Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Love never fails" (4th Sunday in Ordinary Time C, 1Cor. 13:4-13, Luke 4:21-30)

I Corinthians 13:4-8

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous.
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered,
it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things...
Love never fails.

* * * * * * * * * *

Why does one fall in love? There’s simply no purely rational, mathematic, or scientific explanation that can be given. No 1+1=2. To love belongs to a completely different order of “knowing”. One simply says: “I love you”. And if one were asked why, he could perhaps venture an explanation, but it would sound feeble, ultimately unsatisfying to reason. I just know I love you. Why? I guess I really don’t know.

Why does one choose to become a priest, with neither wife nor family of his own, without children who shall carry on his name? Why does one choose a life that demands much work but pays little, that asks one to heal, comfort and console many, while affording one nobody in particular to give comfort and consolation?

Perhaps there is no final ‘why’. Perhaps Pascal was right, the heart has reasons which reason does not know.

In married life as it is in the priesthood, perhaps the answer is simple, and it is love itself—to which there is no ‘why’. Love after all makes us see things differently: casting new light on things, making the ordinary become extraordinary, the everyday special, the small and insignificant great and awesome.

On the other hand, without love, even the great and wonderful become plain and ordinary, even the those meant to remind us of something meaningful and important are passed over and left unnoticed and neglected. Without love, even the great manifestations of God in our lives are missed, because we find ourselves, like many of Jesus’ hearers, thinking to ourselves: “Is this not just the carpenter’s son?” Without love, even the brightness of day turns into shadow and life’s very joys become like ashes in one’s mouth.

And yet the greatness of love is not that it makes one do great things; the greatness of love is that it does great things to the one who loves. It changes and transforms him, it gives him new eyes, it gives him new ears; it gives him new energy, and soul, and heart. Life itself becomes “new” because of love.

Without it, we become like many in Jesus’ day, not only incapable and unwilling to see love standing in their very midst, but more than ready to cast it aside and throw it away.

* * * * * * * * * *

And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb,‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native placethe things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’” And he said, “Amen, I say to you,no prophet is accepted in his own native place. Indeed, I tell you,there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half yearsand a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.

It is often difficult to detect the traces of God in our lives because we are either too busy looking elsewhere, or downright dismissive of the possibility of his "presence" in things that are often right there in front of us.

Yet he is there, in those things we often dismiss or cast aside, calling to us, knocking on the doors of our hearts and minds, seeking admittance into our lives.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

With Jesus by our side, no storm can break us (Saturday, Week III in Ordinary Time, Mark 4:35-41)

On that day, as evening drew on, Jesus said to his disciples: “Let us cross to the other side.” Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was.And other boats were with him. A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat,so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up,rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm.Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”

* * * * * * * * * * *

The lake of Galilee was notorious for its storms. They literally came out of nowhere with shattering and terrifying suddenness, and the voyager across the lake was always liable to encounter just such sudden storm as the disciples in this passage from Mark.

We do this story far less justice, however, if we merely take the miracle Jesus did in a literalistic sense. If it describes no more than a physical miracle in which an actual sotrm was stilled, it is very wonderful and is something at which we must indeed marvel. But to regard it simply as such is to see it as some awesome thing that happened in the past and cannot happen again, in which case the story remains external to us.

If we read it, however, in a more symbolic sense (without of course denying the literal sense), we find far greater value and significance in Mark's story. When the disciples became aware of the presence of Jesus in the boat, the storm was calmed. Once they knew that he was there with them, a fearless peace entered their hearts and calmed their souls.

To go on a voyage through life with Jesus is to always voyage in peace, even in the most terrifying of storms. This is true, not only then (with the disciples), but with us (his disciples today).

Mark's story isn't about a miracle that only happened once, at a definite point in history, but something that happens to us, over and over again. With Jesus by our side, we can have the greatest sense of peace no matter how difficult the trials of life.

It is a fact that the crosses of life will not spare even the most faithful among us. And yet, whatever our cross or trial might be, it is equally a fact that when Jesus is with us, we will never be broken by any storm.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Silent Growth of God's Kingdom (Friday, Week III in Ordinary Time, Mark 4:26-34)

Jesus said to the crowds: “This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the landand would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow,he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit,first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,for the harvest has come.” He said, “To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plantsand puts forth large branches,so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
Today’s reading contains what are called the “Kingdom sayings” of Jesus. These are the words of Jesus describing what the Kingdom of God is like. Scattered throughout all four gospels in the New Testament, a common theme runs through all of them—and that is that the Kingdom of God has two very important characteristics that make it different from all earthly kingdoms and powers.

First, its growth is quiet and not often perceived. Whereas earthly kingdoms are born out of much turmoil and strife, the Kingdom of God grows quietly, for it grows in the hearts of ordinary men and women like ourselves. It is like a small seed that God plants in our hearts and which we nourish and nurture. It is all the small acts of goodness, kindness, love, care, compassion and concern that we do. They are often unseen and unnoticed, but they are the greatest foundations of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Second, while God’s Kingdom, made up of all the acts of love and goodness in the world, is quiet and imperceptible, it lasts forever—unlike all other earthly Kingdoms and powers which come and go. Our acts of goodness, even if they are as small as mustard seeds—as Jesus says in the gospel, have effects that last for all eternity.

