THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD: I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS, UNTIL THE END OF TIMES

looking at the sky

 

During these times of unprecedented suffering and death due to the covid-19 pandemic, there is not a single moment that we looked up to the heavens asking for divine help and intervention.

We celebrate tody the ascension of the Lord Sunday. This marks the human Jesus’ last day on earth. Luke describes the moment of the Lord’s ascension in today’s 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles where Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”

The ascension is one of the most misinterpreted events in Jesus life and belief of our faith. The ascension has often been portrayed in a somewhat mythological way as a gravity-defying form of levitation or the retreat of Jesus from this world to a place up, up and away.

It is significant that Jesus rested in the cloud in the Ascension. In the bible a cloud often depicts the abiding presence of God amongst the people. In the Old Testament, the pillar of cloud was the glory-cloud which indicated God’s presence leading the ransomed people of Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness (Exodus 13:22; 33:9, 10). This pillar preceded the people as they marched, resting on the ark (Exodus 13:21; 40:36). By night it became a pillar of fire (Numbers 9:17-23). In other words, the Ascension signifies not Jesus’ departure but his constant accompaniment of his disciples and the community gathered in his name—the church—as they face the challenges and troubles of this world.

While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

The two angels were trying to say to the apostles that they were not supposed to spend their time staring nostalgically at the heavens as Jesus did not abandon them but is always with them “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 20). There was work to do.  There was a world waiting for the good news to be announced. Faith and hope have now to be busy about other matters, even as Christians, then and now, await his return at the end of time and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 5, 11). The apostles left the mountain, went into the city, and launched the greatest missionary undertaking in human history.

“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The Ascension is not a call of fuga mundi (escape from the world) but at the same time a calling to journey towards a much larger world where heaven and earth meet. The great commission of the Ascension today is how to announce the good news and build God’s kingdom and heaven of liberation and peace in a world enveloped with terror, division, violence and suffering. Let not our hearts be troubled, for Jesus accompanies and protects us “until the end of the age.”

1ST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: SEIZE THE DAY

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In Dead Poets Society, one of my most favorite films of the deceased American actor Robin Williams, Williams plays the unconventional professor John Keating. Keating delivers the words, “Carpe Diem” to his students on the first day of school at Welton Academy. Keating tells his students that one day, no matter what kinds of people they become as adults, they’re going to be “food for worms.” Because life is all-too short, students should make the most of their time on the earth. The best way to make the most of life is to be creative and original—to seize the day—and not simply to repeat one’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives. In other words, Keating’s goal as an educator is to teach his students to think for themselves, to explore their passions and live accordingly.

What are the most important things you want to do before you die? I am not referring to a bucket list like to skydive or climb the Himalayas which only the rich can afford. Perhaps, you can ask forgiveness from a loved one whom you have wronged, say I love you to a special person you have wanted to but didnt for a long time, reconcile with a long lost friend, follow your dreams and your passion. In other words, don’t just be a cliché, dont just be a statistic. Just do it now, seize the day!

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of a new year in the church with the celebration of the Advent season.  Advent is about the profound mystery of the coming down of God into humanity. God became human and dwelt among us more than 2,000 years ago in Jesus Christ. Christ will come again at the end of time to finally establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Thus, Advent is the celebration of the coming of Christ in two parts, the first part expresses the exultant anticipation of the 2nd coming of Christ, which is celebrated in the first four Sundays of Advent. The 2nd part commemorates the joy of the 1st coming of Christ, which begins on December 17, 8 days before Christmas.

On this First Sunday of Advent, the readings are about the end times which will culminate the fulfilment of God’s glory. Although the readings today talks about the end times, the real message of the readings is to pay attention to the present, for it is in the present that God is always coming. It is in the present that we rehearse the fulfillment of God’s promises for the future. We live in the tension between the fullness of time in the end and the nitty gritty reality of the here and now. The end times is already here but not yet. Thus, in a nutshell, the challenge and the message of the readings is, seize the day!

