15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE PRODIGAL SOWER

sower

Jesus taught mainly through parables. Parables are stories or analogies drawn from everyday life. The parable of the sower is one of the greatest parables of Jesus.

From a farmer’s point of view, however, there is something wrong with the parable of the sower. Not that I am a farmer but I’ve seen many times, especially during my exposure to farmers during my seminary days, how a farmer would meticulously prepare the field before sowing the seeds. He would plow and rake through the soil to remove the grass and stones until it becomes clean and clear so that all the seeds will fall on good soil. Once these are done, there is no way a seed could fall on thorny soil, rocky soil, not to mention, a pathway, as told in the parable by Jesus. From all indications, the sower in the parable is not our typical farmer; he is either a foolish or wasteful farmer. In Tagalog, we call this kind of farmer, “waldas na magsasaka”.

What could explain for the different types of soil where the seeds fell? It’s either that agriculture was so crude during Jesus’ time or this is deliberate on the part of Jesus. I think the latter is more appropriate as Jesus wanted to emphasize the utter generosity, even to the point of extravagance, of the sower.  After all, the very purpose of the parables is to show a God who is utterly benevolent.  God’s benevolence overturns our greed stricken world, forces us to re-examine our mindset and offers us a fresh perspective in life.

The parable has strong links with today’s First Reading from Isaiah. God’s word is compared to rain and snow falling on the earth and not returning until it has made the soil “fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats”. “So,” says the Lord in Isaiah, “my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” We all know now that the Word of God is Jesus. The abundant goodwill of Jesus the Word of God will bear fruit no matter what and will serve the purpose of his coming—the plentiful redemption of God’s creation.

The extravagance of the sower is highlighted by the fact that the sower never discriminate in his act of sowing. Whether the soil was pathway soil, rocky soil, thorny soil, or good soil, the sower generously sowed his seed equally on all types of soil. Jesus himself explained that these different types of soil symbolizes the different dispositions which hearers receive the word of God. Jesus elaborates,

“The seed sown on the path is the one
who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it,
and the evil one comes and steals away
what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground
is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time.
When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

The question we always ask ourselves in this parable is “What kind of soil am I?” Honestly, I think I have been all the four types of soil. There were times in my life that I was the rocky soil during those times when some tribulation made me to fall away from the word. At other times I was the thorny soil when  worldly anxiety and the lure of worldly honor and comfort choke the word in me and I became unproductive. Sometimes I was the pathway soil when I heard the word of the kingdom without understanding it. These weaknesses and failures, however, have taught me to become the good soil. Sometimes it can be said that the different types of soil represents stages in a process of our truly becoming the good soil.

The good news is despite all our shortcomings and infidelity, God will continue to sow generously his  word upon us. He will not give up sowing his seeds on each one of us. This is clearly a message of hope for all of us which may at times be discouraged by our and of our fellow believer’s failures and limitations.

Having experienced God’s generous lavish sowing upon ourselves, we now are also called to be prodigal sowers of the abundant love of the word of God. This is doubly challenging given today’s inhospitable environment.  We are not to keep the word of God, however, in our own privatized religion. We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus to our brothers and sisters.

May we all continue to become the good soil hearing and making the word of God fruitful in our lives. At the same time, may we share in the generous sowing of the word of God by the prodigal sower even to those who fail and refuse to hear it.

14TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: RESTING IN JESUS

Ron-resting

For many of us, our idea of rest and recreation is taking few days off from work, chilling out, having fun, hanging out and enjoying the company of friends and family.  It can also involve longer days for holidays going to other places or enjoying nature, swimming in the sea, lake or rivers or hiking into mountains and forests. After a well spent rest, we feel rejuvenated and refreshed, become more inspired and ready to once again face and continue our work and projects.

That is why rest and recreation are essentially connected. A truly good rest results in a recreation. After a good rest, we become a new creation. A good rest helps us to review our lives in order that we may know where we are going to next. Thus, rest can sometimes result in a new idea, an inspiration that can bring life-changing event, a new lifestyle. It may also call for going back, a return to our roots, a return to nature.  In other words, rest is being attentive to our body, emotions and soul.

