Saturday, February 27, 2010

Going beyond the minimum (Saturday, 1st Week of Lent, Mt. 5:43-48)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

* * * * * * * *

In many places in the gospels, Jesus reminds his disciples that he came not to abolish the law but to bring it to fulfillment. Nowhere perhaps is this seen more than in today’ gospel reading in which Jesus reminds us to go beyond what the law requires and not to be satisfied with merely obeying it.

Love of neighbor was a basic tenet of the Jewish faith, but the saying “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” also governed their relations with enemies. Jesus doesn’t question the soundness of these Jewish teachings. But he also exhorts his followers to go beyond them by loving the very enemies against whom they may want to seek revenge.

If we ourselves cannot transcend the most fundamental requirements of our religious obligations, Jesus asks, what merit is there to our actions? A faith that cannot see through the most basic of its requirements is a faith that is satisfied with the mere fulfilling of obligations. It could very well be a sincere kind of faith, but it certainly isn’t the kind that Jesus would like to see among his followers. We simply can’t allow ourselves to be satisfied with the bare minimum. As followers of Christ, we are constantly challenged to always do more.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Law is a 'means', not an 'end unto itself' (Friday, 1st Week of Lent, Mt. 5:20-26)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that
of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills
will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you, you will not be released
until you have paid the last penny.”

* * * * * * * *

The scribes and the Pharisees were the teachers and keepers of the Law. They were the also the ones who sought to zealously live out every single precept of their understanding of the Law of Moses which they managed to multiply into hundreds of rules that governed every single bit of people’s everyday lives.

One would therefore think that such expansion of the coverage of the Law would have made them acceptable to Jesus who, time and again, exhorted his disciples not to be satisfied with following the bare minimum of the Law.

Unfortunately, while the scribes and Pharisees multiplied the rules, they also held that a strict adherence to every single rule was enough to render a man righteous in the face of God.

This Jesus would not accept. His followers’ faith had to surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees who, while expanding the Law, were also satisfied with merely obeying each one of them, without transcending their requirements.

And how are the disciples to do this? By looking at the Law and asking themselves, what is the Law really asking for? What are our religious obligations really asking of us? Is it mere mechanical observance, or was it something more, something interior, something coming from the heart?

This was what Jesus wanted his disciples to imbibe, namely, the attitude of one who saw the Law for what it is, a means by which a person comes closer to God and his neighbor.

The Law isn’t an end in itself, nor should it be a hindrance to a person’s relationship with God and others. In this the scribes and Pharisees lacked, but in this Jesus admonishes us to be good at, to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A love that is always there (Thursday, 1st Week of Lent, Mt. 7:7-12)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.
“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”

* * * * * * * *

Jesus reminds his disciples of the tremendous love the Father has for them. It’s a love that only seeks what is good for his children. It’s a love that explains why at times, what we ask for is not what we receive. Yes, God’s ways are mysterious, the workings of his mind even more so. And part of this mystery is the care he gives to us which we sometimes fail to fully comprehend.

True enough, there are moments—sometimes even very difficult ones—when we ask God for assistance and find our prayers seemingly unanswered. And then we begin to wonder, if not doubt, about the providence of God and his care for us.

When moments such as these come, it would be good for us to remember the words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading. They are words meant to assure us, that although we sometimes fail to see God’s concern for us, it is there nonetheless, just as real as the sun which sometimes hides behind thick clouds on a rainy day.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Signs (Wednedsay, 1st Week of Lent, Lk. 11:29-32)

While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them,
“This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.
Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.
At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

* * * * * * * *

The Jews were constantly looking for “signs” that would provide some sort of proof of God’s continued presence in their world. From the time of their ancestors, Yahweh who had guided them out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the promised land, had led them with signs and wonders, some great and incomprehensible, like the parting of the red sea, others small and barely noticeable, like the gentle breeze out of which he spoke to the prophets.

Jesus presented himself as a man of God, and so it was natural for the Jews to look for some proof, some sign that he was the real thing and not another impostor, of which they’ve had many. But what most likely irked Jesus was not so much their asking for a sign, as much as the reason behind their looking for one. One who looks for signs can look for them because he wants to believe more, or because he simply doesn’t’ believe. These people were of the latter kind, and so no sign could really satisfy them and make them believe.

Here was Jesus, performing good deeds in their presence and they still refused to believe. For one who doesn’t believe, no sign will be enough. We too are like them at times, stubborn in our disbelief, failing to see the great and marvelous deeds God does in our everyday lives, unable to detect his presence because we have closed our eyes to him. Jesus challenges us then to open our eyes, for he is there in our midst, asking for us to pay attention to his presence.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Praying straight from the heart (Tuesday, 1st Week of Lent, Mt. 6:7-15)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This is how you are to pray:
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
“If you forgive men their transgressions,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men,
neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”

* * * * * * * *

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, and teaches them to call God, their “Father”, just as he calls him his “Father” as well. He reminds them of the importance of keeping their prayer sincere and straight to the point, not like the babbling of pagans who used to multiply words in the belief that if the gods got tired of them, they would finally grant the requests made.

God for Jesus is a loving Father who knows everything we need even before we ask them. The care that God has for the world and for us his sons and daughters is so great that we need not use flowery words in talking to him. There are times when because we think we have to use eloquent words in addressing God, and because we simply cannot find the right words, we choose not to talk to him at all. Our prayer becomes a choice between elaborate ritual or nothing at all.

The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples stands in between these two, and goes straight to the heart of the matter. God is a loving Father, and we as sons and daughters should not hesitate to talk to him straight from our hearts.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Knowing Jesus, personally (Feast of the Chair of Peter, Mt. 16:13-19)

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi
he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven

* * * * * * * * *

Jesus asks his disciples two very important questions in today’s gospel. Both of these questions go to the very heart of their relationship with him, and their understanding of who he is in their lives.

“Who do people say that I am?” he first asks. On the surface, he seems to be asking them what other people think about him. In essence though, the question was really directed to the disciples whom he had in fact sent earlier on to preach the message he gave them. What he really meant to ask the disciples was therefore: “What have others come to believe about me, on account of your witnessing to my message?”

Our relationship with Christ is always measured by how much others who come in contact with us, learn about Jesus himself. Our way of thinking, speaking, and acting always serve as a means by which others learn who Christ is. A disciples’ life is always meant to be a reflection of Christ.

But Jesus asks a second question: “Who do you say that I am?” There is no surface reading to this question. It goes right away to the heart of the disciples’ relationship with him. While they were given a task to preach the gospel, that task would only be meaningful, if they themselves knew Jesus in the most personal and profound way. Only those who know Christ well can truly bear witness to him.

In our case too, our witnessing with Christ will only be genuine and meaningful, if we have a personal relationship with him, if we know him in a deep and personal way. What we know about Jesus, and how well we know him, eventually lead to what others know about him through us.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The way of Christ means struggling to do what is right (First Sunday of Lent, Luke 4:1-13)

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
and: With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.

