11 June 2017

We Become Who We Worship




The Church deems it proper that, at least, once a year we celebrate and reflect on the most profound mystery of our faith: the Holy Trinity. I would like to begin by saying what the Trinity is not.

First, it is not a mathematical conundrum. 1+1+1=1 doesn’t make sense because the Trinity is not a math equation. Second, it is not a logical fallacy. For three persons in one substance may sound confusing but not an ontological contradiction, and with God nothing is impossible. Third, it is not a mere human construct. It didn’t start with the Council of Nicea and even less with the Roman Emperor Constantine – as claimed by some conspiracy theorists and non-Trinitarian sects.

1. We believe in the Trinity because this is how God chooses to reveal Himself.

First, God revealed Himself to us as Father: creator of everything, provider of our needs, liberator from oppression. Then Jesus Christ came as the fullness of revelation, teaching the people to call God as Abba, a personal Father, loving, forgiving, merciful, and faithful.

He overturned the popular notion of the long-awaited messiah from a folk hero-king to a suffering servant, a persecuted prophet (much to the disappointment and consternation of many) who dies but then rose again, conquering sin and death. He called Himself the Son and taught that He and the Father are one. Even His enemies recognized that anyone who claims to have the power to forgive sins assumes to be God.

When He was about to end his earthly ministry, He promised His disciples that He will send another Advocate, His very Spirit, who will lead them to all truth. He sent them on a perpetual mission to spread the good news to all the nations and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. And when the Spirit descended, the Church too was born.

St. Paul in 2 Cor 11,13 greets the early Church in Corinth: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.” It is the same greeting said by the priest at the beginning of the Mass.

2. We are saved by what we believe in.

Revelation is salvation. In John 3,16, Christ said: “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

However, this belief is not just about intellectual assent or understanding doctrines. It is accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, and following His way just as He followed the will of the Father. And then some. For faith in God is not just about believing and following, it is also about becoming. Or more precisely: we become who we worship.

If Genesis 1,37 says that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, then the Trinity also points to our true identity. So what does it mean to have faith in the Triune God?

To believe in the Father who is loving and just, merciful and faithful, means to strive to be loving, just, merciful, and faithful as well.

To believe in the Son means to grow in our concern for the lost and the least among us, to make friends of enemies, and to be willing to lay down our life for them.

To believe in the Spirit means to become seekers of truth and agents of transformation in our communities and the world.

This is how we are saved: by the saving power of the Triune God and by becoming who we worship.



HOMILY for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (A)
Readings: Ex 34:4b-6, 8-9; Dn 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56; 2 Cor 13:11-13; Jn 3:16-18

29 May 2017

They Worshipped, but They Doubted



How does one preach about the great mystery of Christ’s Ascension in light of recent events that rocked our nation’s faith: the Maute group’s brazen attack on Marawi City and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law in the whole island of Mindanao? Does our celebration connect with our people’s fear of terrorism and wariness of possible abuse under Martial Law?

I would like to start with this short phrase in Matthew’s recounting of the Ascension event: “When the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped, but they doubted.”

The worship part is easy to understand: they have seen Jesus as He promised, most likely in the form of His glorified body. But before such singular manifestation of divinity, why would some people still find space in their hearts to doubt? Over the course of centuries, scholars have tried to explain Matthew’s doubting disciples – maybe they referred to the other disciples aside from the Eleven; maybe it is because there really was no resurrection or ascension but some vision concocted by certain disciples which only the “privileged” among them could see. Or maybe because it is part of our human nature to doubt – what is obviously real and worthy of worship to some may appear to be confusing to others, their minds still processing the unexpected phenomenon before them.

The more important part though was Jesus’ response. The few who doubted received neither rebuke nor condescending tone. Instead He approached all of them and gave them His last will, a closing statement so clear and succinct it could very well sum up the entirety of the Good News. The message may be broken down into three parts.

1. The Power of Christ. He said: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28,18). Ephesians 1,22 affirmed this: “God put all things beneath His feet”. At the Ascension event Christ proclaimed His lordship over all creation. If He is our Lord and King, then all our exercise of earthly power and responsibility emanates from Him.

