life is described in the Gospel text today as hard and difficult to accept (Jn 6,60).

The difficulty for Christians today may no longer come from the ignorance of Jesus’ divinity. It may come from the fear that when we open the door to enter into the life of Christ, there are doors that we may no longer enter; that when we choose to take the way of Christ, there are other paths that we may not be able to pass. For a soul that has made the multiplicity of choices as the definitive measure of freedom, the loss of other options as a result of choosing only one is difficult and frightening indeed. One of the Kapamilya TV station shows' blurb expresses this dilemma: "Sa mundong para lamang sa isa, 'di pwede tayong dalawa..." =)

The difficulty may also arise from the practical consequences of choosing God. For when we choose God, we don’t just choose to believe in God, we embrace His way of life. We don’t just proclaim Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we also choose to live the values of the Kingdom that Jesus preached about. And there are practical difficulties in reconciling our choice of living the values of the Kingdom with the options presented by a world that has become estranged from God’s Kingdom.

The Second Reading describes how the values of the Kingdom figure in married life. Ephesians 5,32 asks wives to be subordinate to their husbands. A hard saying indeed especially for those of us who have already grown accustomed to feminist and liberal ideas. Before dismissing the text as mere power check to keep women in a lower social status, it would be wise to read the next verses which then talks about the duties of husbands. Husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves His body, the Church. We all know how Christ loves His Church: with all the love He has, even laying His life for His Church.

I have made an “informal hobby” of collecting answers to the question: “What is the secret to a happy married life?” One of the best answers I have gotten was from a middle-aged couple: “The secret to a happy marriage is that it should be treated as a competition. Dapat magpatibayan an mag-agom kun siisay an mas namomoot, mas maboot, mas nakakasabot…” (Couples should outdo each other as to who loves more, gives kind words more, understands more… Unfortunately, Bikol wit is lost in translation).

In a world that has seen the break-up of so many marriages, the Letter to the Ephesians timelessly reminds couples to pattern their love after the love of God, if they wish to succeed.

The Church’s stand to vigorously promote the culture of life is another value of the Kingdom that many people find difficult.

Recently, a proposal to build a casino in Legazpi City was submitted to the Sangguniang Panlungsod, which the good councilors promptly approved after a perfunctory public hearing. When the Church and many sectors raised their voices in protest, fortunately the host hotel proceeded to convince PAGCOR to withdraw its plans. The Church’s stand though earned not a few criticisms. The reactions exemplify the clash between the values of the Kingdom and that of the prevailing culture.

When asked in a radio interview why the Church seemed to be blocking progress with our latest protest, before I gave my serious answer, I quipped: Imagina daw nyako nindo kun madangog ta si Bp. Quiambao na nag-eengañar sa mga tawo: “sige mag-carasino kita, surugal sana kita..." =)

One of those values of the Kingdom involved here is stewardship. It means recognizing that all our talents, wealth and possessions are gifts from God. We are stewards of God’s gifts. A poor person who gambles away hard-earned money is a bad steward. He also causes much suffering to his family. A rich man is not exempt from the same principle even when his person or family many not suffer financially when he gambles in a casino. There are far more productive and responsible uses for his money. His money is not entirely his own; he too is a steward of God’s gifts.

Thus, it is wrong for local leaders to promote an industry that exploits people’s weakness for gambling and destroys persons and families in the process, just to earn revenue for the city or stimulate its economy. Neither can they validly claim a dichotomy between their job of taking care of the city's economy and the churches’ work of safeguarding the community's moral fiber. As elected officials, their leadership is also a stewardship from God.

Here is a story I got from Fr. Eugene Lobo, SJ’s blog (http://msjnov.wordpress.com/page/2/):

"A church-goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. 'I’ve gone for 30 years now,' he wrote, 'and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.'

This started a real controversy in the Letters to the Editor column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: 'I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this: they all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!' "

When Peter said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”, he made a choice to be nourished by the bread of life.

If it isn’t Jesus we are choosing, we are choosing someone else. If it isn’t God we are serving, we are serving someone else. Joshua’s words still ring true to this day: “Decide today whom you will serve”: the false gods of this world or the God who wish to nourish you with His life.

None of the good that we do is ever lost

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 9 August 2009

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Eph 4:30—5:2; Jn 6:41-51

We continue with the “bread of life” discourse in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John.

1. Jesus offered his life for us – as bread that is broken, shared, consumed & nourishes.

Jesus reveals to us God the Father as a God who gives Himself. This self-giving is expressed most fully in His giving to us His Son. Remember that the Father and the Son are one. Jesus’ life and paschal mystery was a story of self-giving love. And before Jesus left, He promised to give His own Spirit to guide His community of disciples.

By the grace of our baptism and confirmation, the same self-giving Spirit is in us. And so, too, by grace, we are ordained towards the self-giving of love.