This is why Christians must never hesitate to do good, even if they’re not big, or even if they won’t produce big or grand results. As far as Christ is concerned, every single act of goodness is a great contribution to the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. It certainly is a great way to motivate ourselves to always do good.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Five things I like about Thomas (Reflections on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Jan. 28, 2010)

On this Feast of Thomas Aquinas, I thought I’d list some of the things I’ve always liked about this giant of Catholic thought:

1. His openness to Truth, wherever this is found.

When he began using the thought of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, many were not only skeptical of his enterprise, but were downright antagonistic, believing that something as “impure” and “profane” as these ancient philosophers should never be given a place at the table of Christianity. But Thomas did. And history and a once-incredulous church eventually judged him right. Unlike other thought-systems that insist on an irreconcilable difference, and a dichotomy and separation between faith and ordinary life, between the sacred and the secular, between the church and the world, Thomas shows us a way that sees the transcendent-in-the-immanent, God-in-our-midst, a world that as St. Paul says, “lives, and moves, and has its being” in God.

2. The ‘balance’ and ‘moderation’ of his thought.

Thomas steered clear of extremes, in whatever shape or form. In this his thought mirrors the best of Catholicism which, at its finest, abhors anything that destroys the delicate balance and symmetry of faith and life. Thomas’ thought always sought the “middle ground”, the “judicious mean” between extremes, whether this has to do with our understanding of ourselves, of the world in which we live, or God himself. Anyone who truly understands and appreciates the thought of Thomas cannot possibly become an extremist or fanatic, not in things that have to do with life, or faith, or the church. It wasn’t only Truth that for Thomas, stood squarely “in the middle”, rather it was Christ himself that was to be found there in media res, living, present, always at work.

3. The immensity of his faith and trust in the God whom he loved.

By faith, I do not mean simply, faith as profession, but faith as trust and confidence in the guidance of the God whom he sought to know and love throughout his life. Nothing could shake Thomas’ confidence in the goodness of this God; and this allowed him to sustain and nourish his intellectual curiosity. Thomas is a giant; most of us, out of fear of the unknown, would rather shrink into the safety of our shells and cocoons instead of “going out in the deep”, full of faith and trust in a God who has promised to be with us no matter what. Thomas’ was a faith that saw no boundaries to the presence and activity of God in his creation which, despite its faults, flaws, and failings, remained at its very heart, good. This is especially shown in Thomas’ love for the Eucharist which, in Catholicism, is the highest expression of the goodness of God’s creation: ordinary bread and wine, the work of human hands, yet able to become the very body and blood of his Son. To see the world as capable of being a “sacramental” presence becomes possible only when one trusts that nothing is beyond God’s reach.

4. The all-embracing character of his thought, the catholicity of his spirit.

Thomas represents the best of who and what we stand for as Catholics. To be catholic is to be kata-holon, to live “according to the whole”. And yet the breadth, scope, and vastness of Thomas’ philosophical and theological enterprise is but one embodiment of this all-embracing character. Thomas’ spirit was like an empty vessel, ready and waiting to be filled with anything and everything that God placed in it. The antithesis of this can only be fear which can cause one to close himself up to the tremendous possibilities all around him. Thomas looked into all things, considered all things, grappled with all things. The soul after all, as he said is “quodammodo omnia”, a dynamic openness and capacity to receive all things. If we are in fact, the creations of a God who is Transcendence himself, then the seed, the spark of the transcendent is in us. We are like vessels that God can fill with anything and everything, because that is what he has made us to be. It was Augustine who once said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. Yet this openness was not an openness for its own sake. It had an orientation, a direction, and purpose and a goal: to seek the Truth (about oneself, one’s world, and God) by following it wherever it leads.

5. The greatness of his faith that yet remained simple, like that of a child.

And this perhaps is what has given the ultimate orientation and directedness to Thomas’ thirst for Truth. No matter how deep the recesses of human existence he managed to plumb, no matter how great his discoveries about human life and existence, he knew that there was something more, in some other realm which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard” that God has in store to one who remains faithful to the quest, to the very end. Ultimately, no matter where our journey and search take us, no matter where our wandering mind, heart and soul lead us, no matter how high or low our thoughts might bring us, like one with “the heart of a child”, we know where our true home is, and it isn’t here. Thomas knew that. He loved the world so much that he sought to find God in its every nook and cranny, yet this very same love enabled him to realize that it was not an end, but a marker along the way, a pointer to something that far exceeded anything that this world allowed him to imagine.

To truly understand Thomas is to understand the words of Jesus in scripture: "Unless you acquire the heart of a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God". At the heart of a child is wonder, amazement, and a boundless enthusiasm and anticipation for whatever other surprises life has in store.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

First believe, then you shall understand (Wednesday, Week III in Ordinary Time, Mark 4:1-20, The Parable of the Sower)

We’ve heard the parable of the Sower many times; and we know what it means. Jesus' parable is rather straightforward, and one doesn’t have to be an exegete to understand what it says.

