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.”
In the gospel (John 21: 1 – 11) of today’s Monday of the Holy Week, Jesus, after his grand arrival in Jerusalem, withdrew from the crowd and spent Sunday night quietly in the house of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus at Bethany, the village at the foot of Mount Olives. Jesus may have sensed his impending suffering and death and chose to spend the last moments of his life in companionship with his friends. Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The siblings gladly received Him in their house and offered Him and his disciples a special dinner.
John 21: 2 says, “So they gave a dinner for him there.” We can interpret this as a celebration of the resurrection of Lazarus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus “gave” him this dinner. This is a thank you dinner to Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. This is not just an ordinary evening meal among friends. Its focus is on Jesus and his amazing power in raising Lazarus from the dead. And Lazarus is right there reclining at the table: “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.”
Since this is a dinner to honor and thank Jesus for his gift of life, Mary will now make her presentation. Perhaps the whole family planned this moment. Perhaps they pooled their savings to buy this gift. Or perhaps it is a hugely valuable family heirloom that has been passed on for years, and now the time has come to pour it out.
Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Martha’s role was to thank Jesus by seeing to the details of the dinner, and Mary’s role was to thank Jesus by pouring this expensive ointment out on Jesus. In both these ways they would express their wonder and joy and thanks for the greatness of Jesus and his grace and power to raise Lazarus from the dead.
But Judas speaks up with unbelievable disregard for what Mary has done. Verse 4:
Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages
and given to the poor?”
If Judas wasn’t exaggerating, this eleven-ounce flask of nard was worth about $25,000 (three hundred twelve-hour days at minimum wage, a denarius was a simple, full day’s wage). Judas’s scheme of values was so deeply different from Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s that in a few days he would do the opposite of giving $25,000 for Jesus: he would sell him for a thousand dollars (thirty pieces of silver).
John tells us in verse 6 what is really in Judas’s heart:
He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.
Now Jesus responds to Judas to leave Mary alone.
“Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Jesus appreciated the tremendous love behind Mary’s action and saw it as a symbolical anointing for his burial. Dying as a common criminal, Jesus would normally not have been anointed. (And, in fact, he was not anointed after his burial; when the women went to do the act on Sunday morning, Jesus was already risen.)
A few days later after this incident, Jesus will do the same loving service for his disciples, washing their feet before the last supper. Up to the very end of his life, Jesus, showed that we can find the greatest meaning of our lives through servanthood. The pinnacle of this servanthood is Jesus’ giving his own life on the cross.
What can we learn from this beautiful story as we enter Holy Week?
Holy week is the preparation for the resurrection of Jesus. The siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ hearts were full of wonder, gratitude and joy for Jesus who raised Lazarus into new life. Their overflowing affection was demonstrated in their lavish offering of special dinner and Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with a very expensive perfume. These days of Holy Week, indeed, is more of a celebration of the joy and wonder of Jesus’ resurrection inasmuch as it is a commeration of his passion and death.
But in order to fully participate in Jesus’ resurrection we need to pass through suffering and death with him. Jesus showed us what it means to suffer and die with him through a life of servanthood. He showed this not just on the cross but during the anointing and washing of disciples’ feet at the last supper. This was also demonstrated by Mary in today’s gospel when she anointed Jesus’ feet. Anointing has always been a symbol of being chosen and sent on a mission–a life of discipleship and service.
In commemoration of this beautiful experience in Jesus’ life, Catholic dioceses all over the world, gather together with all the priest and the bishop at a Mass called the Chrism Mass. Obviously this cannot be done today in all the dioceses given the unfortunate circumstances of the lockdown.
During the Chrism Mass, the bishop consecrates the sacred oils to be used in the sacraments of Baptism, Anointing, and Holy Orders. Each parish receives its annual supply of these oils at the Chrism Mass, which in some dioceses is celebrated on the Monday of Holy Week. The chrism in these sacraments is a symbol of our participation in the paschal mystey of Jesus–his life, death and resurrection.
As we begin Holy Week, we are called to prepare and participate in the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We are not here this week just to be mere spectators. We are to be part of the work, which the Paschal Mystery of Jesus inaugurated.Like Mary, we can be part of Jesus’ passing over from death to new life by becoming God’s servant. We, too, are to be servants, ready, if necessary, to suffer as Jesus did for the sake of our brothers and sisters.
We are now on our 6th Simbang Gabi or, as I call it, Christmas academy.
I hope our reflections in this Christmas academy continue to deepen your understanding of the original meaning of the Christmas story–the incarnation of Jesus.
