5TH SUNDAY OF LENT: ARISING FROM DEATH

death-covid19 Italy

We remain in lockdown for the past two weeks or so. Churches are closed but this does not prevent us to remain in communion and spread the Word of God especially every Sunday.

In the gospel of today’s 5th Sunday of Lent, Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, was very seriously ill. The siblings are one of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples. Martha knew that Jesus could heal sick people. So when her brother got sick and she knew that Jesus was nearby, she turned to him for help. Then she waited three desperate and increasingly miserable days. During those days Jesus didn’t come, and Lazarus died.

Perhaps Martha and Mary was asking: “You love us and you loved him; why did you not come and cure him while he was still alive?”

I think many of us is asking God the same question right now in the midst of this tragic pandemic. So many are ill and are dying everyday. Why would God not heal all those people who are ill because of covid-19? Why would God not stopped this virus so there would be no longer thousands of people dying?

We can extend this question to all kinds of illness and suffering in our world today. Why would God not do anything about those who are seriously ill with cancer, heart diseases and other major illness? Why are so many people suffering and dying and God seemed to not to care.  Remember, Jesus himself who is God, expressed the same cry, out of his humanity from the cross: “God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

But upon arriving at the cave where Lazarus was buried, Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” God loves us so much especially those who are ill and dying just as he loved Lazarus. Indeed, in the same way, God is crying right now at the tragic state of our world.

The death of Lazarus ultimately led Jesus to show God’s power and glory as he told Martha,

“Your brother will rise.”

“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

He raised Lazarus to new life. He freed Lazarus from death.

The dead man came out,
tied hand and foot with burial bands,
and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
So Jesus said to them,
“Untie him and let him go.”

The strongest message of the gospel story today is that life is more powerful than death. Through God’s power, we will passed over from death into new life. In the end God will ultimately raise us into life and destroy death so we can live eternally with God.

The passing over from death into new life is also articulated in our first reading today. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord GOD says,

O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them

We need to read the whole chapter (Ezekiel 37) to understand the passage entirely. Ezekiel is shown a valley full of bones and is commanded to prophesy to the bones:

“See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord.”

The prophet does as he is told, and the bones are reconstructed into skeletons, enfleshed, and revived,

“they came alive and stood upright, a vast army. Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’”

It is at that point that today’s First Reading begins, with its promise to return the people to their homeland.

This pandemic has sort of put us into a tomb. Compelled into a lockdown and self quarantine, it was hard to stop our age old routines, lifestyles and habits. On the other hand, it has led us to take a hard look at our own lifestyles and attitudes as well as the dominant socio-economic system that sustained our lifestyles and attitudes. It is in this spirit of self-critique that Pope Francis expressed some of his thoughts in a special Urbi et Orbi blessing at the Vatican. Standing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square with a steady rain falling, Pope Francis spoke to the world through all the means of modern communication: Facebook, YouTube, TV, and radio,

“Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”

The biggest challenge of this pandemic is how to arise from death and come out of our tombs. After the pandemic, the world will never be the same again. After this pandemic, we cannot go back to the life we had before the pandemic. We cannot just pretend that nothing happened and go back to our previous routines, lifestyles and habits.  We will need new lifestyles, new ways and new attitudes to avoid another pandemic which is not improbable if we do not learn the lessons this pandemic has taught us. We will need a new socio-economic system that will nourish and sustain not just the health of human beings but of wildlife and mother nature.

If we return to the gospel of Jesus and live out its values, Jesus will lead us out of this pandemic into new life. It we allow the gospel of Jesus to transform us in this pandemic, we might be like bones now in the valley of death but God will breath new life upon us and put on a new flesh and blood into our bones.

Lord Jesus open up our graves. Breathe your Holy Spirit into our dry bones so that we can rise into new life.

 

4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: A NEW VISION

new-vision

This past week, the whole world experienced an unprecedented level of trial and tribulation similar to world war-like conditions.

The number of cases of coronavirus worldwide has surpassed 300,000. The total deaths globally is more than 13,000. And these are increasing by the day.