* * * * * * * * *

We read today of Jesus going to the desert to prepare himself for the work that lay ahead. The story goes that while in the desert, he had a vision of the suffering he would endure and the death he will face—all in the name of doing God’s will. And he found himself wondering whether he had the strength or the will to face it. That’s when the tempter shows up and says: “You want to save people? Why do it God’s way? Why torture yourself? I’ve got an easier way for you”. And he presents Jesus with three temptations: bread—the symbol of wealth and riches, power, and finally, fame and popularity.

Wealth, power, and fame are the world’s solutions to all our problems. The interesting thing is Jesus was himself tempted by them. Here he was, at the beginning of his ministry, being shown two ways of doing it: God’s way, which was tough and required much sacrifice, and the world’s way, which was quick, painless, and easy. Would you have chosen God’s way? Would I? Why would anyone want to do that?

In the story of Christ’s passion and death, no character is more fascinating and perhaps compelling than Judas Iscariot: the traitor, the betrayer, the man who sells his friend for thirty pieces of silver. Judas, we are told by bible scholars, probably loved Jesus more any other disciple. He was also the most intelligent of the group—which was why he was in charge of finances. Judas was also the one who was convinced, more than any of the disciples, that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Son of God. But Judas also wanted the Messiah to be a powerful, political, and popular earthly king who would restore Israel by destroying its enemies.

Judas believed in Jesus. But he found himself wondering more and more why Jesus seemed more interested in following the path of suffering and death, rather than the path of power and glory. And so in one last act of desperation, Judas betrays Jesus. Why? Because, like the devil in the gospel today, he wanted to force the hand of God. He believed that when Jesus was finally getting hurt, God would finally be forced to reveal to the world that Jesus was his son. And he would come down with all his angels to smite and destroy anyone who would dare hurt his son.

But Judas miscalculated. He completely misunderstood the identity of Christ. Like the devil, he wanted Jesus to choose the way of wealth, power, and fame. He wanted Jesus to choose the world’s way. Instead, Christ chose God’s way.

By saying ‘no’ to the world’s temptations, Christ had in fact sealed his fate: he was to suffer and die. But by doing so, he also affirmed once and for all, that he was God’s Son and secured for himself, God’s promise that after suffering and pain, there will be victory and everlasting joy.

Likewise, by saying ‘no’ to the temptations we encounter in our lives, we too seal our fate. For our life will be a constant struggle to do what is right. And that is never easy. But by doing so, we will, like Christ, affirm that we are sons and daughters of God, and not of the world. And in doing so, we secure for ourselves true greatness in this life and in the next—a greatness that wealth, power, and fame cannot buy.

Today, the first Sunday of Lent, Christ confronts us with a question: Will we choose the world’s way, or God’s way? The choice, of course, is ours.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

An end to prejudice (Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Luke 5:27-32)

Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house,
and a large crowd of tax collectors
and others were at table with them.
The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying,
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”

* * * * * * * *

Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) in the gospel reading today. He was a tax collector, and therefore a sinner and an outcast in Jewish society. Tax collectors were regarded with such great contempt by the ordinary Jews that anyone who befriended them was regarded as a sinner and an outcast himself. They were regarded as traitors to the nation because they collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. And many of them also resorted to all kinds of unscrupulous practices in order to increase their collections, having no qualms cheating their own countrymen. They gave to the Romans what they required, and kept the remainder to themselves.

Jesus’ association with Levi was therefore most scandalous to the ordinary Jew. But what made the situation even more scandalous was the fact that Jesus was regarded by many as a holy man, a devout and righteous Jew, a rabbi. Now those types don’t normally associate with sinners, lest they be branded as sinners themselves.

True to form, however, Jesus sought to abolish the deep-seated social and religious prejudices of his people. He was, after all, sent to seek "not the righteous, but sinners".

There are times in our lives when we too find ourselves giving in to biases and prejudices against people whom we consider unacceptable. Just imagine, if Jesus associated himself with those at the extreme margins of his society and religion, individuals whom no one would mind calling the “scum of the earth”, with whom would he be associating if he lived and walked in our world today?

In a world that still holds deep prejudices when it comes to race, gender, religion, social status, sexual orientation, education, and many others, we are reminded that Jesus' message of compassion, love, tolerance, and respect remains far more powerful than any bias and prejudice human beings set up.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Christian's 'realistic' joy (Friday after Ash Wednesday, Matt. 9:14-15)

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn
as long as the bridegroom is with them?
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.”

* * * * * * * * *

When Jesus was asked why he and his disciples did not practice fasting, he answered with a vivid picture. A wedding is always a time of special festivity.

So Jesus compares himself to the bridegroom and his disciples to the bridegroom's closest friends. How could a company like that be sad and grim? A wedding is not a time for fasting, but for the rejoicing. But Jesus does tell us two things in the gospel:

He tells us that to be his follower is to know the real meaning of joy. There’s simply no room for a gloomy kind of Christianity for a true disciple.

Together with this assurance, however, there is also a reminder about the reality of life.

“When the bridegroom is taken away, then they will fast”, Jesus says. He was being realistic. There is sadness and pain in life, and being Christ’s follower does not guarantee that we will never experience disappointment and suffering.

But what it does guarantee is that nothing in life, not even pain and suffering can take away the happiness that faith in Christ brings.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Cost of Discipleship (Thursday after Ash Wednesday, Lk. 9:22-25)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected
by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?”

* * * * * * * *

“There is no path to life except through the cross” is perhaps the best Christian translation of what Buddhists call the great noble truth: “All life is suffering”. The words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading are words that ring true for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. There is much joy in life, but there is also much sorrow and pain. And there are many who grow faint and lose heart. Struggle is part of human existence, for whether we like it or not, life is rarely what we would like it to be.

It is against the almost disheartening backdrop that Jesus reminds us that far from being a depressing truth, the suffering of life is actually a condition for following him as a disciple. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. Just as Jesus the Master suffered and died, so must the disciple following in his footsteps. There is no escaping suffering, there is no way to life except to the cross.

But that’s not the end of the story, not for Jesus Christ, and especially not for those who follow faithfully in his footsteps. For while the road to true discipleship cannot skip the cross, it is not on the cross that it ends, but in the resurrection. Suffering and death are not the final word in life, neither are they the final word in the life of a Christian. There may be no path to life except through the sufferings of life, but after these comes the promise of eternal life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes on the forehead: public declarations not of virtue, but of unworthiness (Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:1-6,16-18)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

* * * * * * * *

Isn’t it strange that we’re beginning the season of Lent with what is seemingly the exact opposite of what Jesus commands us in the gospel reading?

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them”, he reminds us. And yet the whole world will see our crosses as a mark of our piety. They will be there for everyone to see and to know that we’ve been to church today.

Still, the ashes on our forehead will not be a declaration of our virtue or piety. Instead they will represent a public declaration of our unworthiness, our sinfulness, our inadequacy and our need for God.

