13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: CHRISTIANITY AS DISCIPLESHIP

 Christianity is much more than religion. It is a discipleship, an apprenticeship if you like–an apprenticeship with Jesus. What kind of apprenticeship does Jesus leads us to?

In the Gospel Reading today, Jesus said to his apostles:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This is shocking! Jesus is asking us to leave behind the greatest resource of our lives—our family—in order to follow him. Not just our family, Jesus asks us to lose our own lives so we can gain our lives in him. And what kind of life is he offering—the way of the cross. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans in the second reading calls this life, baptism into Christ’s death.

This is too much for us to accept, let alone, understand. No wonder, many of us have turned to religion. Christianity as a religion is easier to understand and to practice: Going to mass, receiving the sacraments, following the 10 commandments, and many other religious things. It also became a lot easier for the church to preach about religious matters like observing correct rubrics and moral issues like contraception, abortion, etc.

Jesus certainly did talk about religion. But he did so to challenge and critique the religious ways of his time which have actually alienated human beings from God and one another. Jesus instead talked more about God and how God’s kingdom is breaking out into the world.

To enter into God’s kingdom, Jesus called us to join a new family, a family beyond blood, race, culture, gender and yes, even religion. When we are members of this family, God is our Father and we are all brothers and sisters with Jesus our older brother. To enter into God’s kingdom, Jesus ushered us into an apprenticeship that not only taught us new values, ways of doing and living but sought the purpose of why we live. It is an apprenticeship fulfilling the meaning of life. In seeking the purpose of life, however, Jesus proposes an apprenticeship that goes against the popular routes that the world gives. Jesus’ apprenticeship is to trek the road less travelled. Unfortunately, it also implies going beyond what many people hold dear about their religion.

For Jesus the most important things are greater than matters of religion. Sometimes we talk more about religious liberty, catechism and the code of canon law than about Jesus’ gospel. It’s time once again to talk about Christ and his gospel values not just about a list of do’s and don’ts, doctrines, commandments, canon law, and obligation. We need to recover Jesus’ way of talking about faith—that faith is a change of thinking (metanoia) in accordance with God’s  ways and thoughts.

This calls us to repropose the message of Jesus in our times today. Our world today is hostile and cold to the Christian message especially in secularized countries. This is worsened by the scandals in the church like child abuse and dubious lifestyle of some of the hierarchy. This should not deter us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus. As St. Paul said, “Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). We need to proclaim the gospel in the way Jesus proclaimed it more than 2,000 years ago, bold and daring but also compassionate and hopeful. In word and in deed, we need to proclaim, what Pope Francis has proposed, the joy of the Gospel.

The purpose of the church is more than just calling people to the church to attend mass, liturgy and the sacraments. The church’s main purpose is to support and encourage people in their apprenticeship with Jesus. After all, the church is the members of the one body of Christ following, and many times stumbling, in their journey of apprenticeship with Jesus.

5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE CHURCH OF “THE WAY”

community_procession

This Sunday is fifth Sunday of Easter which coincides with the special celebration of Mother’s Day.

Since its Mother’s day, let me begin by talking about my mother. My mother died 15 years ago. I regret that I was not always there during her last days here on earth. But I believe and hope that she is now in one of the many dwelling places of the Father’s house that Jesus promised in the gospel today. I remember during the days before she died how she was so concerned about us taking care of her, even worrying that she is taking too much of our time and spending so much money because of her sickness. She was less concerned about what will happen to her and more about what is happening to us because of her illness.

In today’s gospel Jesus felt so much the fear and anxiety of his disciples before his imminent departure. So Jesus begins by telling his disciples “not to be troubled”. On the night before his agonizing death, Jesus was less concerned about what will happen to him and more with what will happen to his disciples during his suffering and after his death.

The gospel today is part of the long after dinner discourse of Jesus (chapters 14 – 17 of John) when Jesus had his last supper and the foot washing with the disciples. The eminent American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown says that this discourse is comparable to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, or Luke’s collection of Jesus’ words as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Sensing their confusion and anxiety Jesus promised his abiding presence to the disciples. “I will come back again and take you to myself, so the where I am you also may be.” The Greek word “dwelling place” (14:2) is the noun of John’s verb “abide.” Jesus’ departure will not cut off the ties between him and his disciples; even as he prepares a “dwelling place” for them, he will “abide” with them.

