3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE AUDACITY OF GOOD NEWS

Everyday, we are bombarded with bad news. From the enormous suffering and gloom brought about by the pandemic to corruption in government to scandals in the church to natural and human-made calamities to marriage breakdowns and domestic violence, all these bad news seemed to diminish our hopes that things will get better than will it get worse.

Behind these bad news, however, there are good news that do not surrender to the despair brought about by the bad news. Most of these good news represent the utter goodwill and generosity of hearts of many people–the many frontliners who have generously given their time even their lives to caring for the sick and dying of covid-19, the anonymous people who help victims of calamities, and those who continue to take the side of the poor, oppressed and powerless even at the risk of their own lives.

Every good news is meant to inspire and prod us to never give up despite the many almost insurmountable challenges we face each day. It is in the same spirit that we listen to the proclamation of the gospel in every Eucharist we attend. The word gospel itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning “good story,” a rendering of the Latin evangelium and the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news” or “good telling.”

In the readings for today’s 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear of the audacity of good news amidst the bad news that has engulfed the chosen people of God in biblical times.

In the First Reading, we hear of the repentance of the people of Nineveh despite being a pagan city. Despite that Jonah, the prophet sent by God, secretly did not want the pagan city, Nineveh, to convert and be saved because this city was an enemy of the Hebrews. Better for it to perish in flames than to repent in ashes and sackcloth.  

In the gospel, Jesus began his ministry of the proclamation of the good news at the same time that John the Baptist was arrested by Herod. The arrest of John may have been a very bad news for many people. John the Baptist represents hope in the midst of the oppressive occupation of Israel by the Romans. John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the messiah which would bring back their glory days under God’s rule.

The Gospel goes on to give us a summary of Jesus’ message: ‘Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand’. Repent’ for Jesus means something far more than simple sorrow for sins. The Greek word used, metanoia, literally means a ‘change of mind’ – a change not just in an intellectual sense but involving a transformation of attitude at a deep personal level.  This means looking at one’s life and one’s hopes for the future in a totally new way, open and receptive to the – usually surprising – action of God. The Kingdom of God meant this kind of radical change of heart.

It is good to note the kinds of people Jesus chose for Apostles: from the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew to Matthew and John, they were all flawed yet graced. Leaving their family and their livelihood, they are to become his intimate companions and followers. Life with him, and association with his ministry of healing and proclaiming the Good News, will transform them from being fishers of fish to being fishers, ‘catching’ people for the Kingdom.

The inauguration of the public ministry of Jesus is an ongoing story. We are all called to participate in the inauguration of the Kingdom by Jesus by becoming the Good News, through witnessing the values of God’s kingdom in the midst of the darkness and misery of the world today, and through drawing others constantly (those who ‘live in the darkness and shadow of death’) into the freedom and light that Jesus has brought into the world.

Christmas Midnight Mass: The People who Walked in Darkness have seen a Great Light

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Tonight’s liturgy and readings of the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Mass during midnight, is full of contrasting words and images.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims,

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9: 1).

These prophetic words from Isaiah truly express the paradoxical challenge of living the spirit of Christmas: Christmas is to see and to walk towards the light amidst the darkness in our lives and our world

The second reading, St. Paul in his letter to Titus, also speaks of contrast. St. Paul speaks of the contrast of the two comings of Christ: (1) “the grace of God has appeared,” that is, in the Christ event (and Bethlehem marks the inception of its appearance); (2) “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory…” Jesus already came into this world but he is still to come in the fullness of his glory.

Of all the readings, the gospel has the most contrasting images. Christmas is the birth of the king. But the new king wasn’t born in a palace, his birth wasn’t hailed by heralds fanning out to every corner of the empire. Instead, his family were refugees: They couldn’t find room at the inn; Mary gave birth in a stable; and the child had to rest in a manger.

There is darkness in the night, and yet the radiance of  God’s love is in the child. The winter is cold, but the baby brings the fire of God’s love to earth. The baby is so small and helpless; and yet he is the Word, who in the beginning was God and was with God. The humble animals surround the child, but the angels of God sing his birth. The child is poor and lowly in origin, and yet all the power of God is his. The stable is lowly, but it is the king of kings who is born into it.