Almost all countries went into lockdown closing all schools, shops, offices, pubs, and churches due to the pandemic.  This has put to a sudden stop all our normal activities–work, leisure, socials even religious. Many suffered hunger and physical deprivations because no work meant no money to buy food and other essential things.

As we retreated from our daily activities, however, we had ample time to look back and take a stock into our lives as individuals and global community.

Indeed, the pandemic is a humbling experience for us. As tragic as it may seem, the pandemic may have led us to our own shortcoming and blindness. We realize how we have endangered the lives of our fellow human beings and mother nature by our wanton exploitation of nature and an unsustainable lifestyle.  One of the major calling out of this pandemic is healing–the healing of broken nature and lives as well as the healing of our own blindness.  

Our readings for today’s 4th Sunday of Lent talks about seeing which is not just physical seeing but more profoundly spiritual seeing.  In the same way, blindness is not just physical blindness but spiritual blindness. The seeing that our readings talk about is the seeing  given to us by God which gives us a new vision beyond our own blindness.

In the first reading from the book of Samuel, the prophet Samuel comes to Bethlehem, by the order of the Lord, to choose a new king from the family of Jesse. Samuel rejects Jesse’s oldest son, supposedly by tradition the one who is to be the king, Samue’s reason, God sees beyond the physical attributes of a person:

“Not as man sees does God see,
because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.”

In the second reading, St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, calls all the baptized as children of light. When we were baptized God has given us a new way of seeing which led us to live from darkness into light:

Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light,
for light produces every kind of goodness
and righteousness and truth.

In our Gospel, Jesus gave depth of sight to a man born blind. Jesus restored not just his physical eyesight; his heart had also been healed. The blind man came to belive in Jesus and became a disciple and messenger of Jesus.

Faith in Jesus gives us a new vision. The New Testament use sight as a symbol for Christian faith. Believing is the deepest kind of “seeing.” The early Church called baptism enlightenment. It is not incidental that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is “metanoia” which means a new way of thinking. Faith is believing which inaugurates a new way of seeing and thinking.

Like the blind man in the gospel, we are all blind. Although we are not blind physically, we have close our eyes to the suffering of our fellow human beings and of mother nature. We suffer from spiritual blindness because we do not go beyond our physical sight and our own needs and myophic viewpoint. Let us pray to Jesus then that he may have our eyes opened so we may learn to see the world as God sees it.

Like Lent, this pandemic will lead us to resurrection if we allow our faith in Jesus to help us see more clearly beyond our past mistakes and failures. We can rise up from this pandemic if we see Jesus at the center of this pandemic. We will emerge victorious from this pandemic if we encounter Jesus and experience his healing power out of our blindness. He will give us a new vision that will help us to live in greater harmony with nature and solidarity with our fellow human beings especially the poor and the downtrodden.   

3RD SUNDAY OF LENT: RETURN TO THE WELL

Baclaran-covid

This week was a heart wrenching week as the Coronavirus pandemic spreads in almost every country around the globe.

The virus caused a radical discruption to the life of many people on the planet as people stock up on groceries, offices closed down, major sports and cultural events are cancelled and people are told to stay home rather than congregate and risk spreading the disease.

Despite the death, illness and other destructive impact of the virus, there might be some opportunities and important lessons that this pandemic might teach us. Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort, for example, said that the virus might even be a grace for the world:

“The virus will slow down everything, We will see an arrest in the making of consumer goods. That is terrible and wonderful because we need to stop producing at such a pace. We need to change our behavior to save the environment. It’s almost as if the virus is an amazing grace for the planet.” [1]

Edelkoort believes we can emerge from the health crisis as more conscientious humans provided that we find new values—values of simple experience, of friendship. “It might just turn the world around for the better.”[2]

Indeed, this pandemic might be a test for us in which, depending upon our response, we can come out for better or for worst.

In the 1st reading of today’s 3rd Sunday of Lent, we hear of the Israelites quarreling with Moses about the lack of water, and Moses rebuking the Israelites for testing Yahweh.

The place was called Massah and Meribah,
because the Israelites quarreled there
and tested the LORD, saying,
“Is the LORD in our midst or not?”

Interestingly Massah, means testing, and Meribah, means quarreling.

