Sometimes, out of exasperation from the many evil around us and out of pain from so much suffering we are experiencing, we cry to God in protest: If you are a mighty God, why don’t you just remove all the suffering and hunger and make everyone full and prosperous? If you are a caring God why wont you defend and protect those who are oppressed and abused? Why wont you just display your power and eliminate all evil people in the world?
In today’s gospel of the first Sunday of Lent, 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.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Then [the devil] led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here
These temptations are not just the temptations that Jesus encountered in the desert before he began his ministry. These temptations represent the temptations that Israel, the chosen people of God, experienced in the desert (God’s testing of Israel and Israel’s testing of God) as told in the first reading (Deuteronomy 6 through 8) today.
When the devil challenges Jesus to demonstrate his divine sonship by commanding stones to turn into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live on bread alone”—which those who knew their Deuteronomy would complete with the words, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” When the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship him, Jesus paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God; him alone shall you serve.” When the devil shifts from temptations to arrogance to a temptation to presumption (if you are the Son of God, jump from the Temple parapet; God will surely protect you), Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” It becomes clear here that Jesus is pictured as reliving the story of Israel in the wilderness, and getting it right. The parallel (and contrast) extends even to the talk of sonship: “So you must realize that the Lord, your God, disciplines you even as a man disciplines his son” (Deut 8:5).
We too are not immune to temptations. Temptations are a part of our daily living. The world around us is full of temptations: We are seduced to buy what is not needed, to eat too much, to steal money and things from others, to cheat, to have power over others through sex, to be violent, to take vengeance and many others. Temptations tests the depth and strength of our faith. Temptations are not sins, according to our catechism. They can even serve as an opportunity to hone our skills, deepen and purify our faith by God’s grace. On the other hand, if we fall into them, we are led to sin. We are led to the devil and become separated from God, from others and from ourselves.
Contrary to what temptations will always tell us, neither bread nor magic will save us. It will be only, as St. Paul writes to the Romans in the second reading, by our entry into Christ’s own act of total trust and abandonment, believing in our hearts that therein we ourselves are raised from the dead and delivered.
In this season of Lent, Jesus invites us to confront and defeat evil. Lent is confronting the devil himself. The whole purpose of Lent is to defeat the devil. The goal of Lent is to share in Jesus’ resurrection, his victory over evil and death.
How do we do this? How do we come face-to-face with the devil?
Jesus invites us to enter into the desert.
In the history of the church, Lent has been associated with testing and trial period. In the Bible, the desert is the traditional ground where the people of God is tested. 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.
All the great spiritual masters and saints have undergone great trials and come face-to-face with the devil. They see the desert as the place where one is exposed to chaos, raw fear, and demons of every kind. In the desert we are exposed, body and soul, made vulnerable to be overwhelmed by chaos and temptations of every kind. But, precisely because we are so stripped of everything we normally rely on, this is also a privileged moment for grace. All the defense mechanisms, support systems, and distractions that we normally surround ourselves with so as to keep chaos and fear at bay work at the same time to keep much of God’s grace at bay.
By stripping ourselves of the things that superficially nourishes and supports us, we become aware of the essentials. We put aside the distraction and the abundance and focus on the essential. We empty ourselves so God can give us just what we need. Similarly, Lent calls us to focus on the essentials in the Christian life: stretching our roots into the life-giving, joy-giving water of Christ. Because it is God who gives us life; things don’t.
My photo of Dubai Desert
A growing trend in the past few years is minimalism. Its mantra is less is more or going back to basics. It’s about simple living, living with fewer material possessions. An example of this trend are those who chose to live in tiny houses which help them save money that they can use for other things that would truly make them happy.
Lent is the unloading of many spiritual baggages we have accumulated over the years. Lent reminds us once again to focus our time and energy and resources on what matters most. It means removing anything that keeps us from living the full, abundant life that Jesus came to give us which can be possessions, luxuries, addictions, sinful vices or enslaving mindsets. By stripping ourselves of many things and focusing on the essentials, Lent will bring us to a freedom from sin, a freedom to uncover our true selves, and a freedom to unleash our potentials in joyful service to God and to others.
This Lent we are invited to go into the desert. Desert can be literal or metaphorical. It can be a physical, geographical thing or a place in the soul. It can be a place in the soul where we feel most alone, insubstantial, frightened, and fragile. Mostly, it is within ourselves where we come face-to-face with our weaknesses and temptations, the tool of the devil. In the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer “Lead us not into temptation” becomes very real for us as we confront temptation every minute of our lives. We admit that we are weak and cannot defeat the devil by our own efforts alone but by humbly and trustingly relying on God’s grace.
In these 40 days in the desert, let us return to the bare essentials of God’s grace. Like St. Paul, let us 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.
In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) today, I would like to reflect on the rise of women’s movement called feminism and its implications for the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. On the other hand, this short essay will present how Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help (OMPH) can be a resource for feminism. Furthermore, this essay will contemplate on the icon of OMPH and its significance to women.
