Thursday, September 30, 2010

We give what we are able; the rest God will provide (Reflections on Luke 10:1-12)

"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.'

Two things stand out in today’s gospel as Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the Good News for the first time. First, he sends them out, not individually, but in pairs. One would think that they could reach more places if they went out individually; but that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus had in mind.

If the Gospel was to be preached, this was to be done not by an individual alone, but by an individual disciple with his fellow disciples. The message of Christ is to be brought to the world, not by individual believers, acting on their own, but always with the community the church in mind.

Living the faith and sharing it, are never individual and personal matters alone. We live our faith, and witness to it—always with an awareness and appreciation of the fact that we are part of a larger community, the church.

For the true follower of Christ, and for us Catholics especially, for whom “church” and “community” are such important realities, there is no such thing as “Jesus and me”. It’s always “Jesus, myself, and my community”.

Second, he tells the disciples to bring the barest essentials for their journey and their mission. This meant, on the one hand, that they could not bring more than what they needed. On the other hand, it also meant that they shouldn’t go out empty handed. They did have to take something: “a walking stick, a tunic, and sandals”. The admonition was not that they should bring nothing, but only that they took what was truly needed for the task at hand.

We do have to bring something of our own, something of our very selves, our strengths, talents, and abilities to the task Christ has given us. We are, in a very real sense, God’s ‘cooperators’, ‘coworkers’, and ‘instruments’.

Such cooperation, however, always means two things. First, it means that we must meet God “halfway”. We bring to him, and offer the totality of ourselves, holding nothing back—even if that totality may seem insignificant and inadequate at times. Second, it means that we must trust that no matter how insufficient our gifts might seem for the work we are given, God will always provide and supply what may be lacking both in our efforts as well as in our selves.

One who follows Jesus’ admonition in today’s gospel to “take nothing,” will, in his life, ministry and work, never find himself wanting.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

God's Abiding Presence (Reflections on the Feast of the Archangels, September 29)

It isn't easy for many today to still believe in the reality of angels. In an age which has seen humankind walk on the moon, explore the deepest parts of the ocean, split the atom, and find cures for all sorts of diseases, angels have become more and more, characters and figures belonging to myth and legend, fairy tales and children’s stories.

For many of us today, the world has become a material, mechanical, technical and scientific world which has very little room for the spiritual or anything else that can’t be proven by our senses or our scientific instruments.

It is in the midst of this kind of world and this kind of mindset that the church continues to celebrate the feast of these heavenly creatures who are believed to be not only the servants of God, but also the protectors and guides, defenders and advocates of men and women; unseen beings whose purpose is to safeguard us against the evils and dangers of this world.

More than anything else, the angels are meant to remind us of God’s unceasing care for our well-being. They are meant to remind us that the Providence of God is real. It’s something we need to remember, especially when we sometimes lose hope as we experience disasters, human destructiveness, evil and sin.

Today’s feast is a reminder of God’s abiding presence and care, which we can never fully squeeze out, because we will always need it—no matter how advanced our civilization and society might be.
"Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would be unable to live them, and the point is to simply live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers themselves".

- Rainier Maria Rilke

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Scripture has a name for that kind of faith, devotion, and piety that feels deeply, even tremendously, that makes one feel buoyant and fully alive, yet remains self-enclosed and self-oriented, that fails to make any difference in the concrete life of the world and of the countless men and women who struggle amidst the ordinary circumstances of day to day living. Scripture calls it “dead”.

Pope John Paul II on the Church's "Preferential Option for the Poor"

"Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency. This awareness is also a source of her preferential option for the poor, which is never exclusive or discriminatory towards other groups.

This option is not limited to material poverty, since it is well known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modern society--not only economic but cultural and spiritual poverty as well. The Church's love for the poor, which is essential for her and a part of her constant tradition, impels her to give attention to a world in which poverty is threatening to assume massive proportions in spite of technological and economic progress.

In the countries of the West, different forms of poverty are being experienced by groups which live on the margins of society, by the elderly and the sick, by the victims of consumerism, and even more immediately by so many refugees and migrants. In the developing countries, tragic crises loom on the horizon unless internationally coordinated measures are taken before it is too late.

Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice. Justice will never be fully attained unless people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity for showing kindness and a chance for greater enrichment".