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It is in these contrasts, indeed, that we can find the wonder of Christmas. Christmas is not the eradication of contrast but the acceptance of diversity. It is the welcoming of the other who is unique and different from me and you. It is not the elimination of differences. Moreover, Christmas is not the absence of conflict. Chrismas is not the escape from the chaos, misery and suffering in our lives.

Contrast, is at the core of God’s incarnation. The wonder of Christmas, most of all, is the immersion of God into our human experience, even the messiest, the muddiest and the darkest side of our humanity. The wonder of Christmas is God’s becoming human by not resorting to human power, prestige, wealth and fame. God became fully human without God stripping of God’s divinity and human becoming divine without human stripping of humanity.

This year, 2020, for many of us, is perhaps, the toughest year of our lives. Who would have thought, at the beginning of this year, that a pandemic would spread so fast into every corner of the world, making millions ill and killing thousands because of the virus. Many lost their jobs, many became hungry, homeless, depressed and abandoned. Many are worried and uncertain about the coming new year and beyond.

Because of the pandemic, many were saying that Christmas this year will be the saddest Charistmas of their lives. Many, in fact, did not have any money to spare to spend for their usual noche buena. Many Christmas parties and reunions were cancelled. The usual Christmas decorations and the firework display were either subdued or cancelled altogether.

But we cannot accept the reality that we cannot experience the joy of Christmas just because of the pandemic. On the other hand, the tremendous misery and difficulties brought by the pandemic did not dampen the spirit of Christimas. On the contrary, we rediscovered the wonder of Christmas in the compassionate embrace especially of those who suffered most and miserable during the pandemic. The pandemic gave us great fervour to feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless and give comfort to the sick and lonely. Indeed, the pandemic did not fizzle out the light of Christmas. The utter darkness that we now find ourselves, all the more convince us to be super spreaders of the good news of Jesus gospel and bearers of Christmas light. The Christmas spirit has become a pandemic itself, as the song of the Redemptorist goes,

gawing pandemya ang pasko, (Make Christmas a pandemic)
hawaan ng pag-asa ang bawat tao (contaminate every person with hope)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the prophet Isaiah proclaims thousands of years ago. We proclaim it now, once again, that in the darkness of the pandemic, we have seen the light of Christmas, we have felt love, acted with justice, truth, and peace and most of all experinced God as Emmannuel–God-with-us.

No amount of suffering and misery can dampen the Christmas spirit. No amount of gloom can postpone the joy of Christmas. No amount of tyranny can silence the true calling of Christmas. In other words, Christmas is a defiance! The more the world is plunged into darkness, the light of Christmas shines brighter. The more the world is plunged into death and suffering due to the pandemic, the original Christmas event of Jesus dwelling among us all the more bonds us into deeper social solidarity. The more the world is plunged into senseless impunity of killings and violence, the voice of Christmas shout much louder for peace and justice. The more the world is plunged into hunger and poverty, the aspiration of Christmas for sharing of creation’s resources for all becomes greater and greater. The more the world is plunged into materialism and vanity, the proclamation of the spirit of Christmas which is love, forgiveness and acceptance of all becomes stronger and stronger. As the world is plunged into sadness and misery, the challenge to spread the joy of Christmas all the more become urgent especially among the abandoned, homeless and lonely.

During the past 9 days of the Simbang Gabi we listened once again to the Christmas story. We heard how God’s story entered humanity through the lives of ordinary people who did not come from the nobility, wealthy and powerful. The response and participation of Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters showed how God’s plan and dream for all humanity and creation has defied all wordly odds and proclaimed a true message of hope, peace and love.

Like the characters in the Christmas story, we are not passive observers of the great event of incarnation. We are all part of the wonder of Christmas not through the baby-cult, admiring the cute baby Jesus on the manger from the outside but not receiving Christ from the inside of our being. The wonder of Christmas is the reception of the Christmas story into our lives and like Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters, it is allowing ourselves to become instruments and heralds of the building of God’s kingdom, here and now.

This Christmas, let us once again welcome in wonder and awe the greatest event of God’s coming into our lives. Together with the whole world let us bow down and adore our savior Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us humbly receive the birth of Jesus in our hearts and resoundingly accept our becoming part of the Christmas wonder.

A most blessed Christmas to all!

