33RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: HOPE DEFIANT

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For many devotees, the shrine has become a channel for pouring out their sorrows and woes, an outlet for catharsis. They see the shrine as a very important channel where they could pour out their sufferings and agonies and turn to the Lord and Mary which in many cases is their only hope.

The plea of the thousands of devotees who come to the shrine is not just a cry for their needs but also a cry for liberation from whatever form of captivity they find themselves. In the state of captivity they find themselves, their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help give them hope and strength not to surrender to apathy but to continue to struggle.

In this spirit of hope, devotees not only pray for what they need, but aim to be set free towards the life they profoundly aspire to attain.  They learn to embrace an active disposition–never surrendering to apathy and indifference. Led by Our Mother of Perpetual Help towards the true source of hope and light–Jesus Christ–they refuse to accept the status quo of their suffering and bondage.

In this way they develop a kind of hope in what Dutch Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx describes as a hope that is born “amidst the experiences of negativity, darkness, and injustice in which human beings cry out in protest: ‘This cannot go on!’”  Australian Redemptorist Fr. Anthony Kelly calls this hope as the refusal to see the ultimate meaning of life as simply more of the same. In this context, hope becomes bold, daring and defiant.

Thus, the experience of pouring out of one’s sorrows for many devotees is not just cathartic but empowering. In a thanksgiving letter written on August 27, 2014, Michelle Mulingbayan shares this kind of experience in the shrine:

I started coming to you last February 2014 because of a big problem that I was going through during those times with the father of my child. It has been my practise that whenever I experience that kind of feeling, I go to mass or visit a nearby church in order to pour out my sorrows, ask for help and guidance in order to lighten the pain I am experiencing … Almost every night I could not stop crying because of so the unbearable pain. For nine Wednesdays, I did not surrender, and in those times, I gradually felt peace in my heart and mind.  Every time I pray the novena, I feel the warmth of your acceptance and helping hand in order that I might overcome this trial in my life.

Today’s readings of the 33rd Sunday in ordinary time expresses this defiant attitude of hope. The readings today portrays the Biblical times in jagged and dark images in a language called “apocalyptic literature.” The first reading from Daniel, for instance, describes his times as

“A time unsurpassed in distress.”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus painted a gloomy picture about the end times to his disciples:

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

In the midst of these dark and gloomy times, both readings proclaimed words of hope.  At the end of the First Reading we heard God’s promise of redemption:

… the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever.

That there is hope amidst darkness is anchored on the belief that at the end of time, God will be victorious. Goodness and love will have the final say. In the Gospel, Jesus proclaimed

And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

Today, the world is faced with crises every bit as bad as apocalyptic literature might suggest. Real threats of unrecoverable climate changes, economic crises that more than wreck people’s lives, toxic wastes, holes in the ozone layer, tsunami and hurricanes, shootings and killings, just to start the list. A fifth of the world’s population lives in absolute poverty. About three billion people lack adequate nutrition. There are somewhere between one billion and two billion unemployed adults in the world. More than half of the countries of the world have used violence against their own citizens in the form of torture, brutality, and summary executions.

In the midst of all these crises and tribulations, those with power, wealth and position continue to reign. Their power and influence grew stronger, while the vast majority of the common tao continue to suffer, became poorer and weaker every day.

It doesn’t have to be always this way. We don’t need to surrender to the captivity we find ourselves today. We need to have a hope which defies even the most destructive force in our world that in the midst of the violence, chaos, madness, and misery of our lives here on earth, there is a “beyond-this-world” that is totally opposite our world today. It is this world where God will reign.  This is what Jesus proclaimed as the Kingdom of God. This world is already growing but will reached its fullest potential through the most creative and dynamic power and grace of God in the end.

At the end of time, as the readings today proclaims, the poor, those who suffered and were persecuted will reign while those who have dominated and use their power, position and wealth to abuse others will suffer. False messiahs will be expose for who they truly are. As the First Reading says, at the last chapter of history some people will be seen as the horror and disgrace that they really are. Others will shine like the splendor of the stars. The winners in the battle of life, those who shine like stars, are those who have turned many to justice. Those who acted with courage and integrity for justice, goodness, and truth will be hated, afflicted, and even killed today but in the end they will shine like the splendor of the stars.

God will make all things new. He is known today in his promises. Hope is what gives us confidence in the possibility that those things which are now so destructive of human well-being will be overcome. Hope speaks to a world vividly aware of the “not yet” dimensions of human and social existence, and of the fact that hope at its human level is of the stuff of meaningful existence. It is hope that changes us, hope that changes the world.

