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.

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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/

8TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: WANTED, AUTHENTIC CHRISTIANS

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One of the most wanted virtues today, especially in this age of fake news, is authenticity. Today, we live with so many fakes from products to food to news and to human persons. We are bombarded with fake products like denims, electronics, dvds, drugs even food like fish and rice. We are made to believe in fake news on social media like facebook and youtube. We wear masks and interact with people who wear masks just so we become more acceptable in society which in the long run does not just hide our identity but become who we are.

Why do fake flourish? It is cheaper to buy fake products inasmuch as it is easier to live in the lie than in the truth. in many cases facing the truth requires a tremendous amount of courage for truth can be very harsh. Most humans have an intense desire to escape from their problems and to even construct a false reality just to avoid facing the truth.

The shortage in authenticity is also prevalent in religion today. This is not much truer than in the Catholic faith. The lack of authentic Catholics have led many not to go to church anymore or worse has turned agnostic and atheist. The conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual assault in Australia this week has further provoked distrust in church’s effective authority, which is already reeling from the many sexual abuse cases in recent years.

It is to this contemporary search for authenticity that today’s readings of the 8th Sunday in ordinary time addresses. The readings for this 8th Sunday speaks about the source of existential authenticity and how to live authentic Christians lives today. To be authentic Christians demands living beyond the minimal requirement of Christian faith which the readings of last Sunday talked about.

In the first reading, Sirach says that we can detect the true identity of people through their manner of speech; the way they speak, their tone, their volume, and their body language. Sirach demonstrates this in three sharp images. The act of speech is like sifting wheat through a sieve: as the sifting sorts out the husks, so our speech exposes the otherwise hidden faults of our character. And just as the hot fire of a kiln tests the craft of the potter, so the give and take of conversation tests the integrity of the interlocutors. Finally, just as the quality of a fruit tree indicates the care of its cultivator, so our speech reveals everything that has gone into our formation.

When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;
so do one’s faults when one speaks.
As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace,
so in tribulation is the test of the just.
The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;
so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.

In the gospel, Jesus talks about spiritual integrity through the unity of of the different parts of the human body. John J. Pilch identifies three distinct yet interpenetrating symbolic zones which Jesus utilized in the gospel today: eyes-heart (the eyes for gathering the information that the heart needs for making judgments); mouth-ears (the organs that collect and share self-expressive speech); and hands-feet (the body parts that act upon or implement what one has learned or knows). [1]

Eyes-heart. Jesus spoke of teachers and guides with flawed vision (Lk 6:39-42). He noted the heart’s potential for producing both good and evil. He urged that teachers strive to develop proper vision and insight and a good heart.

Mouth-ears. For Jesus, it is clearly imperative that a person cultivate a good heart that will produce good fruit, “for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45), words that others will hear, remember, and act upon.

Hands-feet. But speaking alone is not enough. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:45). It is imperative to act upon what one knows, to live according to what one has learned.

This is how the human person acts consistently, with all the symbolic body parts in sync: heart-eyes, mouth-ears, hands-feet. In other words, it is important that one’s emotion-fused thoughts (heart-eyes), self-expressive speech (mouth-ears), and purposeful activity (hands-feet) be perfectly coordinated. Anything else is stage-acting.

The inner worth of human beings is to be assessed from their words and deeds, just as “the fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree.” Full discipleship is not just all talk but practicing what one preaches, that is, “walking the talk”. Full discipleship, however, is not only a matter of walking the talk; it also entails “talking the walk.” That is, some of the most important Christian deeds will in fact be acts of speech, challenging injustice, encouraging the downhearted, and asking and giving forgiveness.

Besides consistency between the heart and other parts of the body and the integral unity of words and actions, Jesus exhorts his listeners to candid self-examination and authentic efforts to improve self before attempting to help others improve themselves. Short of this effort, such teachers and leaders are blind, unreliable, and untrustworthy.