We continue the gospel reading from Luke from yesterday’s text. As soon as the Archangel departed from Nazareth, Mary was no longer the same woman as before. She was radically transformed. The first thing that the newly transformed Mary did was to embark on a journey, to go on a mission. The annunciation experience was too great to bear alone. She couldnt pass on this event not to share the good news. This life-changing event also inspired Mary to serve and be available for her elderly cousin, Elizabeth who despite her old age, was pregnant, likewise, through the grace of God.
The Angel didn’t command Mary to go to help her cousin Elizabeth. He didn’t even suggest that it would be a good thing for her to go. He just stated the fact that Elizabeth was pregnant and that was enough for Mary to spring into action.
Most of us take for granted that the journey Mary took to reach Elizabeth was a long and arduous journey. Many of us only focus on the spiritual side of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth but fail to appreciate the equally significant physical dimension of the visit. Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth covered a distance of between 128 and 160 kilometers. She took off from Nazareth, a Galilean city west of the Sea of Galilee and travelled to Ein Karem, the Judean village where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In Mary’s day, a person traveling by foot could cover about 32 kilometers per day. If Mary walked to Elizabeth’s home, it would have taken her four to five days straight. If she accompanied a caravan, she would have arrived in about three days. Luke does not mention whether Mary may have gone on foot or as part of a caravan. We don’t know if she traveled alone or whether St. Joseph accompanied her, or SS. Anne or Joachim.
In any case, such a journey would have been dangerous, especially for a young girl alone. By embarking on this journey, Mary demonstrated her courage as well as her desire for confirmation of God’s plan. She overcome any fear she may have had about surrendering to God’s call on her life or facing the possible danger involved in confirming his will. Such complete surrender freed her to act in confidence.
At the sight of Elizabeth, Mary’s tiredness were turned to joy and greeted Elizabeth, very likely “shalom,” which means peace in Hebrew. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greetings, three joyful things happened: John the Baptist leaped in her womb, Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and burst out saying:
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary was able to bring incredible joy to Elizabeth and to the fetal John the Baptist, because she was bringing Christ. The Holy Spirit inspired Elizabeth to bless Mary among all women because of the blessed fruit of her womb and because of her faith that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled. In other words, she was blessed because of Jesus and because of her faith in her embryonic saviour and son.
In going to Ein Karim, Mary became the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News–the official term, theotokos–which is the first title accorded to her by mother church. Despite being pregnant with Jesus, the word incarnate (logos), in her womb, she journeys through the hill country to the town of Juda. English theologian John Saward refers to this image of Mary on her journey to Elizabeth as the “Logos carrying Virgin.” In this journey, Mary became the first disciple and missionary of the Logos (Word). Indeed she is the Theotokos—bearer of God in our world.
What is this story telling us about Christmas?
Christmas is not just a celebration but also a call to mission. The incarnation of Jesus overflows with life, joy and goodness that it cannot be kept just to ourselves. Furthermore, the Chrismas spirit should not be lived only at this time of the year. As the song goes, araw-araw ay magiging pasko lagi (everyday will always be Christmas). And another Christmas song goes, at magbuhat ngayon, kahit hindi pasko ay magbigayan (from now on, even though it’s not Chrismas, we should give to one to another).
The Christmas spirit must be lived, shared and proclaimed to others, to the whole world, throughout the year. Like Mary, we are all called to be Theotokos—God-bearers. We need to share the good news of Emmanuel, God is with us, not just with our lips but also with our feet, with all our heart and soul. We need to share the good news that our lives is “impregnated” with God despite all the despair, gloom and hardships, our sinfulness and the messines of our lives.
In response to Elizabeth greetings, Mary, filled with the Spirit, will break out into that wonderful hymn of praise that we call the Magnificat, a hymn that will proclaim the message of liberation Jesus will later deliver by word and action. We will see this tomorrow.
The Christmas story continues … Abangan ang susunod na kabanata, bukas! (watch out for the next chapter tomorrow).
 John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), 120.
In more recent years, the Baclaran shrine has emphasized the integration and coherence of devotion and mission. This is encapsulated in what we call debo(mi)syon—a concatenation of two words: debosyon (devotion) and misyon (mission) which conveys the oneness of devotion and mission. A statement of commitment by the Redemptorists, lay missionaries, staff and volunteers of the shrine articulates this:
We the Redemptorists, lay missionaries, staff and volunteers of the National Shrine of OMPH promise to make our Mother Mary known by being a help to our fellowmen/women especially to the needy as a an expression of the living of devotion and mission for Jesus Christ.
In the spirit of debo(mi)syon, the shrine tried to enlighten the devotees that devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not an end in itself; devotion does not stop within the walls of the shrine. Devotion is essentially connected to their daily life’s struggles and aspirations. Devotion constantly flows into the mundane and banal reality of their daily life. Devotion can be a force for transformation within themselves and society, in this case, devotion becomes mission.