2ND SUNDAY OF ADVENT: THE SIGN OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST

(For an audio version of this reflection, click here)

The Gospel of today’s 2nd Sunday of Advent is the opening of the gospel according to Mark: “The beginning of the Good News (euangelion) about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Similar to our times, Mark was writing in the midst of persecution, suffering and uncertainty that his community was undergoing during that time. Despite all of these, Mark proclaimed the good news which is about Jesus Christ.  Mark daringly invited his people to change their perspectives and pin their hopes on Jesus Christ who is the good news. As in the times of Mark, the gospel today and in every liturgy is an invitation for us towards a fresh view of life, even a reversal of how we look at things; a new way of thinking, doing and living.

In this second Sunday of Advent, the liturgy presents us the epitome of this transforming and hopeful attitude in John the Baptist. In this advent season, we are invited by the church to take our cue from John the Baptist. What is the sign of John the Baptist?

Prophetic

John the Baptist’s was a prophet because he foreshadowed the coming of the messiah similar to Old Testament prophecies. But more than foreshadowing, he prepared the people for the coming of Jesus through repentance—a change of mind, hearts and guts. John the Baptist as a prophet was also not afraid to point out the evil deeds of people. That is why Herod shut him up in prison.

In this season of Advent, John the Baptist’ prophetic announcements reminds us that the more meaningful preparation for Christmas is the critical appraisal of our values, attitudes and deeds.  Advent is the season to examine how we have aligned our ways of thinking, doing and living in accordance with Jesus’ gospel.

Ascetic

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

John the Baptist lifestyle speaks of severe asceticism and ritual purity. John the Baptist’ lifestyle highlights the penitential character of advent. That is why, just like Lent, the liturgical color of Advent is purple. In contrast to all the partying, eating and drinking common to this season, John the Baptist invites us to tame our desires and purify our hearts. He invites us not to get drowned with the over-commecialization and materialization of Christmas. Advent is a time to recognize that we are sinful. Our personal and social sins have hindered us from experiencing the wonder and joy of the coming of the Lord in our lives.

Desert

John the Baptist did not preach in the center of power—Jerusalem but in the “wilderness” or the desert. John the Baptist invited the people to leave their center of power and go to the desert. The desert always had a special significance in Scripture. It is a holy place, a place where God is specially to be found. It is also a place of struggle. It was in the desert that the Israelites spent 40 years on their way to the Promised Land. It was in the desert that Jesus had his tussle with the Evil One. It was in the desert that Jesus often went to pray and in the desert that he fed the people.

John the Baptist invites us during this Advent season to go to the desert. In the midst of all the noise and hectic schedule of the season, can we afford to withdraw in silence and spend some quality moments in prayer in order to fathom the greatest mystery of history—the incarnation of God into our lives and God’s own creation? This demands humility in order to learn how to bow down to the greatest wonder of God’s embrace and acceptance of our vulnerable and fragile situation.

Hope

John the Baptist gave the people hope by announcing the coming of the messiah in the midst of despair of the people.  In this season of Advent, despite the violence, oppression and falsehood, we cannot succumb to despair but continue to be relentless in hope. We must continue our unity and advocacy for truth, justice and wellbeing especially for the poor and the most abandoned of our society. The season of Advent strengthens our hope that justice, peace and righteousness will prevail over violence, terror and falsehood.

In this season of Advent, let us learn from John the Baptist, and listen to his voice from the wilderness.  Let us accept his invitation for a baptism of repentance. John the Baptist gives us the sure and certain route to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist invites us during this advent season to a change in our perspectives and strengthens our hope in Jesus Christ who is the good news.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: LIVING THE END TIMES IN THE PRESENT

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

No, I haven’t forgotten or am I confused about the date. But today is the beginning of a new year in the church otherwise known as liturgical calendar. 

Why is the church year more than a month ahead of the world calendar?  The “out of sync” liturgical calendar seeks to reframe our lives beyond the order and systems of this world. The church year invites us to fit our lives into the Big Picture of God’s time and work from creation to redemption and final reunion with God.

The first day of the church year is always the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is the first liturgical season of the church year consisting of the four weeks before Christmas. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus, which means ‘coming, arrival’. The coming and arrival that the church highlights in Advent is the return in glory of Jesus at the end of times.