The Rise of Women
One of the most significant movements of the last fifty years of the 20th century was the feminist movement. This movement brought significant changes to the traditional family. As British sociologist Anthony Giddens declares, “As women stake claim to greater quality, traditional family systems are under strain, in many parts of the world.”
A major consequence of this is the gradual breakdown of the patriarchal family. “The inequality of men and women was intrinsic to the traditional family.” Consequently, we are now in a post-patriarchal family: “The heterosexual, nuclear, patriarchal family built around a long-lasting marriage is today the exception rather than the rule in the United States and in the majority of Western Europe.” The breakdown of patriarchal family not only transformed women but also men. Marina Subirats talks about ‘new masculinities’ where men seek new perspectives of meaningful existence by liberating themselves from the burden of their responsibility as patriarchs.
Philippines has one of highest regard for women in Asia. The Philippines is the world’s seventh most gender-equal society among 144 economies and remained the highest-ranked country in the Asia-Pacific region. The World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 showed the Philippines closing nearly 79 percent of its gender gap. Does the status of the Philippine as a Marian country has something to do with this? Despite this glowing report, however, abuse of women continues in the Philippines—battered women, misogyny in many aspects of life, sexual harassment in the workplace, rape and income inequality, among others.
As the world is beginning to explore the value of women in the workforce especially at a decision-making level, sadly the church is one of the major institution of the world where women are not given as much role as men. Female involvement especially in decision-making processes within the Catholic Church is still very weak. Patriarchy runs deep within the church. Thus, from the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has called for a renewed “theology of women.” Pope Francis also affirms the need for new “anthropological research” in order to understand both the feminine and masculine identity more deeply, and thus “better serve the human being as a whole.”
The shrine has exerted lots of effort in line with Pope Francis’ desire to find ways to empower women in the church.
Feminist critique of Devotion
The French philosopher and considered godmother of feminism, Simone de Beauvoir, claimed that the cult of the Virgin Mary is one of the ways in which Western culture had constructed an artificial version of femininity which was submissive and inferior. Many feminists believe that Mary is a product of the Western patriarchal church. It was the male church who put Mary on the pedestal. The male church is manifested in the penchant for titles, power, status, and hierarchy. For Luce Irigaray, the fertile, corporeal, and maternal aspects of the Christian story have been neglected in favor of a life-denying religion based on the patriarchal and sacrificial relationship between a Father God and his crucified Son. Dutch Professor Catherina Halkes argued that veneration of Mary arose out of a male church glorifying Mary while at the same time stamping male domination. In this context, Halkes calls for liberation of Mary from the image that men have formed of her and from the projections that a male priestly hierarchy has attached to her. Elizabeth A. Johnson, for her part, presented an interesting hypothesis that Mary’s image has been developed historically as a female representation of the divine, precisely because the “feminine” has been excluded from the mainline Christian perception of God as Father, Son and Spirit. The patriarchal bias of Christian theology has made God more as a powerful creator and just judge than a loving, caring, tender, nurturing being. God has been made theologically according to the image of man and the patriarchal society concept of maleness as tough, aggressive, dominant, and thus soft pedaling the so called “feminine” dimension of warmth, concern and love.
Mary was also used as a model which played off against women. Marina Warner explored this through an examination of the cultural history of Mariolatry which places the Virgin on an unreachable pedestal. Through Mariolatry, the Catholic Church has made women, with their ordinary desires and ordinary reproductive lives, feel diminished.
On the other hand, American feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schussler Florenza showed that the development of Mariology throughout the world has contributed to the liberation of women. Feminist theologians have also recovered Mary as a powerful symbol for women. The femininity of Mary is a counter-symbol to power. Thus, Coyle argued that “[T]heologians must critique the silent and submissive images that have presented Mary as sweet and uncomplaining and that do little to uplift marginalized and oppressed women… Mary must be retrieved as a woman strong and resourceful, our sister in faith who did not hesitate to proclaim God’s concern for the oppressed.” Similarly, Elizabeth Schussler Florenza pointed out the silence and neglect concerning women in the Bible and in Tradition. Elizabeth Johnson’s endeavored to pull down Mary from the artificial pedestal that patriarchy have made of her by divesting Mary of all her queenly titles. In so doing, Mary become one like us, in Johnson’s words, Mary is truly our sister. American writer Monique Ocampo explains further,
Mary was just as human as the rest of us. She felt pain, she felt fear, she felt loss just like the rest of us. She was a mother and a wife and a daughter and a cousin. I imagine her as a short and sassy woman who wasn’t picture-perfect in looks, but still beautiful in heart. Once we remember that Mary (and the rest of the saints) are as human as the rest of us, it helps us on the path of relating to her and imitating her.