The crosses traced on our foreheads on this day proclaim not our goodness, but our sinfulness and our need for repentance.

It’s an admission that despite all our victories, successes and triumphs in life, we remain imperfect creatures in need of God’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

In this we hope to be different from the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees criticized by Jesus in tonight’s gospel. For their displays of faith and religiosity were meant to be no more than that: a display, for everyone to see.

We, however, wear our ashes, not to parade our piety, goodness and devotion, but to tell the whole world, and to remind ourselves especially, of how weak and incomplete our commitments can be at times: to God, to others, and to ourselves.

Wearing the cross of ashes, we proclaim not our virtue, but our dependence on God and our intention to look deep into ourselves this Lent and ask some very important questions:

Has my life been consistent with my being a follower of Christ? How much commitment have I given to my faith, to those who need me, to my church, and to my God?

The ashes on our forehead others will indeed see. But our answer to these questions will be ours alone—ours and our heavenly Father who will see in secret how we shall answer them over the next forty days of Lent.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Leap, and the net will appear." (Tuesday, Week VI in Ordinary Time, Mark 8:14-21)

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread,
and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.
Jesus enjoined them, “Watch out,
guard against the leaven of the Pharisees
and the leaven of Herod.”
They concluded among themselves that
it was because they had no bread.
When he became aware of this he said to them,
“Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread?
Do you not yet understand or comprehend?
Are your hearts hardened?
Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?
And do you not remember,
when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand,
how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?”
They answered him, “Twelve.”
“When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand,
how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?”
They answered him, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

* * * * * * * *

There’s a lot of humorous material in the bible. And today’s reading happens to be one of my favorite funny stories in the New Testament.

You got the crazy disciples, always thinking about food. Remember how they got Jesus in trouble once for snacking on the grains on a field one Sabbath? Well today, in a boat, with Jesus presumably speaking about something serious, and no doubt in a grave and somber tone of voice, telling them: “Beware of the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees…” he hears them whispering to each other. “Is he talking about food?” “Man, we didn’t bring extra bread. Are we in trouble again?”

Jesus must’ve overheard their conversation and says: “Why are you guys always thinking about food?” Have you forgotten how I fed thousands a few days ago?”

The humor aside though, Jesus is telling the disciples something very important in the gospel. He warns them of what he calls the “leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod”. For the Jews, leaven is a symbol for evil, which is why Passover bread is unleavened. It’s a symbol for something so small yet manages to affect the entire whole.

The leaven of Herod and the Pharisees was their unbelief that poisoned them to the teachings of Jesus. For the disciples in that boat, it was something else, something that we all face from time to time: the “leaven” of “worry”. The disciples were so worried about not having bread, and so Jesus gently reminds them that he had just fed thousands with five loaves and two fish.

Worry, like leaven, is something that begins as a tiny portion. It’s a small uneasiness inside us. But then it grows and, if we leave it unchecked, it could spread and poison our minds and spirits, paralyzing us.

Years ago, when I started teaching I had a student who was in quite bright and hardworking. Yet he was always extremely worried about exams. I always thought that he was just scaring himself. And in fact, I knew that he would tell other seminarians how worried he was about exams. During our oral exam, the first thing I noticed when it was his turn to give his presentation, was that he was literally sitting on the edge of his seat. He kept taking deep breaths and was obviously too scared.

The thing is, the more I tried to be helpful and kind and gentle in my questioning, the more he got worried and scared, until the poor kid probably couldn’t take it any more, without him realizing it, he grabbed my cup of coffee sitting on my desk and began taking sips from it. I guess he forgot that he didn’t have a cup when he came in the office. He just sat there sipping coffee, unable to answer. Poor thing was totally mortified when he realized what he did.

When he was ordained four years ago, he sent me a card, which I’ve carried around with me and put in a small frame. It hangs by the door in my room. “Leap”, the card says, “and the net will appear”.

Leap and the net will appear. One who puts his faith in Jesus will have nothing to fear, because he knows that if he does take that leap, there will be something there to catch him.

Worry does absolutely nothing to help us. In fact, all it does is mess us up. It adds nothing to us, and in fact drains us of energy. This is true not only of our studies or our life in seminary; it is true of all life.

A Christian author once said: “The cure for worry is to crowd it out of your head. Crowd it out with faith, with confidence, and with trust: in yourself, in your abilities, and finally, in God.

The next time you find yourselves worrying about anything, just remember those words: “Leap, and the net will appear”.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Discovering God's 'Signs' in the Ordinary (Monday, Week VI in Ordinary Time, Mark 8:11-13)

The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus,
seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.
He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said,
“Why does this generation seek a sign?
Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Then he left them, got into the boat again,
and went off to the other shore.

* * * * * * * * *

The whole tendency of the age in which Jesus lived was to look for God in the abnormal. It was believed for instance that when the Messiah came the most startling and shattering things would happen. However, when false messiahs did arise back then, they lured people to follow them by promising them astonishing signs. The would promise, for instance, to divide the waters of the Jordan river and to leave a pathway through it, or they would promise, with a word, to make the walls of the city collapse. It was a sign like this that the Pharisees were demanding. They wished to see some shattering event blazing across the sky, defying the laws of nature and astonishing people.

To Jesus, such a demand was not due to their desire to see the hand of God at work, but rather due to the fact that they were blind to the hand of God. For him the whole world was full of the signs of God. We saw him use them to speak of the Kingdom of God during so many occasions: the corn in the field, the leaven in the loaf, the fishermen’s nets, and the ordinary people to whom he preached. All of these things spoke to him of God.

Jesus did not think that God had to break in, in some staggering, mind-boggling way, from outside the world. GOD, FOR HIM, WAS ALREADY PRESENT IN AND AT WORK, IN THE WORLD. God is already in the world, for anyone who had eyes to see.

The sign of the truly religious individual is not so much that he or she comes to Church to find God but that he or she finds God everywhere. The sign of the truly religious individual is not so much that he or she makes a great deal of sacred places, but that he or she sanctifies common places.

God, after all, is the God of the common and ordinary, in much the same way that he is the God of the uncommon and extraordinary. The Eucharist is proof of this truth. Ordinary bread and wine, changed into the body and blood of Christ; ordinary men and women, coming together to be transformed into the same Body, with Christ as Head. Ordinary men and women, with their joys and pains, triumphs and defeats, strengths and weaknesses, happiness and our heartaches, sins, and woundedness -all transformed by Jesus into a people fit to offer our whole selves to God. What more proof does one need?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Jesus' "way" or that of the world? (Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 6:17, 20-26, "The Beatitudes")

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false

* * * * * * * * *

The Sermon on the Mount which contains the so-called “Beatitudes” has some of what are perhaps the most puzzling words of Jesus in the Bible. If we read each of the Beatitudes carefully, we will notice that each one seems to be the complete opposite of how we normally understand what being “blessed” or “happy” means. For how indeed can “poverty” make one happy? How can hunger, meekness, mercy, peace-making, persecution, and bearing insult make one happy?