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Priest as Teacher: Prophet and Shepherd (Reflections on the Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul)

A good and effective educator is not the one who constantly gives his students a hard time, who makes his lessons close to incomprehensible and puts insurmountable hurdles on their way in order to constantly prove to them that they know nothing, and he alone knows all.
Instead, it is the teacher who knows that his job is to open his students’ minds to the recognition of what at times can be difficult truths, to help them understand and digest such truths as best they can, and to challenge them when they seem not to live up to the expectations, which the process of the unfolding of truth demands of them.

A good educator must therefore do a constant balancing act between challenging his students to excel and maximize their potential—which of course will occasionally involve being strict, demanding, and even difficult—and being encouraging to those who might encounter difficulty in digesting the lesson, as well as compassionate to those who may eventually fail.

A teacher thus exercises the twin roles of prophet and pastor or shepherd, the first demands that he challenge those he teaches to reach the highest possible standards of learning and character development, the second, that he have a heart big enough to never stop encouraging those who sometimes fail, and to forgive and continue to love those who eventually go astray.

A good priest is not much different from a good teacher. He also has to keep a good balance between challenging those under his leadership and care, to achieve their full potential not only as persons, but as Christians. This means that there will be times when he will have to speak what is ‘difficult’ or ‘hard’ to say, what is unpopular and perhaps undesirable in the eyes of his flock.
He will have to articulate clearly and with fidelity, the teachings of the church, the demands of the Gospel, and the requirements of discipleship. And he must be afraid neither of being unpopular nor of being misunderstood. As a prophet, a priest exercising his leadership role must always “speak the truth in love”.

But he must also never lose sight of the fact that he is also a pastor, a shepherd, a healer and ‘doctor of souls’, tasked by Christ himself to “tend and feed his sheep”. This asks of a priest that he have a huge and perhaps overflowing store of kindness and compassion. There is no worse witness to the Gospel of Christ than a harsh, overly-demanding, and unforgiving, priest. One would be better off “tying a millstone around his neck”, than to live his ministry like one of those Jesus himself criticized for laying heavy burdens they themselves would not carry.

Demand and challenge on the one hand, compassion and mercy on the other—to bring these two into a healthy and life-giving tension is the constant challenge for a priest. This reminds me of what one of my good seminary professors told me many years ago. “When one day you become a priest”, she said, “or are assigned to teach, remember to pull your students to you with one hand, and keep them at bay with the other. Be kind and loving, but let them know that you expect nothing but the best from them, and keep your word”.
The model of the good teacher and the good priest remains Jesus himself who invited, challenged, demanded, pronounced woe, and warned of misfortune if people persisted in their hardness of heart, but who also displayed boundless compassion for the tax collector, the prostitute, the gentile, the Samaritan woman, and who was himself condemned for associating with the outcasts and sinners of his day.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"The hungry mouths of the poor are the great barnhouses of heaven". - St. Ambrose of Milan

What will make us acceptable to Christ on the day we see him face to face, is not how strongly we fastened ourselves to Him in this life (He whom we do not see), but how strongly we fastened ourselves to those in whom he dwelt hidden from our eyes (those whom we do see).

The poor are the 'incognitos' of Christ, veiling his glory with their pained and suffering humanity. Each time we wipe their tears, bind their wounds, and make life a little better for them, it is Christ’s tears we wipe, his wounds we bind, and his saving work we continue in the here and now.

"We do not love the poor because they remind us of Jesus. We love the poor because they are Jesus". - Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

If the history of the Church is proof of anything, it is this. It has always been at its strongest, not when it has sided with the powerful, but when it has become weak and has identified itself with those who are weak.

It has always been wealthiest, not when it has sided with the powers of this world, but when it has made itself poor and has immersed itself in the lives of the least in God's Kingdom.

It has been most effective in raising its voice in the service of the Gospel, not when it has echoed the voice of the mighty of this world, but when it has made itself the voice of the voiceless, and the champion of those whom this world has cast aside.

It is when the Church is most like its founder that it most truly becomes itself.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Christ, veiled in the humanity we often ignore and despise (Reflections on the Gospel of the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 16:19-31)

What was the sin of the rich man in today’s gospel? He had not ordered Lazarus to be removed from his gate. He had made no objections to his receiving the bread that was flung away from his table. He did not kick him as he passed by. Nor was he deliberately cruel to him.

