Easter Sunday: Witnessing to the Resurrection

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On Easter morning, while the men were sleeping, the women went to the tomb very early in the morning and witnessed the first appearance of the risen Jesus. This is perhaps the first surprise of the resurrection of Jesus—the first witnesses of the resurrection were women.

All four gospels recount that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. Mark narrates that “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16: 1). Matthew relates that “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning; Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28: 1). Luke presents us with a number of women at the empty tomb: “The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James,” as well as the unnamed “others who accompanied them” (Luke 24:10). While John tells us that the risen Jesus appeared only to Mary of Magdala (John 20: 14 – 17). In all four gospels, the name Mary Magdalene was mentioned which gives credence to the belief that Mary Magdalene was one of the first persons to whom the risen Jesus appeared.

For centuries, Mary Magdalene was imputed with a bad reputation and sometimes called a demon-possessed whore. Not until the last century that the Church’s cease to identify her with the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in Scripture. The church later gave Mary Magdalene her due, calling her the Apostle of the Apostles because she was the first to witness the resurrected Jesus.

Why would Jesus first appear to women at a time when women were not considered credible witnesses? This difficulty may have confronted the early Church. For the apostles, at least, this was a problem as Luke writes, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24: 10 – 11).

What does this overlooked detail about Jesus’ resurrection tells us about how to live the Easter spirit?

The first lesson of the resurrection of Jesus is that we are all called to witness the resurrection. This is what the women sought when they went to the tomb very early on that Easter morning. True, we have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but as the risen Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John: 20: 29). This is us–we are the blessed ones, we all have not seen and yet we believe!

But believing is not enough. We need to give witness and live out the resurrection. As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song! We are the children of Easter morn. We need to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus with our feet. We need to walk the resurrection and resurrect the walk.

The second lesson concerns the fact that it was to women that Jesus first appeared after his resurrection. There must be a very good reason why God made his risen Son known first to women and only later to the Apostles. This challenges us to take a hard look once again at women’s place in the church. Even as Pope Francis asks us to develop a deeper theology of women, the Church still struggles today to give women their due voice as witnesses to our risen life in Christ.

The attitude of Mary of Magdala and the other women may teach us something about witnessing to the resurrection. The women witnesses had no status, power, and wealth. This may actually made them more open and receptive to the magnificent surprise of Jesus’ resurrection. After all it has been shown in God’s story of salvation that it is to the weak and humble, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, that God first reveals and acts out God’s mission. Witnessing to the resurrection does not involve status, power and wealth. It calls us to embrace the women witnesses’ disposition of humility and willingness to God’s intervention in our lives.

The third lesson has got to do with the difficulty that the women encountered in testifying to the risen Lord—they were met with scepticism and rejection even by the apostles themselves. The difficulties of the women in giving witness to Jesus resurrection are also experienced today by many Christians who are persecuted because of their faith. They are experienced by Christians who stand up for truth, justice and peace in the midst of complacency, violence, falsehood and injustice. They are also experienced by Christians who lead simple, selfless and authentic connections in the midst of the consumerist, selfie and shallow connections of digital culture. They are also experienced by Christians who demonstrate their Christian identities and values in the midst of the secularized and capitalist world. They are also experienced by Christians who sacrificed their lives for their loved ones, friends and even to strangers without receiving any reward in return.

Witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus will always be challenging. But like the women in the gospel today, we do not need power, position and status. We just need to be constantly open to God’s surprise every day of our lives.

Happy Easter to you all!

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Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: Jesus’ Entry to our Center of Power

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Photo by Redemptorist Vice-Province of Manila

Today in the Catholic liturgy, we celebrate Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. This  marks the beginning of the Holy Week–the holiest of all week which celebrates the paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ–his passion, death and resurrection. Today’s Sunday is also called Passion Sunday. Passion is from the Latin word, passio, which means suffering.

Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem recounts Jesus entering into the center of power–the temple of Jerusalem–of Israel. Naturally, some of the powerful men were threatened by Jesus’ triumphal entry; they did not want the people to welcome Jesus in Jerusalem like a king:

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him,
“Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”
He said in reply,
“I tell you, if they keep silent,
the stones will cry out!”

This Holy Week, Jesus will also enter the center of power of our own lives. As Jesus enters into our core, the sinful structures we have built within our lives will be threatened. Jesus will challenge us to confront the contradictions of our lives.

The liturgy today depicts contradictions. This is shown in the sort of split personality tone of the liturgy. The gospel starts upbeat as Jesus’ entered Jerusalem like a king. The people took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:

“Hosanna!
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
the king of Israel.”

In the second part of the liturgy, however, the upbeat mood suddenly changed to a violent and tragic mood as we listen to the stark reading of Jesus’ passion. The glorious cry of “Hosanna” is turned to the cruel shouts of  “Crucify him!”

Indeed, the passion of Jesus is a story of contradictions. Jesus is depicted as king with a crown of thorns, a staff and clothed in a purple cloak. The soldiers spat on him and struck him on the head with the staff repeatedly. The people who shouted hosanna to our king when Jesus entered Jerusalem just a few days ago are the same people who shouted “Crucify him!” and elected Barabas to be released on the day of Passover. The greatest of these ironies is the cross. Jesus on the cross with the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” died of a slow, painful, excruciating, gruesome, and humiliating death.

