6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE HOLY SPIRIT, GIFT OF THE RISEN CHRIST

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

One of the hardest yet rewarding experiences in our lives is having to say goodbye to somebody we love or bidding farewell to a beautiful experience we have become used to. We experience this in the departure of somebody we deeply love whether he/she is going away for a long time or for good. We experience this on our first day at school when we need to say goodbye to the experience of merely playing and staying at home with our folks. We experience this after graduation in High School, when we have to separate ways with our classmates. We experience this when somebody very close to our heart is dying and trying to console and letting him/her go.

Painful as they may be, yet these experiences has helped us to grow and become stronger. Much as we wanted to spend longer time with our loved ones, it just couldn’t be. So we try our best to become the best persons that we are, thinking that they whom we love are not gone and are not separated from us but always with us. Their abiding presence has become an inspiration, advocate, comfort, consolation and help.

In today’s gospel of the 6th Sunday of Easter, Jesus was bidding goodbye to his disciples. Imagine the emotional turmoil inside the disciples; in a short while they will no longer see the face of their master. Perhaps the disciples were asking: What are we going to do without Jesus? Who’s gonna guide us now? Can we continue the mission of Jesus all alone by ourselves?

In this state of emotional distress, Jesus assured them that they are not alone; he will not abandon them and that he will always be with them. How can this be? He and his Father will send them the Holy Spirit.

We remember that in John’s Gospel, the risen Christ conveys the gift of the Spirit to his disciples on Easter Sunday evening. The Spirit is, as in Paul’s letters, the gift of the risen Christ. In the gift of the Spirit, the risen Christ and the Father come and make their home with the disciples. The Spirit will be the continued presence of Jesus on earth after Jesus’ departure to heaven (Jn 14:12, 16). Jesus said,

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.

When the disciples receive and allow the Holy Spirit to make home into their lives, the Spirit will not convey new revelations, but will unfold in ever new understanding, interpretation, and application the once-for-all revelation of Jesus Christ. The Spirit’s work will more than reminisce the exact words of Jesus; it will be a living representation of all that Jesus had spoken to his disciples, a creative remembrance of the gospel.

This ongoing work of the Spirit will give the disciples peace and takes away their fear, because the Spirit is always there as their helper who stands by them especially during the challenging times of persecution and martyrdom.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.

The First Reading shows us an example of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate who will teach and remind the community after his departure. This passage is sometimes called the “Council of Jerusalem,” the first council of the church which dealt with the first major crisis of the early Church. In this passage we see how the early church was led by the Holy Spirit in decision-making.

Luke reports that some Judean people came to the Christians at Antioch to tell them that the gentile converts could not be saved unless they were circumcised. The Judaeans were worried that the traditional practices were being altered by the church at Antioch, and they were exercising themselves in behalf of the tradition.

The elders of the church acknowledge that they face a problem for which no extant policy offers a clear solution; so they decided to deal with this as a community by calling a meeting of the leadership (“apostles and presbyters”). They carefully looked back into their experience. Peter rehearses his experience of being drawn into the Gentile mission through the remarkable conversion of Cornelius and his household. Then Paul and Barnabas describe “the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12).

The assembly then interprets their experience of God working through them by looking to the longer experience of the community embodied in its Scriptures. This is exemplified by James’ citing a passage from the prophet Amos (Amos 9:11-12; the Greek version), which implies two stages in God’s plan for Israel: (1) the restoration of the people of Israel (“rebuild the fallen hut of David”) and (2) the ingathering of the Gentiles (“so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord, even all the Gentiles”).

The conclusion that the Jerusalem council reached was that the mission to the Gentiles is the will of God, and that they ought to do all in their power to cooperate with this divine initiative. The apostles rebuke the Judaeans by telling them what the decision of the Holy Spirit is: circumcision is not required for salvation. The decision about what is required for salvation is the Lord’s.  Thus, the Judaeans were actually opposed to the mind of the Lord. Likewise, they decided on a policy that both honors the tradition and adjusts to changing circumstances; they asked of Gentile converts only that they keep the minimal “rules for resident aliens” indicated in Leviticus (regarding marriages to relatives, food associated with idolatry, and improper slaughtering).

Finally, they boldly spoke of this very human process (reflection on experience and interpretation in the light of tradition) as “the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.”