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32ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE HIDDEN LESSON OF THE WIDOW’S MITE

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Majority of the devotees in the shrine are poor. Many who flock to the shrine are hungry, thirsty, alienated, depressed, excluded, abandoned and deprived in multiple ways and variety of experiences. Many are just barely getting by, surviving on a day to day existence, as we say in Tagalog, isang kahig, isang tuka, (one scratch, one peck) which means hand-to-mouth existence.  Despite their poverty, they persistently turn to God and Our Mother of Perpetual Help and even generously give of what they have to the many programs and services of the shrine.

This is very true in the building of the shrine.  The construction of the shrine became possible through the coins contributed by the poor devotees. Actual construction of the shrine began in 1953 and finished in 1958. Although there were admittedly some prominent donors, Fr. Lew O’leary, Rector of the shrine at that time, stressed that about 75% of the cost of the construction came from the poor devotees. Devotees dropped their ten centavos through a campaign dubbed as “Ten Cents to Help Build a Shrine.”

This is why it took six years to build the shrine. Most of the money that came from small donations often ran out requiring construction to stop. Truly it is a church by the people, built mainly not by big and rich benefactors, but by the ordinary poor people. No wonder they continue to identify so strongly with it.

In the readings of today’s 32nd Sunday in ordinary time, we hear of extreme examples of utter generosity of the poorest among the poor in Israel during Biblical times–the widow. Widows are among those who suffered the most in Israel during ancient times. Thus, scripture repeatedly reveals God’s care for the widow, the poor, the fatherless and the stranger, and also reveals His anger at those who deprive them of what they need to live. Despite their extreme poverty, our readings today show the utter generosity of two widows.

In the first reading from the first book of Kings, Elijah asks the widow of Zarephath to give him the little cake she was about to share with her son before they die. Amazingly, she accedes to Elijah’s request. And the jar of flour and the jug of oil continue to deliver a miraculous supply that sustains not only her and her child but also the drop-in prophet—for a whole year. In the gospel, a poor widow gave all she had to the temple. The two widows in the readings gave up everything, totally trusting in the goodness of the Lord.

The traditional interpretation of the gospel story tends to view it as contrasting the conduct of the scribes with that of the widow, and encouraging generous giving. I have always heard the story of the Widow’s Mite used in the context of sacrificial giving. I have even heard it often in fund raising enjoining parishioners to generously give to a certain project of the parish.  Focusing on sacrificial giving, however, may miss a very important lesson which Jesus is trying to teach us in the gospel.

To understand this very important lesson of Jesus which may seem hidden to us in the gospel we may need to go back to the scene prior to the gospel story today.  In the passage immediately prior to Jesus taking a seat opposite the Temple treasury, he is portrayed as condemning religious leaders who feign piety, accept honor from people, and steal from widows.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” (Mark 12:38 – 40)

In the light of this earlier passage, Addison Wright commented that more than commending the widow’s generosity, Jesus is actually condemning both the social system that renders her poor, and “…the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” [1]. The religious officials of the day, instead of helping the widows in need, were perfectly content to rob them of their livelihood and inheritance. The system was corrupt, and the darkness of the scribes’ greed makes the widow’s sacrifice shine even more brightly. In other words, more than praising the widow for donating her last mite; Jesus is pointing to her as a specimen of the exploitation of the poor widows by the Jewish leaders. She is not there to have her faith praised–she is there for the damnation of the ruling Jewish elite. Jesus’ saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament of what society has become because of the hypocrisy and exploitation by the elite.

Similarly, Ched Myers shows in detail how the scribes so-called religious piety was the very reason for the perpetuation of the suffering and poverty of widows.

Scribal affluence is a product of their ‘devouring the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers’ . . . Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the ‘pretext of long prayers’), scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse . . . The vocation of Torah Judaism is to ‘protect widows and orphans,’ yet in the name of piety these socially vulnerable classes are being exploited while the scribal class is further endowed . . . [S]cribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. [2]

Sadly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today. The present socio-economic, political system even religious system continue to exploit the poor and bled them dry of their resources. Yet those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy. The super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes in taxes and in the betterment of society.

Through the gospel story, Jesus is challenging us to see the structures that allow an exploitative system that defrauds the poor and benefits the rich to continue. We need to ask why we let this continue to happen. What can we do to make society and our faith communities more fair, just and equitable?

Hopefully, this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead accept the challenge of Jesus and make a difference in our world.

 


 

[1] Addison G. Wright, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 44, 1982, pp.256-265

[2] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 320 – 322.