2. Jesus taught us how offering one’s life lead to living life to the full.

Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, recounted during his homily at the funeral of Cory Aquino: “When her final illness was upon her already, she said that she was offering her suffering, first to God, then for our people. I heard that grandson Jiggy asked her why first for country and people, and she said that always the priority line-up was God, our country and our people, and then family.”

Undoubtedly, Tita Cory was one shining witness of a life that was offered and lived to the full. Here are some snippets of testimonies about her by family and friends during the necrological service, which attested to her inspiring life.

Pinky Aquino-Abelleda: "Kapag umaalis siya papuntang ibang bansa noong president pa siya, isa lang sa amin ang isinasama niya, at sa bulsa niya kinukuha ang pambayad sa aming pamasahe, hindi sa kaban ng bayan."

Kris Aquino-Yap: "Kapag tinatanong ng tao kung bakit hindi niya ako pinapapasok sa pulitika, ang sagot niya ay, 'kapag simple na ang kanyang lifestyle. Sa ngayon, sa kanyang lifestyle, hindi siya pwedeng mabuhay sa sahod ng isang government employee'."

Photographer ni Cory Aquino: "Kapag kumukuha ako ng litrato at nagustuhan niya at kanyang itatago sa sarili niyang koleksyon, binabayaran niya ito at hindi gastos ng Malacañang."

Philip Juico: "Nang anyayahan niya akong maglingkod sa departamento ng sakahan, sinabihan niya akong sundin ang batas, masipag na gawin ang trabaho, at huwag magnakaw."

SPO4 Mel Mamaril, close-in security ni Cory: "Minsang nagpunta kami sa painting lesson niya at siya ang toka na magpamiryenda, sinama niya ang cook. Pag-uwi, nauna kami. Wala pang pagkain sa bahay. Maya-maya ay lumabas siyang may dalang sopas na niluto niya at pinakain sa amin. Ganoon siya. Hindi niya kami nakakalimutan. Lagi niyang tinatanong kung nakakain na kami. Tinuring niya kaming pamliya. Iniangat niya ang aking confidence."

Teodoro Locsin Jr.: "I didn’t notice that my anger was slowly receding- and my desire for vengeance was banishing the more I was close to this woman in yellow; now, I just want to make sure that I live every moment of my life to the fullest-without anger and vindictiveness; I did not notice I was being transformed the more I got closer to this woman in yellow."

Fr. Arevalo told another story: “On radio, the other night, the commentator asked an old woman in line why she stood hours in the rain to get into La Salle. “Ito lang ang maibibigay ko po sa kanya, bilang pasasalamat.” “Bakit, ano ba ang ibinigay ni Cory sa inyo?” “Di po ba ang buhay nya? Ang buong sarila nya? At di po ba ang pagasa? Kaya mahal na mahal po namin siya.”

And a whole nation responded with an outpouring of affection and thanksgiving for her goodness of heart, magnanimity of spirit and gift of self.

3. Jesus showed us that offering one’s life is difficult and fraught with disappointments, but God will make all things right.

In the First reading this Sunday, we hear the Prophet Elijah groan: “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19,4). Elijah had just proven to the people the power of Yahweh, the one true God, against the false prophets of Baal, and yet he found himself fleeing from soldiers who were pursuing him, with orders from Queen Jezebel to slay him. When he let go those words of anguish, he was dead tired from crossing the desert the entire day on foot.

What did God do in response? He sent an angel to give him bread to eat and water to drink to sustain him in his journey. Here is a God who does not abandon His chosen ones in their difficulties and trials.

One of the more oft-quoted poem of Ninoy Aquino was one he wrote on the third year of his incarceration in Laur in 1976:

“I am burning the candle of my life in the dark
With no one to benefit from the light.
The candle slowly melts away;
Soon its wick will be burned out
And the light is gone.

If someone will only gather
The melted wax, re-shape it,
Give it a new wick –
For another fleeting moment
My candle can once again light the dark,
Be of service one more time,
And then . . . good-bye.”

Cory quoted the same lines during her last SONA, and interpreted them this way:

“This is the anguish of good men: that the good they do will come to nothing. That pains suffered in obscurity or sacrifices made away from the sight of men, amount to shame, and mock the man or woman who bears them.

That is not true. None of the good that we do is ever lost; not even the light in an empty room is wasted.

From Ninoy’s burnt-out candle, and thousands like it in cells throughout the garrison state, we gathered the melted wax and made more candles. To burn – not as long in such loneliness – but much more brightly all together, as to banish the darkness, and light us to a new day.”

Brothers and sisters, as Jesus offered Himself to us like bread that is broken, shared, consumed and is able to nourish, He also teaches us, his disciples, to do the same. And He assures us of two things:
1. We will live life to the full.
2. God will bless our beginning, sustain our progress and make our efforts bear fruit.

Difficulties and disappointments may come, but as Cory, Ninoy, the prophet Elijah, and countless other men and women who offered their lives as Jesus did, have proven us, none of the good that we do is ever lost.