In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus was recruiting people along the way on his journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. He used tough language (“Let the dead bury their dead,” etc.) in calling would-be followers. In today’s gospel of the 14th Sunday in ordinary time, he is giving army-like instructions to seventy-two disciples on how they should act when they journey to the towns
Where did this seventy two come from? (Only Luke gives the account of the sending of of seventy or seventy-two. The other synoptic evangelists Mark and Matthew only mention the sending of the twelve.) Perhaps, Jesus’ relentless recruitment blitz along the road has apparently bore fruit. Despite his tough language, many were attracted to his message and followed him. And now he has an army of followers.
A significant lesson here is the fact that these people were just called by Jesus but now are being sent by Jesus. They are supposed to be training, learning and studying still under their master, but Jesus sent them already. Jesus knew that they still has got plenty to learn. But isn’t experience and action the best way to learn?
Being a disciple is also being an apostle. For Jesus he sees no dichotomy among those he called between their being called and being sent. They are called and sent both and at the same time. This is true also for all of us Christians, we are a disciple and apostle at the same time. While learning to be a disciple is a lifetime process, being an apostle is a daily challenge.
This is very important because many of us think and behave like they are just being called but not sent. They see their faith and spirituality as being called to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to be close to Jesus. So prayer, devotions and receiving the sacraments is enough for them. They overlook the fact that having a personal relationship with Jesus also entails living out his mission, going out into the world and participating in the building of the Kingdom of God. By understanding faith merely as called to have a personal relationship with Jesus, they neglect one of the most essential dimension of the life of Jesus and our faith–mission.
The importance of mission is reiterated by Jesus in his intro to his calling of the seventy-two:
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest.”
Imagining the mission as a harvest reminds us that mission is initiated by God, not simply a human project. It is not the disciples (and therefore not the Church) that initiate the mission. In spreading the Good News, we participate in something God is doing.
One of the most significant realization in theology during the last century was the notion of Missio Dei (Mission of God). Mission is, first and foremost, the work of God. God is the source, means and end of missions. As George Vicedom argued, “Missio Dei means first of all … is God’s work. He is the Lord, the commissioner, the owner, the one who accomplishes the task. He is the acting subject of mission. If we attribute mission to God in this way, it is withdrawn from every human whim.”
Jesus sent them to travel from one city to another, by foot, without money or other provisions. It’s a little bit funny that am reminded of all the heavy stuff we take when we go on a mission to a remote barrio.
Go on your way;
behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;
and greet no one along the way, etc.
No one in their right mind would travel the Palestinian roads staffless, bagless, and unshod. Without a staff you are defenseless. Without a bag of some kind, you have no way of carrying a change of clothes or some bread for the road. And no matter how tough your feet are, you can’t run from danger on that rocky terrain without something on your feet. The point Jesus is trying to drive at is that we should be people who trust in God for our defense and who depend on the hospitality of others for our sustenance, and most importantaly, nothing whatsoever should divert our focus on God’s mission.
This is also a challenge Jesus gives to us today. It is perhaps even harder as a challenge for us today than for the disciples in the time of Jesus. Because society today presents too many attractions and unwanteed needs, Jesus admonition to “travel light” is extra tough. But there is great wisdom in Jesus’ instruction that we need to hearken: We should live a little more trustingly in God’s divine providence than the culture around us. We should exhibit a higher sense of purpose that clearly goes beyond producing and consuming goods and getting entertained.
Jesus, however, doesn’t leave the disciples completely helpless. He gives them power. Sometimes it was not effective (Lk 9:40), but in today’s story it seems to have been very effective. They can cure sicknesses and cast out devils. The seventy-two come back rejoicing in their power: “Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!” (Lk 10:17).
Jesus saw in this, the temptation for the disciples to seek power rather than the grace of God. Jesus rebukes them for it. Don’t rejoice in your power, he tells them; rejoice rather in the fact that you will be united to God in heaven.
Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you,
but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
There is an even more significant joy for the missionary: prior to their mission, they had been admitted to the privilege of partaking in the fullness of salvation in the end. When they forget that, they are tempted to think that the mission is their own cause and that the success is their own achievement.
Life is a calling. We are not just born in this world to exist but to live with a purpose, a mission, a calling. There is a word–vocation–which is usually associated with religious vocation but can be applied to all. Vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare, to call. Everybody has a vocation.
Vocation is not only an ambition or a career that we want to pursue in the future. Vocation is a higher calling than ambition or a career. We have seen this in the lives of great people, saints and heroes. They learned to get out of their ordinary lives in response to a higher and more noble cause, a greater good other than their own personal agenda. The source of the call is either God, or country, or justice or a morally right cause which led them to sacrifice their lives for the greater good.