What is the most profound thing that your body and soul is telling you now?

Unfortunately, many people in our country today are deprived of this idea of rest. Many people has to work even up to Sundays to just barely get by.  Because of the lack of local work opportunities, many parents go overseas to work leaving behind their children. This distorts the experience of rest as how can one enjoy the company of family when one’s parents are not here. The urban environment generates lots of  situation which affect the quality of rest – air pollution, traffic and noise, let alone, the chaos, trash and hustle and bustle of city life. Technology has also made it harder for genuine rest. As we get wrapped up more and more in mobile phones, texting, email, Facebook, and the internet, we are constantly distracted by texts, emails, phone messages which rob us of the simple capacity to stop, shut off the machines, and rest.

Perhaps, this is the reason why for many people the idea of rest is just to escape from the daily humdrum, pains and problems of our daily life like drinking with friends all day Sunday. We “thank God it’s Friday” so we can go out ‘gimmicking’—partying and bar hopping until early Saturday morning.  Many times, this kind of rest leave us more tired than before, not to mention, the hangover. No wonder, the rest we do sometimes makes us feel more tired that after our ‘rest’ we want to take a rest again.

If rest is essential to our well-being, restlessness is a constant itch of our human existence.  We are essentially restless, even if we have taken a good rest. In Tagalog, we call this existential restless itch, “Hindi mapakali”. We long for a more profound and complete rest.  Restlessness is not just physical and emotional but also spiritual. It involves our soul. All throughout our lives we look for that thing that will ultimately give us true rest.

As Christians we believe that we cannot truly rest until we can rest in Jesus and learn from him about the fundamental meaning of life. As St. Augustine said in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[1]

In the Gospel today, Jesus comforts us:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And how can we have rest in Jesus, Jesus tells us:

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Wait a minute, I thought Jesus will give us rest but why is he giving us his yoke? Is it not that yoke and rest are contradiction in terms?

Jesus’ yoke is to learn from him for as he says, “I am gentle and humble of heart.” Jesus’ yoke is the yoke of humility and service. It praises God for contradicting the wisdom of the world: “for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children.”

Jesus also challenges us that perhaps we should learn from the meek and humble, the little people, the sick and dying, the poor and hungry. For it is among them that we find Jesus and learn to become humble and meek of heart.

Jesus wants to address a more profound and fundamental rest—the ultimate rest. Most of our rest only involves pleasure and enjoyment. Rest without wholeness of being and spiritual rest is not enough. True rest involves rest for the soul.  Jesus’ rest gives us rest for our souls but it does not exclude the element of joy. As Pope Francis has said, “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”[2]


[1] Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5

[2] Evangelii Gaudium, 1.

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.

12TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: FEAR OF THE LORD

no-fear

Every day our world is becoming a fear-driven society. Anxiety has become the new normal. As we open the newspapers and watch TV, we read and hear news of the worsening pandemic. We are terrified by news of impending disasters–earthquake, typhoons, flood, climate change. We are afraid of continuous criminality in our neighborhood despite the government’s tough stance. We continue to be anxious of the economy, we are uncertain about the future, we worry about our personal problems.

It’s perfectly normal to be afraid. Fear is a natural and primitive human emotion. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological. Sometimes fear stems from real threats, but it can also originate from imagined dangers.

Unfortunately, fear is also a very powerful weapon to cow the people to submission. Fear is after all the main goal of terrorists, dictators and autoritarian leaders who want to remain in power permanently. Autoritarian leaders takes advantage of the uncertainty of the situation combined with the perception of an escalating threat. In this age of existential anxiety, many embrace a cultural worldview that provides an artificial semblance of order and toughness. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of Duterte and Trump who for many people represents order and stability in a fear-driven world. Unfortunately, we hand over our responsibilty to their authority because of our own failure and laziness to confront our chaotic and messy situation.

There’s also a lot of power and money involved in perpetuating the fears of ordinary citizens. For mass media, insurance companies, Big Pharma, advocacy groups, lawyers, politicians and so many more, fear can be worth billions. And fortunately for them, our fears are very easy to manipulate.

In the midst of the most fearmongering time in human history, we hear comforting words of Jesus in the gospel today:

“Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.”