But there is one particular line in it that has always baffled me. In explaining the purpose of this parable—the mother of all parables—Jesus says to the disciples: “To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may hear but not understand; lest they turn and be forgiven”. How harsh can you get! Why would anyone want to preach in a way that would only confound and confuse the listeners? And why would you want them to be condemned on account of their confusion. That doesn’t only make preaching harsh, but pointless as well.

Mark’s account of Jesus explanation of the parables’ purpose differs from Matthew and Luke in this regard. In Mark, there is a certain sternness, a certain grim tone to Jesus’ words. It doesn’t seem to coincide with Jesus’ ministry of compassion. We find the same harshness in Isaiah, when God says to the prophet: “You are to say to these people, Listen carefully but you shall not understand. Look intently, but you shall know nothing. You are to make the heart of this people sluggish, to dull their ears and close their eyes. Lest their eyes will see, their ears hear, their heart understand, and they will turn and be healed”.

Why would Jesus want to preach in such a way as to make his listeners stumble? Why? I think there’s something not quite right with this question. For it involves a wrong understanding of the causality involved. Jesus’ parable is not the cause of their stumbling. For they are already stumbled, even before he preaches. Their hearts are already closed, even before they hear his words. This is the source of their confusion. That they are confused is proof of only one thing, and this the parable makes clear: they just aren’t good soil. They don’t have the disposition. They’re not disciples. They don’t believe.

Augustine and Thomas Aquinas got it right. Faith comes first, then understanding. We usually equate Augustine and Thomas with grand theological and philosophical systems meant to buttress and provide proofs for the faith. But if one were to carefully read the Summa Theologica or any of Augustine's works, one will notice a thread that runs throughout them. Perhaps we can sum this up by saying:
One has first to believe, then one can comprehend. Discipleship comes before understanding. The eyes of the heart need to be opened first, before the eyes of the mind can see.

Discipleship is a necessary presupposition for understanding Jesus’ teaching. Without this there is only confusion for one who tries to comprehend Jesus’ words. “He who has ears let him hear”. To be a disciple is to hear. Interestingly enough the Latin “audire”, which means “to hear” forms the second half of the root of the word “obedience”: ob - audire. To be a disciple is to learn to obey the words of the Master. Without obedience there is no discipleship. And without discipleship, there is only confusion. Dietrich Bonhoffer in The Cost of Discipleship could not have put it more clearly: One must first believe, then he can understand. But one must first obey, before he can believe. And one must first hear, before he can obey.

We have often equated Aquinas’ works with proofs for the faith. I say this is inaccurate. For faith is already presupposed by his so-called proofs. Faith does not come at the end of a long and rigorous attempt at intellectual gymnastics. It lies at the very beginning. It is first and foremost a tug on the heart before it is a captivation of the mind. Sit at the Master’s feet, then shall you understand. Listen attentively to his words, then shall you comprehend.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Discerning the Central from the Marginal (Feast of Sts. Timothy and Titus, Jan. 26, 2010, Luke 10:1-9)

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, "The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. 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. Into whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this household.' If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God is at hand for you.'
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Jesus sends out seventy-two of his followers in today's gospel reading with an admonition that we who are in the "business" of proclaiming the gospel should never forget: "Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals". A life of simplicity, detachment from excess, an interest and concern only for what we need to carry out our mission effectively, and an attachment only to the goal that Jesus has set for us--these are perhaps the best instruments we have in bringing the work he gave us to fruition. As always, the ability to discern that which is necessary and central to our work, from those that are unimportant and peripheral is the key. We must do Christ's work; everything else is extra.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Christ never gives up on anyone (Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Jan 25, 2010)

It is perhaps one of the first and greatest miracles in the early Christian church that a man so hateful and destructive to Christianity, himself became its most powerful preacher, defender and missionary. The stories of Paul’s persecution of the early followers of Jesus are legendary, including his approval and joining in the condemnation and stoning of Saint Stephen. Before his conversion, Paul—who was first known as Saul—possessed such disdain and hate for Christians that he literally hunted them down wherever they were.

We must not think of his attitude, however, as simply that of an evil man bent on destroying his enemies. Paul was an extremely devout Jew who saw Christians as corrupting the pure message of Judaism. It was this, and this alone, that made him want to wipe them out. On the road to Damascus, of course, all that changes, when he has an encounter with Jesus, who asks him why he is persecuting him. This event begins Paul’s conversion from being a Christ-hater, to being the greatest Christian preacher in the ancient world.