But the disciples are confused. It is as if Jesus and disciples were speaking in two different worlds. Thomas asked: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus’ response is one of the most beautiful quotes about Him: “I AM the Way. I AM Truth and I AM Life.” Jesus does not only tell us where to go. He is himself the Way. If Jesus abides with us and we abide in Jesus, we will know the way.

Interestingly, one of the first names people call the early church is “The Way”. In fact, this is the name which was widely used for the early church. They were known more widely as “the Way”, than as “Christians”, especially as Paul introduces himself as a follower of “the Way” to the Governor, and not as a “Christian”(Acts 24:14), even though they were known as “Christians” in Acts 11:26. This name probably originated from today’s gospel where Christ called Himself “The Way”(Joh 14:6).

Like the disciples, we are many times confused. We have lots of doubts, uncertainties and questions in life especially now during this pandemic. Jesus said to his disciples and is saying to us now that a life dedicated to following him is a life of abiding in him who is the way. In the times of the early church, believers were referred to as “followers of the way.” Following Jesus as way implies tension. In the long after dinner discourse, Jesus speaks of himself as one between two worlds: he is here with his disciples and yet no longer a part of this world (16:5; 17:11). As followers of Jesus we experience the tensive character of our existence in this world; we are in this world but we are not of this world.

Our life here on earth is always on the way as this is not our final destination. We are not at ease on earth as our final destination is the dwelling place in the Father’s house that Jesus has prepared for us. We are viatores or pilgrims towards becoming beatorum—one with God at the end of times. As the medical doctor Robert Herrmann explains in his book, Expanding Humanity’s Vision of God,

Between the resurrection and the final “kingdom of God” the church is not ecclesia triumphans but ecclesia viatorum. As ecclesia viatorum the church has not yet reached its fulfillment, but it is already on its way. In a similar vein, since the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the whole creation (heaven and earth as well as nature and culture) has become a creatio viatorum on its way to the final completion and transformation. As a creatio viatorum creation is characterized by a temporary simultaneity of the old and the new.

While we are on the way here on earth we are called to become “living stones” as Peter proclaims in the second reading. We the disciples form the stones that make up the visible presence of the invisible God. And as Jesus said in the gospel, to continue his presence in the world we will “do the works I do.” Jesus even said that the believing community will have power to do “even greater works than these.” This is not about worldly power, but the divine power who will do greater things in the followers of Jesus so they may become signs of God’s kingdom “already here but not yet.”

The Eucharist is the celebration of this tension as well as the sacrament that gives food and drink in this tension-filled journey. The Eucharist is making present the memory of Jesus as well as the glory of his return in the end; it is a memorial of the past as well as a rehearsal of the future.

3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER: JESUS WALKING WITH US ON THE ROAD

3rdSundayEater
on the road to the mission area, Cagayan Redemptorist mission 2014

Today’s gospel is my favorite resurrection story in the New Testament. It is a beautiful story full of symbolism and overflowing with meaning.

The gospel story is the story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. One of the disciples is named Cleopas while his companion remains unnamed. Emmaus is roughly 10 to 12 km from Jerusalem.

The name Emmaus is derived from the Hebrew form hamma or hammat (חמת) which means “warm spring.”  Emmaus may have been a spa or a resort place; it would be fair to say, the Las Vegas or Pansol in those days. Why are these two disciples going to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day when they were supposed to celebrate because Jesus resurrected? As we can glean from the gospel, they were walking away from the hurt and humiliation in Jerusalem and going to a place which could take the pain away or at least distract them from it.

In other words, the journey to Emmaus was a walking away from Jerusalem which was supposed to be the fulfilment of their dream but has been shattered by the shame and humiliation of the cross. When they entered Jerusalem together with Jesus, they were hoping that Jesus will sit in glory like the kings and emperors. As it turns out, Jesus was an epic failure, dying in the most shameful way. This is too hard to take; feeling dejected, they walked away. Unknown to them, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, as he promised.

Despite the two disciples walking away from the resurrection, the Risen Jesus walks with them as a fellow-traveller. Despite that the disciples betrayed, abandoned, and denied him during the time that he needed them most—in his hour of passion, suffering and death; despite not believing in his words that he will rise up again, Jesus walks and accompanied them in their doubts and frustrations as they walk out of the resurrection.

But why on earth did they not recognize Jesus in spite that Jesus walks side-by-side with them? It is utterly ridiculous not to recognize Jesus whom they have ardently followed and recognized as their Master for the past three years.