The readings for today’s 13th Sunday in ordinary time are stories of God’s calling certain individuals to go beyond their ordinary existence.
In the First Reading, Elisha is called by the Lord to be the helper and successor of the prophet Elijah. Elisha, however, wanted to kiss his mother and father goodbye first. The prophet Elijah challenged Elisha’s playing for time. In response, Elisha kills all his family’s oxen; then he uses their yokes for firewood to roast the oxen, and he gives the flesh to his servants to eat. Elisha made sure that he can’t go home now. How could he, after what he did to the family oxen and their yokes?
In the Gospel, Jesus called many people along the way to follow him but challenged them to transcend their ordinary plans and ambitions:
To another he said, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Answering God’s call is in no way contrary to developing our talents and pursuing our creative path. But the highest fulfillment of our gifts and talents is not for ourselves but for the love of God, our neighbor and ourselves. In other words, if we wish to fulfill our vocation as Christians we must all become selfless servants and lovers. Whenever we are inclined to seek for ourselves wealth, prestige, popularity, and position, it is no longer about vocation but ambition and power.
It is a sad reality that for many of our young people in our country today, the main aspiration is getting out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Many young people, especially in a third world country like the Philippines, dream of freeing their family from the shackles of poverty even if this would mean taking a path that is not what they truly want and aspire. Thus, many in their present work or profession are not happy or something inside of them is saying that this is not the way they would wish to become someday but they have no choice because they need to survive. The economic plight has stifled their creativity and worst of all the very nature of what they want to become.
Another big factor that may inhibit us from pursuing a higher calling is the postmodern culture. Postmodernism has created a “me” society where the interests of the individual takes precedence over the interests of the country or social group or religion. The autonomous individual becomes the measure of all things. The focus is on oneself, one’s own personal development, apart from one’s community and society.
In a world which apparently has no one to follow, it has become tougher to offer a way of life anchored on following Christ. In this age where traditional sources of meaning are being questioned by today’s generation, the very purpose of vocation has become harder to live out and has stirred some inner confusion and emptiness.
These threat and challenges should not, however, deter us from discovering our deepest calling, pursuing our noblest aspirations and achieving our fullest human maturity. The material, commercial and individualist milieu does not invalidate nor diminish the integrity of vocation as living life to the fullest in a life of service and sacrifice.
In a globalized world, the biggest challenge is to continue to proclaim the liberating Gospel which gives us a meaningful way to set people free from the slavery to money, power and fame. In a highly individualized world, the biggest challenge is to continue to proclaim that only in Jesus Christ can we be true individuals, fully human and fully alive. Living out the true meaning of vocation is not to fulfill our calling in isolation but in communion with others and with God.
Birthdays are a wonderful occasion to celebrate and go back to who we truly are, our beginnings and our own unique mission. However messy and crazy our lives have been, despite all the mistakes and failures we have made, birthdays reminds us that life is precious, we are good and God love us so much. A birthday, therefore, is an important and momentous occasion to celebrate, reflect and give thanks.
Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the birthday of the Church. Pentecost Sunday reminds us of the foundation the church–the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We commemorate on Pentecost the formal inauguration of the church through the coming down of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles likes balls of fire. Immediately the spirit-empowered apostles went out of their room into the city square and were on fire in proclaiming the good news. The birthday of the church were spent not inside the church but in the streets, going out to the people, speaking their language that they too may discover the spirit of God actively moving them towards fullness of life in Jesus. Indeed, the birthday of the church depicts a church-in-mission.
The Holy Spirit re-created the disciples. The disciples became bold and daring. Compare the apostles before and after Pentecost, oh what a difference the Spirit makes! From timid they became bold, from lethargic they became energetic and from fearful they became courageous – all for the sake of the good news of Jesus.
Pentecost reminds us of that our true identity as church is that we are Spirit led. The church is not ultimately led by the Pope, the bishops and the hierarchy of the church. It is the Holy Spirit–sent by the Father and the Son–who leads the church in every generation in its ministry of proclaiming and living the good news of the Kingdom of God.
It is, therefore, fitting and opportune, on this day of Pentecost to reflect on our identity as a Spirit-led Church. American Professor of Theology, Roger Olson, shares some thoughts of what a Spirit-led Church is:
A Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church will be alive, “crackling” with energy and passion, without fanatical extremism that focuses attention on ecstatic experiences rather than on the grace and glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Its people will come to worship and other meetings with excited expectation and not out of a sense of duty or with unhealthy fear. In a truly Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church visitors will come to see what God is doing among them. They will testify that “God is busy” (Hauerwas) there. Lives will be transformed in noticeable ways.
Such a church will be open to the “sovereign unpredictability of the Spirit” (Du Plessis) even as it celebrates tradition. This requires risk on the part leadership; leadership will leave space for the Spirit to move and work in ways that transcend traditional forms.
