Thursday, April 18, 2019

Easter 2019: Triumph from Defeat


This Holy Week started with the heartbreaking images of the flames consuming the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  The fire at the 850 year old structure captured the headlines and the attention of the world.  As the world watched in horror, some bemoaned the forever-lost art while others the state of the Church in France symbolized by the apocalyptic sight.  The fire for them is the sad commentary on the condition of the “Oldest Daughter of the Church” who has walked away from its Christian roots as about only 5% of the population is practicing Catholics. 

While the images of the fire horrified the audiences around the world, the images from the day after can help us cope and even be inspired.  For the humanists and art lovers, the images of the saved stone structure of the cathedral, the artifacts rescued from the burning building, and the few rosette stain glass windows which were left intact will sooth to some degree the feelings of loss.  For the believers who feel like the Church is dying, the soothing comes from the image of the intact main altar with its pieta and the cross. Especially, the image of the gleaming cross in the sea of ashes should inspire us all to hope. The cross of the Cathedral of Notre Dame which shines like a beacon of hope is a reminder that God can turn any tragedy into victory.  It points to the reality beyond itself which we celebrate today – the triumph of Christ over sin and death.  Because Christ rose from the dead, the cross is the sign of hope and new life.  What better invitation to hope than the gleaming cross in the midst of the rubble?  What better way to think of Christ’s victory than the cross shining in the night of charred wood and melted metal? What better way to be reminded of the triumph of Christ who hung on the cross?



I hope this image of the cross raised above soot and rubble will inspire us to celebrate Easter with great hope, trust and joy.  I hope we find comfort in the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the cornerstone of our faith and the proof that all the claims that Jesus made about himself are true. I hope we feel encouraged to practice the teaching of Jesus which the resurrection proved true and trustworthy.  

May the cross from Notre Dame remind us that “Christ is risen! Alleluia! He is truly risen! Alleluia!” And may the presence of the Risen Christ, fill your heart with hope, peace and joy!

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Palm Sunday: A Misfit King


The Holy Week begins with the Palm Sunday procession commemorating the triumphant entry of Jesus into the Holy City of Jerusalem.  This liturgical action has ancient roots and symbolizes our present willingness to walk with Jesus.
Some 500 years before the event we reenact today, Zechariah prophesied to the Israelites captive in Babylon about the future messiah: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). The prophet foretold the triumphant entry of the new king into the city. It would be a great day of joy and celebration. The new king would come victorious and take possession of the besieged city.  There is no question that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem must be seen as the fulfillment of that ancient prophecy.  Nevertheless, while the king comes to Jerusalem in triumph, this triumph is unusual. He comes mounted on a donkey, not a powerful stallion. What kind of a triumph is that? This unusual triumph is understood only through the person of Jesus. Jesus is the promised king and messiah, but he is unlike any other king. He is a misfit king. 

Jesus is not the type of king the ancient world, or any other time or culture, is familiar with. He is a misfit king. He comes not to conquer his enemies with military might. He offers them love and forgiveness.  He does not seek to be served but washes the feet of his followers and commands them to do likewise. He does not respond with violence but offers the other cheek. He does not punish offenders but rejoices with their change of heart. He does not sentence others to hell but pardons and promises paradise to those who want it.  His throne is not made of gold but of rough wooden beams. His crown is not bejeweled but made of thorns. His greatest victory was accomplished through suffering and death.
His kingdom too is unlike any other kingdom ever.  It is a misfit kingdom. It is founded on the counterintuitive rule of mutual love and service.  The citizens of Jesus’ kingdom are misfits too as they live by the unpopular rule of the love of God and neighbor.  They are meek and humble in the world run by power and pride. They work for peace and rely on God in the world of aggression and the ever-growing cult of self-centeredness. They hunger and thirst for justice and speak the truth in the world that promotes personal benefit and moral compromises. They give generously to the poor and protect the weak in the world where the dignity of people is measured by their market value. They reject evil in the world that pursuits its empty promises. They glorify God and give light to the world by the way they live in the world that rejects God and celebrates the works of darkness.  They suffer ridicule and rejection in the world of reversed values.  Indeed, they are the true heirs of this misfit king who came to establish his upside-down kingdom.  And yet, it is those who pray for the coming of this kingdom and practice its values that have historically accomplished the most good in the world by being faithful in small and great things. In the end, they will rejoice hearing “come, good and faithful servant, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
As we walk with Jesus this Holy Week, let us honor our king by living like faithful citizens of his kingdom, and thus prepare ourselves to renew our baptismal allegiance on Easter Sunday. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Fifth Sunday of Lent: I Am Doing Something New!