31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE ♥ OF CHRISTIANITY

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Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

During my almost 10 years of hearing confession at the Baclaran shrine, the most common sins that people confess were against the Ten Commandments. As you know the ten commandments are expressed mostly in the negative: “Thou shall not kill.” “Thou shall not commit adultery.” “Thou shall not steal.” “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” etc. This emphasizes the sin of commission rather than the sin of omission. Sins of commission are sins that we commit by doing something we shouldn’t do. It’s the type of sin in which most of us are familiar with. Sins of omission, on the other hand, are sins we commit by not doing something we ought to do. Come to think of it, most of us are more guilty of the sin of omission. Examples of sins of omission are not praying, not standing up for the truth, not sharing Christ with others, not sharing our talents and wealth with others, not defending the poor and victims of  injustice, oppression and abuse and many others.

Focusing on the ten commandments and the sin of commission also reinforces the view that Christianity is a set of rules, of do’s and don’ts. Christianity is merely concerned with the externals. Christianity is the mere fulfillment of an obligation and a duty.

The readings for today’s 31st Sunday in ordinary time focuses on Christianity as a way of life based on love. The readings focused on love–loving God, loving others and loving oneself–as the heart and soul of our faith. Not that there is any contradiction between the Ten Commandments and the commandment to love the Lord and our neighbor with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength but living out the Ten Commandments without love of God, neighbor and self would be empty and superficial.

In the first reading, the book of Deuteronomy talks about the Shema (“Hear O Israel”), which became the daily Jewish prayer.

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.”

“Hear, O Israel” was to become a centerpiece of all morning and evening Jewish prayer services. This great commandment of the Hebrew covenant is the greatest commandment, to love God above all else and with all we have. God is to be loved in response to his prior revelation of himself as the one God. In Hebraic thought, heart, soul, and strength do not mean separate human faculties but the person in the totality of his/her being.

Despite being the greatest commandment, it was the most abused commandment by the people of God, as the people of Israel struggled with different forms of idolatry. In our own day we continue to violate this commandment with the various idolatries that infect our public life: worship of money, adoration at the altar of capitalism, religious reverence for authoritarian rule which gives blessings to the brutal drug war on drugs which has killed more than 20,000 suspected drug pushers and addicts.

In the gospel, Jesus ratifies this greatest commandment but also links it with the love of neighbor: taken together the two commandments cover the ground. Jesus did not invent the second greatest commandment. He only link it with the first, to tie together love of God with love of neighbor.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. …
[And] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Just as we violate the first commandment, so we violate the second one as well: we discriminate against our neighbor, we use our political and economic power to oppress our neighbor, we overwork and underpay our neighbor, we sexually harass our neighbor, we physically abuse our neighbor, we lock our neighbor up and forget about him, we seem to do many things that are not love of neighbor.

To love God, to love our neighbor as ourselves is the greatest commandment of our faith. There is no greater commandment than these. It is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. The heart of Christianity is not in the law, external practices but in putting our heart and soul into loving God, neighbor and self.

Love is, however, more than just a duty or an obligation. Love is the very core of our being, the very heart of Christianity. Love is our deepest identity. We are born to love because we are created in the image and likeness of God who is love. The greatest sin that we can commit, therefore, is the failure to love, the omission to love, the denial of our identity as a loving creature.  At the end of the day, we will be judged as to how we have loved God and loved our neighbor as ourselves.

Christ, write on our hearts your law of love so that we can love you with our whole soul, our whole mind, and all our understanding, and with every ounce of our strength. And let our love for you spill over to our neighbor and our selves.

30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: FAITH IS A NEW WAY OF SEEING

Every day we are bombarded by visual and moving images—photos, bumper stickers, posters, billboards, newspapers and magazines not to mention youtube videos, facebook memes, and ads. Increasingly our culture has become a visual culture where “image is everything.” Yet, despite the thousands of images and videos we see daily in this hypervisual digital world, many times, we fail to see the true, good and beautiful. We continue to look but we do not see.

Seeing implies more than just physical eyesight. Many cultures use physical sight as a metaphor for understanding. We do that spontaneously when we suddenly catch on to an explanation and say, “Oh, now I see,” or even, paradoxically, “I see what you’re saying.”

Thus, even if we have eyes with 20/20 vision, we long to learn how to see. Ironically, the best persons who can teach us how to learn to truly see are the blind. I remember when I was assigned in Legaspi many years ago, we had a blind masseur whom we call often especially after coming from the missions for a much relaxing massage.  His name is Bert. Bert does not just give us a relaxing massage; while doing massage on us, he talks about a lot of people we commonly knew. It was amazing how despite his blindness he had a profound understanding of the character of people.

This calls to mind the life of Helen Keller, a famous American blind writer.  Helen Keller, who went blind and deaf at nineteenth months old, once narrated:

‘One day I asked a friend of mine who had just returned from a long walk in the forest what she had seen. She replied, “Nothing in particular.”