We can only conjecture two reasons. First, the humiliation and pain of unfulfilled expectation were so heavy that in spite of Jesus walking with them side by side, their eyes was closed even to the people around them.  Second, perhaps they did not recognize Jesus because the appearance of the resurrected body of Jesus might have been different from the earthly body of Jesus they have followed and interacted with before.

It was on the road that Jesus had to explain to them once again why he had to go through his suffering in order to fulfill the promises that God had told the prophets. The messiah has to go through suffering and death but attains glory and emerge victorious from death in the end. This is a powerful symbol of discipleship–Jesus and the two disciples walking, following and listening to Jesus who is the way.

The story of Emmaus represents the deepest truth of our lives. We have experienced many times in our lives walking away from failures and disillusionments – not recognized for the true worth of our efforts, not getting the job we wanted, not being loved by the one whom we love, not achieving our goals, etc. On the other hand, these experiences have taught us great lessons about life and have made us a stronger and better person.

But the gospel story today points us to the biggest fundamental walking away that we need to hurdle in life – the walking away from following Jesus’ passion, death up to the resurrection in Jerusalem. We can never understand the core meaning of our lives unless we learned not to walk away from our own death and resurrection. The core meaning of life as Jesus showed us is giving up life. Not giving up on life but dying to one’s life. In other words, the core meaning of life, the reason why Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, is love.

The redemption of the story is that the two disciples returned to Jerusalem to announce the good news and never to walk away again from the life-giving vocation that Jesus did in Jerusalem.

But this realization happened to the two disciples not without the Eucharist. The story of Emmaus is also the story of the Eucharist. Eucharist is the celebration of Easter. It is the celebration of the Risen Lord walking with us through life’s journey even if we walk away from resurrection.

In the Eucharist we who are followers on the road gather together and encounter Jesus. First, in the Liturgy of the Word as the Scriptures are broken open and explained, and, second, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where what Jesus did for us through his suffering, death and resurrection is remembered with thanksgiving and the bread that is now his Body and the wine that is now his Blood, is shared among those who are the Members of that Body to strengthen their union and their commitment to continuing the work of Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Poong Hesus Nazareno and the Devotees at the Shrine

black-nazarene

Today in Manila, all roads lead to Quiapo.

Every January 9, the Traslación of the Black Nazarene (commemorating the “solemn transfer” of the image’s copy from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo) makes its way along the streets of Manila through a 6-kilometer-long procession. An estimated number of 3 million people are expected to participate and witness the event, which may last about 22 hours as in previous years. The traslación is undoubtedly the biggest one-day public display of popular religiosity in the Philippines, or perhaps, the whole world.

The Black Nazarene ( in Filipino: Poóng Itím na Nazareno, Hesus Nazareno) is a life-sized image of a dark-skinned, kneeling Jesus Christ carrying the Cross enshrined in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila.

Thousands of devotees of the Black Nazarene, some wearing maroon shirts and carrying white towels, and barefooted have started the hours-long journey through the streets of Manila early morning today. The Black Nazarene will be accompanied by throngs of people with many trying to climb onto the carossa carrying the miraculous image. Devotees scramble to touch the statue as part of their prayer and expression of devotion.

nazareno-devotee-barefoot

Many devotees of Poong Hesus Nazareno, especially those coming from Parañaque, Las Piñas and Cavite area, pass by the shrine on the way to Quiapo. Many of them in barefoot wear maroon t-shirt with the image of Poong Hesus Nazareno, carry white towels and maroon handkerchief with the image of  Poong Hesus Nazareno and some carry the statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno. They say a little prayer in front of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help inside the shrine and the shrine’s statue of crucified Christ at the entrance of the shrine, before they continue their journey to Quiapo.

nazareno-devotee

We don’t have a statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno in the shrine but we have the statue of the dark skinned Christ crucified on the cross at the entrance of the shrine. This statue is easily the most favorite statue in the shrine. Many devotees crowd the statue, touching, wiping and kissing it. Many can be seen crying in front of the statue. At least every six months, the shrine needs to repaint the statue because the paint has faded after all the wiping and kissing of the statue by the thousands of devotees.

For many devotees in the shrine, the statue is a tangible representation of our Lord Jesus whom they can touch and kiss. When they touch and kiss the statue they believe that they already touch Jesus. And because they have touched him, they were able to bring to him their petitions and pleas. Perhaps, another reason for its popularity is because the devotees can see their own sufferings in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Because of this, they feel that Christ on the cross identifies with their own sufferings.