Contemplatio: Looking through the Icon
Through the icon, Mary saw and heard the suffering and cries of women who contemplated on her icon day and night at the shrine. Mary OMPH identifies with the suffering of abused and degraded women. Through the icon of OMPH, devotees have been invited to build a world where there is gender equality and free of degradation and marginalization of women.
Icons as images of glorious saints and Mary in heaven, invite devotees to a future where all are equal in God. Life with God in heaven transcends gender as St. Paul proclaims in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither…male nor female for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Anthony Kelly adds that,
[W] are not to identify ourselves by gender … all are equal in Christ. Male domination is an abomination. The icon is a rejection of patriarchy. As an icon of the Father in this way, she subverts the religious imagination that would see the ultimate origin in rigidly masculine terms.
In the icon, Mary shows her son Jesus to the devotees as the model of inclusivity and respect for the most marginalized in society including women. He showed mercy for the woman caught in adultery, realizing the injustice of persecuting the woman while no punishment was directed toward her male sexual partner (John 8:3-11). Jesus treated women as people, not servants or sex objects. In a day when men did not even speak to women publicly, Jesus explained the scriptures and offered hope to the woman at the well, a member of an outcast race (John 4: 1 – 26). Moved by compassion, He resurrected the only son of a widow (Luke 7: 11 – 17). He was the perfect gentleman on every occasion, never abusing His power or celebrity status. He taught women, healed women, and accepted women, even those considered “unclean.” more appreciation and understanding of the gift and distinctiveness of femininity in all areas of life—this shines forth Jesus’ inclusive ministry in a deeply patriarchal and exclusive monolithic Jewish society. Through the icon, Mary invites devotees to follow Jesus’ example of treating women.
Missio: Following Jesus with Mary
Mary represents a break from the patriarchy in scriptures. Mary is a counter-symbol to male dominance in the scriptures. We saw Mary as the first evangelizer of Jesus walking 70 km to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She was a courageous prophet in proclaiming the magnificat. She is not meek and mild weakling. We can see her as an archetype for contemporary women in their legitimate desires to be more intensely involved in the mission of the Church and in the healing of societal wounds.
Mary has shown us the true meaning and value of a human being not bound by gender nor any human boundaries but by the grace and power of God. She was chosen by God to be the mother of God’s son not because she was a woman but because of her utmost openness and willingness to participate in God’s mission. As Kelly explains,
She is defined in no other way, by no other relationship – neither by a human partner, nor by social expectations, nor by human ambition, nor even by the common religious notions of her time or ours. What determines her existence is solely what God can be and what God can do.
Mary has a big role in transforming the understanding of the church (ecclesiology). Mary can help the church today in living out her true identity and mission in the world. The Catholic Catechism of the Church considers Mary as the exemplary realization of the Church, and her eschatological icon and preeminent sign of hope. The Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, hailed as one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century, is one of the prominent theologians who vigorously advocated for the Marian transformation of the church. He asserts that the Marian principle constitutes the soul of the Church. Without it, ecclesial life risks being reduced to mere bureaucracy and functionalism.
Balthasar, in the tradition of the early Fathers, saw Mary as the archetypal image of the Church. Balthasar considers Mary’s bridal “yes” of bodily faith, which continues on in the Church as fruitful virginity, not only has implications for the Church; indeed, it is the Marian fiat that defines the Church. The fiat and redemption are so interwoven, so inseparably one, that the creature cannot say “yes” to God without being redeemed, but neither can the creature be redeemed without having somehow spoken his or her “yes.” Mary’s single “yes,” her personal fiat in its unlimited availability to God’s plan, sufficed for the incarnate Lord to say “yes” to all his creatures, and has become “by grace, the bridal womb, matrix, and mater” in and through which each creature can say “yes” to God, and by which “he also forms the truly universal Church.” In this light, he sees the Church as profoundly Marian, feminine, and bridal. He sees the Church as person, as body, as structure, and ultimately, as bride. “The Church is primarily feminine because her primary, all-encompassing truth is her ontological gratitude, which both receives the gift and passes it on.”
Ross Campbell points out Balthasar’s significant view that throughout the history of the Triune God’s dealings with humanity a female principle is present. The history of our salvation is marked by a feminine presence that responds actively and fruitfully to God’s initiatives: first Israel, which is presented throughout the Scriptures in feminine terms (as the daughter of Sion or, in those times when the prophets urge her to repentance, as a faithless wife); then Mary; and now the Church (the bride of Christ). And it is in this context, then, that the experience of the early Church and in particular the experience of Mary becomes pivotal for all believers. For centuries, however, the feminine identification of the church has become subordinate to the symbol of the male provider of leadership which Balthazar calls the Petrine principle. He describes the consequences of a masculine dominance of the church:
It has to a large extent put off its mystical characteristics; it has become a church of permanent conversations, organizations, advisory commissions, congresses, synods… structures and restructurings, sociological experiments, statistics, that is to say, more than ever a male church, if perhaps one should not say a sexless entity.