The readings for this Fifth Sunday of Lent invite us to hope in God for the future by reminding us of the many wonderful things that God has accomplished in the past.  The reading from Isiah (Is. 43:16-21) and the responsorial psalm (Ps 126) recall the two greatest events in the history of the Chosen People: how God freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and how he brought them from their exile in Babylon.  These two pivotal saving events which shaped the identity of Israel are just two examples of God’s loving action towards his people.  We are encouraged to look forward to even greater things God is able to accomplish now and will accomplish in the future.  God speaks through Isaiah saying:  “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  God always does new things!
Jesus makes this “new thing” a reality in the life of the nameless woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). The woman is in danger of being killed because while being married or promised to a man, she had an intercourse with another.  The lovers got caught in the act so there is no question as to the facts. Neither there is a question as to the prescribed penalty: death (Deuteronomy 22:23-240 by stoning (Ezekiel 23:43-47). 
Nevertheless, the apparent religious zeal of the Pharisees and Scribes is just a cover for their sinister plans. For them, the woman is a collateral damage (What happened to the man?); the real purpose of bringing her to Jesus is to test him.  The same word “test” is used to describe the devil’s temptations in the desert.  In a way, the religious purists utilize not just the woman but the very law they claim to love to gain advantage over Jesus.  They know what the law prescribes, yet they ask his opinion.  If he opines to let her go, they will accuse him of breaking the law. If he tells them to stone her, the common people will turn away from him as no longer being “a friend of sinners.” He might even get in trouble with the Romans as it is their and only their prerogative to impose capital punishment!  Fortunately, the religious leaders’ evil scheme does not work! 

The response Jesus gives stuns them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Speechless and shamed, they walk away one by one.  What they mean for evil, Jesus turns into good.  He turns to the woman and completes the act of mercy and restoration not by denying her sin but rather by freeing her from it.  He says, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” A new life begins.  We do not know what happened after Jesus saved her life and soul.  We hope she took that moment of grace and challenged herself to start fresh.  Based on the other life-changing encounters between Jesus and sinners, we can presume she took that opportunity and allowed God to recreate her, to do something new with her life.
God gives us similar opportunities all the time through Christ.  When we are touched by the living Christ, we have a chance to become a new creation.  We no longer need or even want to dwell on the sinful past or the past spent on insignificant and meaningless pursuits.  We are compelled to start anew and change the direction of our lives. St. Paul describes it this way:  “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:8-14). In other words, we choose to live a different life and want to make different choices because “the Lord has done great things for us” and “we are filled with joy”   (Ps. 126).


Friday, March 29, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Lent: In Or Out?


I once saw a T-shirt that said: ”My mother was right about everything.” It is a cheeky message but with a deep meaning. It appeals to our experience that as we grow older and mature, we realize that our parents were right in warning us about and advised against certain choices. They might not have been right about “everything,” but they surely were right about many things! I guess the T-shirt should have also said, “And I wish I had listened!”

The Gospel today is the beloved story of the Merciful Father and his two Prodigal Sons (Luke 15) who reject his wisdom and are faced with a choice to accept it anew. It is a story about TWO sons. 

Jesus tells the parable in reaction to the indignation of the Pharisees and scribes at the sight of his interactions with publicly recognized sinners. They complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They disapprove of Jesus’ acceptance of the unacceptable people.

The setup is dramatic. A younger son requests his portion of the inheritance while his father is still alive. In any culture this is a hurtful request, and in a Semitic one it is also a great dishonor and offense. Normally, inheritance is given upon the death of the parent. The son basically says he wants his father dead. Having received the money, the son leaves home and lives fast and large - at least as long as the money lasts. He does not invest or purchase but squanders his inheritance. His personal disintegration progresses proportionately to his life of debauchery and immoral living. When the money is gone, and his “friends” are gone, he has to work by tending pigs – an abhorrent job for a Jew. A meteoric fall! Instead of having a good life, he finds himself hungry and shamed by the work he has to do.