In the gospel today we hear of the profoundly meaningful story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The story is a long conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman who came to the well at noon time.  The well became the venue for the Samaritan woman to discover Jesus. Jesus started with the basic human need of thirst leading up to his profound mission of satisfying deep human needs and desires.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;
but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

It was in the well that the Samaritan woman came to true faith, that is, “coming and seeing” fulfilment of her human aspiration in Jesus. This led her to discover her true identity. She was no longer just a Samaritan or a woman but a follower of Jesus who left her old life in favour of a higher form of life in Jesus.

Lent is a journey of encountering Jesus. In the first Sunday of Lent, we encountered Jesus in the desert. In the second Sunday of Lent, we encountered Jesus on the mountain top. In today’s third Sunday of Lent, we encountered Jesus on the well. All these places became the locus where we discover ourselves and God

This pandemic, believe it or not, can be a place where we can encounter Jesus, however tragic it may be. The pandemic has forced us to slow down which providentially gave us an opportunity to take a stock of our lives as inviduals and as a global community. The pandemic helped us to return to the most essential values of our humanity–to live in harmony with nature, with fellow human beings and and the source of everything–God.

When we look at the well, what do we see? We see ourselves. If we look deeper into the reality of this pandemic, we can rediscover our true selves and Jesus in the midst of this tragedy. However, this will entail conversion and giving up of our old ways in order to rebuild and live our lives closer to one another, to nature and to God.

 

 

 

2ND SUNDAY OF LENT: A WHOLE NEW WORLD

On top of Sierra Mountain range, Gagayan, 2014

Every day we deal with a lot of stress, difficulties, anxieties and struggles. Because of the too much weight of the burdens in life, many times we become depressed and want to give up. During these down moments, what gives us hope? What gives us peace? What gives us strenght? Perhaps it is our dreams, aspirations, the vision that someday all these gloom will be overturned and a whole new world will dawn upon us. This glimpse of a new life and new world is what gives us strenght and hope to continue and not to give up.

An example of these inspiring moments is when we are on top of a mountain. I’ve always felt a certain spiritual even mystical aura when I am on top of a mountain. Suddenly, all my worries and fears disappear. It feels I’m so close to heaven and to God. I experience a reconnection and harmony with nature. The view from the top gives me a bird’s eye view of everything. The mountain gives me a new perspective. It refreshes me and inspire me to imagine a new world and new life. It gives peace and serenity to my mind and soul. It makes me new again.

This is the experience that Jesus led Peter James and John to in the gospel today. The gospel for today’s second Sunday of Lent (years A and B) always tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. In today’s gospel from Matthew, we read

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.

Transfiguration Icon

The Greek word used for transfiguration is metamorphoo—this is the root of the English word, metamorphosis. We use the word metamorphosis more popularly today for the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly, likewise in the transformation of a maggot into an adult fly and the changing of a tadpole into a frog. These are some of the amazing wonders of nature that we can ever witness in our entire lives. It’s almost like a change from one creature to a totally different creature. Who would have imagine that a beautiful butterfly would come out of an ugly caterpillar? Indeed, metamorphosis is a reminder and a symbol from nature that something good can come out even from the messiest and ugliest reality of our lives. Change, even radical change is possible as nature have shown us.

This gives us the greatest hope and joy in anticipation of the transformation that will become of us and of God’s creation in the fullness of time. Jesus’ transfiguration was a foretaste of the metamorphosis that is to become of us at the end of time. This also happens to us everyday. We often have glimpses of glory: in a remarkable sunset, in the shining face of a delighted child, in the radiant joy of new parents. Like the transfiguration, these glimpses of glory encourage and strengthen us to continue the journey of life toward eternal glory.

The divine metamorphosis that occurred to the three disciples on the mountain top during the Transfiguration of the Lord will also happen to us and we will become “God-viewers.” Like them and all the Saints of the ages, God’s light will metamorphose our whole body and soul. We will achieve what is called Theosis (Deification) and shine as luminaries radiating the light of the knowledge of God. We will become partakers of the Divine Grace and communicants of God.