In this age of fake news and alternative facts, truth will prevail no matter how much people will try to bury it. In this fear-driven and manipulative society, Jesus calls us to continue his mission of truth, justice and love. Like the disciples we are sent out on mission. We are to proclaim in the marketplace or from the “housetops” the gospel.

“What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.”

We can expect rejection and humiliation but these should not deter us from our mission. We are not to give up the struggle or capitulate in the face of persecution. If Jesus and the Holy Spirit is with us, Jesus’ mission will prevail in spite of our weaknesses. They may kill our bodies but they cannot kill our spirit and soul.

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body.”

This kind of fear that Jesus tells us to practice more, is the fear of the Lord. This type of fear does not necessarily mean to be afraid of something. Rather, it is a reverential awe of God, a reverence for His power and glory. However, it is also a proper respect for His wrath and anger. In other words, the fear of the Lord is a total acknowledgement of all that God is, which comes through knowing Him and His attributes.

Fear of the Lord brings with it many blessings and benefits. It is the beginning of wisdom and leads to good understanding (Psalm 111:10). Only fools despise wisdom and discipline (Proverbs 1:7). Furthermore, fear of the Lord leads to life, rest, peace, and contentment (Proverbs 19:23). It is the fountain and life (Proverbs 14:27) and provides a security and a place of safety for us (Proverbs 14:26). It is this fear that leads us to acknowledge the power of God just as Jeremiah proclaimed in the first reading today:

Sing to the LORD,
praise the LORD,
for he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the wicked!”

PENTECOST SUNDAY: CELEBRATING PENTECOST IN THE TIME OF PANDEMIC

 

The world continues to reel from the negative impact of the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic jolted and disrupted our “normal” life and caused unprecedented distress and hardships.

In the midst of the pandemic, we celebrate the Pentecost which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary and other followers of Jesus Christ while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks, as described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1–31). Pentecost also jolted and disrupted the disciples and ushered the beginning of the church. Pentecost transformed the followers of Christ from timid and fearful to bold and daring disciples.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down “like a strong driving wind,” and appeared as “tongues of fire”, and finally rested on each of the disciples. This emboldened the disciples and gave them the gift to speak in every language of all the people gathered at Jerusalem during that day.

The coming of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning of the church. Pentecost is our birthday as a church. This means that the church, as St. Luke has shown in the whole Acts of the Apostles, is a spirit-led church. Actually, the Acts of the Apostles could have been more appropriately called the Acts of the Holy Spirit: It was always the spirit who had the final say where the early church should go, what the church should do. In every major decision, the early church would listen to the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the church could have fallen apart a long time ago.

Today the Spirit continues to lead us, to guide us. to shake us out of our complacencies, to disturb us out of our passiveness.  But do we listen? Are we like the early church who always sought the direction of the Holy Spirit, who discerned always where the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives and work?

In today’s chaotic world stricken by the covid-19 pandemic, the temptation for us and the church is to freeze in fear and be content solely with our own security and self-preservation. Another temptation is to go back to the old normal after the pandemic is over as if nothing happened and continue to rely on our human capacity and wisdom. These times calls for more solidarity of all people and discernment and reliance on the surprises and creativity of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit re-created the disciples. The Holy Spirit set the disciples on fire. Compare the apostles before and after Pentecost, oh what a difference the Spirit makes. From timid they became bold, from lethargic they became energetic  and from fearful they became courageous – all for the sake of the good news of Jesus.  As Pope Francis has said about the church of Pentecost, “She is a Church that doesn’t hesitate to go out, meet people, proclaim the message that’s been entrusted to her, even if that message disturbs or unsettles the conscience.”[1]

For all the chaos and suffering brought by the pandemic, there is hope. But only if we become bold in transforming our lives and listen to the promptings of the spirit. As Pope Francis reminds us, this contagion of infection with the Coronavirus can lead to a contagion of fear, of isolation, of ‘self-protection’. He calls us to welcome instead the ‘contagion’ of the Holy Spirit – a contagion of prayer and service, of solidarity and welcome.” We need discernment and openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Where is the movement of the spirit in this time of pandemic? How can we listen and discern the promptings of the spirit in this time of pandemic?