In Mathew 20,25-28, He taught us what it means to wield power. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The powerful in the world today, as in Jesus’ time, still like to consolidate more power for themselves. The unscrupulous ones do so by violence and deceit. The more dangerous ones couch their ambitions in some lofty vision, capitalizing on people’s fears and frustrations to get what they want. This is the way of terrorists and dictators. They don’t conform to the power of Christ for they don’t want to serve but to be served, they don't care as much for collateral damage so long as they can further their cause.

2. Proclaiming Christ. From His power comes a mandate. He sent His disciples on a mission to spread the Good News, make other disciples, baptizing and teaching them so they observe all that He has commanded. The Good News is not some mere report of events no matter how significant for our salvation, nor is it about doctrines or wise teachings. The Good News is the person of Christ Himself; when it is preached the end goal is not just belief but relationship with Christ Himself.

When it comes to preaching I find myself drawn to the words often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “At all times preach the Gospel, sometimes with words.” There is an even shorter term for this: witnessing. The most eloquent preaching anyone can do is the witness of a person’s actions and way of life.

During the crisis in Marawi, we may have seen frightening footages of fighting and bloodshed, but there is also a wellspring of stories of witnessing. A group of non-Muslim students were trapped for two days in a dormitory inside the campus of Mindanao State University. As terrorists roamed the campus, their Muslim classmates gave them moral support and protection, and even facilitated their rescue. Even now there are many civil society organizations which are mobilizing relief efforts for evacuees who fled to Iligan City and those still trapped in Marawi.

3. The Peace of Christ. He promised: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28,20). Our liturgy today describes the Ascension this way: “He ascended not to distance Himself from our lowly state but that we, His members, might be confident of following where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before” (Preface I of the Ascension). And even before we reach our final destination, He promised to send us His Spirit, to be another Advocate to guide us to all truth (Jn 14,26).

Where Christ’s Spirit is, there is peace. Philippians 4,7 says: “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Christ’s Spirit and promise enables us to pray and hope. What is it that we pray for in this time of crisis?

Foremost, we pray for the safe and immediate release of Fr. Chito Suganob and other hostages still being held by the terrorists. May they find strength and hope in the peace of Christ at their time of need. We pray that no harm fall upon our police and military forces keeping peace and order. We pray for the conversion of hearts of those who instigated the crisis and continue to live a life of violence. We pray for the end of the crisis and quick recovery of Marawi City. We pray that Martial Law be limited and short.

The Spirit of Christ leads us to truth and brings peace. When we welcome His Spirit, we are enabled to pray for ourselves as well as our enemies, and inspired to dream dreams not just for ourselves and pursue visions of a better country.



HOMILY for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord


21 May 2017

Conditional Love?



Jesus said to his disciples: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14,15). And we thought God’s love is unconditional. Jesus loves us no matter who we are or what we do – or so we think.

Here’s another statement from Jesus in Luke 9,23: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.” And in John 15,14: “You are my friends, if you do what I command.”

In Mathew 7,21, He says: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.” In the parable of the last judgment in Mathew 25, the requirement He set for entering the kingdom couldn’t be any clearer (He even said it twice): “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Does it mean therefore that God’s love is conditional after all? That He will only love us if we are holy, obedient, and kind? This feels disappointing but somehow not totally unexpected. We have gotten so used to the conditions set by our personal and institutional relationships.

Some parents think that if they love their children they should buy what they want. Some boyfriends demand from their girlfriends: “If you love me you have to give me what I desire.” The President promises a country freed from drugs but then expects people not to complain about the killings in the war on drugs. China gives our government millions in aid and loans in exchange for our silence when they grab parts of our territory for their own. Even some of our religious devotions are treated like some sort of transaction: “Please grant my petition, Lord, and I promise to go to Church for nine days of novena and Masses.”

Not so the love of the Lord. But we need to understand first what His unconditional love means.

1.     God's love sets us free. St. Paul teaches in Romans 5,8: “God proves His love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.” Even when we don’t know it yet, even when we were dead in sin, even when we couldn’t forgive ourselves, God loves us. Jesus makes this point clear when He seeks out public sinners and social outcasts in His public ministry, not to enable or patronize them, but to set them free from their bondage to sin. When he told the story of the father who accepted his prodigal son without question and ordered a feast to be celebrated for the son who was dead and has come back to life, Jesus describes the love of the Father to His children, a love that sets His children free.