Through this experience, we saw how the Spirit of God was at work through the very human processes of decision-making in our Church. This experience taught the church  to take seriously both our present experience and tradition. Our hierarchies, traditions, teachings, and laws all help us remember. The traditions and structures of the church, however, should not lead us to close our eyes to the working of the Spirit in the world and the situation especially of the poor and the needy today. We need to continue to be obedient to the Holy Spirit by not remaining close-in within ourselves. As Pope Francis told catechists gathered in Rome in 2013,

What I want to say now, I have already said many times before, but it comes from my heart … When we Christians are closed in our group, in our movement, in our parish, in our own environment, we remain closed and what happens to us is what happens to whatever remains closed: when a room is closed the odor of humidity gathers. … A Christian … remains closed and becomes ill.

Pope Francis, International Congress on Catechesis, Vatican City, September 28, 2013

Jesus calls us today, to say yes to the Spirit, to go wherever the Spirit blows. By this, we will know that Jesus is with us, just as a sheep know the voice of their shepherd. In knowing Jesus, we will know the presence of the Father.

The risen Christ has not abandoned us, his disciples, the church at all times. The Holy Spirit, the bond of the love of the Father and the Son, continues to lead and guide all peoples and the church towards the final fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

 

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4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: HEARING JESUS’ VOICE

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from https://legacyicons.com/christ-the-good-shepherd-icon-x120/

Tomorrow, May 13, 2019, more than 60 million Filipinos will go to the polls for the synchronized local and national elections. COMELEC  says that there are 61,843,750 registered voters in the Philippines alone in 2019. 1,822,173 more are registered to vote from overseas.

During the campaign, people heard different voices from thousands of candidates but with one common refrain: You guessed it right, “I will serve you with all of my heart.” Each of the candidates promised to serve up to the last breath of their lives. No, the candidates said, this is not about money, power, politics, influence or status, it’s all about service. The people, however, are sick and tired of these words from the candidates, that sometimes they wonder, whether elections still matter; whether it will make a difference if they vote for this or that candidate.

In today’s fourth Sunday of Easter, also called Good Shepherd Sunday, we listen to the voice of Jesus:

“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.”

In Jerusalem during Jesus’ times, there was only one sheepfold (the pen for sheep). Various flocks would arrive along with their respective shepherds and send all the sheep into it. This made for a rather large herd overall, and there wasn’t a practice of branding or marking in order to tell one from the other.  How then could each shepherd reclaim his own sheep?

There were two ways: First, the shepherd knew them by heart. Sometimes he had a special name for each character in the flock. And second, the sheep themselves recognized their master’s voice immediately. When he called out, they simply got to their feet and came with him, through the sheep-gate.

Christians have a very intimate relationship with Christ in the same way that the shepherd and the sheep have a very close relationship with each other.  Christians are the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd. As sheep we follow only one good shepherd–Jesus Christ. As sheep, however, we not only have an intimate relationship with Christ, the good shepherd, but also with fellow sheep of the flock. To be a sheep is not just about me and Jesus but also about me and my brothers and sisters just like in a real-life situation of a herd of sheep. As sheep we are not alone and we feel secure in the company of fellow sheep. When we get separated from the flock, like a lost sheep, our lives is in danger. Thus, we belong to one sheepfold called the Church.

As the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd, today’s fourth Sunday of Easter, offers us three challenges today: First, to hear the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, secondly, to follow the true good shepherd which is Jesus Christ and thirdly, to shepherd one another especially the least and most abandoned just like Christ shepherded us.

  1. Hearing the Voice of Jesus

In today’s world, there are many voices who compete for our attention. To whose voice do we listen? Many of us are attracted to many voices in the world today because often times they offer us instant gratification and solutions to our problems. Only in the long run, we realize that they bring us to our own perdition instead of redemption.

As sheep of his flock,  we are to recognize the voice of Jesus, the good shepherd. Do we recognize the voice of Jesus from among these many voices?

We can only recognize the voice of Jesus in the world today if we have a very close relationship with Jesus. We can discern who among from the many different voices we hear in the world today truly reflects the voice of Jesus. In this process of discernment, we cannot do this alone. That is why we have one another–fellow sheep in the common sheepfold of the church–to guide and support us in recognizing and listening to the voice of Jesus in the world today.

