01 October 2009

Stumbling Blocks

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (27 September 2009)

Readings: Nm 11:25-29; Ps 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14; Jas 5:1-6; Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

I would like to begin by citing the parallels between the Gospel text and First Reading this Sunday.

1. An unnamed man in the Gospel, and two men, Eldad and Medad, in the First Reading, were caught doing “unsanctioned” work of the Spirit. The former was driving out demons, the latter were prophesying among the people.

2. John the Evangelist and Joshua (both are known to be closest to Jesus and Moses, respectively) asked that the individual/s in question be stopped.

3. The tenor of both Jesus’ and Moses’ answer was the same: “Let them be.” Moses: “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” Jesus: “Whoever is not against us is for us”.

Both readings caution against judging rashly, for by doing so the overly-zealous disciple may be undermining other people’s path to service and holiness. In the first place, who are we to judge who deserves to be blessed or called by God?

Further, the Gospel tells us…
1. to be careful lest we be the cause of scandal to others, thus, leading them astray, and
2. to recognize the stumbling blocks in our lives that obstructs our way to God.

And no, Jesus does not advocate capital punishment or mutilation to prevent scandal and sin. Hyperbolic language is used here only in order to drive home the point more strongly.

So what are the things that may block our way to holiness? Aside from the usual suspects – wealth (the point of the Second Reading), power and fame – Jesus tells us even the good that we have or do may lead us to sin: our hands, feet and eyes, our family and loved ones, our job, even our advocacies and commitments to Church and civic causes.

How do we know if the good things we have and do have become our stumbling blocks?

1. If they become our priority over God and heaven.

One indicator of this is when we feel that doing the right thing has become a burden or takes the job too long, when we begin to cut corners or compromise our principles.

There is a story about a soldier who, before going to battle, told his commanding officer: “Sir, let us pray that God is on our side.” His commanding officer replied: “No, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”

2. If they make us think more highly of ourselves and less of others.

If we see that our own gifts and good deeds serve mainly to inflate our ego, then we know we are no longer on the right path.

The English writer Joseph Addison warns: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore advises: “We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.”

3. If they stop us from growing.

This one is the most dangerous because it is the most subtle. If what we do right now, makes us self-satisfied, resistant to change or reluctant to make things better, then we know we have a stumbling block.

If you’re a student and you study only enough to pass the course, the way you study is your stumbling block to real learning. If you think your going to church every Sunday is enough to fulfill your Christian obligation, then your going to church becomes your stumbling block to Christian perfection.

I would like to end this reflection with a prayer I came upon again just recently:

“Disturb us, O Lord
when we are too well-pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord
when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the water of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord
to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow. Amen.”

True Devotion to Mary

Solemnity of Nstra. Sra. de Peñafrancia, Patroness of Bicol
20 September 2009

Readings: Gen.3,9-15. 1 Sam 2,1;4-5;6-7;8. Rev 11,9;12-16. Lk 2,27-35.

This Sunday, we here in Bicol celebrate the Solemnity of Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia... "Patrona del Bicol, Gran Madre de Dios, se siempre la Reina de nuestra region."

2009 is significant since this is the last year of the three-year preparation for the tricentenary celebration of the devotion to Ina. We look back to 1710 when Pde. Miguel Robles de Covarrubias brought the devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga, and to the whole Bicolandia. We Bicolanos are big in our devotion to our Ina. It is something we share with the rest of the Filipinos.

In 1975, the CBCP released the pastoral letter "Ang Mahal na Birhen", defining what true devotion to our Ina means and contextualizing the same theme contained in the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, "Marialis Cultus", released the previous year. Among other things, the pastoral letter made a cursory survey on the extent of the Filipinos' devotion to Ina: “463, or over one-fourth of all parishes, have the Virgin Mary as their titular patron without counting innumerable barrio chapels, religious oratories or private shrines dedicated to her.” Just imagine how much that number has grown after more than three decades. There is a Spanish expression that aptly describes us: "Pueblo amante de Maria", "Banwaan na namomoot ki Maria".

Amidst all the festivities in honor of our Ina, it is good to ask: What constitutes true devotion to Mary?

There is a wealth of literature on the subject, two of them I have already mentioned: "Ang Mahal na Birhen" by the CBCP and "Marialis Cultus" by Pope John Paul II. I would like to make a simple (and therefore necessarily not comprehensive) summary of what constitutes true devotion to her.

1. True devotion to Mary is faithful to the Bible, to the witness of the Scriptures.

Luke 1,48 says “All generations will call me blessed.” This is contained in the beautiful prayer of Mary popularly known as the Magnificat. She prophesies how all generations will come to honor her.

She is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the woman, the virgin who will bear the promised Messiah. The First Reading from Genesis is one of them.

The Word was made flesh in her womb. She was the bearer of the Word, and she chose to share the Word to the rest of the world.

2. True devotion to Mary leads to Jesus.

Mary is honored because she was the Mother of God (Theotokos) as defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. The world came to know of Jesus and the Good News of the Kingdom through the humble fiat of Mary.

The old Latin saying is right: "ad Jesum per Mariam", to Jesus through Mary. She acts as our intercessor in heaven. Pope John Paul II wrote in his other Marian encyclical "Redemptoris Mater":

"Thus there is a mediation: Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself 'in the middle', that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she 'has the right' to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession: Mary 'intercedes' for mankind."

When our devotion stops at Mary and does not lead to Jesus, we turn her into an idol. When our devotion consists of the performance of certain rituals and the praying of particular novenas in exchange for some favor, we turn her into an idol. We commit the sin of idolatry.

True devotion to Mary should enhance our relationship with Jesus, and our worship of God, especially in the Eucharist.

3. True devotion to Mary leads to conversion and renewal.

Matthew 7,16 says: "By their fruits you will know them." Is our devotion to Mary helping us grow into kinder, more loving, more generous persons?

During the Mass after the fluvial procession in Naga, Bp. Gilbert Garcera of Daet, recounted in his homily a recent miracle involving a lady who was cured of her leukemia and who attributed the cure to the intercession of Ina. Indeed, Nstra. Sra. de Peñafrancia has been known to effect miraculous healing among her devotees through the centuries.

It is also good to ask: What is the purpose of miracles? It is not just the healing of physical sickness, it is more about the strengthening of faith and the transformation of the whole person. And it is not just the person healed who is benefited by it, it is also the people around her or him, whose faith are also strengthened and whose lives are changed.

Recently, the Archdiocese of Caceres called for communal discernment on how best we can celebrate the devotion to Ina. I have heard a remark on the conduct of devotees in Naga: "imbes na maging mapagbigay, nagiging makasarili; imbes na maging madasalin, nagiging mainumin". Some would even joke that there are actually three patrons in Naga: Nstra. Sra. de Peñafrancia, Sr. Divino Rostro, and Sr. Ginebra San Miguel.

Apparently, the Archdiocese's efforts are bearing fruits. According to observers, this year's festivities, especially the traslacion and fluvial procession, were the most peaceful and orderly since they could remember.

Brothers and sisters, true devotion to Mary should lead us into making Mary as our model. She is not only the model of womanhood, she is the model of true discipleship. And what is discipleship? It means obedience to the will of the Father and intimacy with Jesus. Mary bears witness to this type of discipleship all her earthly life and beyond.

May our devotion to Mary lead us then into becoming more discerning of and obedient to God's will, and make us seek to grow more in our friendship with her Son.

Viva la Virgen! Viva an satong mahal na Ina!