Such a church will lay all decisions before God for guidance and direction and move only through consensus of the spiritually mature people of God within the church. It will not be led by a dictatorial individual or small group that serves his, her or their interests.
Finally, such a church will be outwardly-focused with a strong sense of participation in the mission of God in the world. It will expend much of its energy and resources on meeting the spiritual and material needs of the communities outside the church. 
Today the Spirit continues to lead us, the church, to guide us, to shake us out of our complacencies, to disturb us out of our passiveness, to empower us to speak the language of today in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. But do we listen? Are we like the early church who always sought the direction of the Holy Spirit, who discerned always where the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives and work?
In today’s chaotic, hostile and terror stricken world, the temptation for the church is to freeze in fear and be content solely with its own security and self-preservation. Worst is to rely more on our human capacity and wisdom rather than on the surprises and creativity of the Holy Spirit. This is not the church of Pentecost. Pope Francis has said about the church of Pentecost,
“She is a Church that doesn’t hesitate to go out, meet people, proclaim the message that’s been entrusted to her, even if that message disturbs or unsettles the conscience.”
Despite all its craziness and messiness, God will re-create the world through the Holy Spirit. “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Isaiah 43:18, Isaiah 43:19, Revelation 21:5, Isaiah 65:17, Ephesians 2: 15). We have in need more now of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We need a new Pentecost, as St. John XXIII prayed in preparation for the Second Vatican Council in 1962, “Renew Your wonders, O God, in our day — as in a new Pentecost!”
Let us celebrate the birthday of the church today by being fully open to the promptings of the Spirit. Let us ask the Holy Spirit, to recreate us once again so that we may become creative and brave in proclaiming the gospel in every language, in every avenue of communication, in every culture and in every situation we find ourselves today.
“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”
We celebrate today the Ascension of the Lord Sunday. 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 and underrated 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). By resting on the cloud as Jesus ascended, 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. As Australian Redemptorist Fr. Anthony Kelly, CSsR states,
The ascended Jesus has not disappeared or been dissolved in a celestial ether, but is ever present to the faith of the church in the here-and-now of the community’s life. The ending of his particular kind of terrestrial presence has yielded to a new kind of universal presence, reaching to all places, times, and peoples. (1)
Belief in Christ’s ascension opens for us the experience of faith and the life of the Church as limitless. Kelly adds that the ascension reminds us that the mission of evangelization is unconfined, always moving beyond, upward, outward, in the vitality of the risen Christ who already occupies every dimension of time and space. Properly understood, the ascension is a fundamental aspect of the catholicity of faith and enables us to breathe more deeply in the experience of “the boundless riches of Christ.” As Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr said, we are already in the presence of God, what is absent is awareness.
Jesus’ ascension is not a departure from his disciples and for all the disciples which forms the church in every generation. Jesus’ ascension was an expression of a new relationship with him, the risen One, that transcends physical barriers. Now, instead of accompanying us here on earth in his ministry, we are “clothed with power from on high” to be his presence and continue his mission. Jesus empowered us to be “witnesses of these things,” the wonderful things that Jesus did and said about the boundless blessings of God’s kingdom.
(1) Anthony Kelly, Upward: Faith, Church, and the Ascension of Christ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 2.
The second Sunday of Easter is called by many names. First, it is called the Octave Day of Easter since it is the eight day after Easter. It is also called Thomas Sunday because of the story of Thomas in the gospel today. It also called Quasimodo Sunday and Quasimodogeniti. On 30 April 2000, it was also designated as Divine Mercy Sunday by Pope John Paul II.
Eight days have passed since Easter and we have 40 more days to go to celebrate and ponder on the meaning of Jesus’ and our resurrection. Are we living as a community of the resurrection?
The readings for today’s second Sunday of Easter reflect on the qualities of a living community of the resurrection. Our readings today give a lot of clues.
First clue: The Community as Signs and Wonders of God
In the first reading we hear about how the early Christian communities witnessed the resurrection. Let’s hear it directly from Luke in his book the Acts of the Apostles
Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.
The early church after the resurrection of Jesus performed many signs and wonders through the leadership of the apostles. The apostles continued the divinely empowered ministry of Jesus (soon to be illustrated by the healing of the lame man through Peter and John [Acts 3ff]).
Because of this, new converts were “added.” It was God who added them; it was not the Church that added new members. The new converts did not become members on their own, but God brought them into the redeemed community.
Second Clue: Living the Resurrection not as Individuals but as a Community
It is always heartwarming to hear that Jesus died and resurrected for me. But Jesus died and resurrected not for you and me alone or exclusively for you and me. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed not as private individuals but as an individuals interconnected with one another, in other words, as a community.