Much of Christianity owes its existence to the zeal of Saint Paul. In fact, most books of the New Testament were written by him. His story is one of the greatest proofs that Christ doesn’t give up on anyone—no matter how hard and sinful he may be. God is able to make use of us, despite our greatest sins and unworthiness, if like Saint Paul, we allow God’s grace to touch our lives and change our hearts. Paul is the greatest proof of what the Bible tells us: “Nothing is impossible with God”.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christ's Madmen (3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C, Luke 4:14-21)

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit,and news of him spread throughout the whole region.He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all. He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day.He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captivesand recovery of sight to the blind,to let the oppressed go free,and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One of the most talked about sports news item this weekend was about a young and promising baseball player (Grant Desme, a minor league outfielder from Oakland) leaving the possibility of fame and fortune behind for the sake of what he called "a higher calling". He was entering the seminary.

The responses from the blogosphere was quite telling. For every one that praised the young man, there were five or more who called him a “moron” and a “retard” or even worse names for what most judged a crazy or absurd decision.

Most of the reasons for their surprise and dismay could perhaps be summed up by one of the most asked questions by bloggers and twitters yesterday: “How much do priests make anyway?”

For some reason, a lot of folks just couldn’t seem to comprehend how someone who had a lot of promise in terms of making a boatload of money and becoming famous, could just walk away from it all and pursue a calling that as one twitter said: “pays less than what a janitor makes”.

The world will never understand. The theologian Richard Niebuhr once said that while we Christians are called to love the world as God does, there will always be a necessary “againstness” between the world and ourselves—because while we are “in the world”, we are not “of the world”. To the world, much of the things that are important to us will appear absurd, irrational, even insane.

And that’s hardly surprising. In yesterday’s gospel, even Jesus’ relatives and friends who couldn’t believe what he had set out to do, simply declared that he had “gone out of his mind”. It was the same opinion expressed by many about that young baseball player. And I’m pretty sure some of you have heard something similar said about you, even by your friends.

And that is why as Dietrich Bonhoffer, another theologian who wrote the book “The Cost of Discipleship” says, one who chooses to turn to Christ and turn his back on the world will have to prepare himself for death. “When Christ bids you come”, Bonhoffer says, “he bids you come and die”.

For us priests and seminarians, of course, such words take on a deeper meaning. Just as that young baseball player’s sacrifice of money and fame will not be his last, so our sacrifice of entering the seminary and turning our back on the world isn’t a one-shot deal either.

Instead, it involves a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute dying to ourselves. Without these “little deaths”, the great sacrifice of saying “no” to the world will mean precious little and might even become a cause of regret for us later on. Without dying to ourselves continuously day in and day out, that initial step we took of entering the seminary eventually loses its power and meaning.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the book of Isaiah and declaring with all earnestness, his intention to fulfill the mission God gave him. “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, he declares to everyone present. And they are all amazed at this young man standing before them.
But the story doesn’t end there—a few verses later and we learn that such amazement and wonder at him is extremely short lived. Chapter four of Luke’s gospel ends with these very same people trying to throw Jesus off a cliff.

This was but one of the “little deaths” Jesus experienced. There will be many throughout his life and ministry. The same is true for us. The only way our decision to turn our back on the world—to “die” to it, the only way our decision to follow Jesus by entering the seminary can be truly meaningful and fruitful—is if we learn, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, to die to ourselves and choose not the way of the world—the way of ease and comfort, but the way of Christ.

And if this choice of ours is judged by the world to be “insanity”, then so be it. Perhaps we’re called to be “madmen” for Christ.

It’s an edifying thought—but what could it possibly mean for us concretely and practically?

When I was a young seminarian like yourselves, I got this very useful advice from my spiritual director. “You want to learn to die to yourself?” he once asked me. “Think of that one thing you dislike the most in seminary, that one thing you often avoid doing at all cost. Then do it with all your heart”. Believe it or not, for me, it was studying.

Which is it for you?

“If anyone wishes to be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blessed are the risk-takers (Saturday Week II in Ordinary Time, Mark 3:20-21)

Jesus came with his disciples into the house.Again the crowd gathered,making it impossible for them even to eat.When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him,
for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Why would people, who were supposed to understand and support Jesus instead accuse him of being “out of his mind?” Granted, in another part of the gospel Jesus would say: “No prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Lk. 4:24), that still does not explain the harshness of his relatives’ words nor the profound disbelief they seemed to have over what he was about. But perhaps they were somehow justified in their assessment of him.

First, he chose to leave his home and the business his father had left him. No one in his right mind would simply throw away home and what was most likely a flourishing business to become a vagrant who, in his own words, “has nowhere to lay his head”.

Second, he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that he had set himself on a path of collision with both the civil and religious authorities of his day who had the power not only to have him arrested but killed. What sane person would set himself up against the powers that be?

Third, he began a little group of his own—a band, not exactly of well-educated and respectable men, but fishermen, carpenters, even a tax collector and zealot. They were hardly the kind of persons a prudent man would want to be identified with.

Fourth, he seems to have lost interest in both safety and security, not only because he chose the life of an itinerant preacher to the stable life of a happily married man running his own business, but because he seems to have lost sight of the fact that he could very well lose his life because of the choices he made.

Finally, he seems to have become completely indifferent to what society might think or say of him. He had, for all intents and purposes, become deaf to the voices of men, and heard only the voice of God.