For all intents and purposes, the rich man in the gospel may have actually been a rather good man by the standards of the Judaism of his day. He was wealthy and powerful; and those were always signs that one was blessed on account of his goodness. Why was he cast into hell then? What was his sin?

The sin of the rich man was that he never noticed. He had come to accept Lazarus the poor man to already be part of the landscape and simply thought it perfectly natural and inevitable that Lazarus should lie in pain and hunger while he lived in luxury. He had come to accept the fact that poverty, misery and suffering are normal things in life that require no effort at all on his part to alleviate, or even to notice.

The sin of the rich man was that he could look on the world's suffering and need and feel no sword of grief and pity pierce his heart; he looked at a fellowman, hungry and in pain, and did nothing about it. His therefore, was the punishment of the man who never noticed. Would that we be different from him and notice the poor, hungry and lonely in our midst. Would that we remember that if we fail to see them, we fail to see Christ himself.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gifts that aren't used wither and fade (Luke 8:16-18)

"To the one who has, more will be given;
to the one who does not have,
even the little he has will be taken away".

I used to play the guitar quite well; I even belonged to the school band when I was in third grade. Of course, I last played the guitar that seriously when I was in 5th grade. After that, for some reason I can no longer remember, I just stopped playing. I also used to paint. My biggest artwork was a painting for the seminary chapel in Manila, 20 feet long. We hung it above the main altar for the Feast of Christ the King in my senior year. My last serious work was an acrylic of John Henry Newman which I gave as an ordination gift to my classmate. That was in Belgium, in 1992. Today, I still have a guitar in my room, but if you ask me to play, the only chords I remember are C, F, G, Am, and D—the easy ones. And if you ask me to draw, I’ll probably draw you stick figures. As I stared at one of my last remaining artworks this past summer, I couldn’t believe I used to do those things.

There is an inexorable law that governs the gifts, talents, and blessings that life bestows upon us; and Jesus speaks of it in today’s gospel reading: “To the one who has, more will be given, to the one who has not, even the little he has will be taken away”.

The more we use the gifts that we’ve been given, the better we become at them; if we fail to use them, they whither and fade. And while we can always pick them up to relearn them, we’ve already lost much time that could’ve been used perfecting them instead. Gifts that are unused—hidden under a bed—as the gospel puts it, eventually wither away. What is true of our gifts, talents, and abilities, is true of our faith, our vocation, as well as our relationship with God. So how do we keep the fire of enthusiasm burning?

Things are always exciting and interesting when they’re new, but soon they lose their newness, routine sets in, we get used to them, and pretty soon, we set them aside. The fire of interest dies, and lukewarmness sets in. So what’s the remedy for it?

Perhaps we can look to one of the favorite words of the prophets—a word that occurs 323 times in the bible: liz-chor in Hebrew, mnemenuo in Greek. The word is “remember”. It was their constant refrain. Remember what? When I was a student and occasionally found the routine of seminary life tedious and tiring, when I’d get lukewarm with my formation, my old spiritual director would remind me: “Remember your first days in seminary. Remember the excitement of your earliest days. Allow the freshness and newness of the memory to rekindle the fire of your vocation”.

The advice worked. It saw me through my many years of seminary formation. And even after I became a priest—on days when things got tough or when the work of ministry (teaching, preaching, celebrating the sacraments) began to feel routine, the advice my spiritual director gave me—to “remember” (this time my day of ordination), always helped rekindle the fire of my enthusiasm for what I was doing.

The semester’s still quite new. But eventually, it too will get old; its novelty will fade. Prayer, our studies, our day to day activities, even our relationships will lose their newness. How do we keep the fire of our enthusiasm burning? Always remember the joy and excitement, the newness and freshness of your early days in seminary. Remember the awesome experiences of these last two months. Remember all the graces God has given you. When you start getting tired: remember. When boredom sets in: remember. When on certain days you just want to give up: remember.