They are deceivers, actors, hypocrites!
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
How can you say to your brother,
‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’
when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye?
You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.

To be authentic human being and Christian entails both internal and external transformation. St. Paul, in the second reading, says that this transformation is possible because of the resurrection of Jesus. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said that our bodies (hearts and minds) have been transformed through the resurrection of Jesus our Lord. Through the resurrection, we have become immortal, we have conquered the effect of sin. Our transformation in Christ inspires us to live our life of discipleship in word and deed.

Let me end with a prayer by Anne Osdieck, [2]

Christ,
be in my heart
to love everyone I meet,

be on my mind
to find you in all things,

on my tongue
to spread your love to all who hear me,

in my hands
to give your love to all in need,

in my feet
to take your love
everywhere
I go.

 


 

[1]John J. Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context, Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time C,” The Sunday Website at Saint Louis University, March 3, 2019. Accessed at http://liturgy.slu.edu/8OrdC030319/theword_cultural.html.
[2] Anne Osdieck, “Praying Towards Sunday,” The Sunday Website at Saint Louis University, March 3, 2019. Accessed at http://liturgy.slu.edu/8OrdC030319/prayerpathmain.html.

7TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: GOING BEYOND THE MINIMUM

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We have an old saying in Tagalog, “Madaling maging tao, mahirap magpakatao” (It’s easy to be born human, it’s hard to live a true human). Similarly, we can apply this to Christian life, “Madaling maging Kristiyano, mahirap magpakaKristiyano” (It’s easy to be baptized Christian, it’s hard to live as a true Christian).

One of the manifestations why it is hard to live as true Christians is that many Christians live only the bare minimum of Christianity. I call them minimal Christians. This comes in various forms. First are Catholics who are called KBL which means Kasal, Binyag, Libing (wedding, baptism and funeral), they show up in the church when they are baptized, when they are married and finally on their funeral. Another form is Cerrado Catolico (closed Catholic). They expressed their Christianity by being closed to other religion, born a Catholic, always a Catholic. But that’s all there is to their Christian life. The third form of minimal Christianity is living Christian life as an obligation, a set of rules, of do’s and don’ts; their faith is centered on following the 10 commandments. As long as they follow the 10 commandments, they believe that they are fulfilling their faith. The fourth form of minimal Christianity is being Christians through the sacraments only. They regularly receive the sacraments; they go to mass every day, they go to confession once a month, they pray the rosary every day and they pray the novena weekly.  They do not however, see a connection between the sacraments and the real life situation. This is what Jesuit Fr. Jaime Bulatao called split-level Christianity. There is a split or divorce between the worship they celebrate inside the church and the actual life outside. This is also perhaps the basis behind the false interpretation of many about separation between church and state. Religion has nothing to do with the dirty and corrupt things happening in economics and politics.

Today’s readings of the 7th Sunday in ordinary time challenge these minimal and narrow mindsets. In the first reading from the 1st book of Samuel, David spares the life of King Saul after being hunted down by the king. It was perfectly permissible and encoded in the Law to exact an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” By most reasonable judgment, David could have finished off his enemy and predator. Yet, at the very moment when God had delivered Saul into David’s grasp, the chance to drive a final stab to the heart and end the threat, David turned away from revenge and violence. This story shows one of the greatest feature of David’s character—his magnanimity. He was generous in overlooking injury and insult, and rose above pettiness and meanness. David’s sparing Saul’s life was a gesture of mercy which superseded the Law.

Today’s gospel is the continuation of last Sunday’s gospel on the beatitudes which is the summary of the new commandment of Jesus. Today’s gospel outlines some of the concrete and practical application of the beatitudes. The biggest challenge to living the beatitudes is how to go beyond the minimal standards of living our faith. Jesus challenges the people in today’s gospel to go beyond the faith of the pagans and sinners. If people get a reward for each thing they do, they are no different from the pagans. Jesus said,

For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.