The end times is not about destruction and annihilation but the jubilant expectation for what will God do to our present times. The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth once protested that for many Christians today the last judgment had become a dire expectation of doom, whereas the New Testament Christians looked forward to “that day” with joy, waiting for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of the Lord (2 Pet 3:12).

The New Testament writers expressed this mindset about the end times through the understanding of time as kairos. Kairos was used to mean “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts (for example in Mark 1:15: “The kairos is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand!”). Kairos was used 86 times in the New Testament to refer to an opportune time, a “moment” or a “season” such as “harvest time,” whereas chronos was used 54 times to refers to a specific amount of time, such as a day or an hour (e.g. Acts 13:18 and 27:9).

The call to seize the day is ubiquitous in our readings today. To seize the day is to see the wonders of God working in our daily lives along with our actions and efforts to build a better world. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah prophesied what the end times mean in terms of God’s wonders and human cooperation–there will be ample opportunity for peace building instead of the usual war strategy,

They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

What a beautiful vision! People will be moved to turn instruments of war, like swords and spears, into implements of peace, like agricultural tools such as plowshares and pruning hooks. Imagine what the world will be when all the trillion of dollars spent on war every year would instead be used for building sustainable irrigation systems, more effective farming implements and better support for farmers. We would have a boom in food production and have a massive reduction in hunger and poverty.

In the second reading, St. Paul tells the Romans to seize the day now that God’s salvation is near:

You know the time;
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

Pope Francis said the same thing in 2013, when he challenged the Atheneum students to shun the security of their lives and avoid complacency,

Please do not watch life go by from the balcony! Mingle where the challenges are calling you to help carry life and development forward, in the struggle over human dignity, in the fight against poverty, in the battle for values and in the many battles we encounter each day.

Vespers with Atheneum Students
Saturday, 30 November 2013

In the gospel, Jesus told his disciples and the people to seize the day by being vigilant and always prepared for the coming of the Lord in the present which offers many opportunities:

Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

Advent is a way of life. Advent is an attitude to make the most of the opportunities of the present. Advent is a new way of seeing God’s wonders in a world mired in violence, injustice, division and despair. Advent is to seize the day as we journey toward the fullness of Life to come.

What can you seize today?

33RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE END IS NEAR

Yolanda Tacloban 2013-30
Photo courtesy of Bro. Jun Santiago, CSsR

The news in most TV and newspapers throughout the week reads, earthquakes in the Philippines, flood in Venice, catasthropic bush fires in NSW, Australia, volcanic eruptions in Russia, melting glaciers in Iceland, deforestation in the Amazon, haze in Indonesia …

Jesus, in the gospel of today’s 33rd Sunday in ordinary time, also depicts the future events from one catastrophe to another, both human-made and natural:

Then he said to them,
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”

Today, the world is faced with crises every bit as bad as apocalyptic literature might suggest. Real threats of unrecoverable climate changes, economic crises that more than wreck people’s lives, war and violence that continue to kill thousands of people. A fifth of the world’s population lives in absolute poverty. About three billion people lack adequate nutrition. There are somewhere between one billion and two billion unemployed adults in the world. More than half of the countries of the world have used violence against their own citizens in the form of torture, brutality, and summary executions.

In the midst of all these crises and tribulations, those with power, wealth and position continue to reign. Their power and influence continued to grow stronger, while the vast majority of the common tao remain poorer and powerless every day.

This will be reversed at the end of times. In the first reading, the prophet Malachi warns that the day of the Lord is coming which will spell doom for all the arrogant and evildoers. But for those who fear the name of God, that day will mean vindication and salvation, beautifully described as the rising of the sun of righteousness with healing in its wings.

But before this glorious salvation and vindication from the Lord, there will be hardships even persecution for Jesus’ disciples.

“Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.”

The Lord, however, will give us the strenght and the courage to  pass through these trials and difficulties. We only need to hold on to God’s power and guidance.

It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Each generation has witnessed the signs of the end times. Instead of obsessing about the end, however, the message of the readings today calls us to turn our attention to the present. We need to heed the message the biblical prophets in the scriptures has unceasingly proclaimed:  “Repent!” It is a message that is very present-oriented; it is God’s will for the here and now.