It will keep the fire of your lamp burning brightly—on good days and on not-so good ones.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reflections on the Parable of the Unjust Steward (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 16:1-13)

The teachers I remember most have always been those who have taught me that we can be serious about what we're learning while keeping a sense of humor at the same time. A great deal of Jesus’ effectiveness as a preacher comes from his being able to teach very serious things, and perhaps keep a serious face while telling people something rather funny. The guy obviously had a great sense of humor. Of course, one has to read the gospels carefully to see it. Once, for instance, two of John the Baptist’s disciples began following him. He notices them, turns around and says, “What do you want?” “Master”, they reply, “where do you live?” “Come and see”, he tells them-- this despite the fact that he didn’t have a house: “Birds have nests, foxes have lairs but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”. “When a Roman makes you carry his baggage for one mile, go with him two miles”, he tells people in another part of scripture—knowing fully well that if they did—the Roman would surely be punished because they were only allowed to make Jews carry things for a mile.

It is perhaps in this context that we can understand the puzzling story in today’s gospel reading. How else could we explain the fact that he presents as a model for us, a man totally without the qualities of what we would normally call a ‘good person’? The story is about as choice a set of rascals and scoundrels one could meet anywhere.

The steward was a rascal. He was a slave, but he was put in charge of running his master's estate. The master was obviously an absentee landlord who entrusted his property to him. But he followed a career of embezzlement and was now about to be fired. Those who owed the master were also rascals. They owed a lot. But they were too unscrupulous to care when the steward falsified the book entries so that they were debited with far less than they owed. But the master himself was something of a rascal; because instead of being shocked and horrified at the whole affair, he appreciated the cleverness of his corrupt servant.

Now why would Jesus be telling a parable like this unless he wanted to draw out something serious from something totally ridiculous? And the Jewish rabbis, from time to time, did in fact use humor whenever they wanted to make a very serious point. That perhaps is what Jesus is doing in the gospel. He isn’t in any way suggesting that one should emulate the corrupt servant, or the unscrupulous debtors, or the equally crazy landowner. But he is reminding us—gently, and with much humor—that there is something we can learn from all of them.

They were, after all, typical men of the world, who have given all their energy to achieving money and the good life. They were what Jesus calls the “children of this world”. And we are told that if we, his followers, would only show the same dedication and resolve in pursuing goodness, we could achieve so much more! And neither is he telling us that wealth is bad or that we should neglect our worldly affairs. He is, however, telling us to regard things in the proper perspective; and that while some of us find ourselves having to actively pursue the treasures of this world, we should just as eagerly pursue the treasures of heaven.

Behind the humor of our gospel today then, are lessons Jesus would want us to seriously think about: [i] If only we were as eager and ingenious in our attempts to attain goodness as the rascals in the gospel are in attaining money and comfort, we would all be better persons. [ii] If only we would give as much attention to things which concern our souls as we do the things which concern our business, we would be much better men and women. [iii] And If only we would desire God as eagerly as we sometimes desire material wealth, we wouldn’t only be wealthy, we would be truly wealthy. For we will possess wealth that “no moth can destroy, no rust can corrode, and no thief can ever steal”.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reflections on the Role of the Theologian and the Educator in Today's Church

On the 9th of October 1958, having heard of the death of Pope Pius XII, one man found himself writing these lines in his journal: “We are not on earth as museum-keepers, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare for the church a glorious future”. That was Angello Guiseppe Roncalli, the man who eventually succeeded Pius XII, and who as Pope John XXIII, called for the Second Vatican Council which has so changed the face of the church, it has become more equipped to face the challenges of the contemporary world, and a little more assured of its continuation into the third millenium. A ‘garden’, not so much a ‘museum’—the good pope could not have used more appropriate imagery to convey the idea of what he believed the church should be primarily. A garden is a place where growth is always present, where there is freshness and the promise of continuous renewal. Leaves whither, flowers fade, branches dry up, but only to spring forth and give way to life reborn, more beautiful, more alluring, ready once again to join in the endless cycle of God's creative work.

How apt to describe the life of the church in this way! John XXIII was a genius in his own right. He saw that there was a real danger that the church would not be well equipped to face the challenges presented by the swift pace of change in the world, and that instead of making the most of its being in the world, it would set up a massive fortress around itself, protecting itself in fear of the unknown dangers that lie outside its thick walls. During his address to the bishops at the opening of the great council, Pope John reminded them that while there is an undeniable need to safeguard the ‘deposit of faith’ as this has been handed down to us by the Tradition of the Church, there is an equally pressing need to always present this ‘deposit’ in a form understandable to the men and women of the age, and in a manner that speaks not only to their heads, but to their hearts and hands as well.

