7TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: LOVE YOUR ENEMIES

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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.

 

Feast of the Holy Innocents: In Memory of All Innocent Victims of Injustice and Violence

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Today, December 28, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those young boys in and around Bethlehem, two and under, whom Herod had massacred. We do not know their number or their names, but the Church lists them as among her martyrs. Some have disputed that they should not be called martyrs since they did not submit freely for the sake of Christ but were “merely victims” of Herod. Nevertheless, the Church has long numbered them in her ranks of martyrs. St. Augustine says of them:

And while [Herod] thus persecutes Christ, he furnished an army (or martyrs) clothed in white robes of the same age as the Lord…. O blessed infants! He only will doubt of your crown in this your passion for Christ, who doubts that the baptism of Christ has a benefit for infants. He who at His birth had Angels to proclaim Him, the heavens to testify, and Magi to worship Him, could surely have prevented that these should not have died for Him, had He not known that they died not in that death, but rather lived in higher bliss. Far be the thought, that Christ who came to set men free, did nothing to reward those who died in His behalf, when hanging on the cross He prayed for those who put Him to death. (Serm. 373, 3, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

Our times is not much different during the time of Jesus’ birth. As we spent the past few days in Christmas revelries, many innocent people continue to be killed due to so many conflicts and wars that persists even in this information age. Not just wars, innocent people continue to die of hunger, common illnesses, extra-judicial killings and massive poverty that afflict more than a half billion people on the planet. We also know well that many innocent babies are killed through abortion.

While we are overjoyed as Christians at the coming of Christ, many people do not share our sense of elation. On Christmas Day, eleven Christian hostages were killed by Islamic State terrorists in Nigeria. The Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) claim they killed the captives to avenge for the killing of their leaders Abu bakr al-Baghdadi and Abul-Hasan Al-Muhajir in Iraq and Syria.

The feast of the Holy Innocents in the middle of the Christmas season reminds us that the real Christmas is still far from reality in our world today. Until there are wars, hunger, poverty, abortion, religious persecution and other maladies which brings about the killings of the innocents, we cannot fully celebrate the realization of Christmas throughout the world.  Until there are still Herods who wields power over the poor, vulnerable and powerless, we cannot remain complacent and continue to work towards justice and peace that are the fruits of the Christmas spirit. Until there are parts of ourselves who like Herod want nothing to do with the gospel values that Christ proclaimed, we cannot fully celebrate and experienced the joy of Christmas. The feast of the Holy Innocents is a reminder for us that the work of Christmas is a work that we need to undertake throughout the year.

 

2ND SUNDAY OF ADVENT: TO GUIDE OUR FEET INTO THE WAY OF PEACE

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We live in a world where genuine and lasting peace remains elusive.  In today’s advanced world, conflicts and wars continue to be the headlines of daily news. There are untold suffereing and misery from thousands of people caught in conflicts and wars, losing family members and loved ones, losing their properties, houses and possessions, being looted and having to see their cities, towns and villages destroyed.

Peace remains elusive as the mighty and the powerful continue to prey on the weak, and the rich and influential ones continue to manipulate and exploit the poor.

Not to mention the conflicts within religions, societies, even our churches, parishes and the family. We all suffer and experience pain and sorrow from the breakdown of families, organizations, churches, and societies. We all have a part in the absence of peace; we long for peace within ourselves as we chose to act in ways that seek our own satisfaction and happiness, to fulfil our needs and desires over the suffering of others.

The readings of today’s 2nd Sunday of Advent proclaims the time when we will finally achieve peace through the coming of the Son of God.

In our first reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah prophesy about the time of the coming of the Saviour or God’s Messiah which will usher a time of peace so wonderful and great that even ferocious animals would come and sit together with their prey in harmony.

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea. (Isa 11:6-7,9)

Indeed, the Saviour’s coming will have radical consequences for the world. His reign, for example, will reorder creation in profound ways: Predators dwell in harmony with their prey, carnivorous instincts are transformed, and the most vulnerable humans in society (children) are free to play with venomous snakes. Interspecies violence effectively comes to an end and harmony ensues.

Is this not the vision we long to realize? We long for that day when all of us will live in harmony and peace and be united as one despite differences in religions, culture, race, blood and politics. We long for the day when there will be no more enmities, war and conflict and we will call no one as enemies. But to enter into the reign of the Son of God we need to radically accept and work together with our fellowmen and women despite that they are different from us, despite that they are our enemies.

This vision of peace by Isaiah is proclaimed in our responsorial psalm today:

Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.

In our second reading today, St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome and spoke of the peace of Christ and how the coming of the Lord into the world has brought forth the dawn of a new era of peace. St. Paul exhorted the faithful there to welcome one another and to make peace with each other, just as the Lord Jesus has brought the peace of God into the midst of the people.

Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God.
For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised
to show God’s truthfulness,
to confirm the promises to the patriarchs,
but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
As it is written:
Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles
and sing praises to your name.