Jesus’ norms of behavior challenge us to move from the already high standard “do to others as you would have them do to you” to the even higher standard “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

So Jesus instruct the people to love their enemies, bless those who curse them, give people their other cheek to slap, offer more goods to those who are taking things from them, lend without expecting repayment, and go through life without judging or condemning anyone.

Why do we have to act this way? Because this is God’s way.  To be a Christian is to follow the divine way. God’s love is not conditional. God’s love is not vindictive. God’s love is not limited.

for [God] himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

In other words, this is how God treated us. Our behavior toward others is to be the reflection of the treatment we receive from God. The biblical ethic is essentially one of response to God’s treatment of his people—this is true both in the Old Testament and in the New. Jesus calls us to live as “children of the Most high” in concrete and practical way.  We are empowered to act in this way because of the extravagant good measure with which God continually acts toward us. Thus, the measure of being a genuine Christian is the unconditional and gratuitous love of God for all. When we live in accordance with God’s standards, we will receive overflowing blessings. Then God’s love will flow out to others through us.

Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

But this is simply ultra darn hard.

We live in a society where the standard for many is “dog eat dog” and getting ahead at any cost. We must love our friends, and love those who love us. We can’t let people get away with slapping us in the face. When someone takes something away from you, steps must be taken to have the stolen goods returned. When we lend someone something, we expect them to pay it back. Criminals are to be judged, and wrongdoers are to be condemned.

Is it even possible to just love—and never to get our own empty tank filled back up? How can we love without any return? Certainly, we will burn-out in the long run.

This is the reason why God came down to become human like us in Jesus. As Paul writes to the Corinthians in the second reading: “The spiritual was not first: first came the natural and after that the spiritual. The first man was of earth, formed from dust, the second is from heaven.”

How does Jesus, the “heavenly Adam,” coming together with the “earthly Adam” (Adam which is the representative of all humanity) cut a path for us? The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said that Christ cut a path for us by being grace ascending and grace descending. Jesus is just as much creation’s highest response to the Father as he is the Father’s Word to creation.  As St. Paul implied, the death and resurrection of Jesus opens for us the possibility of attaining authentic human existence.

It is easy to be baptized Christian but it is hard to live a true Christian life enlightened and empowered by the gospel. A genuine Christian life struggles to live the radical demands of Jesus’ gospel. It goes beyond living the faith in name only, being a closed Catholic, as an obligation, set of rules, of do’s and don’ts, and sacramental only separated from the humdrum experiences of daily life. We cannot do this by our own efforts. Only through the grace of Jesus Christ and by our willing cooperation that we can truly fulfill the radical demands of the gospel.

 

6TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: LIVING THE BEATITUDES TODAY

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I remember an experience when we were doing missions in a far-flung barrio in Bicol, Philippines.  In that barrio, people did not just experience extreme poverty but also were caught in a constant crossfire in a never ending war between the NPA and the military.  One day we gathered the kids for some group activities. In the course of the activity we ask the kids: What do you want to be when you grow up? You know kids, they are always eager to share what they want to become when they grow up. These kids, however, were not so eager to tell their dreams. Some were staring at us with blank faces and some were looking away into some distant place. We felt so sorry for these kids because even though they are still kids it seems that they have already tired of dreaming. They have lost their energies to hope because of the constant life and death situation they have to endure every day.

Not far from that barrio we saw a group of born again Christian preachers who gathered some adults, leading them in singing several lively action songs.  Then I heard their leader preaching about God’s blessings, promising the group of adults that as a sign of their acceptance and faith in Jesus as personal Lord and saviour they are assured of God’s bountiful blessings—siksik, liglig at umaapaw (pressed down, shaken together, running over cf. Luke 6: 37).