This is also true for our world, Jesus’ resurrection is a symbol of hope for the change that will happen in the world from injustice into integrity, from hatred into kindness and from violence into peace. This gives the utmost hope especially to those who have long been suffering and desperate. But as Jesus showed us, the only way to transfiguration and transformation is through suffering and ultimately dying to ourselves.  Change can only happen at the cost of ourselves.

This new vision that God will fulfill for us is articulated in the first reading today. In the first reading, from the book of Genesis, God promised to Abraham that God will transform God’s chosen people–Israel. God will bestow an abundant posterity and land to Israel. God sealed his promise through a covenant which God established with Abraham:

“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”

All these musings call for a reorientation of Lent. Australian Redemptorist Fr. Kevin O’Shea suggests that we take a reverse journey during Lent. We begin in the end—the resurrection:

Suppose we could … do Lent backwards. Suppose, instead of Ash Wednesday, we started with Easter Sunday. Suppose we then thought what we would have liked to have done to make ourselves ready for our share in Jesus’ resurrection. It would be like a reverse Easter vigil, not for one night, but for 40 nights. Backwards.[1]

Lent begins with the profound belief that we are a redeemed people through the resurrection. This victorious reality is what we received from our baptism. Baptism endows our profound identity as a redeemed people through the resurrection of Jesus. That is why from the earliest history of the church, the church has set aside the whole 40 days of Lent as the preparation and training period of candidates for baptism, called catechumens. The catechumens are solemnly baptized at the end of the Lenten season on Easter Vigil. This worthy practice was revived by the church in recent years through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. Thus, in Lent, we re-evaluate our lives in the light of our baptismal promises and identity. Lent is an academy where once again we relearn the meaning and implications and appreciate the wonder of baptism.

Whilst rituals, penitence, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are important, they are not the primary goal of Lent. As we go through Lent each year, oftentimes, our focus is on the external rituals and acts of penitence.  In so doing, Lent becomes about us—our efforts, discipline, sacrifices and goals no longer about the victory of Jesus. When this happen the whole Lenten discipline becomes superficial, merely obligations that we have to go through but does not bring forth true change. Thus, come Easter, after all the observances in Lent, we become what we call in Tagalog, BSDU: balik sa dating ugali (back to old ways).

By returning to our victorious baptismal identity, Lent becomes a time for examining our participation in the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is pondering what “rising from the dead” means. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, that despite all our frailties and failures, our wickedness and weaknesses, God’s grace will redeem us over and over again. There is no human being, however evil or sinful, that is beyond redemption by Jesus’ resurrection. As nature have shown us, change, even radical change, is possible. This too gives us hope in a transformed world, that in the midst of too much suffering in the world around us and the seeming prevalence of evil in our world, goodness will triumph, Jesus will triumph, and we will reach our fullness and life’s fullness in God’s grace.

 

 

 


 

[1] Kevin O’ Shea, “Ash Wednesday,” cssr.org. Accessed 22/02/2018 at https://www.cssr.org.au/writings/dsp-default.cfm?loadref=2765

1ST SUNDAY OF LENT: CONFRONTING THE ENEMY WITHIN

1st-sunday-of-Lent

When I was young. one of my most favorite song I played on the guitar was a song called “A Horse with no Name”. “A Horse With No Name” was first sung by the American band, America in 1972 and it was originally titled, “Desert Song.” According to the band the song was a metaphor for escaping the drudgery of everyday life in the city.

The desert, as we experience it today, is the place where, we are stripped of all that normally nourishes and supports us. We are exposed to chaos, raw fear, and demons of every kind. In the desert we are made vulnerable to be overwhelmed by chaos and temptations of every kind. Ironically,  because  we are so stripped of everything we normally rely on, it can also be a privileged moment for grace. Why? Because all the defense mechanisms, support systems, and distractions that we normally surround ourselves with may also work to keep much of God’s grace at bay.

Thus, deserts have played a prominent part in the spirituality of all religions. Our own scriptures tell us that, before they could enter into the promised land, the Israelites had to first wander in the desert for forty years – letting themselves be led by God, undergoing many trials, and swallowing much impatience. A long period of uprooting and frustration preceded the prosperity of the promised land.

This is also what we hear in the Gospel of today’s 1st Sunday of Lent.  The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert where he remained there for forty days. In the desert Jesus was confronted by the devil.