In the minds of his relatives and friends, therefore, they felt very much justified in judging him insane and wanting to “seize” him in order perhaps to bring him home and knock some sense back into him.

Alas, Jesus had already made up his mind, and his heart and soul had already been set on the path of the mission God had given him. And nothing, not even the greatest of risks—losing his very life—could cause him to waver.

It is well for those of us who have chosen to respond to God’s invitation to the priestly life to learn from Christ and follow closely in his footsteps.

“Blessed are the single-hearted, for they shall see God”. (Matt. 5:8). Blessed are those who choose to risk all for Christ, for they shall see all of God’s promises to them fulfilled.

Friday, January 22, 2010

One in Christ, No Matter How Different (Friday Week II in Ordinary Time, Mark 13-19)

Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him.He appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles,that they might be with himand he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons:He appointed the Twelve:Simon, whom he named Peter; James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder;Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew,Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus; Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean,
and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.

Those of us who have studied Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics know that one of the most significant characteristics of Christian thought is its great synthesizing ability, i.e. its capacity to bring together seemingly contradictory points of view and tie them together into a harmonious whole that doesn't crush difference, but highlights it, allowing it to further enrich the life of the church.

Today we see the true origin and root of that ideal—not in an intellectual or theoretical way, but in the most practical, down to earth way. Christianity’s ability to bring together seemingly clashing viewpoints began, not with Saint Augustine or Thomas or the Medieval Scholastics. It started with Jesus himself. And today’s gospel reading brings it into full view.

It is perhaps one of the greatest testaments to Jesus’ ability to bring people together in peace and harmony, that the band of men he called disciples were individuals of differing and even conflicting characters, personalities, agendas, visions, and dreams. In this band of disciples, extremes met, not to clash with one another, but to enrich each individual in harmony and friendship.

Consider just these two personalities. On the one hand, there was Matthew, a tax collector, an outcast, hated by most Jews for being agents of the Roman occupying power. Tax collectors were despised not only as traitors but as cheats. On the other hand there was Simon, often called “the Zealot”. He belonged to a band of fiery and violent nationalists whose stated aim was to liberate Israel by assassinating Romans and Jews who cooperated with them.

Under different circumstances, these two would’ve probably killed each other. Instead, with Jesus these two men at two opposite extremes of the socio-political spectrum came together as brothers. No doubt among the others in the group there were all kinds of backgrounds and opinions. It is one of the most beautiful truths about Christianity that it began by insisting that the most varied kinds of persons could live together and accomplish great things because of their attachment to Jesus.

With him, this band of widely diverging characters learned one of the greatest strengths of the church: that we can be different from each other and yet be at peace; we can have different viewpoints and yet respect each other; we can have different ideas and visions about what life, faith, or church should be, and yet never lose our love for each other.

The disciples in today’s gospel reading did not have to give up their unique individualities and characters; they remained different to the very end. Yet they found themselves bound to each other by unbreakable ties—all because they looked not to their differences, but to the one person who kept them together in harmony and peace: Jesus.

The key to genuine and lasting community will not be found in ourselves, not even in our greatest efforts. As St. Paul never tires of saying in his letters, the key to genuine and lasting communion lies in Christ alone. If we bind ourselves to him, we shall find ourselves bound to one another, no matter how different we are.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Kind of "Messiah" Jesus Had in Mind (Thursday Week II in Ordinary Time, Mark 3:7-12)

Jesus withdrew toward the sea with his disciples.
A large number of people followed from Galilee and from Judea.
Hearing what he was doing,
a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem,
from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan,
and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon.
He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd,
so that they would not crush him.

He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases
were pressing upon him to touch him.
And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him
and shout, “You are the Son of God.”
He warned them sternly not to make him known.

Why did Jesus so sternly bid the unclean spirit in today's gospel to be silent? The reason is simple yet compelling. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Anointed One, yet his idea of "Messiahship" was so far removed from the idea popular at that time. While he understood it in terms of love, service, sacrifice, and the cross, the idea in most people's minds--including his disciples'--was that of a conquering hero who would destroy the Roman occupying power with his vast army, thereby re-establishing Israel as a powerful and independent nation.

If a rumor were thus to spread that the awaited Messiah had indeed arrived, the result could only be uprisings and rebellions on the part of the Jews and even greater repression and persecution by the Romans.

This was simply not Jesus' way. And throughout his ministry, he never failed to insist that his way was different, going as far as rebuking Peter in another part of the gospel--calling him "Satan" (Adversary)--for failing (0r refusing) to understand and accept that his "way" was different from the world's.

Jesus thought of Messiahship in terms of love, most of the Jewish people at the time thought of it solely in terms of nationalism. Thus, before there could be any proclamation of Jesus' Messiahship, he had first to lead people to a true understanding of his role and mission. At this particular stage of his ministry, nothing but harm and disaster could come from a proclamation that the Anointed One had come. It would not have brought salvation but useless war and bloodshed.