How was this possible? I asked myself, when I, who cannot hear or see, find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate shape and design of a leaf.

I pass my hands lovingly over the rough bark of a pine tree. Occasionally, I place my hand quietly on a small tree, and if I’m lucky, feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song.

The greatest calamity that can befall people, is not that they should be born blind, but that they should have eyes, yet fail to see.’

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This important truth is also demonstrated in the Gospel of today’s 30th Sunday of ordinary time. In the gospel, it was the blind Bartimaeus who saw Jesus for who he truly was. This beggar sitting beside the road shows immediately that he “sees” at least as much as Peter when he addresses Jesus with a Messianic title: “Son of David, have pity on me.”

To understand more fully the significance of this encounter between Jesus and the blind Bartimaeus we need to rewind a bit in the gospel of Mark. For two chapters prior to this account, Mark has been presenting Jesus on the road with his disciples. On the way, on three separate occasions, Jesus speaks of his approaching passion, death, and resurrection. Each time one or more of the disciples show some gross failure to comprehend what he has just said. And each time, Jesus takes them aside to teach that following him entails losing one’s life to find it, carrying a cross, becoming the servant of all. This is also sounded in the conversation in the boat, when Jesus asks, “Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” (Mk 8:18).  In other words, Mark presents us with a picture of the disciples as spiritually blind. They do not really see who Jesus is and what he is about.

In the gospel account today, the disciples who were traveling with Jesus look upon Bartimaeus as an interruption of their missionary journey. Jesus, on the other hand, sees Bartimaeus as the point of the journey. Bartimaeus was a manifestation of why Jesus came: to bring “sight” not only to Bartimaeus but to all.

All four gospels in the New Testament use sight as a symbol for Christian faith. Believing is the deepest kind of “seeing.” The early Church called baptism enlightenment. It is not incidental that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word “metanoia” which means a new way of thinking. Faith is believing which inaugurates a new way of seeing and thinking.

Thus, the way the evangelists treat Jesus’ healings from physical blindness are not simply narrations of cures as marvels of the past. In their narratives, the evangelists present these healing from blindness as images of a healing process that happens through interaction between the risen Christ and any Christian.

Jesus, Son of David, have pity on us, as you did blind Bartimaeus. Give us faith as you did
blind Bartimaeus.

28TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: NO POSSESSION IN HEAVEN

Whatever religion you may belong, you may have come across this saying: You can’t take your possessions when you die. Not your house or car or money or camera or book collection. You cannot bring your riches to heaven and eternity.

The gospel of today’s 28th Sunday in ordinary time tells the story of a young man who went to Jesus seeking eternal life. The rich young man thought that he has all it takes to have eternal life: he is rich and he is a law-abiding religious Jew. Unfortunately for the young man, Jesus shatters his illusion. Jesus tells him that neither his riches nor all his good-doing ways will let him into eternal life. The only way he can possess eternal life is to sell all his riches, give it to the poor and come follow him. The rich man goes away very sad, finding Jesus’ words very hard to follow.

Jesus’ words must have also been earth shattering to his own disciples. The astonishment of the disciples shows that Jesus’ saying was indeed a shock.

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”

Part of the shock derives from the presumption during Jesus’ time that being rich was not a hindrance but rather an advantage for entering the kingdom of God. For wealthy people could build synagogues, help the needy, sponsor Temple sacrifices. If they could not be saved, who else could?

For Jesus, however, attachment to wealth and the Kingdom of God is diametrically opposite. Nevertheless, the rich young man wants to have it both ways: he wants his possessions and he wants everlasting life. You can’t have both, Jesus says. As Jesus says, it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

This opens the way for Jesus’ ultimate point: salvation is not a human achievement but an act of God. The problem with wealth is that wealth brings power and, often, the delusion that one has no need for others, even for God. If one is rich enough, one can begin to think of oneself as the center of the world.

Power, status, fame, and position have the same effect as it makes ourselves the center and isolates us from God and others. They hinder us to give freely of ourselves, our gifts, our talents in service to the Lord. The problem with riches, power, status and fame is that we tend to accumulate them until they become us. They possess us until it is too late to detach from them. What are your riches? What are your attachments?

The renunciation of wealth, however, is not an end in itself but only a precondition for following Jesus. It is the life of discipleship, not the renunciation of wealth per se, that leads to eternal life. Following Jesus demands that we choose not to be possessed by things, but by Jesus himself. To be possessed by Jesus we must even give up our greatest possession of all: our very selves.

Following Jesus is greater than possessions. Such is the way of wisdom. In the first reading, the author of the book of Wisdom was also able to recognize that wisdom is greater than possessions. The author of the book of Wisdom presents rich King Solomon contemplating the human condition and praising the gift of God’s wisdom as greater than silver or gold. Here, wisdom is represented as feminine,

I preferred her [Wisdom] to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.