2.     God’s love sustains us. When Jesus preaches about the good news of God’s love, His most frequent message is this: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1,15). God paves the way but we still need to take the step towards conversion so the power of God’s love may bring us to fullness of life. This is a life-long process, and we know from experience that there will be a lot of stumbling and back-sliding. So He sends us His Spirit of Truth to set us in the right direction and sustain us in the way. In John 14,18, Jesus promised His disciples: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

3.     God’s love brings perfection. After the episode of the rich young man who inquired about getting into heaven and the impossibly high requirement for it, the disciples of Jesus cried in frustration, “who then can be saved?” To which Jesus replied: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19,26). When we have done our part and still fall short of God’s perfection, know that it is not our human striving alone that will save us. God’s love is grace which brings perfection to our imperfect efforts and fulfillment to the limits of our strength. St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 2,8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”

God’s love is all of these: our starting point, what sustains us in the journey, and the ultimate reward. But we have to take the journey itself and respond to God's love, for unrequited love will not bring salvation. Knowing that God accepts us no matter what is but a foretaste of the infinite grace He offers. Even His commandments are an expression of His love, for they lead to fullness of life. Thus obeying them is not a divine condition but a human response to love. For God is not interested in a transactional relationship where terms and conditions apply. Rather, He "wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth" (1 Tim 2,4).

1 John 4,19 sums it up: “We love because He first loved us.”



HOMILY for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

14 May 2017

Proclaiming the Way, the Truth, and the Life Today




Christ is the Way. There are many ways to take but none of them leads to the Father, except Jesus. When we live by our own rules for a time we may feel happy, but eventually we will find out that our self-centeredness will only lead us astray. Proverbs 19,3 says: “Their own folly leads people astray, yet in their hearts they blame the Lord.”

One of the raging issues of the day is the bill to reinstate the death penalty. Studies after studies conclude that it doesn’t deter crime, but strict and consistent law enforcement does. Also certain investment opportunities and development aid are pegged upon our country’s upholding of international treaties against the death penalty. If it doesn’t deter crime and will only result to lesser economic benefits to our country, why insist on the death penalty? The one thing it satisfies is a limited and retributive form of justice, expressed in the desire for vengeance – an eye for an eye, a life for a life. But is it the way of Christ?

The way of Christ is the way of the cross, which is the radical expression of the way of love. In His time on earth Jesus has shown His love for the poor, the outcasts, and public sinners. He prevented the summary execution of a woman caught in adultery. He promised paradise to the dying criminal who was crucified with Him at Golgotha. He sacrificed His life on the cross for our sake.

People who feel nothing but contempt whenever their pastors speak about giving second chances to criminals, or against the rampant killings happening around, do not follow the way of Christ. They must be following a different messiah.

Christ is the Truth. He is more than just a teacher of sensible ideas or a dispenser of inspirational quotes. He offers nothing less than the very truth of Himself: that He and the Father are one. Whoever knows Him, knows the Father. He is the fullness of the revelation of God. He says in John 8,3: “you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free”.

If Christ’s truth sets us free, then those who twist God’s word for their own ends, those who knowingly spread fake news, those who contribute to a culture of post-truth and alternative facts, deceive people to enslave them. Today we see a strategy that exploits people’s fears and frustrations by pointing them first to a common enemy as object of hate, often a minority or a disadvantaged class; and then to a worldly savior, a false messiah who offers simplistic solutions to complex problems and, in exchange, only asks for their blind trust and loyalty.

It is important that we know who we believe. For Christ Himself says: “whoever believes in me will do the works I do” (John 14,12). We know we have fully believed in Christ when we have become more and more like Him. For the purpose of discipleship is that we become who we follow. Imagine if we are deceived into following a false messiah.

Christ is the Life. Christ, the source of life, want us to live life to the full. In John 10,10, He says: “A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

In a society where the culture of death pervades, fullness of life is still celebrated but only for a few. The culture of death is not just about the ubiquity of killings. It starts with the thinking that people, whose lives fall below the moral standards of honest law-abiding citizens, don’t deserve the full protection of the law. Human rights and due process are wasted on them. Some of them may not be even humans anymore. When we fall into this trap, we become purveyors of the culture of death. We become desensitized to the cry of victims and their families. News of yet another victim of summary execution, would mean one less threat to our family’s safety eliminated.