The apostles after the resurrection, did not go on their own but gathered and lived together as a community. After the resurrection, they were able to regain their strength because they came out of isolation and regroup. Although each of them had their own mission territory to go to, they never saw their mission as individual mission but the mission of the whole body of Christ.
Our faith, the Judeo-Christian faith has always been a community affair. At the Exodus from Egypt it was not an individual, nor a group of individuals, but a community, a people, which was delivered from slavery and led to the promised land. The Old Testament is not primarily concerned with the relationships between YHWH and individual Israelites, but with the relationship between YHWH and Israel. The very work ekklesia which the New Testament uses for ‘church’ comes from the Greek Old Testament where it is used to describe the whole ‘assembly’ of Israel.
Third Clue: A community forgiven and redeemed by Jesus also forgives and redeem others in Jesus’ name.
After the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples were still living in fear and despair. In the evening of Easter, the disciples were huddled in the cenacle afraid to go out because they are terrified of the Jews (John 20:19). The disciples were perhaps thinking that, if they had done this to our beloved master, how much more to us, his ordinary disciples.
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…
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.
 The name Quasimodo came from the Latin text of the traditional Introit for this day, which begins “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” from 1 Peter 2:2, roughly translated as “As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile…”. from Catholic Encyclopedia listing for Low Sunday.
“And when the angels said, ‘O Mary!
Indeed God has chosen you, and purified you,
and has chosen you above all other women of the worlds.
O Mary! Be devoutly obedient to your Lord
and prostrate and bow with those bow.’”
– Qur’an 3:42-43
The biggest and most tragic news last week was the carnage of Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last March 15, 2019. An Australian gunman with white supremacist background went on a rampage in two mosques, the biggest massacre in New Zealand’s modern history. According to police, 50 people were killed and 50 injured. The victims were targeted as they gathered at the mosques for Friday prayers.
This tragic incident show that Islamophobia is on the rise and has been for some time. British political commentator, Ayesha Hazarika claims that Muslims have been demonized, dehumanized and scapegoated on an industrial scale by society since 9/11.
In the light of this event, this short essay explores some relevant points about Mary and our devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and its relationship with the Muslim community and the Islam faith. Through this, the essay hopes to inspire some concrete actions towards dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. Indeed, Mary is key to ecumenism not just with Islam but with other faiths.
Arrival of Muslims at Baclaran
Outside the shrine, there are many Muslim vendors selling all sorts of wares—clothes, electronics, housewares, even Catholic religious articles like rosaries, statutes, novena booklets and other religious materials. Most of these Muslim traders came from the provinces in Mindanao, the island in the south of the Philippines that has the largest Muslim population in the country. The Muslim traders began to arrive in the 1990s. In due course, some Muslim settlers invested in established stalls (puwesto) and matched medium-and-large-scale business enterprises owned by other merchants in the area. A considerable number, however, remained as street vendors due to lack of sufficient capital.
After the trade came the mosques. Four mosques were constructed within 500 meters from the shrine. The earliest mosque is the Masjid Abdullah, built in 1978; the next to be built is Masjid Rajah Sulayman in 1995. Masjid Al-Nur in Brgy. 79 of Pasay City came next in 1998, while Masjid Al-Wasat, located a few meters away from Baclaran Barangay Hall at the shrine’s northern part, was completed in 2009. At present, only three mosques exist. The Masjid Rajah Sulayman which sat on a reclaimed land on Roxas Boulevard just south of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, overlooking Manila Bay was demolished by the government in 2013. The government’s reason for the demolition was the tenants’ lack of legal ownership of the site and an ordinance to widen city streets and prevent pickpocketing and violence in the area.
The shrine has maintained a relationship of peaceful co-existence with the Muslim community in Baclaran in the past. Besides small attempts at reaching out, there was no substantial effort towards dialogue between the shrine and the Muslim community. I do not know why no substantial dialogue between the Baclaran shrine community and Muslim community occurred. The best reason I can offer is that both sides did not know where and how to begin.
Nevertheless, this is a big challenge for both parties now and in the future. Because of the large number of Muslim community, the Baclaran shrine has the potential to become a center for Christian-Muslim dialogue in the country. In this endeavor, Our Mother of Perpetual Help (OMPH) can play a vital part in the dialogue with the Muslims. OMPH can be a vital part because Mary is also greatly revered by the Muslims.
Marian Shrines of Ecumenism
An interesting phenomenon in some countries particularly in Asia where there are shrine for OMPH is non-Christians praying before the Icon of OMPH. This is true in Singapore, India (Bombay), and the Philippines. In the Novena church in Singapore, for example, Singaporean Redemptorist Fr. Gerard Louis reports that 20 to 25% of those who attend the Novena are non-Catholics, people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Among all Catholic churches in Singapore, they only go to the Novena church. They only go for the novena not for the mass and other church sacraments and services. Some new Catholics, however, have come to faith and Baptism through the Novena Devotions.