We are not outsiders of this greatest tragedy. We are not mere spectators. As we listen to the passion of Jesus every Lenten season, it deeply disturbs us and unmask the profound existential paradox and inner struggle within us. While we eagerly want to share in the glory of Jesus, we cringe at the thought of suffering let alone dying with him.

This holy week let us welcome Jesus to enter triumphantly into the temples of our lives; to confront the contradictions and sinful structures of our lives. Let us become aware of our resistance to let go of the things that gave us power, dominance and control and not allowing the gospel of Jesus as the guide of our lives. Let us admit our hypocrisies that while we worship  Jesus inside our churches, we participated in his crucifixion by our collusion with the prevalence of evil in our world today. Let us carry the cross with Jesus by embracing the suffering of others.

May you truly have a holy week!

 

 

 

5TH SUNDAY OF LENT: GOD’S MERCY TRIUMPHS OVER JUDGMENT

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One would think that in today’s technologically, economically and socially advanced age, death penalty would have no place in our society.  Although most nations have abolished capital punishment, the reality is, over 60% of the world’s population live in countries where the death penalty is retained, such as China, India, the United States, Indonesia,Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among all mostly Islamic countries, as is maintained in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka.[1] Just recently Brunei introduced a new Islamic law that sexual relations between men are punishable by death through stoning. In the Philippines, although capital punishment has been outlawed in 2006, several politicians with the blessing of President Duterte, are advocating the relegalization of death penalty. 

In today’s gospel of the 5th Sunday of Lent, the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. As prescribed by Mosaic Law the punishment for someone like her is death penalty by stoning.

The pharisees and the scribes did this in order to trap Jesus.  This is a no-win situation for Jesus, or so they thought. On the one hand, if Jesus orders that she be stoned, he is in trouble with the Romans, who have taken the right to impose death penalty away from the Judeans.  On the other hand, if he advocates that she not be stoned, he would appear to deny the law of Moses and thereby put himself in a bad light with Jewish officials. 

Jesus, however, was a master not just of not falling into their traps but also of calling their bluff.  Jesus used their own trap to expose their hypocrisy. In response to their continual badgering, Jesus challenges this overzealous lynch mob to examine their motives: “Let the one among you who is without sin—let that one be first to east a stone at her?”  Appearing to be seekers after law and order, they are exposed as hypocrites simply bent on protecting their own power. Jesus’ delay tactic of scribbling on the ground has allowed some time for this reality to sink in. One by one, the accusers depart, leaving Jesus alone with the accused. 

Besides hypocrisy, Jesus exposed their discrimination against the poor woman. If this woman was caught in the very act of adultery, then there had to have been a man with her when she was caught. Where is he? Why isn’t he here with her? Did the scribes and Pharisees just let him go? The law of Moses prescribes stoning him too.

Jesus’ response, most of all, revealed the nature of God’s judgment in the face of our sins. When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive. As the letter of James (2:13) says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” And as Pope Francis said, “He has the ability to forget. … He kisses you, he embraces you, and he says to you: ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now, on, sin no more.’ Only that counsel does he give you.[2]

God is not here giving approval to immorality. As Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.” St. Augustine commented on these words of Jesus, “You see then that the Lord does indeed pass sentence, but it is sin he condemns, not people.”[3]

Jesus’ attitude is reflected in the other readings today. In the first reading, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God said through the prophet Isaiah that he is preparing a new world order for them: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!”

In the second reading, Paul, writing to the Philippians about the legalistic teachers who would impose the fullness of Jewish tradition and practice upon Christian Gentiles, insists on the newness that faith in Jesus has brought into his life as a keeper of the Torah.

The readings today challenges our hypocrisy and self-righteousness. It is easy for us to take a self-righteous attitude toward the world; it is much more difficult to take Jesus’ attitude: “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” All of us have contributed to the darkness of the world; none of us can cast the first stone. 

Jesus action in the gospel today and belief in God’s infinite mercy has led the Church to seriously challenge capital punishment all throughout history—whether by stoning, hanging, gas, poison, or electric shock—as a moral means for pursuing justice and protecting the common good.

Our work during Lent is like that of the adulterous woman: to truthfully face our sinfulness and faithfully remain with Jesus. We too are sinners. We too are in need of mercy. Though we sin, Jesus only wishes new life for us. 

Let us today seek God’s mercy. Let us recognize our own shortcomings, and seek the help of Our Blessed Mother in confessing them before God.

Here is the Holy Week schedule at the shrine.

lent-schedule-2019

 


 

[1] “Capital Punishment,” Wikipedia. Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment

[2] Pope Francis, “Mercy is the Lord’s Most Powerful Message Today,” March 17, 2013

[3] St. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 33, 4-6. 8: CCL 36, 307-310

 

 

4TH SUNDAY OF LENT: LENT AS HOMECOMING

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, a Painting by Rembrandt

In today’s 4th Sunday of Lent we continue to dig deeper into the meaning of the Lenten discipline. For several Sundays now we have pointed out that repentance is a central challenge of the Lenten discipline. In today’s readings we shall come to understand repentance as homecoming.