On the surface, the sermon seems more like a recipe for disappointment and frustration instead of happiness. And as a guide for living a good life, they seem more like instructions for failure rather than fulfillment and success. Not only do they seem difficult, if not impossible, they actually sound a bit unreasonable.

The fact, however, is that the Sermon on the Mount shows how Jesus understands the incompatibility of the standards of this world with the standards of God’s kingdom. “The ways of the world are not God’s ways”. The way of the world can never lead us to heaven.

In effect, what Jesus is saying is that the things the world holds dear, heaven usually holds in contempt; and the things the world detests, heaven usually holds in high regard. The values of this world are different from the values of God’s Kingdom, and those of us who seek entry into this kingdom must learn to keep our sight on its lasting values. We have to hold on to these values, however difficult it can sometimes be.

The so-called ‘Beatitudes’ in today’s gospel brings us face to face with a choice we must make throughout our lives. Do we take the easy way which yields immediate pleasure and profit? or, will we take the hard way which yields immediate toil and sometimes suffering? Do we concentrate on the rewards of this world? or, do we concentrate on Christ? If we take the way of the world, we cannot but abandon the values of Christ. If we take Christ's way, we must abandon the values of the world.

Jesus had no doubt which way brought happiness ultimately. As one Christian writer said, "Jesus promised his disciples three things--that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy and in constant trouble."

While we must all try to make the world a better place, the fact remains that it isn’t our real home. It is Jesus' teaching that the joy of heaven will be more than enough to compensate for our troubles here on earth. As Paul says, “The afflictions we experience here are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2Cor.4:17).

The challenge of the beatitudes is simple: "Will I be happy according to the way of the world, or according to the way of Christ?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Loaves, fish, and a miracle of sharing (Saturday, Week V in Ordinary Time, Mark 8:1-10)

In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a great distance.” His disciples answered him, “Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy them here in this deserted place?” Still he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They replied, “Seven.” He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute, and they distributed them to the crowd. They also had a few fish. He said the blessing over them and ordered them distributed also. They ate and were satisfied. They picked up the fragments left over–seven baskets. There were about four thousand people.

* * * * * * * *

How do we explain the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish? Feeding all those people with such limited food is simply mind-boggling, it almost sounds impossible. There are two ways of trying to explain it.

One is to say that Jesus literally miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish such that all five thousand people were fed, with twelve baskets of leftovers. For the Son of the all-powerful God that is certainly not impossible. But there could be another way of understanding the event.

Surely all those people who came to hear Jesus brought some food for their journey. They certainly wouldn’t have walked all that way without taking food for their trip. But it may be that none of them wanted to share what he had.

It may therefore be that Jesus, with his ability to draw the best from people, produced the five loaves and fish his disciples gave him, and simply began sharing it with those around him. Perhaps, seeing this, everyone who had something began doing the same, until eventually everyone was sharing what they were earlier hoarding. In the end, there was more than enough for everyone.

It may be that this is a miracle in which Jesus was able to change a group selfish people into a community of sharers. It may be that this story represents the biggest miracle of all—one that didn’t only change loaves and fishes, but the hearts of men and women.

Whether we understand the story as a literal miracle or a symbolic one, the lesson is the same: when we encounter Jesus, we are always drawn out of ourselves and encouraged to share, not from our excess, but from what we have, however limited this might be at times.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The tender considerateness of Christ (Friday, Week V in Ordinary Time, Mark 7:31-37)

Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. 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. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

* * * * * * * * *

On a number of occasions, I’ve had people tell me in Confession that they haven’t been back to the sacrament for a number of years because they didn’t have a very good experience the last time. Now that’s unfortunate. But what’s even more unfortunate is that on several occasions, their reasons for staying away from the sacrament are similar: “the priest was mean”, “the priest was cross”, one time even, “the priest yelled at me”.

No matter how smart we are, how knowledgeable we are about the doctrines of the faith, no matter how well-versed we are in the teachings of the bible or the demands of canon law, if we aren’t able to meet people in a way that puts them at ease and makes them feel welcome, we fail at our task of bringing Christ to them, and bringing them to Christ.

The substance of our faith is of course important. We must know our scriptures. We must know our theology. We must know the teachings and commandments of the church. But the way by which we package all these, the way by which we communicate them to people—is just as important. As Fr. Alvarez never tires of reminding us, “meeting people where they’re at” is an essential ingredient in ministry. Without it, we will only turn people off from Christ.

But how do we do that? We only have to look at how Jesus treated the deaf man in today’s gospel reading. Here was a great and important man, someone everyone was running after, someone who had the power to heal. And yet the gospel tells us of Jesus’ act of such tender considerateness towards someone who needed him. “He took him off by himself away from the crowd”, the reading tells us.

The deaf man for Jesus was not just a “case” needing attention, or a “client”, or “customer”. No, he was someone that at that moment, needed Jesus special attention. And he gave it to him completely.

Have you ever met people who give you their full attention when you’re with them? I’ve been fortunate to meet such kinds of priests in seminary. These are persons whom you just know are there for you a hundred percent. When you talk to them, it’s as if you’re the only person that matters. It was said of Pope John Paul that when he met with people in private, he always made them feel like they were the most important person in the world.

The example of Jesus in today’s gospel reading is an invitation for all of us to be that kind of person, that kind of priest. People must feel welcome when they’re with us. They shouldn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable. They should feel at ease. And most of all, they must feel that we are there for them, a hundred percent: not as mere clients, or customers, or students. But as a person sent to us by God for us to welcome and treat in the way Jesus treated the deaf man in the gospel.

There are priests that put people at ease and those who don’t. There are priests that are warm and welcoming, and those who aren’t. Which one would you rather be?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

All children of a loving Father (Thursday, Week V in Ordinary Time, Mark 7:24-30)

Jesus went to the district of Tyre. He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice. Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the childrenand throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to him,“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

* * * * * * * * *

Why would Jesus say such seemingly nasty words to this gentile woman who begs him to cure her daughter? However we look at it, the words seem so unkind that we have to wonder if Jesus actually spoke them. What we do know—according to bible scholars—is that the Gospel writer was trying to make a very important point by telling this rather unusual story.

The Jews of Jesus’ time had a very negative view of those who weren’t Jews. Samaritans and Gentiles were lumped together and often regarded as “dogs”. Only Jews were acceptable to God, only Jews were clean and worthy. Other human beings were simply that—“dogs”.

By putting these words into Jesus’ mouth, Mark—the author of the gospel—wanted to acknowledge the fact that as Jew, Jesus belonged to a race who had a negative view of others.

And yet, Jesus went beyond this negative view and in fact praised the woman’s faith and granted her request. This action of Jesus is the real point of the gospel, not the seemingly harsh words he used at first.

