Saturday, November 26, 2011

Carpe diem! "Seize the day!" (Reflections on the First Sunday of Advent, Mark 13:33-37)

"Be watchful; be alert! You do not know when the time will come....You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or in the morning....May he not come and find you sleeping!"

There’s a reason folks go crazy shopping on “Black Friday”—they don’t want to miss out on a good deal. They wake up early to get to the store, or sometimes they camp out near the store entrance itself the night before. The lines are long, the merchandise is limited, patience can wear thin, and sometimes people even get hurt like that Walmart greeter who got stampeded to death a couple of years ago.

All the craziness is for the sake of getting the best deal one can find and saving a few bucks. One of my students from Providence emailed me saying she went to bed very early Thanksgiving night so she could get up at 2 am as they were handing out tickets at 3 am. She said she managed to snatch some pretty good deals.

Each year, we hear people lamenting about the commercialization of the holidays—though its been quite muted these last two or three years because of the economic downturn. Still the “shopping culture” for the holidays remains pretty strong—and so we should probably do our best to maintain the true religious meaning of the season—especially in our families. But we shouldn’t bad-mouth the holiday shopping season either; yes, including Black Friday.

People do have a great time shopping, and many do save by looking out for the best deals around. There’s no need to join those who protest consumerism by observing “Buy Nothing Day” either. In fact, I propose that instead of bewailing the consumerist mindset that’s sure to prevail throughout the holiday season (something which we simply can’t do anything about), we could perhaps learn something from those who do shop like mad on Black Friday and all throughout the coming weeks.

What’s the key to getting good deals this time of year? Two words: “being aware”, (or “being awake”) that means being on the constant lookout for the best deals around—especially since most of these are limited. Like those who got up in the very early hours of Friday to get to the stores as soon as they could, the Gospel reading uses an interesting word to describe what our attitude in life should be: “being awake”—literally “being sleepless” in the original Greek tongue.

We begin today, the season of waiting, of being awake, the Season of Advent. The readings at mass during the week and on Sundays—until Christmas—will focus our attention on “being ready”, “being prepared”, “being watchful” for the coming of Christ—not only at Christmas, but at the end of all things.

It’s a season in which we as Christians prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate Christ’s birth. Today’s Gospel advises us: “Be ready, be awake. Do what you have to do, not later, but now. Do not postpone things till later because later may never come”. Like many Black Friday deals, “when they're gone, they're gone”.

The old Romans had a saying that could be meaningful for us this Advent and throughout the year: “Carpe Diem”, they would say. “Seize the day”. “Seize the moment”. Make every moment count. Don’t wait till later because it may never come.

In October of 1998, a couple of weeks after I returned from studies abroad, my grandmother died. She had wanted so much to see me when I came home from Belgium, but she had a very bad second stroke and was bedridden and unable to speak or move when I came home in September. I did pay her a visit as soon as I arrived, and promised I was going to come back. But I kept putting my next visit till later, until one evening I was out, I received a call from my mom that my grandmother had passed away.

To this day, it is one of the greatest regrets I have; but also because of that I promised that I would never miss an opportunity to be with the ones I love, to be patient with them, to be present with them when I can, and to let them feel and know I love them and care for them. I won’t be seeing my grandmother again until we’re reunited in heaven, but I can certainly live a life of “readiness” and of being constantly “awake” to the opportunities I still have to love people, whether they’re family, friends, or just about anybody.

Perhaps there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, for yourselves or for someone else, but have never gotten around to doing it. Advent encourages us: “Do it now!”

Perhaps there’s someone whom you need to forgive or from whom you need to ask forgiveness. Advent reminds us: “Do it now!”

Maybe there’s a good or charitable or kind or generous thing you’ve been meaning to do but have been putting of constantly. Advent tells us: “Do it now!”

Like a lot of good deals and bargains on the many shopping days of this holiday season, “when the opportunity’s gone, it’s gone”.

While God will always be there for us; life and its many great opportunities won’t; they only come once in a while, and so we must “seize the day”, “make every moment count”.

Do not wait till later, because a lot of times, later never comes.