In the First Reading, the Israelites have finally arrived from Exodus to their homeland–the land flowing with milk and honey, the land that God promised to give them. The sign that the Exodus was over was when they eat the parched grain from the produce of the land and no longer the manna that God provided for them during their journey in the wilderness. The parched grain was the beginning of life in the promised land, where the Israelites found a home. The consoling sweetness of manna came out of the harshness of the conditions of the Exodus. Out of the sorrow of trading manna for parched grain there came the consolation of home.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul implores the Corinthians to return to God, “We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God.” To return home to God is to reconcile with God which implies forgiveness, restoring harmony, rectifying the wrong deeds and reunion. 

The Gospel narrates the popular parable of the prodigal son. Luke reminds us that the parable of the prodigal was told to Pharisees who complained about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. The parable of the two lost sons (Lk 15:11-32) is Jesus’ self justification for “hosting” sinners at table fellowship (Lk 15:1-2).

For a long time, the focus of the parable, as suggested by its title, is on the younger son who was the prodigal son. He squandered all his inheritance on riotous living in a far away country. The younger son was lost and veered so far away from his home with the Father.  Listening to the whole parable, however, we realize that the younger son is not the only one lost who veered far away from his father. The elder son too was lost. Even if the elder son never left his Father’s home, his heart could not identify with the Father’s compassion for the wretched younger son. Indeed, the parable is about two lost sons in the face of the father’s prodigal love for both of them. 

Applying these readings to Lent, we can say that Lent is a call to return to home. Home is where our Father is. The first step to returning home is the realization of the darkness of our lives. Lent is the blessed season to examine and confront the dark side of our lives. It is to enter into the bottom of whatever hellish pit we have made of our  lives. In this darkness and hellish pit we realized how we veered away from our true home with God, from our fellowship with others and ultimately from our true selves. Like the younger son in the parable, we are prodigal children. We live prodigal lives. We have in many ways squandered our Father’s inheritance. We have wasted many opportunities in pursuit of our own glory. We have abused the love and trust of many people. We have destroyed the abundant and wonderful world God gave us to live in. We poison its air, we pollute its water, we erode its topsoil.

In the midst of the darkness and the bottomness of our pit,  we regain what we have forgotten–who we truly are, and whose we are. We realized once again that we are a redeemed people; we are loved unconditionally by God. This profound remembrance inspires us to do what the younger son did: “I will break away and return to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against you.’”

Repentance is not just, however, returning to the Father.  Repentance is not just between me and God. It has social implications. This is what the elder son found it hard to understand. We are called not only to be reconciled with God but to embrace God’s inclusive love for everyone especially the sinners and the rejects. We are called to be compassionate and forgiving just as the Father is compassionate and forgiving.

Thus, Lent as homecoming calls us to a ministry of reconciliation in the world. We live in a world where there is still so much division, brokenness and hatred. Wherever there is injustice in the world something is not reconciled. Lent is a time to ‘pass over,’ to pass from the world of injustice we have created over to a world of reconciliation. It is a time to “turn hatred to love, conflict to peace, death to eternal life.”

The ending of parable is rather abrupt. We are left with many questions. What did the elder son do? Did he join the party to celebrate the homecoming of his wretched brother or did he remain in his own regret that the Father could still love his younger brother after everything he has done? Did the younger son also sought the forgiveness of his elder brother? These are the questions the Pharisees and scribes (see Lk 15:2) and the contemporary believer must answer in their own accord.

What would you do?

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord: Christmas in the Middle of Lent

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Today once again we take a break from the Lenten fast as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. This solemnity is associated more with Christmas. It is a preview of Christmas Day, which occurs exactly nine months after March 25. The great mystery of the incarnation begins on this momentous day of the Annunciation. We can say, therefore, that today we celebrate Christmas in the middle of Lent. To highlight the joy of this feast, we sing the Gloria during the Eucharist.

In today’s gospel we hear the angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted her

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

Mary must have been truly alarmed at the words of her unexpected visitor. Contrary to how some may portray her, Mary did not immediately grasp the angel Gabriel’s words. Mary was greatly troubled. We cannot fully understand the annunciation story unless we examine closely the confusion that Mary experienced.

“But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

Mary was especially troubled when the angel told her

Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.

Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”

Mary was troubled because of the impossibility of it all. Although she is already betrothed to Joseph, she is not yet married to him. In other words, she is a virgin, how can she become a mother?

The confusion of Mary stemmed from the limitations of the human condition. To understand how she can become pregnant only means that she needs to go beyond the human condition and faculty. She only understood how she can become pregnant when she realized that her pregnancy is of no man but of God. As the angel said, “For nothing is impossible for God.” In other words, this is not a human enterprise but the work of God. The birth of God-becoming-human is God’s undertaking.  God is inviting Mary to participate in the work of God by becoming the bearer of the Son of God.

And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.

Mary surrendered all her doubts and confusions and willfully entered the mystery of God’s mission.  Consequently, by entering into the mystery of God’s mission, it unleash the fullness of her humanity.  She learned to let go of her human pride and self-sufficiency. This also indicates that Mary’s response was far from being passive and submissive.  On the contrary Mary’s yes was a single courageous and proactive act of living.