Recall that in yesterday’s gospel, Jesus judged all foods clean and acceptable. Today he takes that teaching one step further and says no person can ever be regarded as unacceptable to God. We are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of but one Father. In Christ, we are all the same, no one is a stranger, no one is to be refused help, even if at times, we don’t like one another, and sometimes even call each other unkind names.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What comes from within (Wednesday, Week V in Ordinary Time, Mark 7:14-23)

Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,“Hear me, all of you, and understand.Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;but the things that come out from within are what defile.” When he got home away from the crowdhis disciples questioned him about the parable.He said to them,“Are even you likewise without understanding?Do you not realize that everythingthat goes into a person from outside cannot defile,since it enters not the heart but the stomachand passes out into the latrine?”(Thus he declared all foods clean.)“But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him.From within the man, from his heart,come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,adultery, greed, malice, deceit,licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.All these evils come from within and they defile.”

* * * * * * * * *

In effect, what Jesus was saying in this gospel passage was that things cannot be either clean or unclean in any real religious sense of the word. Only persons can really be defiled; and what defiles a person is his own actions which are the products of his own heart. This was, during that time, a shatteringly new doctrine for the Jews who had a long list of things, behaviors, and animals that were regarded as unclean. With one sweeping pronouncement Jesus declared the entire system irrelevant and that uncleanness has nothing to do with what a person takes into his body but everything to do with what comes out of his heart. For one's actions, attitudes, and behavior spring from a heart that is either abundant and full or impoverished and empty.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"What is essential is invisible to the eye" (Tuesday, Week V in Ordinary Time, Mark 7:1-13)

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts”.

* * * * * * * * * *

Never underestimate the power of appearance. It creates an initial and often important impression. And human nature being what it is, the way a person appears or the way a thing is packaged often counts for much. The billion-dollar advertising industry is proof of that. We usually judge things to be pleasant or not, desirable or otherwise, based on how they appear to us—at least initially. And yet, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel reading, appearance only goes so far. It may indeed be important, but in the end, there’s always more to things, and people, than first meets the eye. And it is this, often hidden part of us that really counts.

In his book “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint Exupery puts these words in the mouth of one of his characters: “What is essential is invisible to the eye. It is seen only by the heart”. This perhaps is what the Pharisees often forgot. It is what made their religion, a religion of externals. It was one big show; and they were all hypocritical show-offs. Their piety was all directed outside—for others to see, for people to praise them. It wasn’t meant to give glory to God. It was meant to earn them praise from people.

This type of religiosity, God finds offensive. “It is justice I desire, not sacrifice,” he says in Scripture. What’s the point of external acts of faith, if there’s no substance to it underneath?

It’s what lies in one’s heart that counts. External displays of faith or religion—though not unimportant—must always coincide with what’s going on inside us. A good exterior does not always guarantee a good interior. But when the inside is good, one can more or less be certain that it will manifest itself in outward goodness.

This is what true virtue is—when a good act is a genuine manifestation of a good heart. And most of the time this is invisible. “What is essential is invisible to the eye”. Philosophers sometimes speak of the “anonymity of the truly ethical person”. The most ethical individuals, they say, are those who do good when there’s nobody around to see the good they’re doing. What is true of morals, is true of faith and religiosity as well. The genuinely religious and faith-filled person is one who is true to his faith and religion, even when there’s no one around; in fact, he is true, especially when there’s no one around.

Monday, February 8, 2010

To give God something once in a while (Monday, Week V in Ordinary Time, Mark 6:53-56)

After making the crossing to the other side of the sea,Jesus and his disciples came to land at Gennesaretand tied up there. As they were leaving the boat, people immediately recognized him. They scurried about the surrounding country and began to bring in the sick on matsto wherever they heard he was. Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered,they laid the sick in the marketplacesand begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed.

* * * * * * * *

No sooner had Jesus landed on the other side of the lake than once again he was surrounded by crowds. Just sometimes he must have looked on the crowds with a certain wistfulness, because there was hardly a person in them who had not come to get something out of him. They came to get. They came with their insistent demands. They came—to put it bluntly—to use him. What a difference it would have made, if among these crowds, there had been some few who came to give and not to get. In a way, it is natural that we should come to Jesus to get things from him, for there are so many things that he alone can give; but it is always shameful to take everything and to give nothing in return, and yet it is very characteristic of human nature. If we examine ourselves, we are all, to some extent, guilty of treating God in such manner from time to time. It would perhaps give him tremendous joy if on certain occasions, we come to him, not so much to ask something for ourselves, but to simply offer him our love, our service, and our devotion.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The enemy of faith isn't disbelief; its fear (5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 5:1-11)

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listeningto the word of God,he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.He saw two boats there alongside the lake;the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore.Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”Simon said in reply,“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,but at your command I will lower the nets.”When they had done this, they caught a great number of fishand their nets were tearing.They signaled to their partners in the other boatto come to help them. They came and filled both boatsso that the boats were in danger of sinking.When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized himand all those with him,and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee,who were partners of Simon.Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid;from now on you will be catching men.”When they brought their boats to the shore,they left everything and followed him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Life seems easy when we’re in control. Every so often though, we do lose control. We get disappointed. These disappointments range from the very small to the very big. There are always two possible responses when life throws us a curve ball: (1) Become bitter and lose faith and trust, in God and in ourselves, or (2) Trust God all the more and let him take the driver’s seat.

Peter and his fellow fishermen—hadn’t got a catch the entire night, then Jesus comes along making a suggestion. Why should Peter listen? There were two things going against listening to Jesus’ suggestion: (1) Jesus was no fisherman. He was a carpenter. What did a carpenter know about fishing? (2) Peter had already told Jesus that they had been fishing all night with no success.

And yet Peter chose to listen to Jesus and put his trust in him, even if he wasn’t himself too sure. In the end, his trust paid off. They caught a lot of fish almost breaking their nets.

God cannot show us great and amazing things, God cannot let us experience the great adventure of life in its fullness unless we insist on being in the driver’s seat and controlling everything: ourselves, other people, even God.

But that’s not always easy to do. Control gives us a sense of security. We know what we want, we know how to get it. The opposite of trust is not the lack of trust. The enemy of faith is not disbelief. The opposite of trust and the enemy of faith is fear. We refuse to “let go” because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of failing; we’re afraid that we might not make it. We’re afraid that our effort might not be enough. In fact, we’re sometimes even afraid that God’s effort will not be enough.

And that’s perfectly understandable. When Moses came to God asking him to give water to the Israelites who were wandering in the desert, God told Moses to strike the rock once and water will flow. But Moses was so afraid that he might fail, that the people will revolt, that even God might fail, and so what does he do? He strikes the rock twice. Just to make sure, perhaps. And God, of course, didn’t like that one bit. It showed that even someone as great as Moses could, every once in a while, experience fear and consequently, lose a little bit of trust.

Can we give up control and let God be in the driver’s seat of our lives? It can be scary, because like Moses we sometimes think that even God might fail.

The thing is, unless we can become like Peter, and put our trust in God completely, trust that God knows what he’s doing even if we feel doubtful sometimes, we will never really know what great and amazing things God has in store for us.