Another earth-shattering truth Jesus told the crowd and disciples was the almost insignificant role of following the Mosaic Law towards gaining eternal life. This must have been a big shock to the disciples and the crowd who have grown up believing that obeying and doing the Mosaic Law is the sure and certain way to entering heaven. But for Jesus, this is not enough. Simply following the rules, being a good person can’t save you. You may be the nicest guy in the world. You don’t kill, you don’t steal yet you can still be drowned in wealth, power and fame which disables you to give freely of yourself to others and to God.

Lord, we pray, please look at us and love us. Grant us the grace to give freely to the poor everything you have poured upon us. In our giving, Lord let us receive a hundredfold: your life, now and in eternity.

27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: WHAT GOD HAS JOINED TOGETHER LET NO ONE SEPARATE

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Preserving the integrity of the family and nurturing the love between husband and wife is one of the biggest challenges that devotees bring to Our Mother of Perpetual Help at the shrine. Many families of devotees have experienced problems and crisis in the family and married life like Sylvia who wrote a thanksgiving letter in December 31, 2014:

Thank you very much for all the blessings that you have bestowed upon our whole family. Thank you God the Father for all the trials that we experienced as a whole family especially our marriage which I thought would collapse. From the bottom of my heart, thank you because you did not allow our marriage to break up. And because of the trials that we have experienced as a couple, we became stronger, our understanding for each other has deepened. Thank you that our family is still whole. It is indeed a big blessing that our family is still one until today.

Keeping the family close together is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Along with war, poverty, social injustice, violence and climate change, marriage and family breakdown contribute to one of the greatest heart aches of the human race today.  Almost, all of us have known, if not we ourselves, a member of a family or a friend who has experienced the pain and struggles of separation within a family. I myself have one.

Believe it or not, the breakdown of family due to the separation or divorce between husband and wife sadly had been around for centuries, even in ancient times.

In the gospel today,  the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask the question whether it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. Even during Moses’ time (1300–1200 BCE?), divorce was a common custom. The divorce statute is contained in the book of Deuteronomy:

When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent [erwath dabar], and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house. … (Deut 24:1-4)

This statue, however, is heavily favorable to the husband and biased to the wife, understable in a predominantly patriarchal society. In Jewish law, a man could only commit adultery against another man, i.e., if he has relations with the other man’s wife.  He could not commit adultery against his own wife. Jesus, in responding to the Pharisees’ question, revolutionary for his times, explicitly declared that the man definitely has committed a sin “against her” when a man divorces his wife. By declaring this, Jesus elevates the woman to real equality with man.

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another
commits adultery against her;

Jesus’ intention, however, went further beyond raising the dignity of women. Jesus went on to uphold the original dignity of marriage.  Jesus  recited the Genesis’ passage of creation to explain God’s original intention.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.

So they are no longer two but one flesh.
Therefore what God has joined together,
no human being must separate.”

Jesus’ reiteration of marriage as a permanent covenant com­mitment comes not as a new stricture but as an affirmation of a rela­tionship built into the original blessing of creation. Marriage is a reflection of God’s unconditional and unbounded love with each other and for us his people. The loving union of a married couple is founded on the love of God within God’s life–one God, three persons.

Despite that we live in a world today where a culture of divorce is prevalent, Jesus’ words in the gospel today can offer hope and inspiration especially to married couples undergoing trials and crisis. Despite that many countries in the world has made divorce legal, a plain admission of the common reality of separation of couples, Jesus’ words remain a valid and sublime vision of family and marriage.

26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: GOD’S LOVE WITHOUT BORDERS

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Not all who pray and venerate Our Mother of Perpetual Help are Catholics. In the Novena church in Singapore, for example, Singaporean Redemptorist Fr. Gerard Louis reports that 20 to 25% of those who attend the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help are non-Catholics, people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.

Here in Baclaran, we have no exact figure or percentage of how many non-Catholics pray the novena. From time to time, though, we 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, expressed admiration for the devotees’ dedication despite 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 Our Mother of Perpetual Help 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

This shows that Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help and God’s love appeal not only to Catholics but also to non-Catholics, even to atheists and those without religion.

The boundless nature of God’s love and the redemptive activity of God that goes even beyond the Catholic Church is reflected in today’s readings of the 26th Sunday in ordinary time.

In the first reading from the book of Numbers Joshua wanted Moses to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying because they didn’t follow the rules. Moses makes it clear that prophecy, the carrying of God’s message to the world, is not the special task of only a few people:

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!
Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Moses’ was also quick to point to Joshua’s attitude: “Are you jealous for my sake?”