Another Marian shrine in Asia is the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni. It is one of the most frequented religious sites in India, where Hindus, Muslims and Christian from all over India congregate in large numbers and worship in harmony. Hundreds of miraculous cures are reported every year. Centuries of devotion to Mother Mary both by Hindus and Christians have evolved an amalgamation of practices borrowing elements from both religions.
Here in Baclaran, there is no exact figure or percentage of how many non-Catholics pray the novena. From time to time, though, the phenomenon has received some admiration from other Christian denomination. For example, Jullian Robin Sibi said that Baclaran is one of those spots where you have to go to even though you are not Catholic. Andy Dierickx, who identifies himself as a Protestant Christian, sincerely admires the devotees’ dedication despite the fact that he does not approve of every practice they do:
Let me preface my comment by saying as a ‘protestant Christian’ (for want of a better label) there are many things I don’t understand about the Roman Catholic Church. Novenas, rosaries, praying to statuary and knee-walking are just some of the things I don’t comprehend. Lately I have been a bit outspoken on the subject and have offended loved ones in the process. On reflection I pray and ask forgiveness for that. I may never understand the rituals and practices, but I cannot question the devotion of the devotees of the OMPH Church. They sit and sweat and kneel and sweat when they could be in SM or home in front of the aircon! If some of my fellow Christians could have half of that fervor it would be amazing. While I could never subscribe to the Catholic precepts and ideology I pay respect to the beautiful folk who gather at Baclaran each Wednesday. Next time I am in town I might just drop in and sweat with you.
Ben Hernandez, a non-Christian, left a comment on the Baclaran FB page in July 2, 2017: “I am not a Christian but, as l have said in my wall post, Baclaran Church truly reflects our Filipino culture, values and heritage.”
Conflict in the Time of Ecumenism
We live at a time where there is a growing movement of dialogue among religions and faiths. The increasing calls and efforts for interreligious dialogue continue to break down walls of prejudice and intolerance. Fiore describes today’s global world as a world where one in seven people lives outside his/her place of origin; a world where cultures meet, spiritualities compete, and we are left wondering what to do with the faith we have received as an inheritance. The world is heading towards greater openness beyond the religion we have grown into. There is no turning back, as David Tracy contended, “[T]here can be no return to a pre-ecumenical, pre-pluralistic, ahistorical theology.”
The interreligious milieu poses several challenges to the living of one’s religion. First, each one is challenged to have a clearer understanding and deeper living of one’s religion. As people are exposed to other religions they learn to see more the distinctiveness of their own religion and this help to clarify their religious identity. Alternatively, each one is challenged to learn from the other. Everyone is challenged to have a wider and deeper understanding of God that goes beyond one’s own religion. Finally, it provides an opportunity for mutual enrichment about God as each religion reveals a special facet of the truth about God. In this interreligious milieu, dialogue becomes a necessary attitude, a way of life. It challenges each one to learn the art of listening despite actual differences.
These developments affirm the church’s conviction in recent years towards continuous interreligious dialogue. Many church documents, especially after Vatican II, have affirmed that the seeds of the Gospel go beyond the Catholic Church. For example, LG says that salvation is possible for all people of goodwill whether they have explicit faith in God or not.Nostra Aetate declares that other than Christianity, there is a ray of truth that enlightens all men and women. And Gaudium et Spes affirms that the Holy Spirit in a way known only to God offers every person the possibility of being associated with the paschal mystery.
Despite the climate of pluralism, multiculturalism, and ecumenism there is continuous religious conflicts and the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism in the world today. There are those who advocate for a return to exclusion, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism and, religious extremism. In the Philippines, there is still a perceived mutual prejudice between Muslims, Lumads, and Christians. Many suffer from the continuous war between Muslims and Christians in the south.
Mary in Islam
Vatican II ushered a new attitude towards Islam: “Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem.”Nostra Aetate listed several reasons why the Church should respect Islam; it shows parallels between Islamic belief and Christian faith. Among these many common elements, Mary is clearly mentioned: “They also honor Mary, His [Jesus’] virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion.”
Love for the Virgin Mary runs deep in Islam. In the Qur’an, Mary’s name (Maryam) appears explicitly thirty-four times; in twenty-four of these references, she is identified as the mother of Jesus (Isa). Mary is mentioned more often by name in the Muslim scripture than in the Christian New Testament. One chapter of the Qur’an (Sura 19) is in fact entitled “Mary” and it narrates the events of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth: Mary is chosen by God and given divine favors; she is immaculately consecrated to God from her mother’s womb; an angel appears to her and announces the miraculous virgin birth of a child; Mary accepts, conceives Isa and gives birth to him. The very story of the birth of Mary, which the feast day commemorates, is found in the Quran 3:35-36.