I easily saw the contrast between these two experiences.  On the one hand, our experience with the kids implied that God is too far away from their reality of poverty and violence that it seems that God’s blessings is beyond their reach.  Poverty is their fate, they just have to learn to accept it and live with it. On the other hand, the experience of the born again Christians implied that God’s bountiful blessings is assured for anyone who personally accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior. God will improve their lives and even attain wealth. It promotes so-called prosperity gospel where abundance and wealth are signs of God’s blessings.

I realize, though, that there is a similarity in both experiences’ understanding of God’s blessings.  I thought that they were looking at God’s blessings from our human categories and experiences in our world. For in today’s world to be blessed is to be full of money, plenty of material things, full of power and authority.  Blessings in today’s world is measured in wealth, power, honor and position in life. On the other hand, misfortune and curse in today’s world is measured in terms of poverty, suffering, powerlessness, absence of honor and position in life.

In today’s gospel of 6th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus proclaimed a reversal of blessing and curse.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”

This is a hard saying. Jesus’ proclamation about blessings and curses, also called the beatitudes, is contrary to common sense and to all expectations and wisdom about how the world works.  How can the poor be blessed and the rich cursed? How can we say that you are blessed to the people who have suffered so much in life? How can we say this to the people who lost lives and experienced great devastation from calamities? How can we proclaim that you are blessed to people who have experienced violence, war, depression, loneliness and despair?

Our difficulty in accepting the beatitudes lies in the fact that the beatitudes declares a situation that is a result of God’s action. In other words, it not based on human action but God’s action. For if it will be based on human action, the reverse is the result, as what we see is happening now (despite all the assurance from those who benefit from the existing system that global capitalism has reduced poverty and has improved the plight of millions of people, the blessed in this world are the select few who continue to be rich and the cursed are the multitudes who remain poor). The beatitudes declares the kind of life within the context of God’s gracious act. This is impossible through human efforts. The kind of a life under God’s gracious act, therefore, can only be a gift–unmerited, free and unconditional gift offered by God to everyone.

Furthermore, God talks about blessings as the qualities of the future community that God will gather in the end. In the Second Reading, St. Paul says that if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. The truth of Christ’s resurrection is the key to hope, the key to the belief of the coming of the future kingdom of God where God’s blessings will benefit all especially the poor, oppressed and powerless in the world. The community who is called blessed by God does not remain passive, but acts in accord with the coming kingdom.

The Beatitudes are, therefore, not so much about what we should do but about what we should be; it is about thinking, willing, and feeling, that is, about a new way of living and being Christian. The beatitude does not mean that God wants the poor to remain poor and thus, we do nothing about the situation of the poor.  Nor does it mean that we sell all our belongings and not utilize any benefit from material things (although some Christians have done this. Think of St. Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus who left a life of wealth to care for the poor and the most abandoned).

Indeed, the beatitudes have been subjected to various insidious misinterpretations and manipulations. For instance, the beatitudes was utilized in the past to subjugate the poor. Civil and religious authorities have told the poor that they need not struggle and aspire to improve their lot as their sufferings and poverty on earth will be rewarded in heaven. On the other hand, the beatitudes was utilized to justify the prosperity of the rich. Wealth is a blessing from God and it is a sign of God’s reward for those who lived with integrity and hard work. On the other hand, poverty is God’s curse and it is a sign of God’s punishment for those who are irresponsible and lazy.

Ultimately, the beatitudes calls us to conversion, a change of thinking, or as we often hear today, a paradigm shift. We need to adopt a beatitude paradigm shift in this world. We need to be guided by the values of the beatitudes in our our life together as a community of discipleship. We need to look at the real blessings and curse in this world from God’s perspective.  The beatitudes challenges us to experience God’s blessings in our concrete situation of “joys and the hopes, grief and anxieties.”  God’s blessings is not the physical pain, poverty, suffering and hunger but God’s endowed grace of solidarity, purity of heart, meekness, peacemaking, for the coming of the kingdom already here and now but will be fully realized in the end. The experience of God’s blessings will allow us to see beyond our world despite all its sufferings, hardships, hopelessness, injustice, violence and enslavements and journey towards the reign of God.  The reign of God has already began in the resurrection of Jesus.