The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth once protested that for many Christians the last judgment had become a dire expectation of doom, whereas the New Testament Christians looked forward to “that day” with joy, waiting for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of the Lord (2 Pet 3:12).

Being attentive to the present means that we cannot just remain idle and passively wait for eternity.  There is no need to stop fulfilling our daily duties, which is what some Christians in Thessalonica, in the second reading, were doing.  They had stopped working, waiting for the end of the world, and preaching the same to others, confusing them and causing a lot of disturbance. Paul had to intervene and warn them in very strong words:

We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a
disorderly way,
by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly
and to eat their own food.

The final days of the world are always right in front of us. The end is always near. This means that we must always be ready, be present to the signs and challenges of the times. There is never any time to waste. If we need to repent, now is the time. If we want to thank God, now is the time. If we need to forgive, now is the time.

Scriptures tell us, now is the day of salvation. Now is the time when the Lord is with us, bringing compassion and love. Every Sunday, in the Eucharist, we celebrate, the coming of the future fulfillment of the kingdom of God now.

32ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: IMAGINE THERE’S HEAVEN

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Photo by Mathew Thomas from Pexels

The opening lines to one of the most popular songs of John Lennon, Imagine, says, “Imagine there’s no heaven.”

Lennon invites us to imagine a world without a heaven or hell wherein he suggests that we make the best world we can here and now, since this is all this is or will be.

Indeed, many people in the ordinariness and busyness of everyday living, rarely think about either the end times or the existence of another world beyond death. For many, this is the only world and everything about life ends in the grave.

We Christians, however, imagine there is heaven which is a radically different world from which we live in. God will rise us all from the dead at the end of times to live in heaven. This is most profoundly the basis of our Christian hope and what gives purpose to our lives here on earth.

All categories and standards of this world will not apply in heaven as only God’s standards and values will apply in heaven. In the Gospel of today’s 32nd Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus describes the radical difference between life in this world and in heaven:

The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.

Jesus is saying that heaven is not a prolongation of our present earthly life but an entirely new mode of existence, in which marriage and giving in marriage are unknown. Since in the new life there is no more death, there is no need for provision to perpetuate the human race.

In a profound way, Jesus invites the people of his time and all people of all times to imagine heaven which is the world that God has prepared and destined each one of us. It is a world where we shall all live again after death, in fact, there will no longer death, for we shall have eternal life. This is what we proclaim in our creed every Sunday:

I believe in …
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

We recite these words every Sunday but do we truly understand what these words mean?

I must confess that I don’t exactly and fully understand what these words mean. But Jesus’ call here is not so much to understand heaven and eternal life exactly and fully but more to hope and imagine. Jesus calls us to trust, hope and imagine a whole new world where all creation will be reunited with God. This calling is expressed beautifully in the penultimate chapter of the last book of the Bible, the book of revelation, chapter 21:

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people,
and he will dwell with them.
They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.”

Despite all the pains and suffering, despite all the sadness and despair, despite all the wars and conflicts, despite all the evils in our world today, God invites us to imagine and hope of a place and time where and when there will be true peace, joy and prosperity for all forever.

Heaven is God’s pure gift; it will only come through the power and grace of God. Thus, heaven cannot come through our human efforts and abilities. Despite all the advances in science and technology, we cannot bring about heaven. We can, however, prepare ourselves to live in heaven by our life, our behaviours, our actions and attitudes here on earth. We can also prepare the world for the ultimate arrival of heaven by making the world a better place to reflect the values in heaven. As the song goes, “to make a little heaven down here”.

In other words, our readings today, calls us to re-imagine our lives with heaven on our minds. Imagine our lives that there is heaven. This calls for radical changes in our outlook, attitude and lifestyle. We cannot bring wealth, power and fame in heaven. We can, however, bring love, peace, gratitude, humility and joy in heaven. This also implies that we need to change our mindset that we are just pilgrims on earth, we are not permanent residents here on earth, we are just passing through. All of our lives is a preparation for eternal life.