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary’s fiat (yes) is a turning point in the history of the world. It is the very moment of Incarnation, when God-the-Word from heaven became flesh and began to live among us as one of us. The world would never be the same again. Jesus will be the unique bridge between God and God’s creation. In a way, this moment of conception is just as important as the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. This very moment is the actual beginning of salvation. As Reformed theologian Willie Jennings says, “Salvation begins with Mary’s yes.”[1]

Mary’s yes represents humanity’s yes par excellence. Cardinal Hans Ur Von Balthasar said, “The Marian fiat has become the archetype, principle and exemplar of the faith response of the entire Church.”[2] Mary became the first of the redeemed and, hence, the prototype of the church.  As Cardinal Schoenborn said, “Mary is the seal of perfect creatureliness; in her is illustrated in advance what God intended for creation.”[3] And as Karl Rahner said, Mary is the most genuine person, “the holiest, most authentic, and happiest human being, to say something of her who is blessed among women.”[4]  As such, she represents most profoundly who we truly are and what we will truly become, Rahner further explains,

She is the noblest of human beings in the community of the redeemed, representative of all who are perfect, and the type or figure that manifests completely the meaning of the Church, and grace, and redemption, and God’s salvation.”[5]

In today’s celebration, the church invites us to take a cue from Mary in observing the Lenten discipline. Today’s celebration highlights for us the Marian character of Lent. Despite all the uncertainties and fears she had, Mary placed her faith in God, and she followed her Son all the way to Calvary, to the foot of the Cross, waiting patiently at the side of her Son as He completed the work of salvation for which He came into this world for.

Mary’s yes inspires us during this Lenten season to proclaim our own yes’s to the new life that God will renew in us through the resurrection of Jesus.

 


 

[1] Willie Jennings in Jason Byassee, “Protestants and Marian Devotion—What about Mary?” Religion Online, 1. Accessed at https://www.religion-online.org/article/protestants-and-marian-devotion-what-about-mary/, 6.

[2] Hans Ur Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II Spouse of the Word, essay: “Who is the Church?”, trans. A.V. Littledale (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 161.

[3] Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, O.P., Text translated from German by Joseph Smith, S.J. The original in German appeared in the Melanges offered to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the occasion of his 60th anniversary [(“Weisheit Gottes-Weisheit der Welt”), EOS, Verlag, St. Ottilien, 1987]. Loyola House of Studies, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, Philippines.

[4] Karl Rahner, Mary – Mother of the Lord (Herder and Herder, 1963), 24.

[5] Rahner, Mary – Mother of the Lord, 37.

 

3RD SUNDAY OF LENT: REPENTANCE AS BEARING FRUIT

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Photo courtesy of Ted Aljbe, AFP

Whenever there are man-made tragedies and natural calamities, we hear people say that these calamities are sent by God because of his wrath and punishment for our sins. Calamities, they say, are part of God’s will and God’s plan. We need to be careful, however, that this viewpoint does not give us a convenient way out of our own culpability for the tragedies and calamities like the destruction of nature and exploitation of our fellow humans.  Although, calamities and tragedies may indeed become wake up calls and offer us golden opportunities for the reform of our lives. This should not, however, distort the very nature of God as loving and compassionate. Our Lord Jesus did not come to punish us through the disasters, but came to be one with us, to live amongst us in the midst of despair and destruction and guide us towards transformation and to bear fruit.

In the gospel of today’s 3rd Sunday of Lent, people approached Jesus asking about his view on a tragic incident. Pilate has murdered a number of Galilean people. Worse, Pilate has mixed their blood with that of sacrificed animals. In the highly politically charged atmosphere of Roman-occupied Palestine, this was a trap. If Jesus ignores this event, He will be accused of insensitivity to His people. But if He criticizes Pilate, He will probably be reported to the Roman authorities and be punished by them.

Jesus connected this tragedy to an accident involving construction workers in Siloam. From both events he draws a warning for Israel. What took place in Galilee and at Siloam were not judgments of God but a call to repentanceUnless the nation repents, it too will perish. 

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

The bottom line here is that we all need to repent. Am I so often focused on the evils to be uprooted that I neglect the need for personal reform as well? Repentance calls all of us at all times of our lives. 

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, in the second reading today, conveys the same note of urgency and necessity for repentance. If the very people who experienced God’s liberating power in the Exodus could lose their sense of the divine presence sustaining and saving them, it requires all of us today not to remain complacent. In our own journey in the wilderness of life, we are subject to our own addictions and idolatries. Paul writes, 

These things happened to them as an example,
and they have been written down as a warning to us,
upon whom the end of the ages has come.
Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.

Luke shows the urgency of repentance in the parable of the fruitless fig tree. In the parable, the tree is symbolic. It stands for all of us who needs to heed Jesus’ call for repentance. Jesus’ call for repentance is our journey from fruitlessness to fruitfulness. In this journey, God constantly guide and transform us.   

The merciful God who guides his people towards transformation is indicated by the name of God as revealed to Moses in the first reading from the book of Exodus. When Moses asked God what shall he call him, God responded, “I am who I am,” or, as many contemporary exegetes interpret it, “He causes to be what comes into existence.”

Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.”
Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites:
I AM sent me to you.”

The unnameable God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the God who intervenes powerfully in human history. God saw the affliction of his people. He “comes down,” that is, intervenes in history out of his transcendence, to deliver them from the slavery of sin and to bring them into the land “flowing with milk and honey.” God called Moses and sent him to lead his people out of Egypt through the wilderness, refreshing them with water from the rock and bringing them into the Promised Land.  Finally he sends his Son, offering his people the fullness of repentance by accepting his salvific and liberating life and mission.