The devil tempted Jesus to showcase his power and magically ease himself out of suffering. The devil first tempted Jesus to make bread out of stones to appease his hunger after forty days in the desert. Then the devil tempted Jesus to  jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall. Finally, the devil tempted Jesus to worship him and forget all about God’s mission in return for all the kingdoms of the world.

As we begin this Lenten season, Jesus invites us to enter the desert. The desert is no longer just a physical, geographical thing. It is that place in the soul where we feel most alone, insubstantial, frightened, and fragile. It is that place where we go to face our demons, feel our smallness and yet be in a special intimacy with God, and prepare ourselves for the promised land. The enemy is not just outside but more importantly inside. The enemy is within us. The biggest battle we wage in this world is the battle to confront the enemy within.

Lent, therefore, is not so much physical, external activities but an inner spiritual struggle where we encounter God. In the desert of our soul we groan for God’s redemption. In the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer “Lead us not into temptation” becomes very real for us as we confront the temptations we have give-in our whole lives. We come face-to-face with our weaknesses and temptations, the tool of the devil. We admit that we are weak and cannot defeat the devil by our own efforts alone but by humbly and trustingly rely on God’s grace.

In these 40 days of the Lenten desert, let us return to our true selves formed in God’s grace. Like St. Paul, we place our lives in God’s grace, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So at the end of Lent we can, in a new freedom, recognise the joyful abundance of Easter’s new life.

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday: Reconnecting with God and all of God’s Creation

ash_wednesday_2014b

Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season which is a call to return to the heart. This implies that Lent most of all is a call to a transformation from the deepest core of our being.  Although in Lent we will be doing many sacrificial and penitential acts, all these will come to nothing if there is no genuine inner transformation.

At the heart of our faith is our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love. We are a being-in-connection not in-isolation. In this context, sin is the condition where we become separated or isolated from God, from others and from ourselves. Thus, during this Lent we are called to reconcile and heal whatever brokenness that has become of our relationship with God, others and ourselves.

Today is called Ash Wednesday because of the ritual of the imposition of ashes on the head during the liturgy of the day. The celebrant says the words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return, (cf. Gen 3:19).” The newer form is Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the gospel (Mk 1:15).” I kind of prefer the old formula even if is a bit morbid as it reminds us of our death. For me, however, it captures more the penitential character of Lent and the call to return to our origin as well as our end, symbolized by the dust, soil or earth. The earth more profoundly symbolizes the interconnectedness of all life rooted in God’s love.

The readings today expresses these calls to return to the heart and to our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love.

The first reading from the prophet Joel proclaims the call to a wholehearted return to God: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12). To return to the Lord with all of our heart means an inner conversion that reaches the deepest place of our selves not merely superficial nor external one. As the prophet says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” The heart, as we all believe, is the symbol of love and also the core of our being where our decisions and our attitudes mature.

St. Paul in the second reading also repeats the call to return to God: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)” St. Paul insists that we can return to God not through our own effort but primarily through the love of the Father for us who did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son.

In the Gospel from Matthew, Jesus reinterprets the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus warns the people that if these three pillars are not observed through the love and the mercy of God it will be hypocritical. This has been shown over time through the practices of false religious leaders by their insistence on external formalism and social reward. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation and public accolade, but only the reward of the love of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).

On Ash Wednesday, we are called to return to where we came from. The dust or earth is where we originally came from. Remember the story of creation, God created Adam, the first human being from dust. But also the earth is where we shall all return when we die. I am reminded of a popular Tagalog song by the Philippine folk band Asin in the 80s:

Nagmula sa lupa, magbabalik na kusa,
(From earth we came, willingly we shall return)
Ang buhay mong sa lupa nagmula …
(your life from the earth came)

But not just human beings, all things shall fall and return to the earth. All will turn to dust when they die. Thus the earth symbolizes our oneness as created things. This implies further that all creation is connected with each other. We are all creatures in need of one another. No one can live alone and isolated from creation or worst can dominate over creation. The interconnection of all creation is not meant to serve human beings but on the contrary human being are meant to serve and maintain the harmony and interconnectedness of all creation.