Contrary to the conventional activities during this season which are preparations for Christmas, Advent is more about contemplating and celebrating the coming back of Jesus in glory anytime soon! That is why, every time this season comes during this time of the year, we experience different and profound kinds of feeling, mainly feelings of joy, wonder and excitement.  We usually associate these feelings with Christmas, which is exactly right, Christmas being the birth of Jesus Christ.  But the church, through the Advent season, also invites us to dig deeper. We feel and experience profound gladness and eagerness because the final glory of Jesus will soon be fully manifested to all humanity. As St. Augustine said,

“The first coming of Christ the Lord, God’s Son and our God, was in obscurity; the second will be in sight of the whole world.”[1]

Thus, the richer and more meaningful attitude and outlook appropriate for the season of Advent are waiting, preparing and longing. Patience, vigilance, preparedness, alertness and watchfulness are the virtues that accompany these attitudes. Jesus extolled these virtues in the gospel today.

In today’s world beset with so many overwhelming problems, we easily become impatient. We cry out to the highest heaven to annihilate all evil. We ask why injustice, violence, domination, and falsehoods continue to prevail. In the suffering and struggles of our lives and our world, we seek God but God is nowhere to be found. Then, tragically, we begin to lose hope: Nothing will change. A better world is not forthcoming. This is our fate. There is nothing we can do about it except to accept it. God cannot rescue us. Let us just rely on the gods of this world!

This dilemma is reflected in the readings today. In the first reading from Isaiah, the prophet intensely longs for the love of God but instead finds what he cannot bear: an angry God, an absent God. This experience of the prophet seemingly reflects our own experience in the midst of our turmoil: God is angry and has hidden his face; he is somewhere above the heavens and we cannot find him there.

The prophet found the answer to this dilemma, albeit, in the hard way. The reason lies in our sinfulness, the prophet says. God is not gone from us because he has forsaken us. Our sins—our weaknesses, our complacency, our pride, our failure to love, our failure even to accept the love of others—all these things have made us to falter and to wither.

The Psalm articulates the action needed to be done out of this prophetic realization. The Psalmist says, “Lord, make us turn to you!” It is a cry from someone who has wandered from the Lord. Far away from God, there is profound emptiness and longing.

These readings highlight the penitential character of advent. Advent season is a season which calls for repentance. Advent is a time to recognize that we are “sinful; all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags.” Our personal and social sins are many: hatred, violence, oppression, indifference, selfishness, etc. Our sinfulness has hindered us from experiencing the wonder and joy of the coming of the Lord in our lives.

The gospel today from Mark happened during the critical events of the last moments of Jesus on earth. Jesus near the time of his death warned his disciples about the end times and instilled in them the necessity of watchfulness.

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

These words of Jesus may be read not only as a warning about the end times, but as a challenge for us today to live in the present, to engage life now, to be attentive to the moment at hand. Be awake. Do not put off the opening of your life to God.

Denial and postponement have been strong patterns in our lives especially in the matter of our sins. We try to hide the dirt under the carpet. Admission and reform are hard to come by. We project, we accuse, we complain, we evade, we distract ourselves.

The challenge of Advent is not to pretend. Let us get real. Here. Now. We need first to stop everything we have been busy about during this time of the year. Let us retreat in silence and prayer to prepare to face the Lord in the dark and sinful places of our hearts. Only through an honest soul searching that we can make real the need for God. Only through a sincere confession of our sins that we can make real God’s coming into our lives.

Let us never stop watching for you, O  Lord. Let us experience your return in glory. Here. Now.


[1] St. Augustine, Sermon 18, 1-2: PL 38, 128-29

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

looking at the sky

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER: LIVING AS A RESURRECTED COMMUNITY

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Eight days have passed since Easter. But the conditions we are living today seem like we are still in the Lenten season. With the quarantine and lockdown, we are relegated to stay home and distanced ourselves physically from each other. The poor suffer the most as they experienced hunger from the loss of day-to-day income.

Nevertheless, we have 40 more days to go to celebrate and ponder on the meaning of Jesus’ and our resurrection. How are we living the spirit of Easter during these difficult times? The question is not just on a personal level but more so on a communal level. How 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. The times after Jesus’ resurrection are no different from the times we live now. The early Christians lived in constant fear because of persecution from both the Jewish and Roman authorities. The Christians were also one of the most oppressed and poorest sectors in those times.

Despite the many miseries and difficulties, the early Christians lived out the spirit of resurrection. Our readings today gives us some clues on how the early Christians lived as a community of the resurrection.

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. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed not as private individuals but as individuals interconnected with one another, in other words, Jesus died and resurrected for us as a community.

The apostles after the resurrection, despite their fear and misery, 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.