Today, God calls us: You are blessed, be a blessing to others.

 

5TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: GREATER CALLING DESPITE UNWORTHINESS

here-I-am

Life is about discovering who we truly are. To know who we truly are, we need to discover our greater calling. Life is not just about waking up every day, eating, working and doing our daily chores. Beyond our daily struggles and frustrations, there is a far more meaningful life that we can experience but only if we are able to take a risk. When we are able to take risk, we discover the awesome goodness of divine power. In the presence of divine power we become aware of our unworthiness. Despite our unworthiness, we are called to greatness in the loving service of God and others.

This is the theme of our readings for today’s 5th Sunday in ordinary time. This is the story of three of the greatest characters in the Bible—the prophet Isaiah, and the apostles Paul and Peter.

Each of these three men experienced God’s abundant goodness and grace. In the presence of the divine goodness, all three felt a profound unworthiness.

In the First Reading, Isaiah exultantly receives a vision of heaven itself. The Lord is seated on a high and lofty throne and the Seraphim angel choir is crying out, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!”*

In the face of this heavenly vision, Isaiah reacts with shame! He says,

Woe is me, I am doomed!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
living among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

In response an angel swoops down with a burning coal and begins to cleanse his lips!!!! He is doomed, alright, but doomed to be made clean through suffering, to be made able to speak of God.

In the Second Reading. St. Paul says that Christ appeared to him last of all, as to one born abnormally,

“For I am the least of the apostles,
not fit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.”

Paul persecuted the Church but then, because of God’s grace, he became a great minister of Christ.

In the Gospel Jesus tells Peter James and John to fish in the deep water (where they had been fishing and fishing and fishing all night but caught nothing). Without warning their nets become bloated with fishes that their nets were tearing. At the sight of the abundant catch, Peter knelt before Jesus and cried out,

“Depart from me, Lord,
for I am a sinful man.”

What followed that sense of unworthiness was a divine assurance but the biggest surprise of all was God’s commission.

One of the seraphim that flew to Isaiah touches him with an ember and assures him that his wickedness is purged. Then the future prophet hears the commissioning voice of the Lord saying,

“Whom shall I send?
Who will go for us?”

Isaiah freely said in reply,

“Here I am, send me!”

For his part, Paul found himself drawn into a mission of surprising fruitfulness. When he alludes to this mission as he writes to the Corinthians, he is compelled to say,

“But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them;
not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.”

The amazed and kneeling Peter hears Jesus address him,

“Do not be afraid;
from now on you will be catching men.”

When we experience God’s abundant grace we become suddenly aware of our unworthiness. Unworthiness here does not mean we are worthless. In the face of God’s goodness, however, we truly become aware of our place in the universal scheme of things. Experience of God lets us understand that we are far, far less than God. This is the same attitude that we express in the part of the mass when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We confess to the Lord our unworthiness right before we’re about to let God’s awesome grace into our mortal bodies.

Nevertheless, God does not hold our inadequacies against us. It is, however, important for us to truly accept our unworthiness. For the moment we recognize our inadequacy, our sin, our smallness before the greatness of the transcendent God, we are capable of truly being called out of ourselves. When God is heard to say, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here I am. Send me.” He is empowered, not paralyzed.

Lord give us your worthiness instead of our unworthiness; make us deeper than our doubts. Let us fall on our knees. as did Simon Peter. Just as you did with Paul, give us your grace to overcome the chasm that lies between who we are and whomever you might call us to be. So together with Isaiah, we can say, “Here I am; send me!”

4TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: REJECTION AND THE CHRISTIAN FAITH

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One of the most common emotional wounds we endure in daily life is rejection. When we are snubbed by our friends, ostracized by our families and communities for our lifestyle choices, when our spouse leaves us,  when we get fired from our jobs, the pain we feel can be absolutely paralyzing.