Watching the devotees wiping the statue of the crucified Christ with their handkerchief or bandanna then wiping it on themselves reminds me of the story of Veronica who met Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. According to Church tradition, Veronica[1] was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face was miraculously impressed upon Veronica’s veil.

feet-nazareno

I believe that the experience of Veronica, encountering Jesus on his way to Calvary, is the same experience of the millions of devotees in the shrine and in Quiapo. When devotees wipe the statue of the crucified Christ in the shrine and Poong Hesus Nazareno in Quiapo, the crucified face of Christ becomes impressed upon their handkerchief or bandanna. Their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ becomes a great resource for them in their life-journey especially in their daily struggles and hardships. When devotees wiped their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ on their bodies, they experienced Jesus touching and embracing their tired and worn out bodies. They can sense Jesus’ solidarity and identification with their suffering and trials in life. This gives them the greatest hope to continue to face life’s difficulties and reach their aspirations because Christ has also experienced pain and suffering. Like Christ, they will also resurrect and emerge victorious amidst the seemingly insurmountable problems in life.

It is also important to remember that the celebration of the traslacion of Poong Hesus Nazareno still falls within the Christmas season. We are in the Wednesday after the Epiphany of Lord, which is part of the Christmas celebration. This means that the passion and suffering of Jesus cannot be separated from the incarnation of Christ–God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When the Son of God became human, he was prepared to embrace our pain and suffering, including death. If we are to truly live the spirit of Christmas, therefore, we must also be prepared to identify with the mission of Jesus and follow Jesus’ words and deeds, which led to his suffering and death on the cross.

crowd-nazareno


[1]There is no reference to the story of St Veronica and her veil in the canonical Gospels. The closest thing in the gospel about Veronica is the miracle of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment (Luke 8:43–48)

6th Simbang Gabi: Mary as God-Bearer, the first Missionary

The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008
The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2008

We are now on our 6th Simbang Gabi or, as I call it, Christmas academy.

I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the original meaning of the Christmas story–the incarnation of Jesus.

We continue the gospel reading from Luke from yesterday’s text. As soon as the Archangel departed from Nazareth, Mary was no longer the same woman as before. She was radically transformed. The first thing that the newly transformed Mary did was to embark on a journey, to go on a mission.  The annunciation experience was too great to bear alone. She couldnt pass on this event not to share the good news. This life-changing event also inspired Mary to serve and be available for her elderly cousin, Elizabeth who despite her old age, was pregnant, likewise, through the grace of God.

The Angel didn’t command Mary to go to help her cousin Elizabeth. He didn’t even suggest that it would be a good thing for her to go. He just stated the fact that Elizabeth was pregnant and that was enough for Mary to spring into action.

Most of us take for granted that the journey Mary took to reach Elizabeth was a long and arduous journey. Many of us only focus on the spiritual side of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth but fail to appreciate the equally significant physical dimension of the visit. Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth covered a distance of between 128 and 160 kilometers. She took off from Nazareth, a Galilean city west of the Sea of Galilee and travelled to Ein Karem, the Judean village where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In Mary’s day, a person traveling by foot could cover about 32 kilometers per day. If Mary walked to Elizabeth’s home, it would have taken her four to five days straight. If she accompanied a caravan, she would have arrived in about three days. Luke does not mention whether Mary may have gone on foot or as part of a caravan. We don’t know if she traveled alone or whether St. Joseph accompanied her, or SS. Anne or Joachim.

map-journey-visitation

In any case, such a journey would have been dangerous, especially for a young girl alone. By embarking on this journey, Mary demonstrated her courage as well as her desire for confirmation of God’s plan. She overcome any fear she may have had about surrendering to God’s call on her life or facing the possible danger involved in confirming his will. Such complete surrender freed her to act in confidence.

At the sight of Elizabeth, Mary’s tiredness were turned to joy and greeted Elizabeth, very likely “shalom,” which means peace in Hebrew. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greetings, three joyful things happened: John the Baptist leaped in her womb, Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and burst out saying:

“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary was able to bring incredible joy to Elizabeth and to the fetal John the Baptist, because she was bringing Christ.  The Holy Spirit inspired Elizabeth to bless Mary among all women because of the blessed fruit of her womb and because of her faith that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled. In other words, she was blessed because of Jesus and because of her faith in her embryonic saviour and son.