Most of all, however, we have the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus and God the Father, to be our advocate and guide in listening and following the voice of Jesus. Pope Francis affirms that we can recognize Jesus’ voice among all the other “voices” only through the Holy Spirit.

We can study the whole history of salvation, we can study the whole of Theology, but without the Spirit we cannot understand. It is the Spirit that makes us realize the truth or—in the words of Our Lord—it is the Spirit that makes us know the voice of Jesus. Jesus, the Good Pastor, says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.” Pope Francis, 4/25/2015

But hearing is not just passive hearing. Hearing becomes passive when we go to mass every Sunday, listen to the readings and the homily, but after the mass, there is no change in our attitudes and values. We go back to our old ways and do the things we have been used to all over again, even if it is enslaving, wrong and detrimental.

Thus, hearing the voice of Jesus entails personal transformation where the good news of Jesus penetrates our deepest core and transform us. It also entails doing, applying in our lives and proclaiming the good news that we have heard from Jesus.

In the first reading, from the book of Acts, Luke tells of the preaching of Paul and Barnabas at Pisidian Antioch during the so-called first missionary journey. The pattern of events is typical and is repeated in many cities during the missionary journeys: the apostles preach in the synagogue; a certain number of Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism believe, while others reject the message and stir up opposition against the apostles, who then declare their intention of turning to the Gentiles.

The proclamation of the Word of God has no promise of success, but the Word must be proclaimed whether people hear or refuse to hear (Ez 3:5). What matters is that the word is proclaimed faithfully. This matters even more than that it should be made to seem relevant by artificial stunts and gimmicks.

2. Following the Good Shepherd who is Jesus

During the Biblical times, there were good as well as bad shepherds. Many of Israel’s rulers became bad shepherds. They did no care for the people the way they should have. In Ezekiel 34:2-4, for example, God says:

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled over them harshly and brutally.”

This is God’s charge against the Pharisee, the cult leader, and the false teacher: that God entrusted them with his own flock, but they betrayed this trust to please themselves at the cost of the flock’s own well-being.

Today we hear of cult leaders and even our own church and public leaders who lived in splendor while their followers barely scrape together money to send them. Several false teachers boast massive houses, expensive cars, and private helicopters. Some have even been accused of sexual and physical abuse!

These are the thieves and the robbers that Jesus refers to in John 10:1. Instead of entering through the door, these individuals try to lure the sheep to them by twisting the scripture. They do not come to care for the sheep; they come to care for themselves.

Jesus said,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”      (John 10:11)

Jesus sacrifices his own life for the sheep. He is truly selfless. The false teacher sacrifices the sheep for his own life.

There are many shepherds in our world today. Whose shepherd are we following? Who are the good shepherds in our world today who reflects the value of service and sacrifice of Jesus?

This can be a very good guideline as we go to the polls tomorrow. Who among the candidates truly reflects the image of Jesus as good shepherd? Who are the bad and good shepherds from among the candidates?

3. Being good shepherds to one another

Following the good shepherd we are also called to be good shepherd to one another; we are called to shepherd each other. To be in the sheepfold of Jesus is to participate in the ‘shepherdness’ of Jesus. As followers 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.

The image of the good shepherd is a call for us to proclaim Jesus’ values and attitudes of service and inclusiveness amidst the world’s vying for power, domination and position. As Easter people we are called to exercise our prophetic stance in the political arena by proclaiming Jesus, the good shepherd, in word and in deed. As Easter people we are called to be the “light of the world” and “salt of the earth” by transforming the world in the light of the gospel.

We also celebrate today Vocation Sunday, a day to reflect, discover and recognize God’s calling in each one of us. Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, calls out especially 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’.

3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER: LIVING THE RESURRECTION – TENDING GOD’S SHEEP

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Do you love me?

The resurrection of Jesus is also about our own resurrection, when we rise up from our weaknesses, failures and sinfulness to embrace a new and victorious life. This is not much truer than in the case of Jesus’ apostles. From weak, fearful and insecure, the resurrection propelled the apostles to become bold, daring and zealous in proclaiming the good news of Jesus.