In the gospel of Mark, John, one of the three in the inner circle of Jesus expressed dismay when they discover someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name even though they were not disciples of Jesus.

“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Jesus responds with an inclusive impulse,

“Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.”

Jesus defends the outsider and rebukes the tribalism of his apostles.

“Whoever is not against us is for us,”

In effect, Jesus’ response was throwing back the question to the disciples: Who doesn’t count as one of his own? Who actually is against Christ?

Jesus declares that those against him are those who draw children away from the Lord or who make the vulnerable and helpless worse than they otherwise would be. They would be better off being dropped into the sea.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.

Thus, instead of cutting people out of God’s love, Jesus points out that the disciples themselves may need some personal cutting to attend to.  Jesus re-echoes this in his farewell address to his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower … Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” [John 15:1].

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,

Jesus challenges us to “cut. . . off” from any manner of living, attitudes or behaviors that prevents us from recognizing God’s presence and work in the broadest classes of people especially the most excluded and oppressed in society. James, in the second reading, declares that we need to cut ourselves off from impeding God’s presence and love amongst the poor. James reserved his strongest rebuke to the rich who amassed great wealth at the expense of the poor.

Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;

This Sunday’s readings become highly relevant in the context of continuous religious conflicts and the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism in the world today. Despite the climate of pluralism, multiculturalism, and ecumenism, there are many who advocate for a return to exclusion, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism and, religious extremism.

We will not stop proclaiming Jesus as savior of all humanity. As St. Paul said, “Woe to me, if I don’t proclaim the gospel” (I Cor 9: 16). Our readings for today, however, reminds us about the boundless nature of God’s love. The seeds of the Gospel go beyond even the Catholic Church. While Jesus invites us to follow him, he also invites us to embrace and participate in his love for the little ones and the lost sheep.  We need to discover God’s presence and action in the other–those who are different from us, the outsider, even our enemies. Jesus summons us today to welcome the refugees, shelter the homeless, care for the earth, feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, stand for justice, clothe the naked, in his name.

25TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: BECOMING FIRST IN GOD’S KINGDOM

children

One of the bad habits that we Filipinos often accuse ourselves of is so-called crab mentality. This habit is based on the behavior of the crabs in a bucket. Whenever one crab is on top, one pulls it down. Many crabs could have escaped from the bucket if nobody pulls it down or if the rest of the crabs helped the one on top to succeed in getting out of the bucket.

Of course, they are just crabs but often we behave like them or even worst. For example, how often have we pulled someone on top or preventing someone from achieving something? When somebody is doing good or experiencing success in life, instead of praising or offering support, how many times have we purposely try to bring him/her down. Just because we are jealous or we try to justify our action by saying, “If I can’t have it, then you can’t have it as well.” Tragically, in the end, nobody ever succeed and nothing ever gets accomplished.

This mentality is nothing new as it may have been around ever since human interaction began. Talk about survival of the fittest! In the gospel story today–the 25th Sunday in ordinary time–we read of a similar incident, an incident from about 2,000 years ago. Jesus and his disciples were walking to Capernaum. The disciples were following Jesus who was going from village to village preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. The final destination of this missionary journey is Jerusalem. Along the way, the disciples were arguing with each other. When they reached Capernaum at the end of the day, Jesus asked them what they were arguing along the way:

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
[Jesus] began to ask them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent.
They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.

Along the journey, the disciples were trying to vie against each other about who will be on top when Jesus will finally reign once they reach Jerusalem. They all were trying to pull each other down in order to take the top spot.

The funny thing is that Jesus told them beforehand that what awaits him once they reach Jerusalem is anything but glory, power and fame. It was all about betrayal, suffering and death.

“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”

It seems that, pitifully, no one among the disciples heard what Jesus was saying. Either they did not understood him or they were overwhelmed by fear.

But they did not understand the saying,
and they were afraid to question him.

(They will eventually understand and banish all their fears, after the resurrection of Jesus).

But suppose the disciples fully understood then what Jesus was saying, would you think they would vie among each other about who would be the first in his kingdom? If they understood that to be part of Jesus kingdom entails suffering, sacrifice and even death, would the disciples still scramble for the top position? Probably not. Each one might say to the other, “You go ahead, you be the no. 1, I’ll be right behind you.” or “Its OK, i’ll be no. 2 or no. 3 even last, just not want to be the first.”