The pope who would ‘open wide the windows’ of the church, would have none of the closure and fear that beset the hearts of many even today. For these only serve to stifle the Spirit of God already at work in the world in which the church finds itself immersed. Instead, the church is to discern the movement and action of this Spirit within the world itself. It is to hear the voice of God spoken through lips of ordinary men and women who yearn to live godly lives. It is to see the face of God in ordinary individuals, but most especially in the poor and the downtrodden. It is to live the life of Christ amidst the day to day experiences of the people of this age. Finally, it is to discover God where he disguises himself—veiled in the very trappings of frail humanity.

That same Spirit, the Spirit that emboldened John XXIII and the men and women of that great council, continues that work today. It is this same Spirit that Jesus Christ breathed on his disciples two thousand years ago and sent upon them on Pentecost, enlightening their minds and inflaming their hearts with zeal for the gospel. The flames ignited by that initial outpouring continue in the dynamism of the church today, especially in the life, work, and service of the theologian whose role is the pursuit of an ever-deepening understanding of the Word of God found in Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the variety of gifts bestowed by the Spirit on the community of believers. It is a variety of gifts that manifests itself in many forms of ministry and service to the Body of Christ. The ministry and service of the theologian in particular is one that is done in loving communion, not only with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith, but with the entire community of believers whose life and struggles both theologian and magisterium must embrace.

For it is the task of those whose calling is to form and inform the hearts of men and women to draw from their life and struggle—as these are embedded in their culture and history—those elements which will allow for the better illumination of one or another dimension of the mysteries of faith. This is by no means an easy task. Rather it is arduous and fraught with risk, but it is legitimate in itself and hence must be encouraged, for as the good Pope John had so brilliantly seen, this endeavor to bind the mind, heart, and hands of God’s people, difficult as it may be at the outset, can only lead to a deepening of the loving communion which must define the life of the church as a community of faith.

It is from out of such loving communion that theological study and reflection arise. And it is from such loving communion as well that the theologian must draw his strength and nourishment in his pursuit of obedience to the impulse of truth and its clear articulation. Such obedience is the reason why a theologian must be attentive to the requirements of his discipline, to the demands of rigorous critical standards, and hence to a rational verification of each stage of his or her research. Nevertheless, this obligation to be critical should not be identified with a critical spirit that is born of mere feeling or whim, or simple prejudice. This is why the theologian must discern in himself or herself the origin and motivation for his critical attitude and allow his gaze to be purified by the light of faith. This is also the reason why commitment to the scientific study of theology must go hand in hand with a spiritual effort to grow in virtue and holiness. The theologian is therefore called to deepen his own life of faith and continuously unite his scientific research with prayer and a continuous openness to the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit. In this way, he will become more open to the supernatural sense of faith upon which he depends. And it will disclose itself to him as a sure guide for his reflections and a dependable aid in his assessment of the correctness of his conclusions.

For the theologian must never forget that he or she is a member of the Church, the People of God, and as such must foster respect for them and be committed to offering them a teaching which, while challenging them at times to reconsider the expressions of their faith, does no harm to the sacredness and integrity of this faith. The theologian too, when approaching the faith of another, must take off his sandals, for the ground on which he treads is holy ground and God has been there, long before he has set his discerning gaze. Hence, the freedom proper to theological research is always to be exercised within the domain of the Church’s faith and conscious at all times of this faith’s integrity. While the theologian therefore might often feel the urge to be daring in his work, he must remember that this will not bear fruit or “edify” unless it is coupled with that patience which allows for genuine maturation of insight to take place. New proposals for articulating the faith and making it more understandable to men and women of every age, while definitely encouraging as signs of growth and renewal, remain but an ‘offering’ made to the People of God. Continuous broadening of perspectives, nuancing of concepts, and even modifications within the context of brotherly dialogue may be necessary prior to the moment when the whole Church can accept the fruits of theological research. In line with this, the freedom of research, which the academic community rightly holds and must therefore cherish as precious, must be regarded as signifying an openness to the acceptance of truth that emerges at the end of a rigorous and often painstaking investigation.