Christ as life reminds us that every life is sacred because it comes from God. And He wants everyone to be saved, not just the law-abiding. In fact, He comes to call sinners, which means He comes to call all of us to conversion and renewal. So unless we choose life for everyone, we are on the side of sin and death. The self-righteous will not have a place in His Kingdom.

In a time of war, post-truth, and the culture of death, it becomes even more important to proclaim Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For when we are lost, Christ is our way. When we are confused, He is our truth. When we are down and broken, He is our life.




HOMILY for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

08 May 2017

After the Heart of the Good Shepherd



Jesus Christ, referring to Himself as good shepherd and sheepgate, reveals the ways by which God saves His people. As Sheepgate, Christ offers salvation to all. St. Paul says in Col 1,14: “in Him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” As Good Shepherd, Christ leads the way to salvation by the witness of His life – His teachings and miracles, His friendships, and ultimately His laying down His life for His friends.

If Christ is our Good Shepherd, what then are we called to do?

First, we have to listen to His voice. We are surrounded by voices that vie for our attention and tell us a variety of things. “Do this and you will be happy.” “Follow me and you will get rich.” “Get this and you will be powerful.” His is the only voice that will not lead us astray. He is the Word made flesh who seeks us out, calls us by name, and knows our needs even before we speak of them.

Second, we have to walk in His way. It is easy to follow Christ when life is easy and joy is at hand. While the sheepfold is a safe zone, the flock cannot stay there forever else they will go hungry. So the Good Shepherd casts His flock out and leads them to green pastures. To get out of the sheepfold is to expose oneself to danger, pain, and suffering. Will we still follow His lead when He asks us to choose what is righteous over what is easy? Will we walk His way of the cross?

Third, and most important of all, we are called to become like Him. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord will give His people “shepherds after His own heart.” This doesn’t just apply to priests or government leaders, but to everyone. Everyday we are shepherding people, whether as an employer or employee, as a public servant or a citizen of the republic, as a parent, a brother or sister, or friend. The difference is whether we do it like Christ or we do it badly. 

Christ distinguishes between bad and good shepherds. The bad ones come only to steal, kill, and destroy. Christ comes so people might have life and have it abundantly. To be like Christ is to have the “smell of the sheep”, that is to be in genuine solidarity especially with the poor and the weak, the marginalized and the victims of violence. To be like Christ is to be ready to put the neighbor’s needs over personal comfort or safety. To be like Christ is to be happy to offer one’s life to the will of the Father.

The world has become even more challenging. Lies are presented as alternative facts, and vulgarity as authenticity. Abuse of authority is mistaken for leadership, and killings for justice. Amidst these changes, it is not only important that we are able to discern between good and bad leaders. Even more important is that we become shepherds ourselves, after the heart of the Good Shepherd.



HOMILY for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

30 April 2017

The Eucharist at Emmaus


The Road to Emmaus may be an event that happened in history, but the way it was narrated makes it also an allegory for the parts of the Mass.

The first part is the Liturgy of the Word. As Jesus interprets the Messianic prophecies written in the Law and the Prophets, we realize that all of Scriptures find their sensus plenior, their fuller sense, their deeper meaning, in Christ. He is the key to understanding the Scriptures, the history of salvation, and our personal histories of sin and grace.

The second part is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. At supper, Jesus broke the bread, said the blessing, and opened the eyes of the two disciples to His presence before them. Even now Christ makes Himself really present for us every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Thus, the Sunday liturgy should be seen for what it really is: more than just an obligation to be fulfilled but rather a privileged encounter with Christ who makes Himself available to us.

Finally, when Jesus vanished, the two disciples shared how their hearts felt like they were burning when they were with Him. Then they knew what they had to do: they had to share the good news to the other disciples. So they rushed back to Jerusalem. At the end of the Mass, the priest says: "Go, the Mass is ended." But we don't just go about our separate ways knowing that Christ is with us and our hearts still burn from our encounter with Him. We go with a sense of mission, Christ within urging us to make a profound change in our lives, and then share Him and His love with others so their lives too may change, so that His Spirit may change society and the face of the earth.


HOMILY for the Third Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33, Ps 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11, 1 Pt 1:17-21, Lk 24:13-35