Nonetheless, even after Jesus’ own prediction of his suffering and death, the disciples remained steeped in their own world. Indeed, what was starkly demonstrated in this gospel story is the diametrical opposition between Jesus’ world and values and the disciples’ world and values and how the disciples’ values and Jesus values never met on the same level. The disciples’ values were worldly success measured in wealth, popularity, influence, status and power. Jesus’ values were godly success measured in service, sacrifice, love and humility. Within the disciples and Jesus’ world and values, lies each one’s concept of greatness. But each concept of greatness is utterly different from each other since their world and values are totally opposite each other

Since greatness was the disciples’ overriding agenda, however, Jesus did talk about greatness, albeit from his divine perspective. And in a powerful way. Jesus took a child and placed the child in their midst.

Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

In most ancient Middle Eastern cultures the child would place last in social status and position. Within the family and the community, the child had next to no status. A minor child was considered almost equal to a slave. Only after reaching maturity did a child become a free person with rights to inherit the family estate. In other words, the child in Jesus’ time and society has no wealth, status, honor, position, influence and power in society. Expanding the image of child or children in society, the child are the poor, the anawim, the insignificant, powerless, the rejects, the sinners, the “little ones” in Jesus’ society. To be great in Jesus’ kingdom, therefore, is to welcome these little ones. Receiving and casting our lot with the poor, the least, the lowly and the most abandoned in society is receiving and welcoming Jesus himself and the Father who sent Jesus into the world.

“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

By placing a child right in their midst, Jesus was making a very powerful statement against worldly values that contradict the Kingdom of God. A child who has no power, status and position taking center stage becomes a counter-symbol to power, domination, wealth, violence, pride, and injustice that is the cause of exploitation, inequality and poverty.

Don’t get Jesus wrong. Jesus wants his disciples to be great–in his kingdom. Jesus wanted his disciples to be great not so much in this world but in his kingdom. In order to be great in his kingdom, the disciples need to leave behind their worldly values and standards. They need conversion–metanoia–a change of heart and mind according to the heart and mind of Jesus. They need to change their view of what greatness is. (Again, this will finally occur to the disciples after the life-changing event of the resurrection of Jesus).

To be great in his kingdom is to be like a child–no wealth, status and power but a life full of service, sacrifice and humility.

“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

How can one be great without wealth, status and power? This seems to be a daunting if not an impossible task in our world. Jesus is asking us to do great things without the need to anchor on wealth, status and power. Right! Good luck! This indeed goes against every practical rule in this world let alone every tissue of our body. But come to think of it, Jesus is hinting at a wonderful piece of wisdom here. Just think about who were the greatest people in history, in the bible, in the church and in our country. Think about the greatest saints in the church and the real heroes of our country. Many of them were not kings, princes and wealthy but ordinary, poor, even oppressed and rejected with no fame, honor and power in the time and society they lived. Many of them suffered greatly and gave up their lives in the end. Talk about Moses, David, Isaiah, Buddha, St. Francis, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Andres Bonifacio, to name only a few. Not to mention, the greatest of all–Mary, an ordinary peasant girl.

To be great in Jesus is to discover the real treasure within ourselves and the world around us. The real treasure is the kingdom of God which is like a mustard seed–the smallest of all seed but when it grows becomes the biggest of all trees. To discover the seed of God’s kingdom which God, the prodigal sower, has planted in every human’s heart is to have the mind and inquisitiveness of a child full of wonder and innocence.

In a staunchly competitive world where everybody wants to be first, Jesus wants us to be no. 1 in his kingdom. Everyone can become no. 1 in his kingdom without the need for wealth, power and status. We just have to be who we truly are–a child of God who is dependent on the grace and goodness of God and of one another.

In God’s kingdom, we don’t need to pull each other down as we will all be on top basking eternally in God’s blessings and presence.

24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: WHO DO YOU SAY JESUS IS

Jesus in the icon

During seminars in the Baclaran shrine about the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we asked the participants: “Who is the perpetual help?” Immediately they would answer with great conviction, “Mary, of course!” But then we’ll repeat the question. And this time, we’ll rephrase the question: “Mary is the Mother of perpetual help, so who is the perpetual help?” Then they would think for a while and stare at us intriguingly.

We use this question as a take-off point to a deeper study of the icon and the role of Mary. Mary is Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Mary is the mother of the source of perpetual help which is her son Jesus. As in the icon, Mary is she who points to the way—Jesus Christ. True devotion to Mary leads us to following Jesus. Mary in the icon, presents Jesus as the path towards salvation. Indeed, in the icon, Jesus is the true Perpetual Help. Mary’s role is to announce to us our central calling–to follow Jesus.