In the international pilgrimage shrine of Our Lady of Fátima, one aspect that often goes unnoticed is the subtle connection with Islam. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the three shepherd children near the city of Fátima, Portugal, a place named after both a Muslim princess and the daughter of Mohammed. As Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fátima” as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her Divine Son, too.” Thus, not surprisingly, the shrine at Fátima, Portugal, has also attracted Muslims in great numbers. They go to see the place where the Virgin Mary appeared in a city named after one of their most highly revered women.
Thus, Mary can serve as a bridge between Islam and Christianity: It is certainly true that in her very person there is a meeting point, or at least a stepping stone, between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, as the Qur’an itself says: “To those who believe, God has set an example (“mathalan”) … in Mary, who preserved her chastity …, who put her trust in the words of her Lord and his scriptures and was one of the truly devout” (“Prohibition” LXVI:12).
OMPH can be a bridge between communities. Marian devotion can be an avenue for inter-faith dialogue with peoples of other faith traditions. Devotion to OMPH does not harbor biases against people of other faiths or people with different political convictions. The devotion can be an instrument of peace, mutual cooperation among peoples of different faiths towards common fight against poverty and violence.
One of the fruits of a healthy and productive devotion to OMPH is the openness to forge a relationship and dialogue with other faiths and Christian denomination through Mary and the icon. The icon and Mary can help to reinvigorate our devotion through dialogue with other religions.
In the light of this, Mary and the Icon can be the starting of a dialogue between the Muslim community and the shrine in Baclaran in the future.
In March 1933 the first complete Tagalog Mission was given in Obando, Bulacan. Frs. Edward “Ned” Gallagher and Charles “Charlie” Taylor were the Missioners and this Mission was complete according to the Baclaran Chronicles in all ways including the trimmings. The Mission lasted from March 8th-17th.
This is all contained in one paragraph of the Baclaran Chronicles. But this paragraph contains a big chapter in the lives of these two men. Who were they?
They were born in Australia. They studied in the Redemptorist Seminary in Australia. When the Monastery in Baclaran was almost completed they were among those chosen to be in the first community. They arrived in the Philippines on Feb. 15th 1932 with hardly any knowledge of the Philippines or the Filipino people. Fr. Taylor was 34 years of age and Fr. Gallagher was already 40. Yet in one year they were to give the First complete Redemptorist Mission in Tagalog.
This was not their first work in Tagalog. We read in the Chronicles that less than six weeks after the arrival of the first Baclaran Community they were already serious about learning Tagalog. “After Easter March 27th, Fr. Taylor went to San Jose del Monte Bulacan to learn the language, with the help of the Parish Priest. By July 3rd Sunday Fr. Taylor, who had already preached several times in San Jose del Monte, preached the first Tagalog sermon in the Redemptorist Church on Baclaran.”
And on July 18th we read “Fr Superior, Gallagher, opened a retreat to the children of the Good Shepherd Convent in Sta. Ana, Manila. It will close on the morning of the 22nd. This is the first Tagalog Apostolic work undertaken by any member of the Community since our arrival.” This was only five months after their arrival in a foreign land.
We also read that “from December 18th – 25th, a Mission was given at the request of the Archbishop in Jalajala in Rizal. This Mission was given by Frs. Gallagher and Taylor.” Apparently they were not completely satisfied by this effort because we read in March 1933 the first complete Tagalog Mission was given in Obando, Bulacan. According to the Baclaran Chronicles “this Mission was complete in all ways, including the trimmings.” So what was the difference?
What comprised a Complete Mission in those days? The regular timetable for a Mission was, Mass, usually at 5.30 a.m. followed by a 15-minute instruction which was followed by another Mass. The Morning was spent in Home visitation. In the afternoon there could be listing for Baptisms, or Marriage rectifications, (many were only married by the judge). The Baptisms would follow immediately, but the marriages would be done after the Mission at night. Confessions were also available during this time. After supper, there followed the mission proper which was made up of the rosary, notices of coming events, jokes, efforts to urge people to bring their friends and relatives for the next night, then the Mission Sermon, which lasted at least 30 minutes. If the Mission was in the town, there would be Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. This included the ìSinners bellî which was rung during the recital of five “Our fathers”, Five “Hail Marys” and Five “Glorias” for the conversion of all poor sinners. This was followed by Confessions. And in this case the Mission lasted for a week.
Quite an effort for two men who had only been in the country for around one year, and were still struggling with the language.