In Rome at that time, which was the cosmopolitan and populous capital of the mighty and expansive Roman Empire, there were numerous peoples of different origins and backgrounds, of different cultures and traditions, as besides the Romans who were the lords of the land, there were also Greeks, Syrians, Jewish populations, Gauls, Germans, the peoples of the Northern African regions, Thracians, Dacians, Berbers, Arabs, Persians and even many others, of many different nations and languages.

Many of these people did not exist peacefully with each other, and it did not help that many among the non-Roman populations, especially in the city of Rome, were slaves. And the Romans were the largest landowners and also slave owners. Even among the Romans themselves there were often wide disparity in the wealth and property they owned, and all these divisions and categorisations among the peoples often led to conflict and unhappiness.

The Christian faith significantly managed to bridge these differences even in the earliest days of the Church. St. Paul was in fact exhorting and reminding the faithful to put aside their differences, whatever past animosities and unhappiness they might have had towards each other previously and instead focus themselves on peace, and to live with one another harmoniously, bonded together by a new bond of love born from God. This is how God’s coming into the world has therefore transformed His people, from people divided by many differences and identities, into a united people by faith.

In the Gospel today, John the Baptist appeared in the desert. John the Baptist is a very important character during the time of Advent. What is his role and mission? We can find a clue on the mission of John the Baptist in the Benedictus, the song of thanksgiving uttered by Zechariah on the birth of his son, John the Baptist.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John’s mission is to prepare the coming of the messiah, the Son of God who will finally bring genuine and lasting peace for all creation.  But he prepared the way for Jesus without taking any of the glory for himself. … When asked if he was the Messiah, John replied that he was just “a voice” who had come “to prepare the way of the Lord.”

In this conflict, war and division-filled world, we are all called to be John the Baptist. We are called to go beyond our own selfish agenda and prejudices and learn to work with our fellowmen and women for the betterment of the world despite our differences. Jesus, the prince of peace, will ultimately bring peace to the world. Like John the Baptist, we need to prepare for Jesus’ final coming by changing our ways in order to become genuine peace-builders and peace-makers.

20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: OUR BAPTISM OF FIRE

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Prophets are disturbers of “peace” and “trouble makers.” This is demonstrated in our readings for today’s 20th Sunday in ordinary time.

In the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, Jeremiah has been predicting the impending destruction of Jerusalem as a judgment from Yhwh. Quite naturally, the King and his officials regard this kind of talk as defeatist and treasonable, so it sought to silence Jeremiah by lowering him into a muddy cistern. But on this occasion his life is spared through the good offices of Ebedmelech the Ethiopian.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus is again speaking to his disciples with the crowd hanging around. To the shock of them all, he told them that he has come “not to establish peace on earth.” “Division” is his blazing, heart-driven desire. It will produce divisions even within a family. He refers to this as a “baptism” with which he wishes to immerse the earth.

How can the Prince of Peace, the preacher of the message of nonviolence that we hear in the Sermon on the Mount speak the hard words of today’s Gospel?

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.”

We all want and seek peace. But more often than not, the kind of peace that we want and seek is “do not disturb me”, the peace of “let us not make problems”, the peace of “everything is fine”, a superficial peace-ful co-existence. This peace is the earthly peace. Jesus has come to bring us the true peace, the fullness of the gifts of God. God’s peace may run contrary to eathly peace, thus, in the eyes of many people, it is called “division”.

True peace is not the absence of conflict, but rather, the fruit of justice and the pursuit of a society mirroring the divine qualities and values of the triune God. As Vatican II’s Church in the Modern World proclaims,

Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder, and actualized by [people] as they thirst after ever greater justice.

                                                                                                             Gaudium et Spes, #78

The Baclaran shrine and the Redemptorist missionaries has always been critical and vocal about whatever it sees in society as contrary to the values of Jesus’ gospel.  Recently, in our vigorous condemnation of the extra-judicial killing in the country, we have heard people say that why would we not just leave the government alone and cooperate with its “war on drugs.” We told them that we all want a drugless and peaceful society and we have cooperated and have exerted efforts and established programs for this purpose in our mission and the shrine.  But it is our Christian duty to denounce evil wherever and whenever it occurs.  We cannot have true spiritual solace and peace, while there are killings, massive poverty and injustice all around us.

Because of our stance, some devotees have said that they will no longer go to our shrine and will pray and attend sacraments elsewhere. This is the price we have to pay for our active promotion of justice and peace and preferential option for the poor–division among our churchgoers and devotees.

But our baptism is a baptism of fire! We are baptised into the fire of Jesus which emboldens us to work and give our lives in the pursuit of true peace and justice. There will be no peace if we fail to confront wrongdoings. Our failure to confront wrongdoers doesn’t result in peace for them either. As Scripture says, there is no peace for the wicked (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21).

Our church is a church on fire. We are not just a feel good church. We are perpetually disturbed and discomforted by any abuse, injustice and oppression with us and in society. We accept the presence of conflict within us and in our society but make this as an opportunity to work toward true justice, reconciliation and peace.

Christ calls us to be on fire for goodness and love. Our God is a consuming fire of love, and there is peace for us only if we are at one with him in that fire.