Balthazar, therefore, argues that the Petrine-Apostolic ministry of word and sacrament is never an end in itself but rather it is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the Marian principle. The Petrine principle is given to us by Christ to enable the Church to become what she already is in Mary, the spotless bride. All that is given to Peter is given to him to make the Church (and us) more like Mary.
The Petrine-Apostolic ministry of word and sacrament is never an end in itself but rather it is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the Marian principle.
In the light of all these, Mary can serve to counteract any tendencies of patriarchy in the church. Mary is a counter-symbol to any tendency within the church for bureaucracy, hierarchy, power and status. As Balthasar has advocated, Mary as prototype of the church entails a shift from structural ecclesiology (rules, order, hierarchy, structures, and management) to Marian ecclesiology (charism, prayer, discipleship; church as mystery). Balthasar declares, “Without Mariology, Christianity threatens to become inhuman. The Church becomes functionalistic, soulless … And people in their masses run away from such a Church”.
Mary’s life and example is at the root and goal of our identity as church. It is in this light that Mary is key to the transformation of the church today.
In this transformation, women participation in the church is an essential dimension. Mary can inspire women to play a meaningful role in transforming the church. Participation of women in the church will make the church reflect more the values of inclusivity, equality, unity and peace of God’s kingdom which goes beyond nationality, culture, race, blood or gender.
Our concerted involvement and struggle for gender equality and other forms of discrimination can enrich our devotion to OMPH. Our devotion to OMPH can be more productive and meaningful if we can learn from Mary about the true meaning of feminism and freedom. For Mary, the meaning of a human being goes beyond gender. The fullness of humanity is experienced in humanity’s utmost freedom towards service to God’s mission and fellow human beings.
 Irigaray, Luce. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York, 1991). The last chapter of this book, “Epistle to the Last Christians,” offers the author’s most sustained engagement with the Marian tradition, although references to the Virgin Mary are scattered widely throughout her work.
 Edward Schillebeeckx and Catharina J. M. Halkes, Mary: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (SCM Press, 1993), 62.
Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD). International Women’s Day is a global day that celebrates womanhood. Every year the shrine joins the whole world in celebrating the gift of womanhood on International Women’s Day.
Women have played a major role in the ministry of the shrine through these years. For instance, there are many women volunteers in the shrine. The shrine is one of the few if not the only shrine in Manila who has altar girls. The shrine has long wanted to recruit female communion ministers but was discouraged by the standing policy of the Archdiocese of Manila not to allow women to become Eucharistic ministers (though women religious sisters are allowed to give communion in the archdiocese). Most of our lay missionaries are women. Indeed, the shrine has fostered the participation of women in the church for many years.
The shrine has two congregations of women religious working as partners in the shrine ministry: Missionaries of our Lady of Perpetual Help (MPS) sisters and Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer (OSR) sisters.
The MPS sisters whose official name is Misioneras de la Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro have been helping the shrine in administration and management of its services and programs. They are religious sisters founded by a Redemptorist. The Redemptorist began partnering with the MPS sisters in July 1995 when the MPS Sisters helped in the urban mission and subsequently became members of the Baclaran Mission Team.
The OSR sisters have been helping the shrine in responding to the challenges and needs of women at risk especially those engaged in prostitution. The OSR is a Catholic religious congregation founded in Ciempozuelos, Madrid, Spain on June 1, 1864 by Bishop Jose Maria Benito Serra, OSB and Antonia de Oviedo Schonthal, OSR for the evangelization and integral human development of marginalized and exploited women.
Devotees have brought women’s issues to the shrine like unwanted pregnancies, cases of battered women, girls who were victims of incest and rape, trafficking of women and sexual harassment. In the past, we found many dead unborn children fetus in the vicinity of the shrine. We suspect that these fetuses belonged to women who felt deep regret and guilt for having gone through abortion.
Workers of the Night
The shrine has been responding to the challenges and needs of women at risk especially those engaged in prostitution mainly through the efforts of Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer (OSR).
The OSR sisters told Fr. Biju Madathikunnel, CSsR that they come to the Shrine on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They spend the night there getting up the following day as early as 2 O’clock in the morning. They go out at this early hour in search of these women to extend a helping hand and an open heart. The women range in age from 18 to 43 years. They come to light some candles before the image of OMPH and pray in the church. Some of them spend time around the statue of St. Therese of Lisieux which is located on the Church grounds.
For the most part, poverty and lack of education prevent them from getting a job and so are almost forced to end up in prostitution. Sometimes they are living with someone and their ‘partner’ forces them to earn ‘rent’ money and so they turn to prostitution. Many of the women come from Visayas islands, Davao, or Mindanao. Their “customers” who come to the bar are mostly foreigners. In many of the bars, the women are paid 150 pesos (about $3 or £2.3 per night. However, if a “customer” chooses them they may earn as much as 3000 pesos depending on the situation and rules of the bar.