In the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John are arrested, hauled before the Sanhedrin, and ordered to cease preaching in the name of Jesus. The “Sanhedrin” said to Peter and the apostles, “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name”?  In response to this expression of the highest authority in their Jewish lives, they assert boldly, “We must obey God rather than men.” Ever faithful to Jesus’ command to follow him, they even rejoiced that they were able to “suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” This is a tremendous gesture of defiance that has become an inspiration for the Church especially during the times of persecution.

The resurrection of Jesus provided the greatest opportunity for the apostles to abandon their immature ways and atone for the betrayal they committed to Jesus. This is most especially prominent in Peter’s life.

In the Gospel, the last of the resurrection appearance of Jesus in the gospels, Jesus appears to the disciples while they were catching fish–their old livelihood.  The Gospel scene hints at two failures: the fishermen coming back with no fish and Peter’s denial of Jesus before his death. Yet these failures became occasions for Jesus’ gift of abundance: a large catch of fish, a fuller love that would “glorify God.” Indeed, faithful discipleship is not measured by absence of failure, but by openness to casting one’s lot on Jesus’ commands, a recognition of God’s abundant gifts, and willingness to grow into new life.

John’s Gospel has two charcoal fire scenes. The first, in chapter 18, warms Peter in Caiaphas’ courtyard when, as predicted, he denies his master three times. Today’s Gospel presents the other charcoal fire, near which Jesus invites the denier to atone for his cowardice by confessing his love three times. Peter’s profession of love for Jesus three times is Peter’s atonement for his triple denial of Jesus. Love heals his sins and reunites him to Jesus.

Jesus, however, asks Peter to demonstrate his love for him by service to his people: “Feed my sheep, my lambs.” From love comes deeds, namely feeding and tending Jesus’ lambs and sheep. Loving Jesus is not just a personal relationship with Jesus but essentially overflows into loving and serving others–God’s flock. The lambs and sheep belong to Jesus, not Peter.

Jesus then predicts that Peter’s service will take him where he does not want to go. Peter truly became the kind of man exactly what Jesus envisioned him to be. Love transformed Peter to become the rock of the early church, a fearless proclaimer of the good news and glorifier of God up to his death.

A final paragraph of the gospel contains a prediction of Peter’s martyrdom. This is the earliest reference to that event and its only mention in the New Testament.

Jesus asks us today, like when he asked Peter: “Do you Love me?” Despite our sinfulness, like Peter, may we take the risk to say, “Lord, you know that I love you.” But not just in words but more importantly in action, let us prove our love for Jesus by helping to feed God’s lambs.

 

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE COMMUNITY OF RESURRECTION

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The second Sunday of Easter is called by many names. First, it is called the Octave Day of Easter since it is the eight day after Easter. It is also called Thomas Sunday because of the story of Thomas in the gospel today. It also called Quasimodo Sunday and Quasimodogeniti.[1] On 30 April 2000, it was also designated as Divine Mercy Sunday by Pope John Paul II.

Eight days have passed since Easter and we have 40 more days to go to celebrate and ponder on the meaning of Jesus’ and our resurrection. Are we living as a community of the resurrection?

The readings for today’s second Sunday of Easter reflect on the qualities of a living community of the resurrection. Our readings today give a lot of clues.

First clue: The Community as Signs and Wonders of God

In the first reading we hear about how the early Christian communities witnessed the resurrection. Let’s hear it directly from Luke in his book the Acts of the Apostles

Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.

The early church after the resurrection of Jesus performed many signs and wonders through the leadership of the apostles. The apostles continued the divinely empowered ministry of Jesus (soon to be illustrated by the healing of the lame man through Peter and John [Acts 3ff]).

Because of this, new converts were “added.” It was God who added them; it was not the Church that added new members. The new converts did not become members on their own, but God brought them into the redeemed community.

Second Clue: Living the Resurrection not as Individuals but as a Community 

It is always heartwarming to hear that Jesus died and resurrected for me. But Jesus died and resurrected not for you and me alone or exclusively for you and me. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed not as private individuals but as an individuals interconnected with one another, in other words, as a community.

The apostles after the resurrection, did not go on their own but gathered and lived together as a community. After the resurrection, they were able to regain their strength because they came out of isolation and regroup. Although each of them had their own mission territory to go to, they never saw their mission as individual mission but the mission of the whole body of Christ.