 

All creation is interconnected because it comes from God. We believe in the one God, three persons. While three persons, God is one because of the interconnectedness of God as shown in God’s inner life and God’s mission to all creation. Hence, we are only interconnected because we participate in the interconnectedness of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains this profound belief in his notion of God as exitus-reditus of all creation. According to St. Thomas, all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). For us human beings, however, the coming forth and returning in a special way reflects the inner life of the Trinity. In fact, the coming forth of the Son from the Father and the coming forth of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son are the cause and exemplar of our coming forth and our returning to God as creatures.[1]

Lent is the season of assessing how we have isolated our lives and endangered the web of interconnectedness of life. Lent is the time to examine the patterns of our lives which severed our need for God and one another through our pride, domination, power, self-centeredness, apathy, insecurity, fear, lust, jealousy and other patterns and tendencies that may lead us to sin. Lent is the realization of the drudgery and wretchedness of a life of separation from the love of God, family, others and ultimately our true selves. The spiritual exercises that we are to observe in the Lenten season like prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not merely private nor external show but our internal journey of reconnecting with the love of God in others, in creation and in ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday, let us once again begin the journey of returning to the heart and reconnecting with the web of the interconnectedness of life rooted in the love of God. Let us begin our preparation for the renewal of our baptismal participation in the resurrection of Jesus by our wholehearted desire to return to God’s love.

ash_wednesday_baclaran4

 


 

[1] Why Thomism, Dominicana. Accessed 13/02/2018 at https://www.dominicanajournal.org/why-thomism/

7TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: LOVE YOUR ENEMIES

love-your-enemies

The Gospel reading in today’s 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time continues the Sermon on the Mount from last week. In the gospel today we come to the most difficult instruction that Jesus ever uttered: “Love your enemies.”

In Proverbs 24:17 we’re told not to gloat when our enemy falls. In Proverbs 25:21 we’re told to feed our enemy when he’s hungry. But the blatant instruction to love our enemies came from Jesus in His sermon on the mount.

Much has been said, written and commented on this difficult words of Jesus. I would just like to highlight three things.

First, these words of Jesus is, indeed, radical. It represents a revolutionary new teaching from Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

Ulrich Luz says that  “Love thy enemies” is what separates Christianity from all earlier religions. Ron Rolheiser said that to love one’s enemy is the acid-test of who’s a Christian and who isn’t. In a (2001) issue of America magazine, John Donahue makes this comment:

“Virtually no Christian group has adopted Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy as the critical test of orthodoxy. Yet Jesus issues four ringing commands: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you.”

Second, we all cringe at these words of Jesus. It is unnatural, counter-intuitive and illogical. Therefore, we all struggle to follow Jesus’ words. On the other hand, Jesus’ words seemed to be hitting the core of the reality of many conflicts that continue to plague our world. We continue to live in times where is deep division and polarization between countries and religions, between individuals and groups, between political ideologies from both the left and the right, each party trying to impose on others their own view of what is right or wrong.

Third, it is very important that we don’t take Jesus’ words out of context. Many of the confusion and misconceptions that arose out of these text were the result of interpreting Jesus’ words literally without any consideration of the socio-cultural context upon which Jesus uttered these words.

Finally, Jesus’ words are based on his final command to “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus challenges us to go beyond our average and expected attitudes and behaviors as Christians.

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?

To “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” is also expressed in the first reading today from the book of Leviticus.

“Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

We should not, however, take the word perfect out of context. When Jesus said that we need to “be perfect” he is not speaking of some kind of impossible flawlessness. The word perfect in the original Greek means complete. It comes from a primary word meaning to set out for a definite point or goal. Jesus is saying for us to make it our goal to love like our Heavenly Father loves.

The love of our Heavenly Father evokes completeness and inclusiveness demonstrated in the universality of the gifts of sun­shine and rain. The “heavenly Father,” gives Life (“sun rise” and “rain”) to “the just and the unjust” alike. It is precisely that quality of God’s universal love that we are to imitate.

 

6TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: FULFILLING GOD’S LAW

fulfilling-the-law

Today’s readings of the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time talk about fulfilling God’s law. The readings present us with a deeper and wholistic understanding of the fulfillment God’s law. The readings urge us not just to follow the ‘outside’ of the law but more importantly the ‘inside’ of the law.