Despite the suffering and death caused by the pandemic, God will re-create the world through the Holy Spirit. “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Isaiah 43:18, Isaiah 43:19, Revelation 21:5, Isaiah 65:17, Ephesians 2: 15). As in the first Pentecost, we have in need now more of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In a prayer in preparation for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Pope John XXIII prayed, “Renew Your wonders, O God, in our day — as in a new Pentecost!”

“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.”

 


 

[1] Pope Francis, By the Power of the Spirit the Church Astounds & Confuses,” Angelus, June 8, 2014

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.”

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE ABIDING PRESENCE OF CHRIST

christ10
I will not leave you orphans

In today’s pandemic, one of the most ab/used word is social distancing. While “social distancing” is essential to help avoid getting sick and “flatten the curve” in the spread of COVID-19, it may be sending the wrong message and contributing to social isolation. What the pandemic has actually done is not separation and isolation but has heightened the need for support and connection with one another. For example, we siblings, 6 of us, have not physically reunited for a long time, but thanks to the pandemic, we had a long and spirited conversation via zoom just recently. We do not actually want to distance from one another but to build solidarity in this time of unprecendented suffering. Thus, the conversation is shifting from “social distancing” towards “physical distancing.”

One of the best song that expresses this irony is Joey Ayala’s “Walang Hanggang Paalam” (Never Ending Farewell). The haunting and melancholic melody truly expresses the pain and sadness of separation while at the same declares the undying unity between lovers. The lyrics are so beautiful that you would think it was a poem before it was a song. The chorus expresses the intense tension between physical separation and unbreakable emotional and spiritual bond:

Ang pag-ibig natin ay (Our love)
Walang hanggang paalam (is an everlasting farewell)
At habang magkalayo (And while we are far)
Papalapit pa rin ang puso (Our hearts draws near)
Kahit na magkahiwalay (We may be apart)
Tayo ay magkasama (Yet we are together)
Sa magkabilang dulo ng mundo (On the opposite ends of the world)

This song may also remind us of a sad experience about someone whom we truly love has to say goodbye to us. We really want to spend our lives with her/him but it just couldn’t  be. So we try our best to become the best persons that we are, thinking that that person we love is not gone and is not separated from us but always with us. His/her abiding presence has become an inspiration, advocate, comfort, consolation and help.

In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciple on the night of his departure, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.”  The Risen Lord continues to be present and remains alive manifesting the Father’s love and kindness in the world through us His disciples and friends. He has given us His Spirit to enlighten, empower and encourage us that we may be able to love one another as He has loved us.

The word “Advocate” comes from the Latin “advocatus” which translates the original Greek word “paraklētos”; both words literally mean “one who is called alongside” somebody. An Advocate/Paraclete can mean a spokesman, a mediator, an intercessor, a comforter, a consoler or a helper.  Jesus said the Holy Spirit is “another” Advocate because he is the first Advocate (see 1 Jn 2:1b). The Holy Spirit, as the “second” Advocate, will continue Jesus’ presence among the disciples and His saving action for the of the disciples, e.g., guiding them and nourishing them with His word and defending them against those who will persecute them (see Jn 15:18-27).

Jesus assures us, “I will not leave you orphans.” In Jesus’ time, the orphans were the weakest members of the society. Having lost their parents, particularly their fathers, orphans or the comfortless ones had no means of protection and provision and so were easy targets for exploitation and harm. One of our most basic needs as human beings is the need for comfort, empathy, and presence of our loved ones. This is also what we ask most of God. More than material things, God’s advocacy, consolation and presence, is one of the most frequent petition that we ask of the Lord especially in the lowest moments of our lives. Jesus gives us assurance that God never leaves us orphans. This gives us the greatest hope—the never ending presence, protection and support of God. We are confident even in today’s hostile world because it is the Spirit who gives us the grace and strength to believe. This is the same confidence that St. Peter proclaimed in the second reading: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (I Peter 3: 15).

Jesus may be “physically distant” but he is not “socially distant” from us. Jesus is so far yet so near, absent yet present, because the Holy Spirit is sent for us. God never left us. God remains with us, forever. And we should, therefore, not be distant from one another. We are all united in solidarity in the abiding presence of Christ amongst us.