In going to Ein Karim, Mary became the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News–the official term, theotokos–which is the first title accorded to her by mother church. Despite being pregnant with Jesus, the word incarnate (logos), in her womb, she journeys through the hill country to the town of Juda. English theologian John Saward refers to this image of Mary on her journey to Elizabeth as the “Logos carrying Virgin.”[1] In this journey, Mary became the first disciple and missionary of the Logos (Word). Indeed she is the Theotokos—bearer of God in our world.

What is this story telling us about Christmas?

Christmas is not just a celebration but also a call to mission. The incarnation of Jesus overflows with life, joy and goodness that it cannot be kept just to ourselves. Furthermore, the Chrismas spirit should not be lived only at this time of the year. As the song goes, araw-araw ay magiging pasko lagi (everyday will always be Christmas). And another Christmas song goes, at magbuhat ngayon, kahit hindi pasko ay magbigayan (from now on, even though it’s not Chrismas, we should give to one to another).

The Christmas spirit must be lived, shared and proclaimed to others, to the whole world, throughout the year. Like Mary, we are all called to be Theotokos—God-bearers. We need to share the good news of Emmanuel, God is with us, not just with our lips but also with our feet, with all our heart and soul. We need to share the good news that our lives is “impregnated” with God despite all the despair, gloom and hardships, our sinfulness and the messines of our lives.

In response to Elizabeth greetings, Mary, filled with the Spirit, will break out into that wonderful hymn of praise that we call the Magnificat, a hymn that will proclaim the message of liberation Jesus will later deliver by word and action. We will see this tomorrow.

The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).

 


 

[1] John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), 120.

23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE FREEDOM OF BEING DISCIPLES OF CHRIST

youth-Laoag

Some of the misconceptions put forward against Christianity is that it curtails freedom. Some atheists and agnostics argue that Christianity is very stifling and suffocating as it puts a lot of demands.

On the other hand, true believers in Christ can attest to the fact that following Jesus is a very liberating experience. They truly experienced Jesus’ words: “The truth will set you free” (John 8: 32). They experienced true freedom after they discovered the truth about themselves and the world as a consequence of following Jesus. Subsequently, this entailed throwing off the lies and deceptions to which they have been captive for so long.

In the second reading of today’s 22nd Sunday in ordinary time, St. Paul wrote to Phelemon on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who had wronged his owner Philemon, to receive him no longer as a slave but as a “brother beloved.”

that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, a brother,
beloved especially to me, but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.

St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It is often assumed from the letter that Onesimus, a slave, had fled Philemon, his owner, after stealing money, as Paul states in verse 18 that if Onesimus owes anything, Philemon should charge this to Paul’s account. Sometime after leaving, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, although again the details are unclear. He may have been arrested and imprisoned alongside Paul. Alternatively, he may have previously heard Paul’s name (as his owner was a Christian) and so travelled to him for help. After meeting Paul, Onesimus became a Christian believer. An affection grew between them, and Paul would have been glad to keep Onesimus with him. However, he considered it better to send him back to Philemon with an accompanying letter, which aimed to effect reconciliation between them as Christian brothers.

There is a very radical idea that Paul puts forward in this letter. Paul was implying to Philemon that the consequence of Onesimus’ conversion to Christ is that the runaway is no longer simply a slave but a “brother in the Lord.” Let us remember that slavery was an accepted institution in Paul’s time. In this letter, therefore, Paul states a revolutionary idea, especially during those times, that there are no longer divisions between slaves and free people in Christ. In fact, as Paul wrote in another letter – the letter to the Galatians (3:28) – all divisions and exclusion should be eliminated in the new family of God:

There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Baptism into the body of Christ created an equality of dignity that transcends distinctions grounded in race, law, and even gender. Paul has planted a seed here that, with painful slowness, will come to fruition centuries later.

The Christian paradox of freedom is written all over the letter. Although Paul was in prison, he was proclaiming about freedom. His external environment may have been the prison but internally he was absolutely free. He talked about the new-found identity of Onesimus who is no longer a slave but a brother on equal putting with fellow Christians because of his conversion to Christ. He was imploring Philemon to accept Onesimos back into his care with this new found freedom in Christ.

Indeed, you cannot hold captive a person even if you incarcerate him. The names of  Nelson Mandela, our national hero Jose Rizal, St. Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  immediately comes to my mind. Sometimes those who are in jail are freer than those who are living outside of jail but are held captive by their own internal demons for so long.

Paul’s sensitive and clever letter of intercession illustrates well the point of this Sunday’s Gospel. When Jesus lays down the shocking teaching that following him entails a readiness to turn one’s back on family members, he states a stark consequence that accompanies good news: finding and following the will of God in Jesus makes us part of a new family that goes deeper (and wider) than blood.