Men and women had first to learn the true meaning of what a Messiah was, and consequently any premature announcement--even from the unclean spirits he had cast out--would only have wrecked his entire mission.

Good things come to those who know how to wait, who patiently look forward to the "right time", to "God's time". Confronted by this unclean spirit who knew fully well who Jesus was and who wanted to let the entire world in on what he knew, Jesus forbade him from doing so, because he knew the right time had not yet come.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"And he looked at them with anger..." (Wednesday Week II in Ordinary Time, Mark 3:1-6)

Jesus entered the synagogue.
There was a man there who had a withered hand.
They watched Jesus closely
to see if he would cure him on the sabbath
so that they might accuse him.
He said to the man with the withered hand,
“Come up here before us.”
Then he said to the Pharisees,
“Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil,
to save life rather than to destroy it?”
But they remained silent.
Looking around at them with anger
and grieved at their hardness of heart,
Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched it out and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel
with the Herodians against him to put him to death.

Rarely is Jesus described as “angry” in the gospels. In fact, the term the gospel of Mark uses to describe Jesus’ disposition (met orges—“with anger”) is not even used by the other evangelists in their accounts of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. The description of Jesus as “angry” occurs only once in all four gospels—and it is in this particular account in Mark.

Why was he angry? The answer lies in the hardness of heart of the Pharisees who knew fully well the answer to the question Jesus had posed to them. It is “lawful to do good on the Sabbath”; it is “lawful to save a life”. They knew that. But to give an answer would be to admit, not only that they were wrong, but that there was something that was staring them in the face—something, or better yet, someone who was the very essence of the goodness and salvation they refused to recognize and accept.

Jesus was confronting men who had essentially blinded themselves to what stood right before their eyes. Like horses, they wore blinders that served to narrow their vision. In fact, they were worse; blinders at least serve to focus an animal's field of vision, allowing it to see more effectively. These men simply chose to blind themselves.

We too can be like them sometimes. We have our own "blinders". They’re our biases and prejudices; they’re the labels and categories we put on ourselves, the boxes into which put ourselves, other persons, even God himself. Sadly, a lot of times, no one can escape these boxes.
But these blinders, these boxes, stifle our growth; they suffocate our souls, and hinder us from seeing Christ, and from seeing the goodness that’s usually all around us.

When I was new to seminary, my old spiritual director always reminded me: “be a tabula rasa, a blank sheet in the hand of God; allow him to write whatever he wishes to write on the blank parchment of your life”. It’s a good reminder, not only when we’re beginning something; it’s a good way to live life, to come to the Lord with only one thing: our very self, and a willingness to be molded and formed by Him in whatever way he chooses—with no preconditions, no hesitations, no blinders. Only when we ourselves have become empty, can God come into our lives and fill us completely.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Of True Believers and Pious Frauds (Tuesday Week II in Ordinary Time, Mk. 2:23-28)

As Jesus was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath,
his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.
At this the Pharisees said to him,
“Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”
He said to them,
“Have you never read what David did
when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry?
How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest
and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat,
and shared it with his companions?”
Then he said to them,
“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.
That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

There is true piety and false piety; there is genuine religiosity and phony religiosity; there’s faith that’s authentic and faith that’s a fraud. How do we tell the difference?

There’s no sophisticated, intellectual, or scholarly way of spotting the difference. Instead, it’s a very simple one. And Jesus in today’s gospel reading shows us the most basic rule: Does our piety, religiosity, and faith lead us to put the needs of people first? If so, then it is real; if not, then it probably isn’t.

This past week, as the whole human family—believer and non-believer alike—came together to lend a hand to our brothers and sisters affected by the tragedy in Haiti, a certain evangelical leader chose instead to speak words that might as well have come out of the mouth of the Pharisees in today’s gospel.

Haiti was hit by a calamity, he said, because God was punishing its people—this was from a man who night after night goes on TV asking people for money for his church’s missionary work. As I read about the guy, David Hume’s description of such persons kept ringing in my ears: “pious fraud”.

One of our professors in Louvain used to say: “Never think that Jesus in the gospels is criticizing only the hypocrisy and indifference of the religious leaders of his day; no, he criticizes the hypocrisy and indifference of religious leaders of any day—including our own.”

Augustine tells a story of his teacher, Saint Ambrose of Milan. When once, barbarians took many Christian prisoners to be sold into slavery, Ambrose wanted to save them, but had no money. He rushed into his cathedral and to the shock of his priests, had all the golden chalices, and vessels melted and turned into coins to pay for their ransom. When they confronted him for what he was doing, Ambrose simply said: “Would not Christ himself say, Why did you allow so many to die of hunger? Don’t you have gold in your church? You should have given them food. Why are so many captives brought to the slave market when you have all the gold you need to ransom them? We must preserve living vessels, not gold ones”.

There is true piety and false piety; there is genuine religiosity and phony religiosity; there’s faith that’s authentic and faith that’s a fraud. How do we tell the difference?