The task of theology is one of service to the faith; and the task of the theologian is one of loving and committed service to God’s faithful. The two paradigms do not merely go hand in hand; they are dynamically entwined. For ‘faith’ is not a mere abstraction, distinct and isolated from the ‘community of faith’, rather faith and its articulation find their ‘origin’ as well as their ‘point’ in the living, growing, maturing and journeying community. It is in this sense that we who receive the sacred task of ministering as theologians and teachers of the faith are truly, in the words of Pope John, “gardeners” and not merely “museum-keepers”. What is entrusted to us is the furthering, the extending, and the enkindling of the fire of God’s Spirit that swept the hearts, minds, and souls of the disciples on that glorious day, in that upper room, on the first Pentecost.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Compassion, Mercy, and Forgiveness (Reflections on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time C, Luke 15:1-32)

“This man eats with tax collectors and sinners”.

Have you ever noticed how those who’ve recently quit smoking can sometimes be very sensitive when they’re around people who smoke? A friend of mine in AA said it was pretty much the same in the case of those in recovery. I used to smoke in college, but then the doctor told me to stop when I developed asthma. But I did notice how initially at least, I hated everyone who smoked. A good friend once asked me if I’d mind if he smoked. I guess I just stared at him. And so he said, “What!? I got some leprosy now?” “No, go ahead,” I said. To which he responded, “Man, you got to ask yourself if it’s us smokers you don’t like, or if it’s yourself”.

The story of the prodigal son captures the complexity of our experience of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and acceptance. Jesus tells the story as tax collectors and sinners gathered round him to listen. The people he attracted were mostly rejects of Jewish society. And the Pharisees and scribes resented that. This is the context of the parable.

The younger, sinful son, represented the tax collectors and other low-life characters who heard Jesus’ words and wanted to reform. The older, obedient and dutiful son, represented the scribes and Pharisees who couldn’t accept that Jesus seemed more interested in sinners. They who considered themselves righteous, could not stand the idea that Jesus was preaching forgiveness for sinners; just as the elder son in the parable couldn’t accept that his father had forgiven his brother.

It would be a mistake to think that the message of the gospel is that sinning—then repenting, is better than righteousness. The younger brother was not better than the elder son. Jesus doesn’t say that. God, however gentle and forgiving he might be, expects us to live according to his laws. There is a growing tendency in the culture of our world today, to downplay the gravity of sin and think that good and bad are just a matter of personal taste. How many no longer believe in sin, in accountability, in righteous living, because anyway, God forgives? The compassion of God must not make us forget that he also commands us to live in righteousness.

On the other hand, while God makes clear demands on us, he is not harsh, unreasonable, and unforgiving. He does not lay upon our shoulders, guilt that we cannot bear. In another part of scripture, Jesus tells us that with God, there is still a yoke and a burden for us to carry. But he also says that it is a “yoke that is easy, and a burden that is light”.

The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was that they were more unforgiving than God himself, more demanding, harsher, and less compassionate. And so in another part of the bible, Jesus says to them, “Woe to you, for you put burdens too heavy for people to carry”. That was also the problem of the elder brother. His righteousness had become self-righteousness, and his dutifulness had made him harsh and unforgiving.

“Look”, he says to his father, “all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders”. In effect what he was saying was, “I have been extremely demanding of myself all this time, while my no-good brother threw his life away, and you still accept him.” What he really wanted to say, of course, was: “I was demanding on myself, you should be the same with him”. Oftentimes, harshness with others is really a reflection of our harshness with ourselves.

A person who shows no compassion towards others, is most likely to be one who shows no compassion towards himself. One who is too demanding and unforgiving of others, is most likely to be the same with himself. In the end, the very persons the scribes and Pharisees were rejecting were not merely the sinners they despised. They were rejecting themselves.

And that is so contrary to the teaching of Christ on compassion. One of his most powerful admonitions is: “Be compassionate, as your heavenly father is compassionate.”

And we have to obey; because there will be moments in our lives when we will discover that the most difficult person to show compassion to, forgive, and accept, is none other than ourselves.

“This man eats with tax collectors and sinners”.

