Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gratitude is the key that unlocks life's abundant blessings (Reflections on Thanskgiving Day)

The gospel read at Mass tells us that what we celebrate 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 lepers were healed, but only one returned; and Jesus noticed that. But while ten were healed, 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 showed, 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 the key that unlocks life's abundant blessings.

As we celebrate this wonderful holiday, as we celebrate with family and friends 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 16, 2013

Life as it is (Reflections on the Gospel of the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 21:5-19)

“While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, "All that you see here-- the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down”. 

Imagine being a tourist, standing with a whole bunch of people, ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ at the beauty of some magnificent tourist spot. You’re snapping photos right and left as you listen to a guide say all sorts of interesting historical stuff about the place. Then all of a sudden, there’s this man who starts saying rather unpleasant things—even frightful ones. What would your reaction be? You’d probably go, “Ok… whatever buddy…” And you’d most likely begin moving slowly away, to enjoy the scene and take your photos, far from this scary person.

Now put yourself in the position of the people around Jesus in today’s gospel. Historians tell us that the Temple of Jerusalem was a sight to behold. All the gold and jewels embedded in its walls made it shine and glimmer in the sunlight for miles. So all these people were there, admiring its beauty. Then Jesus suddenly says: “This will all be destroyed”. And then he continues by talking about disasters that are going to take place: wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation, earthquakes, famine and plagues.

If I were one of the people there, I probably would be a bit scared, and I’d move away from the guy. I don’t want anyone ruining my vacation.

What seems to have gotten into Jesus in today’s gospel? Why is he being so pessimistic? Was he in a bad mood perhaps? Or was he saying something else?
The fact is, the things he mentions did take place. Israel was destroyed by the Romans and the temple was obliterated in 70 AD. All that remains today is one of its walls. Jesus wasn’t being scary. He was just being realistic about things and about life.

If you really think about it, one of the really odd things about human history is that there seems to be more bad news in it than good ones, more destruction than construction, more death than life. Despite all our hopes, “our history”, as one philosopher said, “seems written in blood”.

Who can forget the revelry of the year 2000? The whole world was so hopeful and happy. The Y2K scare proved to be a dud. The future looked bright for everybody. Perhaps human beings would now learn to live in peace. A year later of course, September 11 happened, and much of our optimism about humanity hit the hard rocks of reality.

Jesus wasn’t being pessimistic. He was in fact being realistic about the world and the challenges we face. Our faith as Christians doesn’t isolate us from the hard realities of life. The headaches and heartbreaks of life are real. And being a Christian won’t shield us from them. In today’s gospel, Jesus is simply showing us, life as it is. 

Christianity is a very realistic religion. It doesn’t promise us a pie in the sky. It doesn’t tell us that if we believe, everything in life will be easy, or that everything will be alright. Rather it tells us that at times, or even often, things will not be easy. Many times, things will not be alright.

It makes us realize and accept that suffering and difficulty are part of life. We can’t escape or deny them. If Jesus went through it all, so will we. Our faith in him doesn’t assure us a carefree and worry-free existence.

But Christianity is also a religion of genuine hope. Because sorrow and pain are not our promised lot. God’s promise to us is one of joy, of fulfillment, of abundance and life. As Saint Paul tells us, “suffering and death are not the final word. Life is.” And just as Jesus triumphed over suffering and death, so will each one of us triumph over the headaches and heartbreaks of life. The joy and hope of a Christian lies not in the guarantee of an untroubled existence; it rests rather in the conviction that “my Savior lives! And where he has gone, so shall I be”.

"The souls of the just are in the hands of God", the Book of wisdom tells us, “and no torment shall ever touch them”. For while our Christian faith gives us no guarantee of a problem-free life, it does guarantee us that Christ will always be there for and with us, guiding us at every moment of our life, our names forever written in the palm of his hands. 

“Do not worry too much”, Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. “Try not to be too weighed down when the difficulties and challenges of life come your way. And they will come. But trust. Because not a hair on your head will ever be destroyed”.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"The most powerful signs efface themselves." (Death is never the final word; it is no more than a passage to that fullness promised by Christ who has conquered death itself.) A Reflection on the Feast of All Souls.

Death’s a strange creature. We only know it from a distance, it seems; our own death being something we can only imagine. “No one attends his own funeral”, says one philosopher. Another, a stoic from the ancient world, tried to calm the fears of his students by telling them, “death’s not something to fear; when we’re around, it isn’t; and when death’s around, we aren’t. So what’s there to fear?” 

The Christian view of death is very different, of course; it does not deny death’s pain, sorrow, and even uncertainty, but it transcends these with the promise of hope and the encouragement to confidence and trust. It speaks of a “passage”, not an “end”. It speaks more of a promised and hoped-for future than a completed and remembered past.