As he lives the consequences of his actions, he comes to his senses and begins to appreciate what he used to have, and what he took for granted, namely, the goodness, generosity and kindness of his father. He realizes that he gave up his sonship for nothing. He is left empty and wanting. It happens sometimes that we foolishly leave good things behind only to realize that we’ve made a terrible mistake. We leave relationships, places, jobs and certain situations without thinking about the consequences. Often, like the younger son, we end up yearning for what we chose to abandon. However, this is also a graced moment which may propel us to act in way that will heal and restore us. As the younger son who acknowledges his wrongdoing and decides to go back home. There is a sense of a tender trust in his father’s goodness that his father might be open to hire him since he no longer feels he can be called his son. He might be anxious, but he knows his father is kind and hopes for a place among the hired workers.


It is not unusual for us to be like this son! Many of us often want to live as if God were dead to us. We think that life away from the Father, on our own terms, will be better because we think we know better. We cash in on God’s goodness and love, and we make choices that lead to disasters. The more we move away from God, the more we disintegrate. Hopefully, we hit the bottom before it is too late and come to our senses. Then we can realize what we have abandoned and seek ways to be restored and reconciled to God and those we have sacrificed on the altar of selfish pursuits. When we acknowledge that we have chosen wrongly, we are ripe for change. We can seek God’s mercy and become a new person. Hopefully, the change is fundamental and reorients us for the rest of our lives.

A new life is possible because God, like the father in the parable, is gracious and kind. The father sees his returning son from far away, runs toward him, embraces and kisses him even before the son confesses his guilt. This public display of emotion communicates to all onlookers to show the same openness to the returning son. The father, just by looking at him, knows he is sorry and burdened by the choices he made. In his compassion, he makes sure the son feels welcome before he utters a word. And when the son speaks, he does not even let him finish and ask to be a hired hand. Instead, he orders the servants to robe him, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet and thus restores his son’s dignity and status as a member of the family.

If the parable ended here, it would be a truly happy ending. Unfortunately, there is the other son. Jesus did say that this was a story about TWO sons. The elder brother hears the commotion and learns that the father throws a party in honor of his younger brother who just came home. He is livid. The father sees that this son is lost too, and just like with the first son, the father goes out to meet him and to persuade him to enter the house. But the elder son disregards the father’s efforts and confronts him. Blinded by anger and resentment, he does not even once address him as “father” or acknowledge his brother as brother whom he calls “this son of yours.” He orders the father to “listen” and expresses how he truly feels. He does not feel ever rewarded. He feels like a servant.

How long has he felt like that? How long has it simmered in him? He claims not to have disobeyed any of the father’s commandments, and yet he refuses to hear the pleas of the father to join the feast of mercy. The father pleads with the angry young man, and calling him tenderly “my child,” invites him to come in. The self-righteousness of the elder son is no less worthy of mercy than the open rebellion of the younger one. The father pleads and persuades: “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again.” He invites his elder son to embrace his brother and to have a new relationship with the restored family. The elder son’s hardened heart does not have love for his brother or father and his bitter soul does not rejoice at the miracle of his brother’s changed life.

We are like the older brother (and the Pharisees and scribes whom he represents) when we fail to appreciate the Father’s mercy and acknowledge our need for it. We are like him when we do not celebrate the miracle of conversion. We are like the elder son when we refuse to accept the invitation to a new life.

We do not know how the story really ends. We do not know if the elder brother accepts the invitation to enter the house or stays outside. We are left with a cliff-hanger on purpose because it is really a story about us. We need to decide whether we stay out or go in.





Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Third Sunday of Lent: A Gift To Behold


Some people inform, or maybe even test Jesus, about two tragedies which had struck unexpectedly. They expect a meaningful response. One tragedy was caused by the Romans who had killed certain Galileans as they were making sacrifices to God in the temple.  Tragedy struck when they were worshiping God. It was horrific and unexpected. The other tragedy was a freak accident in which 18 people were killed when a building collapsed on them in Jerusalem.  Totally unexpected deaths. The response which the listeners receive from Jesus is equally unexpected.  Instead of condemning Pilate’s forces for the atrocity and instead of expressing sympathy with the ones killed in Jerusalem, Jesus calls his listeners to face their own lives and reform them.  The people who have perished in the tragedies no longer have a chance to reform their lives, however, those who are listening still can.  