As Jesus did, so must we. For it could be, that the sinner we have to welcome and dine with, is none other than ourselves.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An open mind, a willing heart, and an oustretched arm: conditions that allow for the recognition of the hidden workings of God's grace

Homily (Luke 6: 6-11)

I used to hang out with the local Society of St. Pius X when I was in high school. I got very much involved in attending Tridentine masses. And although I eventually stopped attending them, I became a stickler for liturgical correctness when I was in college seminary: follow the rubrics, don’t stray. It also didn't help that my confessor in college would tell us it’s a venial sin to make errors at Mass.

A few weeks after I was ordained in 1998 I was invited to celebrate mass for a group of elderly missionary sisters who had just returned home to retire after years in mission territories. I agreed.

The mass started normally and everything was uneventful—until the offertory. I noticed one of the sisters bringing the gifts was holding something that looked like a rectangular box covered with a white cloth.

When I received it from her, I realized it was a loaf of bread. I asked the elderly priest who invited me what it was for and he said: “It’s bread for mass”. Now, remember I was barely a month ordained; the priest and the nuns there with me had a combined age of several hundred years, not to mention the years they spent in the ministry. What was I to do? Protest?

With a heavy heart, I continued the mass; deep inside I started to get really upset and even angry. I made a mental note to finish the mass then get out of there as soon as it was over. I didn’t want anything to do anymore with these liturgical criminals.

I tried my best to hide the discomfort and tried to pray. When the mass was over, the elderly priest came up to me and said the sisters wanted me to join them for dinner. I said I really needed to leave and hinted at the reason for my not wanting to stay. “I know”, he said. “I was quite surprised myself. But don’t judge too quickly. Come to dinner. You can sit with me if you want”.

Still very much annoyed, I agreed. At dinner, the sisters who came back from the missions began sharing their stories with the community and the guests who were there. One had lost a leg because of a landmine in Cambodia. She was teaching destitute children in a poor Cambodian village. Another had spent a number of years in a jail in Vietnam, another in China. One sister survived an attempt on her life in Congo, and lost one of her eyes. Still another had spent more than 50 years of her life in New Guinea; another worked in extremely dangerous conditions with Muslims in Algeria.

One by one they told their stories. As they did, I noticed the turmoil I had felt earlier slowly subsiding; at one point I was so moved by the story of one of the sisters, I didn’t only feel like wanting to cry, I felt so embarrassed and ashamed—this time at myself.

Mind you, I still didn’t think what they did at mass was right. And I promised myself never to allow myself to be ambushed like that again. But I felt ashamed at the judgmental attitude I had towards these women who were living witnesses of what Sacrifice really meant. I stayed for hours afterwards and tried to get to know them more. Now, when I come home in summer, I make it a point to get in touch with them and invite them out for lunch.

That uncomfortable experience taught me something important. And it wasn’t how not to celebrate mass validly and licitly; but how not to be too quick to judge and thereby close myself to the possibility that God’s grace works in every situation—even in not-so-comfortable ones.

The Pharisees in the gospel were not bad or cruel people who didn’t want the man with a withered hand to be healed. We must not think them to be evil. They were in fact the most righteous and God-fearing men of their day. Unfortunately, they had become blind to the possibility that God might in fact work in persons and circumstances they weren’t accustomed to—like Jesus healing on a Sabbath—which was a blasphemous act for them.

Do I think that what the sisters did at that Mass was right? Of course not. (And when I did become friends with them, I told them what I thought.) But I think that my reaction, especially my attitude of judging them too quickly and too harshly was even worse.

Sometimes, our ways of seeing things—which are not necessarily wrong or bad—can blind us to the fact that God’s grace can and does work even in persons and circumstances we least expect to find it. But we have to open our eyes and our hearts, and as Jesus says in the gospel “stretch out” our hands.

We often come to seminary with many preconceived notions, ways of seeing and of doing things, biases, prejudices, pre-set definitions of what we think God, faith, church, life, vocation, and the priesthood is all about.

In some cases they are good. In others—we will just have learn to let go of them in order for God to mold and form us in the way he sees fit.

“Stretch out your hand”. The words of Jesus aren’t just meant for the man with the withered hand; they’re meant for all of us. “Stretch out your hand and be open. Be empty of yourself”. For then alone can we be filled with Christ.

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