Today’s readings of the 4th Sunday in ordinary time talks about rejection. The readings also talk of rejection as a common experience that Christians will endure in this world, particularly if we lived out the prophetic dimension of our Christian faith. If we proclaim the good news of Jesus about liberation from all forms of oppression, freedom, justice, love and truth, we will face stiff opposition and suffer rejection from the world. This is because often the values and standards of the world runs in conflict with the values and standards of the Kingdom of God.

In the first reading,  Yahweh, our Lord, warned Jeremiah that he will constantly incur the hostility of the kings, princes, priests, and people of Judah. In the face of opposition, Jeremiah frequently fled to God for refuge. Yahweh comforted him,

Be not crushed on their account,
as though I would leave you crushed before them;
for it is I this day
who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass,
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

In the gospel today, which is the continuation of the gospel last Sunday, Jesus identified his mission with the prophetic tradition. By telling his own town’s mates that the prophecy of Isaiah about bringing glad tidings of freedom for captives and the oppressed, sight for the blind are fulfilled today, Jesus clearly identified himself as a prophet. Because of this, his own town’s mates rejected Jesus and wanted to destroy him.

For in Jewish society, it was customary for a son to carry on his father’s trade and his grandfather’s name. No one was ever expected to become something better than or to improve on the lot of the parents. This fact is the basic foundation of honor. For Jesus to step shamefully beyond His family boundaries would be quite a scandal. In the Mediterranean world, the basic rule is “look after your family first”. Jesus also broke this rule. He healed the sick outside of His home town.

So his town’s mates tried to push him out to a cliff. But he escaped somehow. The crowd’s reaction foreshadows Jesus’ passion and death, as well as His escape to continue His journey points ahead to Easter victory and the continuing spread of God’s word.

Today, those who dared to be prophets also suffered rejection even death. Martin Luther King died for promoting the equality of all human beings irrespective of race. Mahatma Gandhi died because, as a Hindu, he was friendly with Muslims. Bishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed during the consecration at the mass because he denounced the exploitation of the poor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by Hitler because he attacked the racist evils of Nazism. Our very own Redemptorist Fr. Rudy Romano was abducted by military men because of his work for the poor and defense of human rights. Until now he remains missing, presumed to be dead.

A prophet will not be honored in this world, even his own will disown him. Because a prophet talks about values which the lords of this world abhors and are terrified–justice, freedom, truth, and love.  These are also the same values which God in Jesus Christ also died for. A prophet talks about values not of this world, about power not of earthly authorities, but of values and power of a totally different kind, a new world that is to come through Jesus Christ.

The theology of baptism describes our own Christian baptism as a participation in Jesus’ role of prophet. Thus, every Christian by virtue of his/her baptism, is called to be a prophet. We are called to proclaim the Gospel in our families, in our working places, among our friends, in our society. Whatever is happening we have to be ready to proclaim and defend truth, love, justice, freedom, people’s rights and dignity. We cannot compromise or keep silent in the face of evil and values contrary to the gospel.

We don’t have to die a prophet or martyr’s death in order to be prophet. We can be a “lesser prophet” and get small things changed in our world. We can be bold enough to stand for truth and voice out if there is something wrong within our office, our family, our parish, our society, our government, and world order. We can be prophets by contributing our talents towards building a better and more just, free and peaceful family, community, parish and society.

Lord help us to master our pride, conquer our desire for security, and delight in the new and creative ways that your Kingdom is present in the chaos and gloom of our world.  Let us be your prophets today!