Saint Paul in his second Letter to the Corinthians tells us: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has ready for those who love him”. Unless we “let go”, and let God be in control of our lives, we will find ourselves again and again, frustrated, disappointed. And we will never experience that great adventure of life that God has in store for us.

Let go then. Let God be in control. There is nothing to fear.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Living for Others (Saturday, Week IV in Ordinary Time, Mark 6:30-34)

"When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd,his heart was moved with pity for them,for they were like sheep without a shepherd;and he began to teach them many things".

* * * * * * * * * *

There are many good and wonderful things that one learns in the years he spends in the seminary. There is much growth, development, and personal improvement that one experiences through the many programs, activities, assessments and tasks that the seminary provides. In many ways, a seminary ‘pulls’ and ‘stretches’ a student in all sorts of directions in order to see how much of his potential can be realized—all for his personal good as well as the good of the church.

Good seminary programs are structured in a way that would allow those passing through them to become well-rounded, mature, cultivated and intelligent young men who will one day become effective ministers of the church. Do not wonder then if at times you would feel yourselves ‘swamped’ with a thousand-and-one things to do or attend to in seminary. And avoid as much as possible, the temptation to complain too much that you can no longer seem “to find time” for yourselves. Believe me, it’s early training, and good too. For when you do get ordained, one of the things you’ll discover you have to live with and accept, and later on appreciate perhaps, is the fact that there will really be very little time for yourself. Your day will be largely filled with activities, some of which you yourself arrange, but many still will be arranged for you by others.

Naturally, you will be expected to learn to keep everything ‘balanced’ as you go through it all. This means that as a seminarian now and later on as a priest, it is the expectation that while you will know how to set aside time for yourself: for prayer, rest and relaxation, reading and study, for a hobby here and there, the greater portion of your time will still be spent “laboring in the vineyard”, where there is indeed much to be done. While we must never neglect our personal needs—otherwise we risk frustration and burnout—the fact remains that as priests, God’s people come first. However good, effective, and efficient we might be as priests, our first and utmost priority must always be the service we render people, whatever shape or form that might take in our day-to-day living out of our ministry.

People come first. They always come first, within reasonable limits of course. But this statement, more than simply telling us that we should do as much good as we can for others, is actually an invitation to consider why in fact a priest (and a student preparing to become one) does the service that he does. And the answer is really very simple: that’s what a priest is. He’s “a man for others”. Take away all the trappings and peripherals that often hide who we are and what we do, strip away the layers of titles and degrees and honors and positions that “come with the territory” and you will get to what is really the heart and core of what a priest is meant to be.

Living for others is a priest’s calling. In fact that’s what (hopefully) attracted him to the priesthood to begin with. “Living for others” is the raison-d’etre of everything we do in seminary from the very first thing you do when we get up in the morning, to the last prayer we say before retiring at night. The “other” is the ever-present glue that holds together our entire life as a seminarian and as a priest. The desire to “live for others” is also the ever-present spirit that should direct all our efforts, activities, and goals in seminary formation. Seminary students are young men who are being formed to be “other-centered” persons. As priests, this orientation towards others is absolutely indispensable in living our calling as ministers of the gospels and servants of Christ’s flock. There is simply no alternative.

In our concrete day-to-day life in seminary, however, it is sometimes difficult to fully understand or even be reminded of this. How in fact does living in seminary make one a “man-for-others”? Do not imagine this to be an easily answered question, for we know only too well that while the seminary tries to train us in generosity, hospitality, and service-orientedness, there is also much in seminary that makes us turn too much towards ourselves. The ever-present admonition in seminary to “be mindful of oneself”—meaning to understand oneself, one’s strengths, weaknesses, sins, etc.—is meant for our good. The constant reminder to us to look into our hearts and souls is meant, we are told, to “purify one’s intentions” and rid us slowly of things in us that do not befit a future servant of the church. But like any good thing in this world, there is also a ‘downside’ to this admonition, and that is it could degenerate into unnecessary ‘navel-gazing’ and an introspection that loses touch with its original goal—to rid oneself of the ‘self’ in order to live for others.

This exercise in the seminary contains a tremendous paradox—going into oneself in order to lose that very self so that one can live no longer for himself but for others. And it is precisely because of this paradox that we can get waylaid at times and forget that “going into oneself” is meant to allow us to “lose that very self” eventually. But it doesn’t happen for everybody, and despite outward appearances and talk about “living for others” and “serving others”, they remain mired in concern for the self. Be careful then, and be awake to the dangers inherent in analyzing yourself, however well-intended such activity might be, for you may lose yourself in the labyrinth of selfhood and never get out.

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates thousands of years ago. While agreeing with the father of western philosophy, however, we must also add: “The overly-examined life is not worth living either”. For the basic nature of the human being—actually of all created things—is to live “outside oneself”. Remember those seemingly worn-out clichés about us being “social animals”, and that “no-man-is-an-island”? Well, they’re more than clichés, they’re an articulation of a basic fact of all life. We only find our true self by losing it, and although losing it initially requires us to immerse ourselves in an understanding of it, we must never forget that this initial immersion is no more than a means to a ‘selfless’ end. It’s never the final point of the exercise. Kenosis—the Greek word for the “self-emptying” activity whereby God incarnated himself as one of us—must always remain the pattern of a seminarian’s life, now and later on as a priest.

These ideas do sound high and abstract: kenosis, “self-emptying”, “other-orientation”. Too lofty, they seem most difficult to reach, which is probably why most either give up somewhere along the way, or simply reject it as too naïve and idealistic a goal. It really isn’t though. In fact it’s quite readily achievable, but it does take constant practice, and it requires consistency. How? Through what we can call “the art of being thoughtful”. You see, thoughtfulness is a virtue so simple, and yet so rare, especially in our society and world today where people seem too preoccupied with personal needs, wants, worries and concerns.

Thoughtfulness is the key to steering a middle-ground between being consistently mindful of our selves and the need to be constantly on guard against the danger inherent to it. Thoughtfulness is what can enable us to live the “examined life” and the “other-oriented life” at the same time. And it is an art, which means it isn’t something we naturally become. While even the human (and some natural sciences) today tell us that our very nature as individuals is “socially-oriented”, that’s just a seed. Nurturing it requires a lot of effort on our part, a daily, even hourly effort. Concretely, this means “thinking of the other person” first, putting the other person first, caring for and loving the other person first, with the firm realization that only in this way do we then manage to genuinely know and love ourselves.