The season of Lent is a most blessed time which calls all of us to a profound repentance. Thus, one of the highlights during Lent, is the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. During Lent, the church in many parishes abundantly celebrates the sacrament of reconciliation to give people plenty of opportunity to  experience genuine repentance. Repentance is not just expressing true sorrow for our sins but the eager desire to rebuild anew our lives. Thus, repenting takes hard work that is why it is a discipline. The discipline of Lent entails hard-work repentance which leads to the new life that Easter promises.

 

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Painting by Sr. Bambi Flores, MPS

Today we take a break from the Lenten fast to celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The liturgical title, “Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary” accords St. Joseph with the highest liturgical ranking conferred on saints and honors his commitment to Mary and dedication as a faithful and devoted husband. Today’s liturgy is one of the only two days that we sing the Gloria during the time of Lent.

In the gospel today, we hear the annunciation story of Joseph. The most famous annunciation story, of course, is that of Mary, whose Solemnity we will celebrate this coming March 25.  

All of us have our own annunciation story. For each of us were chosen by God for a mission in this world. No one is born in this world without a purpose, a mission and a calling. At the end of the day, we will discover that our deepest calling is to participate in God’s mission (Missio Dei), as the annunciations stories of Mary and Joseph have shown us.

So what can we learn from Joseph’s annunciation story?

We don’t hear much about St. Joseph in the Bible. He is simply described as the “husband of Mary,” a “carpenter,” and a “just man” in the Gospel accounts. Neither his age nor his death is ever mentioned in scripture.

Joseph is the silent character in the bible, never said a word, but always did the right thing.  As they say, a man of few words.  Joseph was the perfect example of the saying: Action speaks louder than words.

Joseph was a true gentleman. A true gentleman never leaves his woman. I know of men who so love their woman.  But when their woman got pregnant, suddenly the big burden of responsibility weighs so heavily upon them that they become terribly scared and pathetically, abandon their woman.

Joseph became terribly scared and confused too but he never abandoned Mary. Joseph was faced with a horrific dilemma. He discovered that Mary to whom he is already betrothed but with whom he has not consummated their relationship in marriage, is already pregnant. There could be only one explanation; she had been unfaithful and was having another man’s child. It was a very serious matter and, if brought out into the open, would have made Mary liable to death by stoning.

As a righteous man and devout follower of the Mosaic Law, he would want to break the union with someone who had seriously broken the Law. And yet, because he was such a good man, he did not want to expose Mary to a terrible punishment. Few men would accept such a situation with such calmness and self-restraint. Most would find it a terrible blow to their manhood.

It is at this point that God announced to Joseph the true situation of Mary.  God assured Joseph that no other man is involved, that she has conceived through the power of God’s Spirit. Joseph, without saying a word, accepted God’s explanation. More importantly, Joseph accepted God’s invitation to enter into the Missio Dei and become part of the dream and mission of God for humanity.

Joseph was a dreamer. Joseph had big dreams for himself and Mary.  But when Mary and God’s dream intertwined with his own dream, Joseph did not allow his own dreams to prevail over and above the dream of Mary and the dream of God for him. Joseph the dreamer, found a way to integrate his own dream with God’s dream and Mary’s dream.

What is your dream? How do you see your dream a part of God’s bigger dream for you and for the whole world?

Joseph was the faithful husband and father.  He obeyed the angel’s advice to go to Egypt when Herod decided to kill all newborn male babies in Israel.  And he raised the boy child Jesus through hard work and dedication.

Joseph’s story is that he was able to go beyond his own world. He understood the meaning of his life beyond himself.  He was able to transcend his own needs, his own desires, his own ambitions and connect them with the greater mission that God has in store for him.  And because of this he became great.  If Joseph left Mary and decided not to fulfil the invitation of the angel, he is forgotten forever.

We are called to be the new Joseph’s in our times today.  God is inviting us out of our own small world in order to engage and connect with others for a greater purpose other than our own ambitions, plans and desires.  Like Joseph may we see our lives in the greater interconnection of our lives with the life of God.  Locked in our own world we can achieve little.  But connected with each other and with God we can do great things.

2ND SUNDAY OF LENT: TOWARDS RESURRECTION

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Photo from the top of Mt. Manalmon

Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, we reflected on the desert as a primary symbol of the Lenten discipline. This second Sunday of Lent, we will reflect on the mountain top as the primary symbol of the goal of Lent. Today’s 2nd Sunday of Lent suggests that the end of Lent is not the suffering and death but the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is the disciplining of our mortal and sinful body and soul in order to partake of the resurrected and transfigured body and soul of Jesus.

If desert was a testing ground, mountains are sacred grounds where God often reveals himself to people, called theophanies in theological terms. In the Bible, the mountains top symbolize the presence of God, since on top of the mountain, people are “closer to God” who dwells in the heavens (as in the sky). Thus, mountains and hills represent a higher level of spiritual consciousness or awareness. Mountain symbolize the transformation that will happen to us at the end of time, a transformation that will happen when we enter into the mode of existence of the resurrected Christ.