Jesus does not say that the tragedies reported to him were some kind of a punishment for those people’s sins. That would be not only too simplistic but also inaccurate and false.  While it is true that some suffering is caused by our own choices, it is not true for all suffering.  There are many loving wives and self-sacrificing mothers, wholesome husbands and just fathers, saintly single men and women, holy nuns, servant priests, and innocent children who suffer terribly for no fault of their own!  Moreover, Jesus does not explain why God allows tragedy and pain to strike us.  The answer to that question will remain shrouded in mystery until we see God face to face.  Nevertheless, Jesus does offer us a way to be ready for whatever suffering may come our way.  He invites us to repent. In other words, he encourages us to move away from that which separates us or moves us away from God and instead draw near to God and bear the fruit of that closeness.

Jesus offers the story of the fig tree or rather the story of the patient gardener to encourage us to undergo whatever process of change we should go through in order to bear good fruit.  In the story, the fig tree has not produced any fruit for three years. The owner wants to cut it down, but the gardener intercedes for the tree and promises extra care to help the tree bear fruit. It is the care that will save the tree as the tree left on its own would not produce fruit yet another year either.

This story illustrates the fact that God is constantly calling us to a changed life, a better life. Furthermore, God does not leave us on our own in this process but rather offers the help of the teaching of Jesus and the example of others.  Like in the story about the caterpillar who complains to a butterfly, “You’ve changed,” and the butterfly responds: “We’re supposed to;” we are supposed to change by the transforming power of God.  There is always something that needs to be changed in our lives.  Either we remove the bad and replace it with good. Or we replace good with better. We can always be more loving, kinder and more forgiving.

The change or repentance will bring us closer to God. That closeness will produce abundant fruit in our lives. It will not save us not from suffering, but it will save us from the sense of meaninglessness of it.  Suffering will come. No one is spared it. Jesus himself was not spared it, and he was holy and blameless. His suffering and death freely accepted redeemed the world. Our suffering when accepted in trust unites us to Christ.  
A person who has accepted the care of the Divine Gardener can bear his or her suffering with peace and grace.  God can make that human suffering holy. Indeed, very often when we see the suffering of someone who is close to God and loves God, in spite of our powerless and confusion, we know God is present in the midst of it. Even when the illness changes our loved ones beyond recognition, like in Alzheimers or other debilitating illness, we know God is there.  In a way, not only do we admire the work of God in the abundant fruit of his grace in their lives, but we also are beholding the very presence of the great I AM in the soul set on fire with his grace and love.  We are privileged to stand on holy ground and hear the invitation to be inspired by the holy life of others to seek the God who enables such grace and holiness. This holiness is indeed a gift to behold!


Saturday, March 16, 2019

2nd Sunday of Lent: Our Citizenship Is In Heaven


It seems that most fitness programs encourage people to set goals before embarking on the often arduous regimen of diet and exercise.  The science seems to support the fact that clear goals not only help us stay focused but also motivate our resolve, especially,  when the going gets tough.

Today’s gospel serves a very similar purpose. Our Lenten journey takes us through the mountain top where Jesus is transfigured in the presence of Peter, John and James. The three disciples get a preview of Jesus’ glory.  They need that even though they will not understand the significance of this event until after the resurrection.

Several verses before today’s gospel, Peter responds to Jesus’s question “who do people say that I am?” with the inspired response “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Then Jesus explains what it means – he will be rejected and killed.  Jesus’s assertion about the rejection and death clashes with the common expectations of what the Messiah would accomplish.  Surely, death is not part of that expectation. That’s why they need to get the glimpse of Jesus glory in the context of his announcement of his death. They need to understand the necessity of the cross as central to God’s plan of salvation. 

This is further confirmed by what the disciples see and hear.  Jesus, Moses and Elijah speak "of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem." This "exodus" means his cross, death and resurrection. It is part of the divine plan, it is not an accident of history or a result of bad circumstances.  The word “exodus” naturally brings to mind the great exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, through the Red Sea and the wilderness, to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses.  This is intentional. Jesus will lead us from slavery of sin to the freedom of God’s children, and from the realm of human self-centeredness to the Kingdom of God.  Again, this cannot happen without the cross.  

Those who follow Jesus and want to be part of his kingdom cannot escape the cross either.  The cross has many manifestations: forgiveness, self-sacrifice, fidelity, generosity, humility and others.  Each one of us has his or her own cross to bear and death to face.  It is not easy to die to oneself so we are reminded that there is no glory without the cross.