I’ve always been fascinated, whenever I attend a memorial service or even funeral mass sometimes, when someone, usually at the end, gets up to speak about the deceased. On several occasions, I’ve heard those speaking say, “He died what he loved doing”, or “We’re gathered here today to celebrate the life of so-and-so”, or “He lived a good life”. 

I’ve always felt—despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the speakers never do it on purpose, nor are even aware of the implications of what they say—that something seems to be sorely missing, something lacking, something left unsaid or perhaps even left out by such statements, beautiful and respectful of the deceased though they may be.

As I listen to these words meant to console and comfort those left behind and to pay tribute to the one who has passed on, I couldn’t help but think to myself "Ok, that’s nice, even beautiful. He died what he loved doing. We’re celebrating his or her life, a good life…. But then what?" 

For us Catholics especially, a funeral isn’t simply a celebration of the deceased person’s life, neither is it a mere commemoration of our dearly departed; it is in fact a statement of the most profound faith a human person can ever have: 

"This isn't the end; because there is more, so much more to come. So much fullness, so much happiness, so much life – for one who holds on to the promise of Christ who has conquered death." 

Death, for a Christian is never the final word; and no matter how good one’s life may have been, we believe with every fiber of our being, that there is so much more good to come. Death may be a necessary passage, one we must all go through, but it isn’t the end of our story. 

"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit," Jesus tells us.

Without death, there can be no life eternal, no life without pain, without sorrow, without agony, illness, and heartache. Death is our gateway, our passage to glory.

Really, though? A number of years ago, as I visited the graves of my grandparents, I noticed a rather unkempt grave; it was overgrown with weeds and so it was hard to read what was written on the tombstone. I got curious so I went closer and cleared some of the weeds and dirt that covered it. It was a priest’s grave. He had died in the mid-70’s, was in his late 80’s when he passed away, and perhaps there was no one left in his family to tend to his grave. “How sad,” I thought, as I proceeded to clear the weeds a little more. But at least he had a tombstone, a marker to remind those who pass by that he once walked this earth.

What of the others? Who now remembers the countless millions, nameless and faceless who have died loving Christ and serving others throughout the ages? Even we who remember our own dead can only think and refer to this now anonymous crowd under the traditional collective term—“faithful departed”. 

It’s rather difficult to hold onto a promise of glory when you know there won’t be anyone left to remember you at some far distant future. 

For a handful of human beings, perhaps, it isn’t a problem. The more famous ones among us go down in history and are remembered—as two dimensional characters in history books. 

Is this the glory promised by Christ? I certainly hope not. 

“The most powerful signs efface themselves”, says the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Today’s commemoration of the dead reminds us of this fact. 

Sir Lawrence Olivier was once asked why he became an actor and he answered: “Look at me; look at me; look at me”. Robert, a priest I met at The Hague many years ago also gave me that answer when I asked him why he decided to become a priest. 

I suppose that could also be said for many of us. We have gifts and talents, strengths and abilities we are proud to be able to share them. And that’s fine; the problem is, when the “I” is gone, there’s nothing left to look at, except perhaps a trace, which only gets dimmer as time go by.

The glory of which today’s Gospel reading speaks and is promised to us Christians is the glory of Christ who suffered, died, and rose again. We’re baptized into it. 

Now for John, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, though temporally distinct, are not three separate episodes. They’re part of one piece, a seamless garment revealing the glory of Christ. 

For John, Christ’s glorification is not an ‘after-effect’ of his death, and his death is not a mere ‘prelude’ causing or leading to his glorification. His death is his glorification. In his destruction and effacement lies Christ’s true power and glory. 

The most powerful signs efface themselves. A Christian, initiated into the Body of Christ is initiated into Christ’s death. Dietrich Bonhoffer could not have put it more powerfully. He says: “When Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. What kind of death? Death to self. 

The most powerful signs efface themselves. It’s easy to fall into the danger of wanting to save the world and putting ourselves in the forefront of salvation history. No need, the world was saved two thousand years ago. We’re not asked to do it again.

It’s easy to despair that our effort to change the world is often frustrated, our voices, silenced by a world so eager to prove itself right by proving us wrong. Does it matter?  Hardly. For we know that nothing we do is ever in vain. 

Our glory is not measured by our success; instead it lies in the realization that our Redeemer lives. 

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” 

The faithful departed whom we remember today remind us that our true glory is in the person of Christ. It is not ourselves we proclaim, but him who sends us. We are not the sun, simply the moon reflecting the sun’s light. We are not the entire score, simply a note in the eternal melody, a line in the verse of God’s everlasting poetry.

Our hope of everlasting life is in our sharing in Christ’s death; our power in the losing and effacing of ourselves in order that Christ may be known; our glory in our being part of the Body of Christ our Head. 

The most powerful signs efface themselves. The faceless and nameless and now voiceless crowd whom we remember today speaks eloquently of this fact.

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