The word used in Greek to describe the life of the early Christian church is koinonia. It is a derivative of koinos, the Greek word for common. The word has such a multitude of meanings that no single English word is adequate to express its depth and richness. It can mean either one or all of the following: fellowship, partnership, sharing, friendship, relationship, solidarity, and communion.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the word, prayer, eucharist and material goods.

All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the word: The early Church regularly listened to the proclamation of the Word by the apostles. They constantly reflected on the word of God in the light of their situation.

The early Church lived in koinonia of prayer: The early Church regularly prayed together both in good times and bad times. They regularly prayed for each other.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the eucharist: The early Church always gathered in the temple area and in their homes for the “breaking of the bread”–the earlist term they used for the eucharist. They faithfully fulfilled Jesus’ words: Do this in remembrance of me.

The early Church lived in koinonia of material goods: The early Church had all things in common. They sold their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.

Even if one has a deep personal relationship with God, to live the resurrection, therefore, is not to live alone, but to live in communion with fellow believers in prayer, sharing of goods, proclaiming the Word of God and celebrating the Eucharist.

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.

EASTER VIGIL: WE ARE AN EASTER PEOPLE

ressurection

Tonight is the final day of our triduum which we celebrate through the liturgy of Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil, the mother of all liturgies, is the most beautiful and the longest liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church.

This is the most blessed and most joyful night of the year as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. This is the night when Jesus redeemed us from the slavery of sin and all the destructive elements of our life to a life of freedom. This is the night when the light of God encompasses over the darkness of sin. As proclaimed in the Exultet or Easter Proclamation sung just after we took our places following processing in from the Easter fire.

This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!
This is the night when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
Night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth,
and we are reconciled to you!

At Easter vigil, we do not just look up to Jesus and proclaim, He is risen! On Easter vigil, we will also proclaim to ourselves: I am resurrection, you are resurrection, and we are resurrection. As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song! We are the children of Easter morn. We are redeemed by Christ from death and sin. This is our deepest and truest identity as a people. We celebrate and proclaim this most solemn truth in the Easter Vigil through the renewal of our baptism.

Indeed, Jesus wants to raise all of us into new life but sometimes we don’t want to be raised up. We stay imprisoned within ourselves, and entombed in our old ways which gives us false security. Or perhaps, we have allowed people to continue to pull us down to the pit of hell with them. We have created many tombs in our lives. We have allowed many things in our lives which kills our spirit, hardens our hearts and freezes our will so we remain dead. We have chosen this part—to remain in hell and remain dead. The saddest thing is when we have become comfortable in hell. And we don’t want to get out of hell anymore.

Thus, even though Jesus has risen, sometimes the world does not want so much to believe as many of us do not live as victorious and resurrected people. The German atheist philosopher, Frederich Nietszhe, once said, “I might have been able to believe in the message of Christ if Christians looked  resurrected.”

Ours is an Easter religion. We do not deny our own frailties and failures. We do not deny the evils that surround us: the wars that have killed some 100 million people in our (last) century; the poverty that grips more than half of the human race; the hunger that kills millions every year and ruins the lives of millions more; the discrimination that divides the human family into contending parties; the pandemic that has killed thousands and brought misery to millions of people all over the world.

We do not deny these miseries, but we refuse to surrender to their power because of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sinfulness will be transformed; suffering will be vindicated; death will be overcome; a new life will arise: that is the Easter message of the paschal mystery.

Tonight, the most important of all nights for our faith, we call upon Jesus to open and break the gates of hell in our lives. Let us ask Jesus to “harvest” our spirits deadened by  the shackles of hell we have made for ourselves. Let us call Jesus who has risen to arouse us out of the tomb of our selfishness, apathy, pride, insecurity, fear, anxiety, and many other death-giving and pathetic mindsets. Like Jesus may we rise up to start anew and recreate our lives and our world under the blessings of God’s abundant grace.

“Let us feast with joy in the Lord.” Just as Christ passed through death to resurrection, so too will we and the whole world pass through its suffering to the glory of a new life.

So now, let us rise up with Jesus, and live out our risen life!

Happy Easter!

 

BLACK SATURDAY: CHRIST’S WORK CONTINUES

harrowing of hell

We usually associate Black Saturday as the day when God did nothing because God is dead. And so in the church, there is no Eucharist. Today is mostly a day of silence, sitting, and waiting. That’s how it is the morning after the burial.