Lent, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, helps us to embrace the cross of discipleship as we refocus our vision and reorganize our priorities.  It invites us to remember that the goal of our life is to be with God for all eternity.  This goal should help us stay focused and motivated.   Lent reminds us that we can attain our union with Christ in the life to come only if we die to ourselves and grow each day closer to Jesus here and now.  We can grow closer to him by obeying the words spoken by God at the time of Jesus’ transfiguration: “Listen to him.”  If we listen to him, trust him (like Abraham trusted in God), and live by the principles of his kingdom now, even though it will cost us, it will be worth it.  In other words, Lent simply reminds us that if we want to go to heaven, we ought to live in a way that will get us there!

Friday, March 8, 2019

First Sunday of Lent: Learning From Jesus



Our Christian life at times feels like pushing a big boulder up the hill. It requires strength, perseverance, and at times new beginnings.

The spiritual disciplines of Lent (prayer, fasting and charity) help us to start anew, train our spiritual strength and, through our Sunday readings, learn how to persevere from the example of Jesus. Today’s Gospel about the temptations of Jesus does all of the above (Luke 4:1-13). 
The story starts with a seemingly insignificant detail about the river Jordan: “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.” It is an important detail which establishes two important things: First, Jesus is not going to be in the desert alone – the Holy Spirit is with him, Secondly, we are reminded that Jesus just accepted the baptism from John as a sign of identification with sinners. During his baptism the heavens opened and the voice declared “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” 

Full of the Holy Spirit Jesus is confronted by the devil. However, the enemy waits until Jesus is physically weak, hungry and tired having spent 40 days and nights in the desert. This gives the enemy a window of opportunity: he cannot face Jesus when Jesus is at his peak, but maybe, when he is weak, he will lower his guard and fall. A lesson: each time we are hungry, angry, lonely or thirsty, we should pay attention to our choices (words and actions), as those are the times when we are least guarded. 

The first temptation is a sinister one because of its apparent harmlessness. The enemy says, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." What’s the harm in that? No one will know, and no one will care. The true harm is well masked. It is the “if” that betrays the magnitude of what the enemy is really after. He wants Jesus to use his biggest strength which is his being the Son of God against himself. He says, “If you are the Son of God,” do something for yourself. How often we all fall for this one! Using our position, influence, or means for selfish purposes! What an audacious attempt to use Jesus’ very identity to tempt him! He has no right to ask Jesus to prove anything to him. Jesus knows he is the Son of God because he heard it from his Father while in the river Jordan. No proof necessary. Jesus does not fall for the temptation and replies: "It is written, One does not live on bread alone." A lesson: pursuing selfish purposes lead us to self-centered life. A life of the follower of Jesus is not centered on self, but on God and others. 

The enemy does not give up. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth saying: "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." The enemy offers power (authority) and glory at the price of the change of allegiance. How many of us fall for this false promise of glory and success and in the process bow down to idols! Jesus is not power-hungry; for Jesus the greatest power is service, and the greatest glory is to serve God: "It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve." Jesus will not fall before a false God. A lesson: the real power of the follower of Jesus is in the service to God and others. 

The enemy is a quick learner. Jesus used scripture to fend off his attempts, so the enemy uses scripture to tempt Jesus. "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." He quotes Psalm 91:11 in which God promises protection and help to those who remain faithful. The enemy wants to confuse Jesus by enticing him to test God (by which he will demonstrate unfaithfulness) while at the same time trusting in the promises offered only to the faithful. We fall hard for this one! We often demonstrate unfaithfulness in our words and actions and at the same time expect God’s blessings which God promises his faithful ones! Jesus uses Scripture again and says, "It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’" The enemy loses the battle and departs “from him for a time.” There will be other opportune times to tempt as the enemy never really stops. A lesson: if we want the rewards of faithfulness, we should live faithfully. 

The verse which follows (unfortunately not part of the Sunday reading) brackets the whole experience well. Right after the temptations, Luke says: “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” This line shows that temptations really strengthened Jesus. While he started “full of the Holy Spirit, “he finished empowered by the Spirit. A lesson: each temptations can have this outcome – empowerment rather than failure (sin) – if we resist by the strength of the Holy Spirit. 

We, the baptized, live in the world where choices are not simple, yet the consequences of those choices can have eternal consequences. However, Jesus understands our struggle to resist temptations. He chose to be tempted precisely to demonstrate to all of us that he understands and has compassion on us. Because of his choice to be tempted, as the author of the letter to the Hebrew says, “he is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebr. 2:18). 

Our Christian life requires strength, perseverance, and at times new beginnings. May the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and charity help us focus on God, discipline our urges, and practice unselfishness.