Our faith, the Judeo-Christian faith has always been a community affair. At the Exodus from Egypt it was not an individual, nor a group of individuals, but a community, a people, which was delivered from slavery and led to the promised land. The Old Testament is not primarily concerned with the relationships between YHWH and individual Israelites, but with the relationship between YHWH and Israel. The very work ekklesia which the New Testament uses for ‘church’ comes from the Greek Old Testament where it is used to describe the whole ‘assembly’ of Israel.

Third Clue: A community forgiven and redeemed by Jesus also forgives and redeem others in Jesus’ name.

After the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples were still living in fear and despair. In the evening of Easter, the disciples were huddled in the cenacle afraid to go out because they are terrified of the Jews (John 20:19). The disciples were perhaps thinking that, if they had done this to our beloved master, how much more to us, his ordinary disciples.

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…

Then suddenly,

Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them,
‘Peace be with you’ ” (Jn 20:19).

The first words of the risen Jesus was “Shalom”–peace! The disciples betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus during the time that he needed them most—in his hour of passion, suffering and death.  Despite their cowardice and disloyalty, Jesus unconditionally forgave them. He does not complain or demand an apology. He simply offers peace, no vengeance and holding of grudges. What an act of unconditional forgiveness and unwavering friendship!

The risen Jesus passed through the walls and doors of the locked cenacle. This shows that Jesus’ love and forgiveness will traverse any walls of apathy, betrayal and fear. The resurrection will triumph over any hatred and animosity.

This is the reason why St. John Paul II declared this Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday.  God’s mercy is infinitely rich and no amount of human transgressions and obstinacy can stop it from being given to all humanity and God’s creation. The responsorial psalm of today’s liturgy proclaims this theme of mercy. In Psalm 118 we sing, “His mercy endures forever.”

As Jesus has forgiven the disciples, he empowered his disciples to pass on the gift of peace to others. The community of resurrection must be a community of healing and forgiveness. He said to them,

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Fourth Clue: Faith amidst Doubt

This Sunday is unfortunately remembered as the the story of doubting Thomas. This is in reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the ten other apostles, until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross.

While Thomas expressed doubt, when confronted with the resurrected Jesus, he was one of the apostles who proclaimed the strongest expression of faith with his statement “My Lord and my God” (John 20: 28). He was also one of the apostles who travelled the most in proclaiming the gospel. Tradition maintains that he founded churches in Mesopotamia, Ethiopia and even in India. Tradition also maintained that he died a martyred death there. Perhaps, the doubt of Thomas has made him a stronger and more passionate apostle.

Jesus’ response to Thomas’ declaration of faith was a recognition of the faith of the thousands of generation after the apostles who have come to believe despite not seeing Jesus.

Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ (Jn 20:29)

We have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but we are blessed because we all have believe!  Walking by faith and not by sight is an important mark of the community of the Risen One. This does not mean, however, that we have not experienced doubt in our faith. It rather means that despite our doubts and lack of faith, we continue to follow the Risen Lord and live the new life that he has bestowed upon us.

The heightening of doubt pretty much reflects today’s ethos. There is proliferation of fake news which make us skeptical about the truth across all topics – culture, politics, science and religion. We live in a time of skepticism and doubt that like the apostles of the the early church, believing entails sacrifice of time, talent and even of our very life.  The community of the Risen Lord continue to uphold God’s love, life and goodness despite all the doubt and despair in the world today.

Fifth Clue: A Community Transformed and Sent

The risen Lord having forgiven his disciples, empowered them to spread God’s mercy to others and immediately sent them.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples from a bunch of cowards to a band of brave men who preached the Gospel all over the Mediterranean and confidently faced death, some by crucifixion also. Peter, Paul and most of the Apostles suffered the same fate as Jesus. They were persecuted and martyred because they were continuing what Jesus had started – going against a heartless culture and caring for those in need.

As we continue our journey in Easter, let us continue to receive strength from the Risen Lord so that we may continue to be an Easter people.

Let me end with the opening prayer in the mass today:

God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Amen. Alleluiah, Alleluiah, Alleluiah.

 


 

[1] The name Quasimodo came from the Latin text of the traditional Introit for this day, which begins “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” from 1 Peter 2:2, roughly translated as “As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile…”. from Catholic Encyclopedia listing for Low Sunday.

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!

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

007-Annunciation-icon

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.