The second Sunday of Lent clarifies for us that resurrection is the main goal of Lent. Resurrection is our ultimate way of life not passion and death.   As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people! We are children of Easter morn. We are a redeemed people, redeemed by Christ from death and sin. This is our deepest and truest identity as a people.

Many liturgists refer to Lent/Eastertide as “The Great 90 Days,” in Tagalog, pagsisiyamnapo.  Lent is 40 days which is the preparation. Easter is 50 days which is the celebration of resurrection. Easter is longer than Lent because it is the celebration of the resurrection while Lent is shorter because it is just the preparation.

We cannot separate Lent from Easter, in the same way that we cannot separate Easter from Lent.  Together, they compose the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ–Jesus’ Life, Death and Resurrection. The word ‘Paschal’ comes from an ancient Aramaic word, pasha (Hebrew, pesah) meaning ‘Passover’.  Passover is the central event in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). It is the story of of Israel’s liberation by God from slavery in Egypt. On the night of the passover, the Israelites were instructed by God to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb so that when the spirit of the Lord see this, the spirit will pass over the first-born in these homes, and thus, sparing them from death. As Christians we believe that Jesus has become the true sacrificial Passover “Lamb of God” (John 1:29).  This was fulfilled through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We celebrate the promise of sharing in the paschal mystery of Christ at our Baptism.

The readings today speak about the radical transformation which God will fulfill for us.

In the first reading, from the book of Genesis, God promised to Abraham that God will transform God’s chosen people–Israel. God will bestow an abundant posterity and land to Israel. God sealed his promise through a covenant which God established with Abraham:

“To your descendants I give this land,
from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates.”

In the Second Reading, St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, speaks of the change of our earthly existence in the final consummation.

Our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.

The term “glorious body,” reflects an apocalyptic hope, that is, the life we hope to achieve at the end of time. According to this hope, the life of the age to come will not be merely a prolongation of this present life but an entirely new, transformed mode of existence. It will be a mode of existence that Christ entered at his resurrection.

Today’s gospel tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. In today’s gospel from Luke, we read

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.

Transfiguration Icon

The Greek word used for transfiguration is metamorphoo—this is the root of the English word, metamorphosis. We use the word metamorphosis more popularly today for the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly, likewise in the transformation of a maggot into an adult fly and the changing of a tadpole into a frog. These are some of the amazing wonders of nature that we can ever witness in our entire lives. It’s almost like a change from one creature to a totally different creature. Who would have imagine that a beautiful butterfly would come out of an ugly caterpillar? Indeed, metamorphosis is a reminder and a symbol from nature that something good can come out even from the messiest and ugliest reality of our lives. Change, even radical change is possible as nature have shown us.

This gives us the greatest hope and joy in anticipation of the transformation that will become of us and of God’s creation in the fullness of time. Jesus’ transfiguration was a foretaste of the metamorphosis that is to become of us at the end of time. This also happens to us everyday. We often have glimpses of glory: in a remarkable sunset, in the shining face of a delighted child, in the radiant joy of new parents. Like the transfiguration, these glimpses of glory encourage and strengthen us to continue the journey of life toward eternal glory.

The divine metamorphosis that occurred to the three disciples on the mountain top during the Transfiguration of the Lord will also happen to us and we will become “God-viewers.” Like them and all the Saints of the ages, God’s light will metamorphose our whole body and soul. We will achieve what is called Theosis (Deification) and shine as luminaries radiating the light of the knowledge of God. We will become partakers of the Divine Grace and communicants of God.

This is also true for our world, Jesus’ resurrection is a symbol of hope for the change that will happen in the world from injustice into integrity, from hatred into kindness and from violence into peace. This gives the utmost hope especially to those who have long been suffering and desperate. But as Jesus showed us, the only way to transfiguration and transformation is through suffering and ultimately dying to ourselves.  Change can only happen at the cost of ourselves.

All these musings call for a reorientation of Lent. Australian Redemptorist Fr. Kevin O’Shea suggests that we take a reverse journey during Lent. We begin in the end—the resurrection:

Suppose we could … do Lent backwards. Suppose, instead of Ash Wednesday, we started with Easter Sunday. Suppose we then thought what we would have liked to have done to make ourselves ready for our share in Jesus’ resurrection. It would be like a reverse Easter vigil, not for one night, but for 40 nights. Backwards.[1]

Lent begins with the profound belief that we are a redeemed people through the resurrection. This victorious reality is what we received from our baptism. Baptism endows our profound identity as a redeemed people through the resurrection of Jesus. That is why from the earliest history of the church, the church has set aside the whole 40 days of Lent as the preparation and training period of candidates for baptism, called catechumens. The catechumens are solemnly baptized at the end of the Lenten season on Easter Vigil. This worthy practice was revived by the church in recent years through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. Thus, in Lent, we re-evaluate our lives in the light of our baptismal promises and identity. Lent is an academy where once again we relearn the meaning and implications and appreciate the wonder of baptism.

Whilst rituals, penitence, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are important, they are not the primary goal of Lent. As we go through Lent each year, oftentimes, our focus is on the external rituals and acts of penitence.  In so doing, Lent becomes about us—our efforts, discipline, sacrifices and goals no longer about the victory of Jesus. When this happen the whole Lenten discipline becomes superficial, merely obligations that we have to go through but does not bring forth true change. Thus, come Easter, after all the observances in Lent, we become what we call in Tagalog, BSDU: balik sa dating ugali (back to old ways).