When you get up in the morning, put yourself into that mode of thinking by telling yourself “I will do good to and for someone today. I will actively seek out persons to help and support. I won’t wait for people to come to me seeking my assistance. I won’t be nosy, but I will look for good deeds to do”. And throughout the rest of the day, do not only seek out good things to do for others, be mindful as well of how your actions, decisions, and choices affect them. This doesn’t mean that others will determine what you will decide, choose, or do, but it does mean that others—and your “thoughtfulness” of them—will become a genuine ingredient in what you do, eventually leading to a situation whereby “thoughtfulness of the other” becomes a genuine ingredient in who and what you are.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The church is strongest when it is weak, wealthiest when it is poor (Thursday, Week IV in Ordinary Time, Mark 6:7-13)

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by twoand gave them authority over unclean spirits.He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick–no food, no sack, no money in their belts.They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic.He said to them,“Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there.Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you,leave there and shake the dust off your feetin testimony against them.”So they went off and preached repentance.The Twelve drove out many demons,and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

* * * * * * * * *

This morning I learned from a classmate that the Vermont diocese is selling its chancery to pay settlement for abuse cases. I know the bishop of the diocese personally; he’s a very good man. It was sad to learn of this awful turn of events. How tragic, I thought, to once again be faced with the horror of ruined lives on the part of the victims of abuse. There is simply no fathoming the depth of an abuse victim's pain. How difficult it must be for the bishop who inherited the mess, how painful it must be to the people of the diocese to see the resources they built up over the years, resources meant to further the church's mission, be used to atone for the sins of the priests they trusted. Selling a chancery, the local church's 'nerve center', what a loss! But then I remembered the gospel this morning.

"He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick, no food, no sack, no money in their belts".

When you really think about it though, and take history seriously, the ages of the church's widest expansion and the times of its greatest spiritual and religious influence in the lives of its people has always been when it was dirt poor, marginalized, and treated as a second class citizen.

The loss of its belongings, its poverty have never been the church's enemies but its strongest ally. Perhaps all this loss of worldly possessions, sad, tragic, and even depressing as it might be, is the Spirit's way of telling us to go back to our roots. And until such time when we finally get what he's trying to say, he will continue to bleed us out of the wealth and power that continue to blind us.

The church is most powerful when it is weak, wealthiest when it is poor, and most influential when it embraces not the powerful forces of society, but its weakest, most abused, neediest, and most despised members; because when it does, it embraces not the world, but Christ.

How easily we forget.

"He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick, no food, no sack, no money in their belts".

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We are free to accept God's gifts, but free to refuse them as well (Wednesday, Week IV in Ordinary Time, Mark 6:1-6)

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor
except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.He was amazed at their lack of faith.

* * * * * * * * * *

Freedom has got to be one of the greatest gifts that God has given the human person. The ancient Greeks did not believe in the creation of the world. The universe, they believed, had simply always existed. This was due in no small amount to their idea that if there were in fact a Supreme Reality or a Supreme Being, it’s perfect and unchangeable nature would not allow it to create. Creation, which involves a desire or a willingness to create, involves a change in the one who creates, and this they regarded as a sign of defect. But one Greek philosopher did come up with an idea that would somehow allow for the Supreme Being to be the cause of the world, without having to will to create it. His name was Plotinus. According to him, the Supreme Reality simply ‘overflowed’ and thus did all things come to be. But this overflowing or, as he called it, ‘emanation’, was not something willed. Rather, it was simply a necessity of the overflowing and emanating nature of this Supreme Reality.

This theory did two things: it allowed Plotinus to somehow speak of a Supreme Reality as the source of all things, but it also allowed him to bypass the need to posit change in the nature of this Supreme Being. All things flowed from him, but he did not have to will them. The universe ‘simply happened’, flowing from this Being’s overabundance. The downside to all this of course is that this Supreme Reality which does not create or will to create, is also a being that possesses no freedom at all. The flow of all things from it happened ‘by necessity’, not ‘by its own will’. It had no choice; it had to overflow; it had to emanate.

Christianity, which adopted much of the ancient Greek philosopher’s way of thinking, made use of these ideas. Saint Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of the church, made extensive use of the thought of Plotinus. But there was something that Christianity modified and transformed. God indeed is superabundant. His goodness overflows. And it is out of such overflowing goodness, that he created everything that exists. Like the Supreme Reality of Plotinus, all things come from him. But unlike this Greek philosopher’s Supreme Being, the Christian God “willed” to create. He was not a being who had no choice but to create. He was “free” to create; and he freely willed to do so. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Augustine and subsequent Christian thought will argue that God the Creator of all things, is free. And because the human person is made in his image and likeness, this freedom which the Creator possesses in a maximal way, is possessed by the human person in a limited way. Freedom is God’s gift to his beloved creation, and it’s a gift that he will never take away.

This means that God will never force us to do what we do not wish to do. God’s love, as one philosopher states, is “non-coercive”. It guides and leads, urges and directs. But it will never compel us to do something we do not want. God will never take away from us, his most precious gift. Conversely, however, this also means that God will never force us to accept good things if we refuse them. He will not force us to receive healing if we are simply unwilling to receive it. And he cannot save us if we deny him the opportunity to do so.

“He was not able to perform any mighty deed there… He was amazed at their lack of faith”. These two lines from the gospel reading sum it all up. Jesus had come offering the people of his native place, the gift of his presence and his words. God stood in their midst, offering his very self to them. All they had to do was freely accept this most marvelous of gifts. They could have done so. He was one of them. They were his own people. They knew him, and he knew them. In fact they knew him quite well. They knew his family. They knew his background. Surely they knew that this man standing before them was a good human being. And they were in fact astounded by his wisdom and great deeds—initially at least. Alas, their familiarity, rather than enabling them to see more clearly the gift God had placed right there before them, instead led them to regard him with contempt. Unable to see beyond the ordinary and familiar, they failed to see and acknowledge the extraordinary and amazing. “Is this not the carpenter?” they asked. “Isn’t this the son of Mary?” Surely, there can be nothing more to him than that.

They were free to acknowledge the gift. They were free to accept it. But they refused. And with that refusal—a totally free act on their part—the possibilities for God to do anything more were closed. There was nothing more that God could do to or for them, because he could not force them to accept what they simply refused. Freedom is a gift. Through it and with it, we can receive the most awesome and amazing blessings from God. But it can also be a 'millstone around our necks', even a curse, if we choose to freely refuse what God has to offer, in which case, we tie God’s hands, leaving him with no possibility to “perform any mighty deed” for us, and leaving us, with nothing but our freedom, to fend for ourselves.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In God's own time, I know his promises shall be fulfilled. (Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Feb. 2, 2010, Luke 2:22-32)

At Eucharist this morning, as the candles were being lit and blessed at the beginning of the liturgy, for some strange reason, I found myself—for just a brief couple of seconds that nevertheless seemed to span an eternity—not inside the chapel of St. John Vianney Seminary, but under that huge tree that stood in the courtyard of the seminary back home, in Manila, many years ago. It was the second of February, Candlemas, or as it has come to be known after the Council, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. I wasn’t a concelebrant at mass but a young seminarian, new to the kinds of liturgical celebrations that were to become an integral part of the new life I had entered

I was there, with other seminarians, standing around the priest (who it was exactly I couldn’t remember) as he said the prayer of blessing, arms outstretched, a seminarian standing on his right him holding the bucket of holy water. Three others stood on his left, one holding the processional cross, the two others carrying processional torches. We were under this huge tree, its canopy covering a good portion of the area where the first part of the ritual was to take place. It was very early in the morning, and while there was an undeniable humidity in the air, there was a cool and gentle breeze that constantly threatened to put out the flames of the candles we were each holding.