This comes, however, at the expense of one of the harshest words of Jesus about family life found in the New Testament:

“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.”

American biblical scholar, John J. Pilch commented that in Jesus’ time, the main rule of behavior is: family first! A disciple who deliberately cuts ties with family and social network will lose the ordinary means of making a living. This is the “economic cross” the disciple has chosen to carry.

No longer able to make claims to a livelihood based on blood ties and advantageous social network, a disciple have to rely on “hospitality,” which in the Middle East is extended exclusively by strangers to strangers (see Lk 9:4-5; 10:3-12). This risk-filled option is quite a cross to carry.

By joining a new, fictive family consisting of other disciples of Jesus, however, a “family-hating” person presumably has a new source of livelihood. Nevertheless, a disciple who has accepted these challenging exhortations will effectively have given up everything. Therefore, a would-be disciple must seriously calculate the costs.

Two brief parables (about construction and waging war) drive this point home. Anyone who weakens and abandons this determination will become the butt of ridicule and shame. A disciple must remain firmly committed.

Jesus teaches us today that discipleship requires both renunciation and calculation. Those who wish to follow him must renounce everyone and everything that gets in the way of a single-minded response to Jesus’ invitation to be his disciple. At the same time, disciples are not naively to follow Jesus. They must calculate and consent to the cost—the price is giving their all, even their own life. What the One who calls gives disciples in return, however, is beyond calculation—fullness of new Life

Christian freedom is one of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith. True freedom means willingly becoming a slave to Christ, which happens through an ever growing relationship with Him (Colossians 2:16–17).

To follow Jesus of taking up of one’s cross is a sheer act of freedom. Following Jesus is liberating. It frees us from all attachments, prejudices, possessions and barriers to experiencing the redeeming grace of the cross. At the cost of leaving behind our own family and our own small lives, however, we gain a hundredfold of families and we become fully human and fully alive.

21ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: ENTERING THE NARROW GATE

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The theme of our readings for today’s 21st Sunday in ordinary time, proclaims the abundance and generosity of God’s salvation. The abundance of God’s salvation, however, requires people’s response and acceptance. People cannot just “coast” into salvation; it requires effort from people. 

In the first reading, Isaiah prophesies that salvation is offered to all peoples. The prophet foresaw the outreach of God’s salvation, beyond Israel, to the nations of the world. 

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.

From the beginning it was God’s plan to save all humankind. God never intended for anyone to be excluded. This universal salvific intention of God is picked up by Jesus in the Gospel today:

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.

Jesus himself  personify the inclusivity of God’s reign: He hosted meals to which even tax collectors were invited. When religious officials challenged this behavior, Jesus defended the practice by telling the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Two Lost Sons (Luke 15, where the prodigal son’s return is celebrated in a banquet from which the elder son absents himself).

On the other hand, Jesus warns us that God’s inclusive vision is not automatic. Those who might consider themselves “insiders”  may wake up to find themselves excluded, while, to their anguish and chagrin, they may see many included whom they would have considered outsiders.

In other words, God’s salvation comes with responsibility. We must not be complacent about God’s inclusion. Thus, Jesus in the gospel tells of the imagery of the narrow gate and the people rejected at the door.

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’

To accept God’s salvation is like entering a narrow gate. When an entrance is narrow and many are trying to get through (think of people struggling to get into a department store when bargain sales are on), it pays to struggle and get to the front right away. Jesus is pointing to this experience and applying this to taking advantage of God’s generous offer of salvation.

Those who were rejected at the door represents, in Jesus time, those whose faith is sterile and lifeless and those hypocrites who love to show in public their holiness but wouldn’t lift a finger to ease the burden of the oppressed. They became complacent about God’s salvation since they were the chosen people but were shocked to know they are rejected in the end.

The challenge of the readings for today’s Sunday is twofold. First, the readings challenges us to live out God’s salvation seriously.  God’s salvation is not automatic just because we are baptized Catholic or we go to mass every day or receive the sacraments regularly. God’s salvation is a constant struggle to live out the gospel of Jesus not just within the confines of the church but more so in the world and ordinary life we live in. It challenges us to constant conversion that we can not afford to put off indefinitely.