Seize the day! Do not let life pass you by.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

This remarkable thing called 'gratitude' (A short reflection on Thanksgiving Day)

Being out of the country, I will definitely be missing the turkey, pumpkin pie, and all the good food on this Thanksgiving Day. Beyond the food and the other fun, warm, and joyful details of today’s celebration though, there’s the real and, I must say, truly beautiful meaning that lies at its core.

The gospel read at Mass tells us that what we’re celebrating today lies at the heart not only of life, but of our very relationship with God. And it’s a relationship that’s defined by two things: our gratitude for God’s many blessings, and our openness to even more blessings from him.

Ten lepers come to Jesus asking that they be healed, ten men who were rejects of society—the gospel tells us that when they approached Jesus, they had to stay some distance away from him. That’s because Jewish law stipulated that lepers may not even come near healthy people. They were outcasts and often were not even regarded as persons. And yet Jesus reached out to them and healed them.

Gratitude is an important part of our relationship with God because God reaches out to us no matter what our state in life might be: strong or weak, good or sinful, God comes to us and offers us his love. And the only response we can truly give in return is our thanks.

Ten were granted their request, but only one returned; and Jesus noticed that. But while ten were freed from their ailment, only the one who came back to say thank you was truly healed. “Stand up and go”, Jesus tells him, “your faith has saved you”. The nine ungrateful ones may have had their bodies healed, but the thankful one found healing in body and soul. His thankfulness did not only restore his health, it made him whole.

The nine ungrateful men probably thought that since they had already received what they wanted, they had nothing more to gain by going back and thanking Jesus. And that’s where they were wrong. For as the one grateful leper discovered, by going back and giving thanks, one actually stood to receive even more.

And that perhaps is the most remarkable and even mysterious thing about gratitude. The more we give thanks for the blessings we receive, the more abundantly the blessings flow. The more we return to God and thank him for his many gifts, the more the gifts come—and like the grateful leper, we discover that as our gratitude increases, God’s generosity increases even more. Gratitude is one of the most important keys unlocking the fullness of life.

(And even from a very practical point of view - as I never tire telling students, friends, or just about anyone who comes to me sad or down - one sure way of shaking off the occasional blues is to sit down and think of all the things one can be thankful for. In fact, a really good exercise one can do before going to bed at night is to spend a couple of minutes in prayer and think of the things for which one can be grateful.)

As we celebrate this wonderful holiday, as we return to our homes to be with our families on this Thanksgiving Day—let us remember the story of the grateful leper in the gospel, and make his story our own. Let us thank God for his many gifts. And let us remember that gratitude is a recognition of God’s blessings, and an invitation for more. The more we are thankful, the more we will be given.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in. (Reflections on the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mt. 25:14-30)

“Father, I don’t think I’m getting anything out of the Mass anymore!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that statement, from good friends, from former students, from parishioners, and once, from my own sister. Well, she didn’t exactly call me “father”; she never really does. But she said pretty much the same thing. “I’m just not getting anything out of the Mass”.

One time, a young man, a parishioner at one of the churches where I help out on weekends came to me—before Mass even started—and rather gravely, admitted he had barely managed to drag himself out of bed that morning to get to Church.
“I just haven’t been getting anything out of the Mass lately, father”, he said. Since I didn’t have early Mass that Sunday and I was simply sitting in the church garden enjoying the morning, I figured I’d give him a few minutes and ask what was going on.

“I don’t know”, he said. "Like I told you, I’m just not getting anything out of it”. Since asking him “why” was obviously not going to work, I thought taking another route in addressing the matter might work better. “You know what”, I said, "I’d like to confess something to you. You don’t have to keep it a secret, but I don’t always tell people this. I too have, at one point, felt like I wasn't getting anything out of the Mass". I guess he was taken aback, and for a couple of seconds he just sat there, staring quizzically at me, until finally, he opened his mouth and said, “Whatever do you mean?”

I decided to share my own experience with him—something I’d like to now share with you guys as well. Before I was ordained thirteen years ago, I remember how excited I was about being able to finally celebrate Mass, so excited that I would dream about it. Seriously! Finally ordination day came, and then one Thanksgiving Mass after another. I sang all of my Thanksgiving Masses. I practiced all the parts and prayers, over and over again, making sure I didn’t miss a single note.