By returning to our victorious baptismal identity, Lent becomes a time for examining our participation in the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is pondering what “rising from the dead” means. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, that despite all our frailties and failures, our wickedness and weaknesses, God’s grace will redeem us over and over again. There is no human being, however evil or sinful, that is beyond redemption by Jesus’ resurrection. As nature have shown us, change, even radical change, is possible. This too gives us hope in a transformed world, that in the midst of too much suffering in the world around us and the seeming prevalence of evil in our world, goodness will triumph, Jesus will triumph, and we will reach our fullness and life’s fullness in God’s grace.

 


 

[1] Kevin O’ Shea, “Ash Wednesday,” cssr.org. Accessed 22/02/2018 at https://www.cssr.org.au/writings/dsp-default.cfm?loadref=2765

 

1ST SUNDAY OF LENT: CONFRONTING THE DEVIL

 

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Photo courtesy of Ted Aljbe, AFP

Sometimes, out of exasperation from the many evil around us and out of pain from so much suffering we are experiencing, we cry to God in protest: If you are a mighty God, why don’t you just remove all the suffering and hunger and make everyone full and prosperous? If you are a caring God why wont you defend and protect those who are oppressed and abused? Why wont you just display your power and eliminate all evil people in the world?

In today’s gospel of the first Sunday of Lent, the devil tempted Jesus to showcase his power and magically ease himself out of suffering. The devil first tempted Jesus to make bread out of stones to appease his hunger after forty days in the desert. Then the devil tempted Jesus to  jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall. Finally, the devil tempted Jesus to worship him and forget all about God’s mission in return for all the kingdoms of the world.

The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”

The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Then [the devil] led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here

These temptations are not just the temptations that Jesus encountered in the desert before he began his ministry. These temptations represent the temptations that Israel, the chosen people of God, experienced in the desert (God’s testing of Israel and Israel’s testing of God) as told in the first reading (Deuteronomy 6 through 8) today.

When the devil challenges Jesus to demonstrate his divine sonship by commanding stones to turn into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live on bread alone”—which those who knew their Deuteronomy would complete with the words, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” When the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship him, Jesus paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God; him alone shall you serve.” When the devil shifts from temptations to arrogance to a temptation to presumption (if you are the Son of God, jump from the Temple parapet; God will surely protect you), Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” It becomes clear here that Jesus is pictured as reliving the story of Israel in the wilderness, and getting it right. The parallel (and contrast) extends even to the talk of sonship: “So you must realize that the Lord, your God, disciplines you even as a man disciplines his son” (Deut 8:5).

We too are not immune to temptations. Temptations are a part of our daily living.  The world around us is full of temptations: We are seduced to buy what is not needed, to eat too much, to steal money and things from others, to cheat, to have power over others through sex, to be violent, to take vengeance and many others. Temptations tests the depth and strength of our faith. Temptations are not sins, according to our catechism. They can even serve as an opportunity to hone our skills, deepen and purify our faith by God’s grace. On the other hand, if we fall into them, we are led to sin. We are led to the devil and become separated from God, from others and from ourselves.

Contrary to what temptations will always tell us, neither bread nor magic will save us. It will be only, as St. Paul writes to the Romans in the second reading, by our entry into Christ’s own act of total trust and abandonment, believing in our hearts that therein we ourselves are raised from the dead and delivered.

In this season of Lent, Jesus invites us to confront and defeat evil. Lent is confronting the devil himself. The whole purpose of Lent is to defeat the devil. The goal of Lent is to share in Jesus’ resurrection, his victory over evil and death.

How do we do this? How do we come face-to-face with the devil?

Jesus invites us to enter into the desert.

In the history of the church, Lent has been associated with testing and trial period. In the Bible, the desert is the traditional ground where the people of God is tested. Before they could enter into the promised land, the Israelites had to first wander in the desert for forty years – letting themselves be led by God, undergoing many trials, and swallowing much impatience. A long period of uprooting and frustration preceded the prosperity of the promised land.

All the great spiritual masters and saints have undergone great trials and come face-to-face with the devil. They see the desert as the place where one is exposed to chaos, raw fear, and demons of every kind. In the desert we are exposed, body and soul, made vulnerable to be overwhelmed by chaos and temptations of every kind. But, precisely because we are so stripped of everything we normally rely on, this is also a privileged moment for grace. All the defense mechanisms, support systems, and distractions that we normally surround ourselves with so as to keep chaos and fear at bay work at the same time to keep much of God’s grace at bay.

By stripping ourselves of the things that superficially nourishes and supports us, we become aware of the essentials. We put aside the distraction and the abundance and focus on the essential. We empty ourselves so God can give us just what we need. Similarly, Lent calls us to focus on the essentials in the Christian life: stretching our roots into the life-giving, joy-giving water of Christ. Because it is God who gives us life; things don’t.

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My photo of Dubai Desert

A growing trend in the past few years is minimalism. Its mantra is less is more or going back to basics. It’s about simple living, living with fewer material possessions. An example of this trend are those who chose to live in tiny houses which help them save money that they can use for other things that would truly make them happy.