Secondly, we need to rejoice and proclaim the inclusive nature of God’s salvation especially to those who are rejected by society. We need to go out to the poor and hungry, the oppressed and persecuted, the hardened criminals in jail, the isolated and alienated, the lonely elderly, those dying of AIDS, the prostitutes and pornographers, and proclaim to them God’s invitation that they have a seat at the feast of God’s kingdom.

 

18TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE FUTILIY OF ALL HUMAN PURSUITS

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Are you searching for meaning from all your individual pursuits and toils?

In the first reading of today’s 18th Sunday in ordinary time, from the book of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the main character or spokesperson in the book, says that all individual pursuits are vanity.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!

We usually equate vanity with excessive pride in oneself or in one’s appearance, a picture of conceit and perhaps even arrogance. But in Ecclesiastes  “vanity” translates the Hebrew hebel, which means “vapor, breath,” which implies “empty or valueless,” fleeting, like a vapor.  Qoheleth finds no meaning in all our individual pursuits, but declares it meaningless! Everything is futile, Qoheleth reiterates,

What profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.

What a gloomy and dark picture Qoheleth paints about life! On the other hand, Qoheleth provides us with a brutally honest questioning of all our aspirations, struggles and dreams.  Indeed everything in this physical world is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent and without any enduring substance. We often try to cling to things, and attempt to resist changes, but alas that is wasted effort, like trying to chase the wind. Qoheleth sees through the illusions of all our ambition and offers the most despairing of answers—there is no answer.

So does this mean that we should not strive anymore for anything? Does this mean that we should just do nothing or just eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die?

The second reading provides a meaningful way out of Qoheleth’s dilemma. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, tells the Colossians that they can only find meaning in their lives by seeking what is above and sharing in the risen life of Jesus. What matter most is not the earthly individual pursuits but putting on the new self of the victorious life in Christ:

Brothers and sisters:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above ,..

Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry.
Stop lying to one another,
since you have taken off the old self with its practices
and have put on the new self,
which is being renewed, for knowledge,
in the image of its creator.

The Gospel further deepens the thoughts of the first two readings. In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a very rich man who produced a huge harvest one year. He was busy tearing down his storage barns to build still larger ones so he could hoard more into them.

He stores for future lean years, but not simply for his own pleasure. When the village smallholders have to come to him and borrow grain, he will charge an exorbitant price in hopes of confiscating even more land for himself.

“You have ample goods laid up for many years,” said the fool.
“Relax, eat, drink, and be merry”

The rich fool is a man who lived his life without reference to God and was caught in the toils of futility and meaninglessness (“vanity of vanities!”). He organized his life without reference to the transcendent; he did not “seek the things that are above.”

But Jesus was more than just spiritual, he was also practical. What should the fool have done? He might have done what Jesus praised the shrewd steward for doing (Luke 16:1-9): using surplus wealth as a means to gain friends so that when the wealth is gone, the friends will remain and repay the kindnesses, as this culture expects.

The readings for this 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time are warnings about the illusions of individualist and selfish pursuits that beset many of us. The anxiety and toil of Ecclesiastes, the idolatry and obsessions mentioned in Colossians, the voracious greed portrayed in the gospel parable all clamor for our attention.

The readings for today gives us a profound perspective for determining the worth of our lives. The readings teach us that life is not just about wealth, the bald facts of human mortality and the transiency of material possessions. Any reliance on wealth and possessions is pure folly—both worldly possessions and this life are fleeting. 

Many would determine a person’s worth by the greatness of their house or their status and position in life or their portfolio or the make of their car. Whatever good is in them is transient; they die when you do. As the saying goes, you can’t take any of them with you when you die.

What then are the things that last in this life? Love lasts. Work done for the love of others especially the poor, needy and oppressed lasts. Most of all, the inheritance that only God can give: the fullness of eternal life. What truly last is spending our life dispossessing ourselves of anything which hinders us from growing into the fullness of life.

 

14TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: CALLED AND SENT FOR GOD’S MISSION

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In more recent years, the Baclaran shrine has emphasized the integration and coherence of devotion and mission. This is encapsulated in what we call debo(mi)syon—a concatenation of two words: debosyon (devotion) and misyon (mission) which conveys the oneness of devotion and mission. A statement of commitment by the Redemptorists, lay missionaries, staff and volunteers of the shrine articulates this:

We the Redemptorists, lay missionaries, staff and volunteers of the National Shrine of OMPH promise to make our Mother Mary known by being a help to our fellowmen/women especially to the needy as a an expression of the living of devotion and mission for Jesus Christ.

