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).

Faithfulness of Couples, Faithfulness of God

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 4 October 2009

Readings: Gn 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Heb 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16 or 10:2-12

The Gospel story this Sunday is yet another polemical episode between Jesus and the Pharisees. Once again, they were trying to trick him with a question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

The passage in question is Deut 24,1: “When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house…”

Divorce is allowed in ancient Israel. The test is in the interpretation of the line “something indecent”, ‘erwath dabar. For those who follow the strict interpretation of Rabbi Shammai, ‘erwath dabar means a case of adultery. For those who are of the “lax” school of Rabbi Hillel, it could mean any offense or displeasure, e.g., burning the soup or whatever.

Jesus once again escaped the dilemma by turning the petty difference upside down and targeting the very institution of divorce. Deut 24,1 is a concession to human weakness, to stubbornness of heart. He appealed to authority higher than Moses: God. He was clear about what God ordained from the beginning. Gen 2,24: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”

By saying so, Jesus established faithfulness as essential to married life and prohibited divorce in the clearest of terms.

Let us define fidelity in three ways:

1. Exclusivity

But first, a story… A middle-aged wife was feeling resentful of her husband’s apparent forgetfulness of their wedding anniversary date. But it turned out the husband actually prepared a surprise celebration for her. Still a bit embarrassed, she retorted: “But you haven’t even sang our theme song. Or have you forgotten it already?” Husband: “What was that again?”. Wife: “Only You” (in hurt tones). Husband: “Oh that, I changed that already a few months ago. It’s no longer “Only You” but… “Nobody, Nobody but You”.

Why exclusivity? Because God willed it so: Man and woman should be married only to one spouse. Gen 2,24 says a man leaves his parents and clings to his wife, not to his wife and his kabit…

Exclusivity also fits the natural order of things. Monogamous relationship is universally regarded as the more ideal relationship for couples, even and especially for cultures that practice polygamy.

Once in a while I get asked: “When does infidelity start?” I answer that I will never know the whole gamut of experience that married couples go through but I am sure that infidelity doesn’t start with an actual relationship or even with an attraction. It starts in the mind, when you start entertaining the possibility that you could manage two relationships, when you start hiding from your spouse little things because there really is good reason for her/him to better not know about them… when a husband starts changing the names in his phonebook of some of his female friends into male ones. And the wife is left to wonder why a certain “Brando” has several texts to her husband with the words “i miz u”.

A married friend told me: “If you want an uncomplicated happy married life: keep it simple. Be faithful.”

2. Equality

A Jewish tradition makes an analogy about the Eve-from-Adam’s-rib story. The woman was not made with a bone from the man’s head for it would mean that she is superior to the man, nor from his foot for it would mean that she is inferior to the man, but from the side to show that they are equal in dignity.

The words in the wedding liturgy stresses that both husband and wife are equal in the life of grace, they are co-heirs of the Kingdom.

A usual argument against the equality of husband and wife is Eph 5,22: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” A simple reading of the entire periscope though would lead us to Eph 5,21: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And to Eph 5,25: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” Who is subordinate to whom is not the point of the passage but that the love of the couple should mirror the love between God and His Church.

3. Lovingkindness

Lovingkindness, hesed, is a common description of God’s love and faithfulness in the Old Testament. Lovingkindness is the anti-thesis of “stubbornness of heart” which compelled Moses to allow divorce. Marriages break down because of either one or both of the couples’ “stubbornness of heart”.

When we talk of lovingkindness in fidelity, it means that a marriage should not just be something to endure, it should bring out the best in the couple and in their children.
Fidelity is affirmed in everyday deeds of kindness, in the simple (and cheesy) gestures of affection, in the many acts of sacrifices which the couple makes together for their love and their family.


There is a deeper theological significance in the faithfulness of couples: it reflects the faithfulness of God.

We humans get to know our God through the instrumentality of symbols. We get to know him through others. We get to know His love through the love of others. Where does all this start: in the family, in the parents, in married couples. When couples show their fidelity to each other, and that they are happy with each other – their children, their family and friends, and the rest of the community, also get to know the love and faithfulness of God, and the happiness He brings.