Lent is the unloading of many spiritual baggages we have accumulated over the years. Lent reminds us once again to focus our time and energy and resources on what matters most. It means removing anything that keeps us from living the full, abundant life that Jesus came to give us which can be possessions, luxuries, addictions, sinful vices or enslaving mindsets. By stripping ourselves of many things and focusing on the essentials, Lent will bring us to a freedom from sin, a freedom to uncover our true selves, and a freedom to unleash our potentials in joyful service to God and to others.

This Lent we are invited to go into the desert. Desert can be literal or metaphorical. It can be a physical, geographical thing or a place in the soul. It can be a place in the soul where we feel most alone, insubstantial, frightened, and fragile. Mostly, it is within ourselves where we come face-to-face with our weaknesses and temptations, the tool of the devil. In the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer “Lead us not into temptation” becomes very real for us as we confront temptation every minute of our lives. We admit that we are weak and cannot defeat the devil by our own efforts alone but by humbly and trustingly relying on God’s grace.

In these 40 days in the desert, let us return to the bare essentials of God’s grace. Like St. Paul, let us place our lives in God’s grace, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So at the end of Lent we can, in a new freedom, recognise the joyful abundance of Easter’s new life.

 

Ash Wednesday: Return to the Heart

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Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season which is a call to return to the heart. This implies that Lent most of all is a call to a transformation from the deepest core of our being.  Although in Lent we will be doing many sacrificial and penitential acts, all these will come to nothing if there is no genuine inner transformation.

At the heart of our faith is our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love. We are a being-in-connection not in-isolation. In this context, sin is the condition where we become separated or isolated from God, from others and from ourselves. Thus, during this Lent we are called to reconcile and heal whatever brokenness that has become of our relationship with God, others and ourselves.

Today is called Ash Wednesday because of the ritual of the imposition of ashes on the head during the liturgy of the day. The celebrant says the words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return, (cf. Gen 3:19).” The newer form is Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the gospel (Mk 1:15).” I kind of prefer the old formula even if is a bit morbid as it reminds us of our death. For me, however, it captures more the penitential character of Lent and the call to return to our origin as well as our end, symbolized by the dust, soil or earth. The earth more profoundly symbolizes the interconnectedness of all life rooted in God’s love.

The readings today expresses these calls to return to the heart and to our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love.

The first reading from the prophet Joel proclaims the call to a wholehearted return to God: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12). To return to the Lord with all of our heart means an inner conversion that reaches the deepest place of our selves not merely superficial nor external one. As the prophet says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” The heart, as we all believe, is the symbol of love and also the core of our being where our decisions and our attitudes mature.

St. Paul in the second reading also repeats the call to return to God: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)” St. Paul insists that we can return to God not through our own effort but primarily through the love of the Father for us who did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son.

In the Gospel from Matthew, Jesus reinterprets the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus warns the people that if these three pillars are not observed through the love and the mercy of God it will be hypocritical. This has been shown over time through the practices of false religious leaders by their insistence on external formalism and social reward. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation and public accolade, but only the reward of the love of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).

On Ash Wednesday, we are called to return to where we came from. The dust or earth is where we originally came from. Remember the story of creation, God created Adam, the first human being from dust. But also the earth is where we shall all return when we die. I am reminded of a popular Tagalog song by the Philippine folk band Asin in the 80s:

Nagmula sa lupa, magbabalik na kusa,
(From earth we came, willingly we shall return)
Ang buhay mong sa lupa nagmula …
(your life from the earth came)

But not just human beings, all things shall fall and return to the earth. All will turn to dust when they die. Thus the earth symbolizes our oneness as created things. This implies further that all creation is connected with each other. We are all creatures in need of one another. No one can live alone and isolated from creation or worst can dominate over creation. The interconnection of all creation is not meant to serve human beings but on the contrary human being are meant to serve and maintain the harmony and interconnectedness of all creation.

All creation is interconnected because it comes from God. We believe in the one God, three persons. While three persons, God is one because of the interconnectedness of God as shown in God’s inner life and God’s mission to all creation. Hence, we are only interconnected because we participate in the interconnectedness of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains this profound belief in his notion of God as exitus-reditus of all creation. According to St. Thomas, all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). For us human beings, however, the coming forth and returning in a special way reflects the inner life of the Trinity. In fact, the coming forth of the Son from the Father and the coming forth of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son are the cause and exemplar of our coming forth and our returning to God as creatures.[1]

Lent is the season of assessing how we have isolated our lives and endangered the web of interconnectedness of life. Lent is the time to examine the patterns of our lives which severed our need for God and one another through our pride, domination, power, self-centeredness, apathy, insecurity, fear, lust, jealousy and other patterns and tendencies that may lead us to sin. Lent is the realization of the drudgery and wretchedness of a life of separation from the love of God, family, others and ultimately our true selves. The spiritual exercises that we are to observe in the Lenten season like prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not merely private nor external show but our internal journey of reconnecting with the love of God in others, in creation and in ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday, let us once again begin the journey of returning to the heart and reconnecting with the web of the interconnectedness of life rooted in the love of God. Let us begin our preparation for the renewal of our baptismal participation in the resurrection of Jesus by our wholehearted desire to return to God’s love.

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