Some of the women are into alcoholism and drugs. They say at times they need those to endure the nights. They do so to overcome the deep shame and guilt they feel since most of them are born and brought up in a catholic environment. One woman recounted that she drinks as much as five bottles of wine to endure the nights. When the police stage a raid on them, they need to avoid being caught at all cost. The police arrest them and at times take them and rape them inside the jail.
They also face danger from their “customers”. They are often treated very cruelly by their clients and the bar managers will not step in to help or defend them. Some of the bars are run by foreigners. They marry a Filipina and usually it is the wife who manages the bars. There are neither social security benefits nor proper medical services made available to the women. Recently one woman who was affected by tuberculosis came to the sisters and the Redemptorists helped her get the needed treatment for her disease.
Mostly what they need and hunger for is someone to talk to. They also desperately want to go to confession. When they open up to the sisters or social workers, they just cry in helplessness.
The OSR sisters and the social workers encourage the women to come to take part in a ‘follow up’ program which meets every Wednesday. They are helped to become aware of the reality of their life situation and are motivated to escape to a new and fuller experience of life. Various kinds of training programs are offered by the Shrine to help these women gain the skills necessary to escape their lives of slavery to prostitution. Training is given primarily in the areas of housekeeping, culinary arts, beauty care, and the food and beverage service industry. This training program is also known as ALS (Alternative Learning System). Some are given scholarships to go to the college, and even in some cases, their children are also given scholarships to attend school. Every month there is a meeting for these women that is especially aimed to give value formation, spiritual enrichment, skills for life and lessons on reproductive health.
Within the last two years, they were able to save at least ten women from prostitution and helped them to find other jobs. Actually, many of them are now regular workers at the coffee shop of the shrine—the Sinirangan Coffee Shop. When they were asked whether they missed their former job at the bars, without any hesitation, they answered no. They are far happier and fulfilled now in their present jobs.
Novena Text and Women
One of the reasons for the revision of the novena in 2016 is to incorporate inclusive language. Inclusive language avoids the use of certain expressions or words especially gender-specific words, such as “man”, “mankind”, and masculine pronouns, the use of which might be considered to exclude women. Below are some examples of this revision in the novena. In the prayer for the home, mankind was changed to human family.
Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor * so that justice and peace may happily reign * in the entire family of mankind. Amen.
Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor * so that justice and peace may happily reign * in the entire human family. Amen.
In the hymn, O Saving Victim, men was changed to all:
O saving Victim opening wide
The gate of heaven to men below!
Our foes press on from every side
Your aid supply, your strength bestow.
O saving Victim opening wide
The gate of heaven to all below!
Our foes press on from every side
Your aid supply, your strength bestow.
Despite the highly secularized world and decrease in attendance at church services worldwide today, Lent is becoming popular. Thanks to 40 days Lent challenges that has mushroomed in many parts of the world. These Lenten challenges are performed not just for spiritual purposes but many for social causes like care for creation, compassion for the poor and even for weight-loss and physical fitness. Many of these challenges have devised creative ways to utilize Lent for worthy causes.
Lent is the solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar which serves as the preparation of the believer for Easter through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and self-denial. Lent lasts for 40 days. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the evening of Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday). This is actually a period of 46 days. However, the six Sundays within the period are not fast days (Sundays are always feast days in the Christian calendar) and therefore not counted in the 40 days of Lent.
In the early Church most converts were adults, and in order to be baptized into the Christian faith, they had to undergo a rigorous period of preparation. Lent “was the time when the three-fold preparation — instructive, ascetical, and liturgical — was carried on by catechumens (candidates for baptism). Thus, Lent became a time of spiritual preparation and was associated with a number of penitential disciplines, exhorting the catechumens to divorce themselves from a life of sin in order to adopt a new life in Jesus Christ. Eventually it became a season for all of the faithful to prepare for Easter.
In recent years, many groups in Christian churches has expanded the meaning of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (the traditional three pillars of Lenten observance). They went beyond the meaning of fasting as merely giving up or abstaining from food like meat, chocolate, chips, alcohol or personal habits and in most recent times, technology habits like Facebook and Instagram. Besides giving up, abstention and penitence, Lent is doing some positive action. Lent could be a time of doing worthwhile deeds as well as spiritual discipline.
Comes the Lenten 40 days challenges. Lenten 40 days challenges are exercises, prayers and reflections that certain religious organizations have devised for each of the forty days of Lent. The 40 days exercises, prayers and reflection follow a certain theme patterned in the Lenten spirit of making sacrifice. Some of the themes are care for creation, charity, photography or even physical fitness. Exercises may include cleaning your clutter, donating money to a good cause, volunteering, visiting a sick person and many others. These organizations provide a downloadable list of set things people can use as a guide. The ideas are generally very simple and require not much thought or pre-planning and can easily be swapped for something else.