The first reading from Sirach highlights for us that fulfilling God’s law is a radical choice between life and death, good and evil. Sadly, our desires and our thoughts  most often deviate from God’s will.

Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.

Thus, the second reading, from the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, tells us that to fulfill the law is not to seek the wisdom of this age but the wisdom of God.

We speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,

To Paul, the revelation of Jesus represents a vision that human eyes have never seen, a voice that human ears have never heard. It is beyond our wildest imaginings, “Nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus shows us that to completely fulfill the law is not just following the externals of the law but more importantly fulfilling the spirit of the law.

We continue in the gospel with the Sermon on the Mount. This is a long Gospel where we move into the part of the Sermon that scholars call the six antitheses. Six times in a row, the words of Jesus follow a pattern that goes, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you … ” Here we see Jesus asserting an authority even greater than that of Moses.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that he has not come to do away with the law but to fulfill the law. In fact, no one will get into heaven unless his righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law-observing scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus is critical of the Pharisees’ type of righteousness, which focuses on externals. They make sure everyone sees them when they fast, pray on street corners, wash hands, etc.

This whole sermon, at the beginning of Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, is not meant for exact execution, but for our interiorizing the heart and mind of Jesus. It is not about doing this or not doing that. It is about the “why” of our doing anything.

In reinterpreting the law, Jesus is not spinning the Law and the traditions passed on through the prophets. He is applying a proper spirit to what had become too legalistic. The spirit of Jesus is to form the heart as well as the mind. Jesus does not make new laws; for living the law, he brings a new vision and a new help—a refreshed covenant relationship with God.

Let us now examine Jesus’ applying the spirit of fulfilling the law into six example of laws from the Torah.

You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.

The inside of that law is, do not even act out of anger for your brother or sister. Jesus forbids anger and insults that could escalate to murder. He forbids calling another “fool,” though he hurls the word at the scribes and Pharisees in Mt 23:17. For Jesus, squelching the feud even takes precedence over Temple worship!

You shall not commit adultery.

When adultery is committed, the Torah called for the death of both parties. But more often than not, the man escaped while the woman’s father and brothers would kill her for shaming their family. If the aggrieved husband took no action against his wife, he was often regarded as an object of derision. If he took no action against the man, his own manhood was further questioned. Jesus says forget adultery as a means of challenging other men. The consequences are too devastating.

The rigid and strictly enforced separation of men and women in this society made adultery almost impossible to conceal when it happened. Actually, adultery was less a result of passion than a deliberate attempt by one man to shame another.

The inside of that law demands further to be pure enough to not even glance lustfully at a woman.

Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.

Divorce is disruptive to a tight-knit community like that of Jesus’ followers. Since the ideal marriage partners were first cousins (Peter’s mother-in-law was also his aunt), divorce could tear apart the villages in which these families lived and tried to make a living. Jesus is trying to say: “Forget divorce. Learn to live with your difficulty for the sake of family unity.”

The interior law is, stay faithful and loving within your marriage relationship, not just do not separate.

Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.

The context here is selling. There was no food and drug commission to insure honesty. A seller would indirectly call God to witness his claim for his wares. Never mentioning God by name, the seller would swear “by my head, by my beard, on my life, by Jerusalem, etc.” When he refused to make God explicit, conflict erupted. Jesus advised his followers to be honest and direct with one another at the market: yes or no.

Today people do use oaths, such as, “ … in the name of God, … ” or “OMG,” (which stands for O, MY GOD!), or e.g., “By God, I will never let you. … ” We hear such slang everywhere, movies, television, high schools, grade schools. Jesus diagnoses these usages simply: we are trying to make up for our weakness by putting almighty power behind our words. He tells us he has a better way. Just say yes or no, and mean it. Or, to say it another way, be real.

God’s “command of perfect love” obliges us to go beyond the letter of the law. It is not good enough to stay out of trouble; we must work at setting things right in the world. It is not good enough to give food to the hungry; we must work at making ours a society in which people do not go hungry.