In the spirit of debo(mi)syon, the shrine tried to enlighten the devotees that devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not an end in itself; devotion does not stop within the walls of the shrine. Devotion is essentially connected to their daily life’s struggles and aspirations. Devotion constantly flows into the mundane and banal reality of their daily life. Devotion can be a force for transformation within themselves and society, in this case, devotion becomes mission.

In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus was recruiting people along the way on his journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. He used tough language (“Let the dead bury their dead,” etc.) in calling would-be followers. In today’s gospel of the 14th Sunday in ordinary time, he is giving army-like instructions to  seventy-two disciples on how they should act when they journey to the towns

Where did this seventy two come from? (Only Luke gives the account of the sending of  of seventy or seventy-two. The other synoptic evangelists Mark and Matthew only mention the sending of the twelve.) Perhaps, Jesus’ relentless recruitment blitz along the road has apparently bore fruit. Despite his tough language, many were attracted to his message and followed him. And now he has an army of followers.

A significant lesson here is the fact that these people were just called by Jesus but now are being sent by Jesus. They are supposed to be training, learning and studying still under their master, but Jesus sent them already. Jesus knew that they still has got plenty to learn. But isn’t experience and action the best way to learn?

Being a disciple is also being an apostle. For Jesus he sees no dichotomy among those he called between their being called and being sent. They are called and sent both and at the same time. This is true also for all of us Christians, we are a disciple and apostle at the same time. While learning to be a disciple is a lifetime process, being an apostle is a daily challenge.

This is very important because many of us think and behave like they are just being called but not sent. They see their faith and spirituality as being called to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to be close to Jesus. So prayer, devotions and receiving the sacraments is enough for them. They overlook the fact that having a personal relationship with Jesus also entails living out his mission, going out into the world and participating in the building of the Kingdom of God. By understanding faith merely as called to have a personal relationship with Jesus, they neglect one of the most essential dimension of the life of Jesus and our faith–mission.

The importance of mission is reiterated by Jesus in his intro to his calling of the seventy-two:

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest.”

Imagining the mission as a harvest reminds us that mission is initiated by God, not simply a human project. It is not the disciples (and therefore not the Church) that initiate the mission. In spreading the Good News, we participate in something God is doing.

One of the most significant realization in theology during the last century was the notion of Missio Dei (Mission of God). Mission is, first and foremost, the work of God. God is the source, means and end of missions. As George Vicedom argued, “Missio Dei means first of all … is God’s work. He is the Lord, the commissioner, the owner, the one who accomplishes the task.  He is the acting subject of mission.  If we attribute mission to God in this way, it is withdrawn from every human whim.”

Jesus sent them to travel from one city to another, by foot, without money or other provisions. It’s a little bit funny that am reminded of all the heavy stuff we take when we go on a mission to a remote barrio.

Go on your way;
behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;
and greet no one along the way, etc.

No one in their right mind would travel the Palestinian roads staffless, bagless, and unshod. Without a staff you are defenseless. Without a bag of some kind, you have no way of carrying a change of clothes or some bread for the road. And no matter how tough your feet are, you can’t run from danger on that rocky terrain without something on your feet. The point Jesus is trying to drive at is that we should be people who trust in God for our defense and who depend on the hospitality of others for our sustenance, and most importantaly, nothing whatsoever should divert our focus on God’s mission.

This is also a challenge Jesus gives to us today. It is perhaps even harder as a challenge for us today than for the disciples in the time of Jesus. Because society today presents too many attractions and unwanteed needs, Jesus admonition to “travel light” is extra tough. But there is great wisdom in Jesus’ instruction that we need to hearken: We should live a little more trustingly in God’s divine providence than the culture around us. We should exhibit a higher sense of purpose that clearly goes beyond producing and consuming goods and getting entertained.

Jesus, however, doesn’t leave the disciples completely helpless. He gives them power. Sometimes it was not effective (Lk 9:40), but in today’s story it seems to have been very effective. They can cure sicknesses and cast out devils. The seventy-two come back rejoicing in their power: “Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!” (Lk 10:17).

Jesus saw in this, the temptation for the disciples to seek power rather than the grace of God. Jesus rebukes them for it. Don’t rejoice in your power, he tells them; rejoice rather in the fact that you will be united to God in heaven.

Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you,
but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

There is an even more significant joy for the missionary: prior to their mission, they had been admitted to the privilege of partaking in the fullness of salvation in the end. When they forget that, they are tempted to think that the mission is their own cause and that the success is their own achievement.