Here are some of the creative Lenten 40 days challenge. Many of these challenges revolves around the care for the environment.
The Franciscan religious congregation in Cincinnati, for example, has organized a Franciscan Lenten Energy Fast. St. Francis of Assisi walked in the footprints of Jesus, and today the Patron Saint of Ecology saw that all that God created was good and he chose to praise God in prayer and by his daily life choices and actions. How can we praise God in prayer and by our daily life choices and actions this Lenten season? How can we live so that nothing is wasted? (John 6:12) Each week we take a section of “The Canticle of the Creatures” and focus on it for our Lenten fast.
The Global Catholic Climate Movement has organized a carbon fast for Lent. This challenge is to take a carbon fast – to reduce the actions which damage God’s Creation; to reduce use of petrol, electricity, plastic, paper, water and toxins. It takes small steps for a more sustainable world, and by doing so rediscover a different relationship with God, with Creation and with one another.
Another activity that the Global Catholic Climate Movement has organized is a global fast for climate justice. Catholics from more than 40 countries fast during each of the 40 days, joining the Fast For The Climate interfaith effort and the Green Anglicans Carbon Fast. Each fast and pray for bold action to solve the climate change crisis
40 Bags in 40 Days Decluttering Challenge. This is a challenge where one goes through his/her home and declutter one area a day. Since Ann Marie Heasley organized this challenge in 2011, millions of people have learned about #40Bagsin40Days and countless participants have changed their life, created more manageable homes, and refocused their outlook.
Similarly, Patty Knap, a Catholic revert and a blogger with the National Catholic Register organized a Lent challenge: Get rid of 40 things in 40 days, The challenge is finding one thing each day that one no longer need during the 40 days of Lent. For most of us, this should be really easy. It could be a kitchen item, a jacket, a bike, an unopened gift hanging around. Go through your closets, drawers, basement, even the garage.
Another common theme for the 40 day Lenten challenge are actions in solidarity with people in poverty. The 40acts created by UK Christian charity, Stewardship. Over the years, 40acts has become a movement of over 100,000 people on a mission to impact their communities with generosity – during Lent and beyond.
– Collect 1 can/box per day, and deliver your donation to the Food Pantry at the end of Lent (or drop off some cans each week).
– Pledge a dollar amount each day, and submit your pledge x 40 at the end of Lent (submit via USPS mail or online).
An interesting challenge is combining Lenten observance and photography organized by Rethink Church. The challenge involves by simply taking a photo related to the theme assigned for each day, and then post and tag with #Rethinkchurch.
Several Lenten challenges combine Lenten fasting and abstinence with physical fitness. The 40 Day Lent Fitness Challenge organized by Fitness and Festivals involves 40 days of exercising. Sundays are rest days and a time to reflect on one’s achievements from the previous week. A similar challenge was organized by pay as u go gym. Another physical fitness themed Lenten challenge is 40 Day Lent Ab Challenge. Day one starts with 20 sit ups. Everyday after, add 1 sit up, then offer it up in prayer for someone who’s sick. Can you do it for 40 days? No prize awarded for completion, just good karma, personal satisfaction and a stronger core.
What is your 40 days Lenten challenge? What is the 40 days Lenten challenge of your group or parish?
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.
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 marks the beginning of Lent and symbolically done through the imposition of the ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful. In the Baclaran shrine, the ashes are distributed by the nuns and seminarians and although there are thousands of people everything is very orderly.
This was not always so.
The first time I encountered the distribution of ashes in the Shrine there were no lines of people, no nuns and no seminarians. Instead there was a massive crowd of people with only one interest and that was to receive the Ashes. And they wanted to do this as soon as possible. In the center was the priest who was being jostled from side to side as each person pushed against the ones near him to speed them up.
The priest was not only distributing ashes but he would also have to return to the church to help give Communions when the time arrived and was also expected to hear confessions when his schedule came due. At some time in the day he would also have to say a Mass and give one or two Novenas. There were of course a number of priests but they were very few compared to the number of people.
Some priests would get behind a low fence at the back of the sacristy and operate from there. This had the advantage of keeping the people in front of you at least, but succeeded in blocking the pathway of people coming out from the church and wanting to go home. Also parts of the fence had barbed wire on the top which meant that the priest had to be alert at all times, something which was almost impossible as the day progressed. Also the Philippine sun always shone brightly on Ash Wednesday, so that by evening the Fathers would be all colors from pink to dark crimson depending on where they had been stationed.
It was only during the late 70s that people thought of allowing nuns and eventually seminarians to distribute the ashes. In those days we had very few seminarians so we had to invite those of other orders, this resulted in a display of nuns from different Congregations as well as seminarians wearing the traditional habits of their order. While being very colorful, the heat of the day and the heavy clothing often resulted in exhausted and sometimes irritable ash distributors.