But far from doing nothing, God is doing a very important mission.

Holy Saturday is when Christ descended into hell. In hell, Jesus was busy rescuing people from death and sharing with them the victory of his resurrection. We always recite in the creed every Sunday mass that after Jesus died on the cross “he descended into hell”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this:

By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devil “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14) [#636]. In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him [#637].

Even in death, Jesus was at work. Death did not stop the mission of Jesus’ redemption. On the contrary, death unleash the final act of Jesus’ redemption–Jesus destroying death not just for himself but for all humanity.

Jesus’ mission in hell is wonderfully depicted in an icon more popular in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. This is the icon of Harrowing of Hell.[1] Although this icon is not popular in the Western tradition today, the message of this icon was commonly proclaimed in the ancient and medieval period of Western Christianity by many church fathers like Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and many others. Harrowing is an old English word which means harvesting. Thus, we can also call this icon as the harvesting of souls in hell.

In the icon, we see Jesus standing on the broken gate of hell. Hell is the dark pit at the bottom of the icon. In some icons, we can even see angels binding Satan in hell. Then we see Jesus pulling two figures up out of hell. This is Adam and Eve, imprisoned in hell since their deaths; imprisoned, along with all humanity, due to sin. Eve is generally depicted in a red robe. On both sides of the icon are figures from the Old Testament like Abel, King David, Moses, prophets and many others waiting for Jesus to rescue them from hell. We can also see broken locks and keys used by Jesus to unlock the tombs of those souls living in hell.

The message of the icon is also beautifully expressed in an ancient homily, of unknown authorship, usually entitled The Lord’s Descent into the Underworld that is the second reading at Office of Readings on Holy Saturday .

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

As we prepare for the great commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection at Easter Vigil tonight, let us continue to prepare ourselves to rise up with Jesus in victory.

Here’s a video explanation of the Icon of Christ’s Resurrection


 

[1]Joel J. Miller, “The harrowing of hell and the victory of Christ,” Patheos, March 30, 2013. Accessed 25/03.2018 at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joeljmiller/2013/03/the-victory-of-christ-and-the-harrowing-of-hell/

3RD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: FROM WORLDLY JOY TO DIVINE JOY

divine joy

There’s always a different feeling whenever the Christmas season starts. It evokes an indescribable feeling of profound joy, excitement and longing.

Indeed, Christmas is the season of joy. It is the season of festivities: Christmas parties, eating, drinking, exchange gifts, Christmas carols, family reunions, etc. All these celebrations and rejoicing give us plenty of joys, even if fleeting, to escape and forget the pain and sorrow in life.

There is a far greater joy in Christmas, however, than all our wordly joys.  Christmas is the sublime event when God’s joy entered into our joys. In order to fully experience the joy of Christmas we need to give way to God’s joy or to elevate our joys into divine joy.  The joy of God must increase and the joy of the world must decrease. Our joys must give way to the biggest joy – the coming of our saviour Jesus Christ. As in one of my most well-loved Christmas Carols, Joy to the World!

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing

This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin word for rejoice. Gaudete Sunday invites us to partake with divine joy as God became one among us. The readings for this 3rd Sunday of Advent describes for us the meaning of divine joy.

In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah prophesy about the joy when the Messiah comes:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

In the Gospel Reading, when John the Baptist in captivity sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether Jesus is the one the Israelites have been waiting for, Jesus says they should tell John what they hear and see:

the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

Christmas is the profound event when our joys are wedded to God’s joy, as the song goes, “when heaven and nature sing.” We elevate our wordly joys into divine joy when we truly experience God’s immersion into the messiest and muddiest experiences of our humanity. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Christmas is not the time to escape and forget our pains and sorrows but rather to confront and find God in the dirtiest and messiest of our realities. Christmas is the time to experience Jesus’ liberation from our captivities and live with joy at our being released from our fears, blindness, deafness and leprosy.

The coming of the Lord is both exciting and demanding. We are all in captivity to the familiar, to our ways, to our expectations.  Jesus is changing, rearranging us, our values, our ways of seeing, listening, living. Christmas joy is the Lord Jesus Christ walking with us as we take small and steady steps in reforming our lives and transforming the world we live in.

 

1ST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: SEIZE THE DAY

woman-carrying-baby-at-beach-during-sunset-51953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vespers with Atheneum Students
Saturday, 30 November 2013

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

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

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

What can you seize today?