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.

4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: JESUS, OUR GATE TO FULLNESS OF LIFE

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woman praying outside the gate of Baclaran church, photo courtesy of Rappler

On my first year in Australia during my study leave in 2008, I adventurously drove alone from Melbourne to my cousin’s place in Ipswich, QLD, a distance of about 1,628 km. I drove it for three days taking stops, of course, at Redemptorist houses in Galong, NSW and Newcastle, NSW for a rest and sleep for the night. I was quite confident that I won’t get lost equipped with a GPS on my car. On my way to Galong, however, the GPS directed me to dirt roads passing through many ranches and farms. I have to get on and off the car in order to open the gates of the many farms I passed through. Someone in Galong told me that I could get shot opening those gates for trespassing.

In the gospel of today’s 4th Sunday of Easter, Jesus talks about gates,

“I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life
and have it more abundantly.””

When I think of gate, the first thing that comes to my mind is that of exclusion. Talk of exclusive subdivision in Makati or gated mansions in Ayala-Alabang or high walls in New Manila. Gates are meant to prevent outsiders and those who don’t belong from coming inside the house or building or a village. Anyone who doesn’t pass through the gate can be suspected of robbers, outlaws or persons with evil intention. But gate can also be an image of captivity and repression so that those inside cannot get out and can easily be controlled by those who have power. Think about the gates of prisons, refugee detention centers and rehabilitation centers.

Do these images apply to Jesus when he said, “I am the gate”?

First of all, the context of in which Jesus spoke those words is in the context of sheep and shepherding.  The image of sheep and shepherd is not an image we are familiar in the Philippines. But in Israel where Jesus lived and grew, sheep is an important part of life, providing the people with wool, milk, and meat. In the Bible, the main symbol of God’s relationship with the people of Israel is compared to a shepherd and his sheep.

When Jesus spoke about himself as Gate, he was referring to the Gate of the sheepfold, meaning—a sheep pen, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus.  Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep.

Of all domesticated animals, sheep are the most vulnerable. Sheep will spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, and never looking up. As a result, they often become lost. Unfortunately, sheep have no “homing instinct” as other animals do. They are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight. By nature, sheep are followers. If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow. Sheep are also utterly dependent upon their shepherd to lead them to pastures, provide them with water, and protect them from danger.

Jesus as gate of the sheepfold, therefore, is where those who are vulnerable, weak, and helpless can get in. Jesus as gate is not about exclusion but welcoming all especially the least and the lost, the poor, deprived and oppressed. Jesus as gate is to give protection and comfort to the sheep who wish to belong and follow him.

Jesus as gate is not a gate for control and enslavement. We need not fear entering into this gate; we won’t get shot. Jesus is the gate where the sheep—we, the church—come in and go out and find pasture. The gospel passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”  Entering into the gate of Jesus is to live life to the full.

In order to enter into the gate who is Jesus, we need to embrace a relationship and bond where we are all sheep and Jesus is our shepherd. We need to live out this relationship as one of the hallmarks of our being an Easter people.

As a sheep, we are weak, helpless, and vulnerable and dependent on God and one another. Many times we wander off and get lost. Like sheep, we get easily frightened and become easily confused and we plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd, we need someone to follow who will guide us to the true path towards fullness of life not someone who will lead us astray. Jesus is the true shepherd who has come that we may have life and have it to the full. He is the good shepherd who lay down His life for His sheep.

Being in the sheepfold of Jesus, however, does not mean that we become a passive sheep. It also calls us to participate in the ‘shepherdness’ of Jesus. We are called to shepherd one another, to search for the lost and the lonely, to care for the most abandoned, to protect the vulnerable and to defend the poor and the oppressed.

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, calls out the religious and clergy  to go out of the comforts of their convents and stay close to the marginalized and become “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” The call to be a shepherd, however, is not just a call for the ordained and religious. It is a call for all the flock—we, the church, lay and ordained—are called to shepherd one another and have the smell of each other’s ‘sheepness’.

Come, let us enter into the gate to fullness of life!

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.