TUESDAY OF HOLY WEEK: FACING OUR BETRAYALS AND DENIALS

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Simon Ushakov’s icon of the Mystical Supper

Today’s Gospel of the Tuesday of Passion Week focuses on Jesus’ prophecies about Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Judas betrays him, Peter will deny him, and then the remaining ten will scatter. Indeed, the saddest moment in the life of Jesus.

From the beginning of his public ministry, the disciples have been at his side. They have learned from him, traveled with him, ministered with him, been his earthly companions, and comforted him as he walked this otherwise lonely road to Jerusalem.

But now, as Jesus’s hour comes, this burden he must bear alone. The definitive work will be no team effort. The Anointed must go forward unaccompanied, as even his friends betray him, deny him, and disperse. As Donald Macleod observes, “Had the redemption of the world depended on the diligence of the disciples (or even their staying awake) it would never have been accomplished” [1]

He knows of Judas’ plan to turn him over to the religious authorities. Jesus also knows of Peter’s weakness and how, after the arrest in the garden, that weakness will lead to his denial of even knowing Jesus. Jesus knows that most of his disciples will abandon him.

Like the disciples, God knows that many times, we will betray and deny him. And still Jesus allows the betrayal and the denial to unfold without exposure or confrontation. Why? More remarkable than the depth of our betrayal is the height of love that God has shown. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends, even when they have forsaken him.

Indeed, betrayal is the most tragic thing we can do to the people whom we love the most. Betrayal is the worst thing we can do to the things we cherished. We don’t talk of betrayal of one’s enemies. It is not one of his many enemies who will hand Jesus over. It is one of the Twelve, it is someone who has dipped his hand into the same dish with Jesus, a sign of friendship and solidarity.

Thus, when we talk about betrayal, we talk of betrayal of a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband, a parent to their children, a child to his/her parents, a lover to his/her beloved and a friend to his/her friend. We talk of betrayal of one’s own family, race, country and religion. We can also talk of betrayal within ourselves–betrayal of our own profound dignity and identity as created by God in God’s own image. We do this when we go against our own conscience–the inner voice of God within. As St. Paul says, “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want (Romans 7: 19).  We can also talk of betrayal of God’s creation when we continue to exploit and destroy God’s creation for our own benefit. We have betrayed God’s very purpose;  God has placed us in this world to be stewards not destroyers of creation. All of these finally lead to betrayal of the love of God, his gospel and Spirit.

Today, Holy Tuesday, three days before we commemorate the passion and death of Jesus, is a most opportune time to reflect and examine our betrayals. How often have we betrayed Jesus and those around us, especially the people we love the most? How many times have we  gone to the other side–our enemies, the forces of evil, Satan’s seductions? How many times have we turned against our family, spouse, parent, children, friend?  How many times have we turned against our own race, our own people, our own country?  How many times have we turned against our truest identity. How many times have we turned against God who love us the most? 

As we approach the paschal event of Jesus passing over from death to resurrection, Jesus invites us to return to his Father, return to the people we truly love, return to the things we truly cherish, return to God’s creation, return to our truest identity as a child of God, a disciple of Jesus. Let us ask God’s mercy and pardon for our betrayals and denials. As we journey with Jesus in his passover, let us allow God’s grace to enter into the weakness of our betrayals and renew us once again. Let us surrender to God all our betrayals and once again renew our fidelity to God, to our loved ones, our friends and our true selves.

 


 

[1] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ: Contours of Christian Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1998), 173.

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3RD SUNDAY OF LENT: RETURN TO THE WELL

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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.

 

 

 

1ST SUNDAY OF LENT: CONFRONTING THE ENEMY WITHIN

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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

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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.

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

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.

31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: TAKING ADVANTAGE OF OUR SHORTNESS

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When I was a kid, one of the biggest struggles I had was the difficulty of accepting the fact that I was short. I felt so insecure about my shortness that even if my friends and classmates were just playfully teasing me, often times, I got mad or super sensitive.

But then I realized that I cannot forever balk at the fact that I am short. I came to realize that there are both advantages and disadvantages in being short. The important thing to know is how to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of being short. This shortcoming also inspired me to try to excel in other things which does not involve height like academics and arts. Looking at my childhood now, one of my regrets is that I should have taken more advantage of my being short rather than delving into my insecurity of it.

In the gospel of today’s 31st Sunday in ordinary time we hear the story of Zacchaeus who, among his many shortcoming, is being small and short in stature. But his greater shortcoming is that he assumed a despised and resented occupation. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and he got rich by exploiting his own people through collecting taxes for the hated Romans.

But instead of delving into his misdeeds, he probably for a long time, sought redemption. The biggest opening came when he came to know about Jesus. He wanted to meet Jesus and he saw his biggest chance when Jesus was passing by his town of Jericho. But because he was physically short and because people resented him, no one would possibly let him through to the front. Thus, he did something creative, he climbed a sycamore tree which provided him with the greatest vantage point to see Jesus and for Jesus to see him.

True enough, Jesus, and the crowd, saw him. And to the biggest surprise of the crowd, Jesus told Zacchaeus,

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”

What follows was a miracle of conversion. Zacchaues repented from his old ways and gave half of all his possessions to the poor.

“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”

To appreciate more the meaning of this story, we need to go back to the previous chapter in the gospel–Luke 18. Luke 18 is full of talk about the kingdom of God and who gets to enter it. “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Lk 18:17). This is immediately illustrated by the counterexample of the rich official who refuses Jesus’ invitation because of his attachment to his wealth. This is followed by the famous sayings about the near impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom, followed by the hopeful hint that “what is impossible for human beings is possible for God.” There follows the third prediction of the passion to the Twelve, who fail to comprehend. Then comes the curing of a blind man who knows exactly what ails him: “Lord, please let me see.” To which Jesus replies, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.”

With these episodes in the immediate background, we can recognize that Zacchaeus has what the rich ruler (blinded by his wealth) lacked. However ill-gotten his wealth, Zacchaeus has retained a childlike ability to keep seeking the truth. He really wants to see who Jesus is. Most significantly, Zacchaeus was able to rise above the challenge of Jesus’ saying on the difficulty of rich men entering the kingdom:

“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Indeed, Zacchaeus is a sign of hope for redemption, especially for rich people. Rich people can enter the kingdom of God, if they repent and surrender their wealth through the grace of God. The grace of Jesus unveiled the truth about Zacchaeus, who in reality was concerned for the welfare of others. What changed in Zacchaeus was his concern for those whom he had defrauded. He had always been generous with the poor, but now he cared about all the oppressed. His conversion was not only in charity but justice to the poor and the oppressed.

Zacchaeus is a prime example for all of us on how to convert our shortcomings and wrongdoings into greater good by seeking salvation through the power and love of Jesus. By accepting our flaws and seeking to amend our lives through Jesus, we can experience the utter joy and peace Zacchaeus felt when Jesus entered his house,

“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”