In today’s gospel of the 24th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus directly asked his disciples,

“Who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter said in reply,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said,

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

Peter’s confession is the rock foundation of our Christian life. Without confessing Jesus the Christ as God of our lives, everything we say and do, all our rituals and sacraments will amount to nothing. Christianity is not just a set of obligation, religion or a list of commandments but, first and foremost, a relationship with Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI said:

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”[1]

To have a relationship with Jesus, however, is not just to have a friendly relationship or a sweet spiritual relationship with Jesus. Like Peter, what many Christians dread to know is that relationship with Jesus entails suffering and even denial of oneself.

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”

Peter did not understand this at first, thinking that believing in Jesus as the Messiah could come without the need for suffering. Jesus has to correct him, albeit bluntly, and teach him God’s standard: Christian life amounts to carrying one’s cross in the footsteps of Jesus.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

The suffering demanded by our confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is articulated in the First Reading by the prophet Isaiah. The first reading comes from the third song of the Servant of Yhwh, the “Suffering Servant.”

I have not rebelled, have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. …
The Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?

The suffering servant modeled Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession; explaining to Peter that to be the Christ means

“the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed,
and rise after three days.”

The second reading from the letter of James explicate further that to have a relationship with Jesus is not just an exclusive and loving relationship with Jesus–me and my sweet Jesus but a loving relationship with others especially the poor and the most abandoned. Relationship with Jesus is not just professing faith in Jesus but also practising it. The practice of the faith is the performance of deeds that benefit those in need. As the letter of James expounds,

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
So also faith of itself,
if it does not have works, is dead.

It took a while before Peter fully understood the true meaning of confessing Jesus as the Christ. When Jesus called Peter, Jesus was well aware of the many faults and flaws of Peter. Despite his weaknesses, Peter stayed with Jesus until the end. Indeed, he became a rock of faith. Peter’s being rock comes from the strength he received from God:

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my heavenly Father.”

Like Peter, we fear, we vacillate, and we try to escape from the mission of Jesus. But like Peter, if we rely on God’s grace beyond our capacities, we can truly confess Jesus as the Christ, in word and in deed. Like Peter we will truly experience the fullness of life despite the suffering it entails.

 


 

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), 1.

23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: BE OPENED

be-open

In the Baclaran shrine, from among the thousands of thanksgiving letters we received, health and recovery from sickness top the list of specified blessings that the devotees received from God through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Many of the devotees who come to Baclaran are suffering from various kinds of sickness not just physical but also emotional, mental and spiritual. In the novena every Wednesday, many of the devotees pray for healing and recovery from their illness. In the novena, there is a special Prayer for the Sick where devotees pray for healing for themselves and their loved ones.

In 2016, the Prayer for the Sick went through a major revision. The former prayer seemed to romanticize sickness by projecting an image of the sick who have nothing more they can do about their sickness except to embrace it. God’s compassion and strong desire for the healing of the sick is not much evident. Thus, the prayer was revised to express a more redemptive kind of healing not only for the sick person, but also for the whole family of the sick.

The theme of the readings for today’s 23rd Sunday in ordinary time is about God’s healing.  Salvation from God is not just salvation from our sins but also healing and recovery from sickness. Salvation comes from the Latin word, salūs which means to be well and healthy. God’s healing, however, is holistic; it is not just physical but also emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah describes the vision of the coming of God’s kingdom as opening the eyes of the blind, clearing the ears of the deaf, and even brightening up the environment.

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.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

The responsorial psalm, Psalm 146, is a psalm of praise for the healing power of God, especially for his opening of the eyes of the blind.

The second reading from the Letter of James, focuses not on the physical but spiritual blindness. James warns against taking people according to their physical appearance. The example James gives is that of giving a well-dressed visitor special treatment while neglecting a poorly dressed person, forgetting the beatitude about the poor. That, he implies, is a symptom of spiritual blindness.

For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

In the Gospel, Mark presents Jesus as the kind of savior prophesied by Isaiah. Jesus did a miracle of healing: a man who was deaf and impaired in speech becomes able to hear and to speak plainly. What Isaiah communicates as vision through poetry, Jesus communicates through action in the here and now. We tend to think of salvation in terms of heaven and the hereafter. Jesus’ action open us to salvation as an event that is here and now.

And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.

Jesus command to the deaf-mute man, Aramaic, ephphatha “Be opened” is more than a just a matter of physical healing. It is also a spiritual healing: God’s superabundant life breaking open our closed human condition. What Jesus commands with respect to the deaf-mute man before, he commands with respect to us today. In the gospel, Jesus commands us, “Be opened!” If we listened well and hard, we too are healed: our ears are opened to hear the Good News and our tongues are loosened to proclaim it.

What sickness and disability do we need to be healed and liberated from? Let us ask Jesus to loosen our tongues, open our deaf ears and touch our blind eyes so we may truly hear, see and speak of the truth and peace of the Word who is Jesus.