At each of those Thanksgiving Masses after ordination, I gave of myself a hundred percent. I prepared for the liturgy, made sure everything was in order and in place; I didn’t want to be talking about myself during the homily—like simply thanking people and all that—so a month before the scheduled masses, I had already several possible homily outlines prepared. Needless to say, it was me putting everything I had, and everything I was into the Mass I was celebrating—all of me!

Fast-forward to three years after my ordination day, when the memory of those first Thanksgiving Masses had already receded into the distance, their details beginning to blur. It was a Thursday night, I had just come back to my room after presiding over five Masses in a single day. I remember sitting there, completely exhausted, unable (or unwilling) to even flick the remote and turn on the TV. I just sat on the couch and stared at the ceiling for what seemed like an eternity. (Of course, I was also teaching philosophy and theology at the seminary and three other universities at the time). “What was that?!” I thought to myself. “Did I really celebrate all those masses, or did I merely breeze through each one of them?” I tried to recall what I said in the homily. Nothing! I remembered the Gospel reading; but what exactly did I preach on? Blank! “Wow!” I thought. “I guess I somehow just 'breezed' through them. Scary”. I fell asleep on the couch and forgot about the whole thing when I woke up the following morning.

A few weeks after that episode though, this time during Mass itself, at the seminary chapel in Manila, right before the “Our Father”, I found myself getting this sensation that can only be described by the Heideggerian word unheimlichkeit“uncanniness”. Don’t laugh; because I really did. What exactly am I talking about? I was there, in the midst of the liturgy; I knew I started the Mass, I knew I read the Gospel, preached the homily, accepted the gifts that were offered, said the Eucharistic Prayer, and was now about to introduce the Pater Noster. But why did it feel like I was “asleep” or “unconscious” as I was going through the motions of those earlier parts of the Mass? Was I, in fact, asleep? Did I really go through those earlier parts? What’s going on? I must've 'breezed' through the Mass again! But this was just one Mass! Not five!

In my heart, I knew—as if God had awakened an uneasy realization in me—that something was not quite right. The liturgies with His people that I had so eagerly awaited to celebrate with them during my long years in seminary, had become something I did simply because I had to do them. They had become part of my routine, and the initial fire had seemingly been reduced no nothing more than a flicker. Whereas my words and actions used to be conscious and deliberate, they had now become mechanical, even contrived. I was “no longer getting anything out of it”. Something wasn't right; and it saddened me and I guess filled me with dread.

At the end of that Mass, I lingered in the chapel a while longer. Then, after breakfast, I knocked on the door of an old Belgian priest, Albert (God rest his soul.) and asked if we could talk. I shared with him my experience, and the dawning realization I had at liturgy that morning. Albert was my confessor when I was a seminarian, and when I became a priest on formation staff at the seminary, he became a confidant and a friend, an older brother-priest who had, with great fidelity, ‘navigated’ the often complex and tricky waters of the life to which I too found myself drawn. I left his room that morning with two thoughts that have guided me ever since—one of them I share with you today. (The other I'll save for another future homily.)

“In worship, as in all of life, you take out as much as you put in”.

In fact, the more we put in, the more we will surely take out. It’s true of our studies, our jobs, our relationships, our friendships, our investments; it’s true of all life. (In fact I was reading a book on weight-training this week, and suddenly, Albert’s words just popped into my head—because it’s true even of working out and keeping oneself fit. The more effort and energy one puts into it, the more one gets the results he desires, provided he’s doing it correctly, and safely, of course. But I digress.)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of this very important truth in life. You have three men, with varying abilities, given varying gifts, ‘talents’ corresponding to their capacities, each one tasked by their master to make the most of what they had been entrusted. The first eagerly takes the five and invests it completely, thereby doubling it. The second does the same, investing what was entrusted to him a hundred percent, doubling it as well. The third, out of fear or laziness, or for whatever reason only he probably knows, chooses not to invest the money, but buried it instead. Buries it! He doesn’t invest it; he merely hoards it! And judging from his conversation with his furious master, probably thought he’d be praised for doing it. Well, we know how the rest of the story goes.