 

3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: RECLAIMING JESUS’ MISSION STATEMENT

proclamation

The Baclaran shrine has become well-known among the devotees through these years as a shrine of vigorous preaching about justice, peace and other social issues. The Redemptorists have always been very vocal in preaching about the burning issues in the world and country today in the light of the gospel.  Because of this, every now and then, we get reactions from devotees. When devotees asked us why do we have to preach on social issues, I often quote today’s gospel text, the very words of Jesus which has come to be known as Jesus’ mission statement.  Some of them are surprised to hear these words as they may not sound particularly religious. Some even could not believe that they actually come from Jesus.  Many of them have believed for a long time that being Catholic is merely going to mass, receiving sacraments, praying the novena. For them, the Catholic faith is merely a spiritual activity and has nothing to do with the concrete realities of the everyday life of the ordinary people.

Today’s readings of the 3rd Sunday in ordinary time talks about the essential importance of the proclamation of the Word of God in Christian faith and life. The Word of God proclaims God’s eternal plan of total salvation and liberation of all peoples from sin and all forms of evil and oppression. The proclamation of the Word of God is both and at the same proclaimed in words and action; they are not mutually exclusive nor can be separated from each other.

In the First Reading from the book of Nehemiah, Israel, the people of God, has newly returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon. They listened to Ezra, a priest-scribe who read the law (Torah) for the first time. After Israel’s exile from Babylon, the Torah was just completed. Ezra read the law for more than six hours, to men, women and children old enough to understand (7 years old up).  While Ezra read the Torah, the assembly cried as all around them lay the ruins of what Israel and Jerusalem and the Temple and God’s people had once been.

In the second reading, St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, proclaimed about how the Body of Christ, the Church, is to live out the mission statement of Jesus. St. Paul points out that all members of the Church have gifts for ministry. The members of the Church, however, have different gifts for ministry; we are not clones of each other. The different gifts can only come to life in the context of the whole.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, following his river baptism and his long wilderness fast and temptation, returns to his home town of Nazareth. Reports about him have been spreading through the population, probably the result of his healing miracles and his synagogue teaching. So when he comes back home, it’s quite a big day in the synagogue. It was the day of Sabbath.  Everybody’s there, eager to hear the local boy who’s making a name for himself.

Like Ezra, he takes up a scroll, this one containing the book of Isaiah. He reads a passage which says that the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to “bring glad tidings to the poor,  …  to let the oppressed go free,” to proclaim a time of favor from the Lord (Is 61: 1-2).

After reading these verses, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and takes his seat. It is the custom for teachers to sit, rather than to stand. So when Jesus sat, everyone looked at him, expecting some commentary, some explication of this text, a text well known to many of them. Jesus, however, merely said,

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is, very possibly, the world’s shortest sermon, but packs lots of punch.  The people of Israel have waited for centuries for the fulfillment of promises that God made throughout their history, beginning with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3).  Now Jesus declares that the wait is over — that the day has come — that the promises are fulfilled — that salvation is nigh!  This is, indeed, good news.

Jesus claims for himself the ancient prophetic words as his own mission statement. He bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the sweet Jubilee Year, when the economy will be conformed anew to God’s justice.

Jesus’ mission statement did not become merely a string of high-sounding words (as some mission statements do). Everything that follows in his life, as presented to us in the Gospel, amounts to the living out of the prophecy he claims for himself that sabbath morning in Nazareth.

urban_mission

Today, we are called by Jesus to continue his proclamation of the Word of God. In order to be true Catholics or Christians, we should not be content with living our faith merely by going to mass, praying the novena or receiving the sacraments. To be true Catholics and Christians we need to reclaim Jesus’ mission statement as our mission statement too. In the light of today’s reality of continuous suffering by many of our people–the exploited poor, unemployed, homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the wounded creation, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others, the proclamation of Jesus’ glad tidings remains imperative and urgent as ever.  As each one of us has our own distinctive gifts, as St. Paul said, we are called to apply and share our gifts generously for the continuation of the enactment of Jesus’ mission statement.

Let us pray for the courage and grace of the Holy Spirit that we may become vibrant hearers, proclaimers and doers of Jesus’ words, our Lord and primary missionary of God.