Does our piety make us kind, compassionate, caring, welcoming, generous, and loving? Does it make us a “man for others”? Does it bring us to closer communion with other persons? If so, then it’s real. If it doesn’t, then we have much work to do. After all, our calling is to become like Jesus, not like the Pharisees of his day, or our own.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

THE SILENCE OF GOD (Thinking about Haiti and finding no sense)

“…We believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining. We believe in God even when He is silent.”

The muteness of a God who seems too absent when evil rears its ugly head is an experience all too familiar to many of us. No matter how strong and resilient our faith, the experience of evil often creates a stumbling block to a complete trust in the power of Providence. Suffering, whether our own or others’ always serves to open the floodgates of questioning and doubt. Why? we ask. Why do we suffer? Why does God allow so much pain and misery?

This last question alone is already too great a slap on the face of a supposedly all-loving and all-powerful God. The situation confounds us. But to make matters worse, every time we ask why people suffer, we seem to be met by nothing more than a profound silence on God’s part. He doesn’t answer. Why is that? Fyodor Dostoyevski in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, makes one of his characters ask what could very well be our deepest lament at the heart of the experience of evil: “Pray tell me, what do the innocent have to do with it?”

The questioner, Ivan, speaks to his brother Alyosha, who happens to be a monk. He tells story after story of pain inflicted upon the innocent, and caps his litany with an account of a Russian general who had bloodhounds for pets. It so happened that one day, an eight-year old boy hurt the paw of one of the dogs. Furious, the general had the child seized, then the following day, before the eyes of the child’s horrified mother, had his soldiers strip the boy naked and had his dogs run after him and tear him to shreds.

Alyosha, unable to answer his brother’s question, could only stand in silence. Not even his faith, it seemed, could justify God in the face of such horror. At the end of the scene, Ivan tells his brother that he thus would want nothing to do with this absent God and that henceforth, he is “respectfully returning his entrance ticket into heaven”.

“God is all-good; God is all-powerful; Evil and suffering exist.” This seeming contradiction between a good and powerful God and the experience of evil has so perplexed philosophers and theologians for ages that it has become the quintessential expression of the dilemma facing believers. How do we justify belief in God in the face of overwhelming evil?

Evil wouldn’t be a problem if God were only good and not all-powerful. He’d still be a kind and compassionate God, but he just isn’t able to solve evil because he isn’t powerful enough. The same holds true if he were only all-powerful and weren’t all-good. He’d be powerful enough to rid the world of evil, but because he isn’t a compassionate God, he simply chooses to keep things the way they are. Neither idea can be taken alone. Isolated from the other, each is counter-intuitive, that is, it goes against every deep understanding we have of who and what God is. He’s got to be both all-good and all-powerful, or he isn’t God at all. And that’s where the problem lies.

Of course many would see no problem here at all. When confronted with suffering and evil, they choose to take refuge in the supposedly mysterious designs of God. “God’s ways are different from man’s”, is the usual retort. Suffering is part of the divine plan, inscrutable to us and to be fully understood only when everything is revealed in the afterlife.

“It’s God’s will”, is the traditional religious answer, as if this were enough to console the sorrowing. But it really doesn’t take much critical thinking to suspect that something isn’t quite right with the idea. For how could a good and loving God plan people’s lives in such a way that many of them would experience unspeakable pain? Did he plan AIDS, cancer, volcanic eruptions, violent and tragic deaths? Was the bombing of the World Trade Center on the 11th of September 2001 part of his “divine plan”? What a monster that God would be.

Not even the idea that “all things eventually work for the good”, fully assuages the brokenness of the human heart. A good and loving God simply will not and cannot “allow” evil to happen, and no amount of pious or theological platitudes can change that. But the fact is, evil does happen. Why doesn’t God do anything? Where was he on that fateful Tuesday morning?

We must not think the appeal to “God’s mysterious designs” when faced with evil, to be wrong. For in a way, that is eventually where all our finite attempts to understand evil and suffering are led. It may be unsatisfactory in the sense that it too easily surrenders our capacity to think things thoroughly and critically. But it does show us the enormous difficulty of grappling with the problem of evil and a good and powerful God.

It seems that without an appeal to mystery, we find it close to impossible to comprehend and accept that a God of power and compassion could not have done anything to stop the carnage of September 11. We ourselves are struck dumb whenever we try to understand the terror of evil vis-à-vis God’s power, after all the two seem completely irreconcilable. But could it be our way of understanding one part of the God-and-evil-equation that is dubious?

God’s power, we believe, is such that he can do anything and everything he wants. And not even the worst kind of evil can stand up to him if he wanted to eradicate it. It’s easy to see how this can lead us to ask why he doesn’t get rid of it. But the fact is, it represents a mistaken notion of what divine power means. It’s also one of the greatest theological errors of all time. Far from being a truly divine kind of power, it is rather the power of an almighty tyrant who is believed to be able to do anything at will. Far from representing a humble stance in the presence of the creator of the universe, it is actually an arrogant projection of what man wishes he himself possessed, i.e., the ability to mold existence according to his liking.

Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Feuerbach, and many other atheists were not exactly wrong in criticizing this idea of a tyrannical god. They aren’t alone. Many Christian thinkers agree that the real tragedy of evil is that in our wish to be spared from life’s heartaches, we tend to project onto God, an absolute power that can change anything. The supreme irony here of course that when we do face suffering and evil, we often find ourselves questioning why this power seemed absent when it was needed most.

The answer is because this God is hardly the Abba (Father), of Jesus Christ. Neither is it “the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. It’s an idol, a Golden Calf, like the one molded by the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It’s meant to give assurance and security, but as Marx correctly pointed out, it “robs us” of the power for good which the true God has given us. The hope it provides is a false one, a temporary relief, an “opiate”. A tyrannical God weakens humanity. It’s a convenient excuse for defaulting on our responsibility to do good to our fellowmen and women.
But more than that, this misguided idea of divine power has an even more treacherous and sinister side to it. For in the name of this tyrant-God, men throughout the ages have been killed and have killed. Intolerance, not compassion has been its hallmark. Crusades, inquisitions, gulags, lynch mobs, concentration camps, and terrorism, are but some of its fruits. Inauthentic religion has destroyed more lives throughout the ages than any other human institution.

The great monotheistic religions of the West: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are one in teaching a God of compassion. “Love” defines the Abba of Jesus Christ. In fact, any notion of power that can be gleaned from Christ’s teachings is always circumscribed within his teaching on “love”. It is what defines divine power in scripture. The Christian tenet that “God is love” is more than a pious slogan of a simplistic and saccharine religiosity. Rather, it is the foundation of a radical understanding of power that is one of the greatest contributions of Christianity to the evolution of human thought. Love is Christianity’s revolutionary philosophy of power. Sadly, traditional theology has often neglected this idea.

Understood in the context of divine love, power—in the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead—“neither rules nor is unmoved”. It’s a power, defined not by tyrannical control, but by taking the supreme “risk” of allowing “genuine freedom” in the world. It’s foundation is a “letting-be” and a “letting-go” for the sake of genuine growth. It’s perfect analogy is that of a parent, anxious and yet brave enough to risk letting go of a son or daughter trusting that this alone, despite the risks, will allow the child to come into his or her own.

God could lessen risk through greater control, but to do so would limit the potential of man towards the fullness of life. The greater the risk, the greater the possibility for suffering, but the greater the possibility for doing good as well. Gloria dei vivens homo—“the glory of God is humanity fully alive”, is a basic tenet of Christianity. Were God to lessen the risk at the root of suffering and evil, he would also be lessening human potential for fullness. That God would never do. He took a risk in giving us freedom, and it’s a freedom for good, but evil as well.

But wouldn’t this idea be just as unacceptable as a God who merely “allows” us to suffer? Isn’t it just an oblique way of saying the same thing? Some philosophers and theologians have even criticized it as creating a powerless God who can only stand in silence while creation suffers. Are we not left with the same situation with which we began—like Ivan Karamazov wanting nothing to do with a God who stands silent in the face of evil? Have we no choice but to also “return our entrance ticket into heaven?”

That God takes risks for creation to come into its own, is just one part of Christianity’s understanding of power. The other, and more important part, is God’s conscious entering into the mystery of suffering itself. Mystical theology calls it a theologia crucis—a “theology of the cross”. God, being unable to change the inexorable law of freedom and risk, chooses instead to enter into the very heart of the mystery of evil, and suffers himself. For Christians, the death of Christ on the cross is the embodiment of this divine tragedy which some mystics have spoken of as a “spear thrust at the very heart of God himself”.

The silence of God in the face of evil and suffering is not the silence of a God who chooses to abandon man when he is needed most. Neither is it the silence of a God who “carries” man as that overly pious “footsteps in the sand” analogy portrays. Rather it is a silence that represents a total participation human suffering. As such it is the most radical form of power there can be, for it does not explain away evil, but takes it up and transforms it.

This isn’t simply a Christian idea. The Nobel prize winner, Rabbi Elie Wiesel relates his profound experience of God’s silence in a Nazi concentration camp. For every prisoner that tried to flee, the Nazis would round up and hang ten people. Once, when a prisoner did try to escape, they rounded up ten men and one little boy. They were marched to the gallows and hanged. As he stared at those hapless individuals whose only fault was their being Jews, the rabbi said he couldn’t help but ask God where he was at that moment. He was met with silence.

Wiesel leaves, unable to bear the horror that was happening. Minutes later, he returns to see most of the men already dead. But the little boy was still alive, now turned blue, gasping for breath, his tongue sticking out. “How could God allow such suffering”, he wept. “Where are you, O God?” he asked. Silence. Then, the rabbi says, in that utterly profound and unbearable silence, he heard a voice deep inside him respond, “Here I am, dying in front of you.”

It's hard to hear the voice of a God who seems to always fall silent when his poor creation suffers in agony. It's difficult to hear his response to that question that arises deep down--"WHY?!"-- a howl of protest against his seeming absence. But then one realizes, his voice is muffled, because he suffers and weeps himself.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)