Thanks to Vatican II and the new understanding of Liturgical requirements things have improved. And now we can see people lining up to receive the Ashes. We see seminarians in neat barong and nuns in cooler habits distributing the ashes, and most of the time they are under the shade of trees.
Best of all, thanks be to God, many of the nuns are our day to day Mission helpers and the seminarians are from our own seminary.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8: 19)
Dear Brothers and Sisters
Each year, through Mother Church, God “gives us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed… as we recall the great events that gave us new life in Christ” (Preface of Lent I). We can thus journey from Easter to Easter towards the fulfilment of the salvation we have already received as a result of Christ’s paschal mystery – “for in hope we were saved” (Rom 8:24). This mystery of salvation, already at work in us during our earthly lives, is a dynamic process that also embraces history and all of creation. As Saint Paul says, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). In this perspective, I would like to offer a few reflections to accompany our journey of conversion this coming Lent.
1. The redemption of creation
The celebration of the Paschal Triduum of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the culmination of the liturgical year, calls us yearly to undertake a journey of preparation, in the knowledge that our being conformed to Christ (cf. Rom 8:29) is a priceless gift of God’s mercy.
When we live as children of God, redeemed, led by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:14) and capable of acknowledging and obeying God’s law, beginning with the law written on our hearts and in nature, we also benefit creation by cooperating in its redemption. That is why Saint Paul says that creation eagerly longs for the revelation of the children of God; in other words, that all those who enjoy the grace of Jesus’ paschal mystery may experience its fulfilment in the redemption of the human body itself. When the love of Christ transfigures the lives of the saints in spirit, body and soul, they give praise to God. Through prayer, contemplation and art, they also include other creatures in that praise, as we see admirably expressed in the “Canticle of the Creatures” by Saint Francis of Assisi (cf. Laudato Si’, 87). Yet in this world, the harmony generated by redemption is constantly threatened by the negative power of sin and death.
2. The destructive power of sin
Indeed, when we fail to live as children of God, we often behave in a destructive way towards our neighbours and other creatures – and ourselves as well – since we begin to think more or less consciously that we can use them as we will. Intemperance then takes the upper hand: we start to live a life that exceeds those limits imposed by our human condition and nature itself. We yield to those untrammelled desires that the Book of Wisdom sees as typical of the ungodly, those who act without thought for God or hope for the future (cf. 2:1-11). Unless we tend constantly towards Easter, towards the horizon of the Resurrection, the mentality expressed in the slogans “I want it all and I want it now!” and “Too much is never enough”, gains the upper hand.
The root of all evil, as we know, is sin, which from its first appearance has disrupted our communion with God, with others and with creation itself, to which we are linked in a particular way by our body. This rupture of communion with God likewise undermines our harmonious relationship with the environment in which we are called to live, so that the garden has become a wilderness (cf. Gen 3:17-18). Sin leads man to consider himself the god of creation, to see himself as its absolute master and to use it, not for the purpose willed by the Creator but for his own interests, to the detriment of other creatures.
Once God’s law, the law of love, is forsaken, then the law of the strong over the weak takes over. The sin that lurks in the human heart (cf. Mk 7:20-23) takes the shape of greed and unbridled pursuit of comfort, lack of concern for the good of others and even of oneself. It leads to the exploitation of creation, both persons and the environment, due to that insatiable covetousness which sees every desire as a right and sooner or later destroys all those in its grip.
3. The healing power of repentance and forgiveness
Creation urgently needs the revelation of the children of God, who have been made “a new creation”. For “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Indeed, by virtue of their being revealed, creation itself can celebrate a Pasch, opening itself to a new heaven and a new earth (cf. Rev 21:1). The path to Easter demands that we renew our faces and hearts as Christians through repentance, conversion and forgiveness, so as to live fully the abundant grace of the paschal mystery.
This “eager longing”, this expectation of all creation, will be fulfilled in the revelation of the children of God, that is, when Christians and all people enter decisively into the “travail” that conversion entails. All creation is called, with us, to go forth “from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Lent is a sacramental sign of this conversion. It invites Christians to embody the paschal mystery more deeply and concretely in their personal, family and social lives, above all by fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
Fasting, that is, learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to “devour” everything to satisfy our voracity and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts. Prayer, which teaches us to abandon idolatry and the self-sufficiency of our ego, and to acknowledge our need of the Lord and his mercy. Almsgiving, whereby we escape from the insanity of hoarding everything for ourselves in the illusory belief that we can secure a future that does not belong to us. And thus to rediscover the joy of God’s plan for creation and for each of us, which is to love him, our brothers and sisters, and the entire world, and to find in this love our true happiness.