“In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in”.

The problem with the third guy in our gospel reading is that he didn’t even seriously put anything in; he just buried and hoarded what had been given to him. His problem wasn’t really fear, nor was it simply laziness. It was a lack of true generosity. And many times, when we—and I do mean ‘we’—find ourselves “not getting anything out of the Mass”, it's most likely because we haven’t been generous enough in putting into our celebration, what the occasion deserves or calls for.

But it’s also probably because we often tend to forget what the Mass truly is. It is the highest act of worship of our two-thousand year old faith community. It is the summit of our lives as a church, a community of disciples, gathered by Christ, offering worship, praise, and thanksgiving to the Father who has sustained us during the past weeks, months, and years of our life, and whom we hope and trust will continue to sustain us throughout the rest of our years.

The Mass is our act of worship! If we keep that in mind, it might actually embarrass us to ask, “What am I getting out of it?”—because that isn’t even the point. The point is rather to bring something “into it”, our selves, our lives, our hopes, our fears, our dreams, our voices, our everything - and unite it with Christ's offering of that "worthy sacrifice" to the Father. Of course, we will get something out if it—but only if we generously give of ourselves, and put something into it first.

(Mind you, this is not to excuse us priests from sometimes forgetting that we have been commanded to "feed" Christ's flock. We need to prepare well for the Masses at which we preside, through prayer, through diligent study, through serious homily preparation, and through the very integrity of the lives we live. We cannot encourage generosity among our flock if we are miserly ourselves!)

“In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in”.

The students here present will certainly know what that means—especially since the final exams for the previous semester, I’m sure, are still quite fresh in their memories.

And so today, I’d like to invite all of us gathered here, myself included—because as I told you, even we priests sometimes fail to put 100% of ourselves into our celebration of the Mass—let us all consider how much of ourselves we put into celebrating this most important act of worship of our two-thousand year old community of faith.

Do we come on time? Do we sing? One doesn’t need a golden voice to offer to God what he or she can. Do we respond to the greetings? Do we join in praying the psalms? Do we try to attentively follow the readings and the homily? Do we pray the Creed with our whole heart, believing what we’re saying? Do we really join in the prayers, especially those offered for all of us after the creed? Do we prepare ourselves well to receive Christ at Holy Communion and allow him to truly enter every part of our self? Do we say ‘thank you’ to him after we’ve received his body and blood? And finally, do we understand that what we’ve celebrated and experienced at Mass is meant to be shared with everyone we shall meet when the Mass is ended?

I leave you with the thought I left that young man who several years ago confided to me, as I did to him, that sometimes, we feel we aren’t getting anything from the Mass. Whenever we find ourselves asking, “Why haven’t I been getting anything from the Mass lately?”, we should instead probably ask ourselves the question, “What have I put into my celebration of the Mass lately? How much of myself, my heart, mind, body, soul and strength, have I put into my worship of God who has done nothing but love me? How generous have I been to him who has been most generous to me?” Trust me; it will clear a whole lot of things in your head.

“In worship, as in all of life, we take out as much as we put in”.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Growing in virtue in ministry (from a sermon by Saint Charles Borromeo) On his Feastday, the 4th of November

Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue and how, if you are already recollected in prayer, you can be even more attentive next time, and so give God more pleasing worship?

Listen, and I will tell you. If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless clutter.

If teaching and preaching is your job, then study diligently and apply yourself to whatever is necessary for doing the job well. Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical laughter and a derisive shake of the head.

Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without becoming forgetful of yourself.

My brothers, you must realize that for us churchmen nothing is more necessary than prayer. We must pray before, during, and after everything we do. The prophet says: I will pray, and then I will understand.

When you administer the sacraments, pray what you are doing. When you celebrate Mass, reflect on the sacrifice you are offering. When you pray the office, think about the words you are saying and the Lord to whom you are speaking. When you take care of your people, meditate on the Lord’s blood that has washed them clean. In this way, all that you do becomes a work of love.

This is the way we can easily overcome the countless difficulties we have to face day after day, which, after all, are part of our work: in prayer we find the strength to bring Christ to birth in ourselves and in others.

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