I closed my eyes this morning, and I was there, thrown back to a time when this life was new, when I had yet much to learn about seminary life, the priesthood, philosophy, theology, or the church. The morning air was fresh, and so was this new adventure, and in many ways, so was I. As the music began playing this morning though, my very brief flashback came to an end, and I was back at the chapel of St. John’s, eleven years ordained, and concelebrating mass. As I stood there behind father-rector who presided, I glanced at the faces of these young men, seminarians, all 68 of them. I was one of them once, like Jesus in the day’s gospel. Well, not quite, because he was an infant when his parents brought him to the Temple. Still, he was young, his story had just begun. Just like these young men in front of us. Just as I was at that Candlemas many years ago.

This morning though, I felt more like the old man Simeon. The gospel says he was constantly in the Temple, awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise that he wouldn’t die without first seeing the promised Savior. And Candlemas celebrates the fulfillment of that promise, just as it celebrates Jesus’ presentation by his parents at the Temple. Taking the infant in his arms, Simeon prayed, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all your people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel”. I don’t think I’m not quite ready to pray the Nunc Dimittis yet. I’m not as old as Simeon, and I’m still hoping I can see a few more of good things in the priesthood before I ask to be dismissed. I’d still like to be of service to more people, after all.

But in a way, I can identify with Simeon’s patient waiting. When I first entered seminary many years ago, my spiritual director (God rest his soul), encouraged me to begin what he called a “journey of self-betterment”. It was not just for my own good, he said. It was what God would want, and what would be good for the church, by which he meant of course, the people I was going to be ministering to one day as a priest. And so I did. As the father of philosophy used to say, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, I decided to try and live a life “worth living” by patiently examining which areas of myself I needed to improve, change, or maintain. For someone new to seminary formation, that was an exciting prospect.

Soon, however, I realized it wasn’t as easy as I thought. There were a ton of setbacks, detours, and seeming dead ends. Several times, I complained to my spiritual director; at one point, in fact, I was quite despondent, feeling that no matter how hard I tried, I always seem to end up in square one. Was there ever going to be a time when I would finally achieve what I had set out to achieve? Was I ever going to wake up one day and finally say, “I did it!”? “Maybe”, was my spiritual director’s answer. “Maybe not”.

“You have to leave the fulfillment of these things in God’s hands”, he said. “In his time. In his time. Be patient. Learn to wait, learn to hope, learn to trust. Do your best to transform and direct yourself towards what is good, noble, and holy. But leave the fulfillment in his hands. Let God decide. Be patient. Wait”.

I’ve always felt that I understood, even back then, what my spiritual director meant. This morning, as I heard Simeon’s prayer in the gospel being read, I felt just a tad more certain that I did in fact understand my spiritual director’s words; but I also felt that this was still not the full and complete understanding I had been waiting for all these years; not yet. And so like Simeon, I guess I will have to be patient. Eleven years a priest (who knows how many more I’ll end up having), but I still must be patient. I will wait. Because in God’s own time, I too will see his promises fulfilled. Perhaps when I do become the priest God has always wanted me to be, I can, just like Simeon, speak with all my heart and with full understanding, the words of his immortal prayer.

“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all your people, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel”.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Do we allow God to "disturb" us from time to time, or do we send him away? (Monday, Week IV in Ordinary Time, Mark 5:1-20)

Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the sea,to the territory of the Gerasenes.When he got out of the boat,at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him.The man had been dwelling among the tombs,and no one could restrain him any longer, even with a chain.In fact, he had frequently been bound with shackles and chains,but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed,and no one was strong enough to subdue him.Night and day among the tombs and on the hillsideshe was always crying out and bruising himself with stones.Catching sight of Jesus from a distance,he ran up and prostrated himself before him,crying out in a loud voice,“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?I adjure you by God, do not torment me!”(He had been saying to him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!”)He asked him, “What is your name?”He replied, “Legion is my name. There are many of us.”And he pleaded earnestly with himnot to drive them away from that territory.

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside.And they pleaded with him,“Send us into the swine. Let us enter them.”And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine.The herd of about two thousand rushed down a steep bank into the sea,where they were drowned.The swineherds ran away and reported the incident in the townand throughout the countryside.And people came out to see what had happened.As they approached Jesus,they caught sight of the man who had been possessed by Legion,sitting there clothed and in his right mind.And they were seized with fear.Those who witnessed the incident explained to them what had happenedto the possessed man and to the swine.Then they began to beg him to leave their district.

* * * * * * * * * *

When one reads this account of the cure of Gerasene man possessed by demons, it is perhaps neither his cure nor the fact that Jesus sent the possessing demons into a herd of swine that surprises most. Instead it is the fact that those who had witnessed these truly amazing things begged Jesus “to leave their district”. One would’ve thought that these individuals would have regarded the whole matter with joy and gratitude; instead they regarded it with terror. And one would’ve thought that they would urge Jesus to stay with them and continue to exercise further his amazing powers of healing; instead they urged him to depart from their midst as quickly as possible. Why? True, a man had been healed, and that was an amazing thing, but they also lost their herd of swine, and perhaps they wanted no more of this. It was simply too much of a disturbance of their day to day lives than they could handle. The routine of their daily existence had been unsettled, and they wanted nothing more than to have the disturbing element removed as quickly as possible.

And is this not the usual battle-cry of the human mind: “Please do not disturb me”. For the most part, people simply want to be left alone; they do not wish their peace, security, comfort, and tranquility disturbed. We get upset when the routines which we’ve gotten used to are disturbed. Perhaps that’s what was happening to these persons in the gospel. There was no question in their minds that Jesus did a marvelous thing; but now that it was over, it was time to get back to the regularity and predictability of their lives. And so they begged him, “leave us alone”.

Do we not, from time to time, find ourselves telling God something similar? “Leave me alone”. We get used to things, our way of doing them, to our way of living life, that we do not wish to be disturbed or intruded upon by God who, interestingly enough, often acts in quite mysterious, surprising, and unexpected ways.

If there is one thing we can be certain about God, it is that he knows how to disrupt our complacency. Just when we find ourselves lulled into the boredom and routine of daily existence, just when we lose touch with the great adventure that is life, God has a way of inserting himself into our lives, waking us up, and reminding us that there is far more to life than our set ways of doing things.

New experiences perhaps, new relationships, new challenges—these are ways by which God calls us out of our slumber and continuously awakens us to the great adventure that is life. We of course can respond in either of two ways, by waking up and following where he leads, or to do as the people in the gospel did, beg him to stop disturbing us, leave us alone and simply go away.

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