Dear brothers and sisters, the “lenten” period of forty days spent by the Son of God in the desert of creation had the goal of making it once more that garden of communion with God that it was before original sin (cf. Mk 1:12-13; Is 51:3). May our Lent this year be a journey along that same path, bringing the hope of Christ also to creation, so that it may be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Let us not allow this season of grace to pass in vain! Let us ask God to help us set out on a path of true conversion. Let us leave behind our selfishness and self-absorption, and turn to Jesus’ Pasch. Let us stand beside our brothers and sisters in need, sharing our spiritual and material goods with them. In this way, by concretely welcoming Christ’s victory over sin and death into our lives, we will also radiate its transforming power to all of creation.
From the Vatican, 4 October 2018
Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi
One of the most wanted virtues today, especially in this age of fake news, is authenticity. Today, we live with so many fakes from products to food to news and to human persons. We are bombarded with fake products like denims, electronics, dvds, drugs even food like fish and rice. We are made to believe in fake news on social media like facebook and youtube. We wear masks and interact with people who wear masks just so we become more acceptable in society which in the long run does not just hide our identity but become who we are.
Why do fake flourish? It is cheaper to buy fake products inasmuch as it is easier to live in the lie than in the truth. in many cases facing the truth requires a tremendous amount of courage for truth can be very harsh. Most humans have an intense desire to escape from their problems and to even construct a false reality just to avoid facing the truth.
The shortage in authenticity is also prevalent in religion today. This is not much truer than in the Catholic faith. The lack of authentic Catholics have led many not to go to church anymore or worse has turned agnostic and atheist. The conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual assault in Australia this week has further provoked distrust in church’s effective authority, which is already reeling from the many sexual abuse cases in recent years.
It is to this contemporary search for authenticity that today’s readings of the 8th Sunday in ordinary time addresses. The readings for this 8th Sunday speaks about the source of existential authenticity and how to live authentic Christians lives today. To be authentic Christians demands living beyond the minimal requirement of Christian faith which the readings of last Sunday talked about.
In the first reading, Sirach says that we can detect the true identity of people through their manner of speech; the way they speak, their tone, their volume, and their body language. Sirach demonstrates this in three sharp images. The act of speech is like sifting wheat through a sieve: as the sifting sorts out the husks, so our speech exposes the otherwise hidden faults of our character. And just as the hot fire of a kiln tests the craft of the potter, so the give and take of conversation tests the integrity of the interlocutors. Finally, just as the quality of a fruit tree indicates the care of its cultivator, so our speech reveals everything that has gone into our formation.
When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;
so do one’s faults when one speaks.
As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace,
so in tribulation is the test of the just.
The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;
so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.
In the gospel, Jesus talks about spiritual integrity through the unity of of the different parts of the human body. John J. Pilch identifies three distinct yet interpenetrating symbolic zones which Jesus utilized in the gospel today: eyes-heart (the eyes for gathering the information that the heart needs for making judgments); mouth-ears (the organs that collect and share self-expressive speech); and hands-feet (the body parts that act upon or implement what one has learned or knows). 
Eyes-heart. Jesus spoke of teachers and guides with flawed vision (Lk 6:39-42). He noted the heart’s potential for producing both good and evil. He urged that teachers strive to develop proper vision and insight and a good heart.
Mouth-ears. For Jesus, it is clearly imperative that a person cultivate a good heart that will produce good fruit, “for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45), words that others will hear, remember, and act upon.
Hands-feet. But speaking alone is not enough. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:45). It is imperative to act upon what one knows, to live according to what one has learned.
This is how the human person acts consistently, with all the symbolic body parts in sync: heart-eyes, mouth-ears, hands-feet. In other words, it is important that one’s emotion-fused thoughts (heart-eyes), self-expressive speech (mouth-ears), and purposeful activity (hands-feet) be perfectly coordinated. Anything else is stage-acting.
The inner worth of human beings is to be assessed from their words and deeds, just as “the fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree.” Full discipleship is not just all talk but practicing what one preaches, that is, “walking the talk”. Full discipleship, however, is not only a matter of walking the talk; it also entails “talking the walk.” That is, some of the most important Christian deeds will in fact be acts of speech, challenging injustice, encouraging the downhearted, and asking and giving forgiveness.
Besides consistency between the heart and other parts of the body and the integral unity of words and actions, Jesus exhorts his listeners to candid self-examination and authentic efforts to improve self before attempting to help others improve themselves. Short of this effort, such teachers and leaders are blind, unreliable, and untrustworthy.
They are deceivers, actors, hypocrites!
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
How can you say to your brother,
‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’
when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye?
You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.
To be authentic human being and Christian entails both internal and external transformation. St. Paul, in the second reading, says that this transformation is possible because of the resurrection of Jesus. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said that our bodies (hearts and minds) have been transformed through the resurrection of Jesus our Lord. Through the resurrection, we have become immortal, we have conquered the effect of sin. Our transformation in Christ inspires us to live our life of discipleship in word and deed.
Let me end with a prayer by Anne Osdieck, 
be in my heart
to love everyone I meet,
be on my mind
to find you in all things,
on my tongue
to spread your love to all who hear me,