Jesus sees in the law the means to the fulfillment of time (“until all things have taken place”), when the law will be replaced by righteous relationships within the kingdom of heaven. The fundamental law is gift of self to others. When self-giving is lacking in any act of keeping the law, the law in fact is not fulfilled.

5TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: TO BE OR NOT TO BE

Hand lettering You the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question” is the opening phrase of a monologue uttered by Prince Hamlet in  William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. To be or not to be’ is probably the best-known line from all drama. It may also be one of the most popular one liner one can drop in any discourse.

This line, however, can represent one of the most fundamental question of our lives: What does it mean to live? In our lives, perhaps, the biggest challenge is how to live. We have a popular saying in Tagalog: Madaling maging tao, mahirap magpakatao! (Its easy to be born human, its hard to become human). This implies that it is far easier to exist in this world than to live. Many of us exist well but not truly live well. For one can easily exist and just go along with the circumstances of our lives but to live is to actively choose, even to fight for the just and noble path of life.  Indeed, “Not to be” is the easier option than “to be”.

It is tougher to live than to exist in the world today. It is easier to go with the flow than to go against it.  The world has driven us to become passive and led us to live a vicious cycle of victimhood. The political and economic situation we live, for example, makes it harder especially for the struggling poor to live a decent life than for the rich. The mass production, mass advertising and mass purchasing give us the feeling that we are worth very little in ourselves other than contributing to the market, doing and buying what it dictates. The culture of relativism and individualism makes it harder to hold on to our moral compass and live a life beyond our individualist goals. Confronting the system and defying it outright is the road less travelled. Many would rather seek to compromise first hoping that in the end they can transform the system from within. But sadly, many end up swallowed by the system.

“To be or not to be” is also a fundamental question of our Christian faith. Again in Tagalog: Madaling maging Kristiano, mahirap magpakakristiano (Its easy to be baptized as Christian, its hard to live as Christian).

In the Gospel of today’s 5th Sunday in Ordinary time, Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd to “be who they really are.” The gospel today is part of the Sermon on the Mount which follows immediately after the beautitudes. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ declaration of the fundamental conditions of discipleship in his kingdom. Jesus brilliantly demonstrated his challenge to “be who they really are” by calling his disciples salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”

The true nature and effectiveness of both salt and light is that they exist not for itself but for others. Salt does not give flavor to itself; light does not illuminate itself. Salt gives taste to food when it is sprinkled into the food. Once it is sprinkled into the food, however, it is gone; it is already within the seasoned food. We enjoy the food, not the salt. We dont eat the salt by itself. It is never pleasurable to eat the salt by itself. Salt is always for seasoning the food. Light is like this, too. We turn on a light not in order to look at the light, but in order to look at other things by means of the light. On the other hand, salt is thrown away and trampled if it becomes tasteless and light is ineffective if it is hidden.

Jesus’ calling us the salt and light of the world, just like the beatitudes is revolutionary but also an honest to goodness appraisal of our attitudes. Indeed, many times we hide our faith. We try to repress it in our public lives, presuming that it has nothing to offer the “real” world of politics and economics. Or we keep it under a basket—a “private” matter that makes no difference to society. 

If we are like salt, then don’t lose our flavor. If we are like a lamp then don’t put a basket over ourselves where no one can see our light. We can be true to our identity or hide it or compromise with the world to the detriment of our true identities. If our faith makes no difference in the “real” world, it goes flat. It has nothing special to offer the world. Having lost its special taste, it never changes culture. It just mimics it.

To be the light of the world is to enable the world to see something other than himself. A Christian is to let his light shine in such a way that the world glorifies God. If a Christian is the salt of the earth, he makes the goodness of God appeal to the taste of earthly people. Disciples season the world with God’s word and faithfully shine forth God’s Presence. 

The First Reading makes concrete the “good works” that disciples do when they are true to their identities as salt of the earth and light of the world.  The Lord through the prophet Isaiah calls God’s chosen people to

Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.

If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

The good works of the disciples point away from themselves to the grace of God through which they were wrought. This is how we let our light shine in the darkness. It is the realization of “becoming ourselves.”

The choice is ours: to season or be discarded, to shine or be hidden. “To be or not the be” that is the question.