Friday, June 26, 2009

The Dangers of Being A Prophet

Homily on the 14th Sunday of Year B
Mark 6:1-6
July 5, 2009

SPEAK no evil about your superior, even in jest, or even for purposes of correction—if you really want to succeed in life or wish to be rewarded. There is a story of a man who did almost everything for his superior in a particular office of a company. When his friends told him about the perceived shenanigans of their superior which was becoming the talk not only within the office but also in the entire company, he assumed the responsibility of telling their superior about the complaints in order to defuse the mounting opposition. Although he was not able to tell the superior, yet he allowed his officemates, who regarded him as their leader, to discuss their misgivings in a conference so the office volcano might not erupt. But this did not look well with the superior; for it seemed that the latter wanted to portray himself as a saint, or at least impeccable; which was probably why he would hide the big problems of the office to create the impression that all was well and that he was beyond reproach.. And so, when this guy was about to be promoted as manager of the company, upon recommendation of the other bosses in the company, his superior intervened and told the committee that this guy was autocratic, and therefore did not deserve the promotion. The guy, who served him for many years, even assuming the blame for unhappy decisions that his superior made, remained as ordinary worker in the office; he worked for the appointment of another, with the help of another superior in the company, to sit as manager. This raises the question—why should one speak against evil, if doing so will only wind up to one’s one disadvantage, if not death? Why would one do a Lozada or be a whistleblower? Why not just do a monkey business—see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil?

This question brings us to the core of the message in this Sunday’s Gospel. As God’s people, we are a new nation, different from other nations in that, to say the obvious, we are God’s. Our constitution, our identity, flows from God’s choice of us. This recalls God’s word to Abraham: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation…” (Gen 12:1-2). But if it is by the word that we were born into a nation, it is also by His word that we are alive. Which is why, we “live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3). Since we, Christians, claim to be God’s people, his word is part of our life. Hence, in the Eucharistic celebration, which is the central worship of the community, we feed on the word of God.

Human though as we are, it happens that we stray from the word. Instead of following God’s word, we follow our own; we become unfaithful to our word with Him. We become unfaithful to our Constitution and identity as Christians. We deliberately do not listen to him. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah gives an apt description of God’s people who refused to listen: “To whom shall I speak? Whom shall I warn, and be heard? See! Their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot give heed. See! The word of the Lord has become for them an object of scorn, which they will not have” (Jer 6:10). In the New Testament, Jesus was also aware of a similar attitude among his hearers: “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word” (John 8:42). The faith experience of Israel is often repeated in our own.

It is in this context that God sends us prophets. As we become stubborn, obstinate, God appoints prophets, as in the First Reading: “I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have revolted against Me to this very day. Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they, to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them: “’Thus says the Lord God” (Ezek 2:3-5). In this, we see the person of the prophet. He is not primarily one who predicts the future, but God’s spokesperson (Jer 1:8). He is appointed to deliver God’s word; he speaks whether listened to or not (Ezek 2:7). He speaks even when he is not accepted: “I charge you to preach the word, to stay with this task whether convenient or inconvenient—correcting, reproving, appealing—constantly teaching and never ending patience (Tim 4:2).

It is here that we encounter the perils of being a prophet. Why? Because we do not want to give ear to his prophetic words. We prefer to listen to people who speak what is pleasing to our ears (2 Tm 4:3-4). Priests who have prophetic tendencies are not unfamiliar with the common attitude of many people, both inside and outside the Church. If he speaks of God’s love, divine healing, glory of God, nobody protests. There are safe words. But he speaks of corruption, abuse of power, oppression, taking advantage of others, domination, and cheating—aha, that is the problem. Some parishioners will probably stop dropping their collection envelopes. Some in the Church will call him a person to be avoided. Parishioners will start arguing that their pastor has become a politician, no longer sticking to his calling as a priest—as if to reprove, to correct, to appeal is not part of the task of the preacher, as if politics and economy have no moral dimension, as if the parishes are peopled by angels. Well, that is what we do not those whom God sends us.

Truth is, of the prophet we even created stories that is fit for tabloids. We do not want the prophet to tell us what is true. Naked truth, after all, is scandalous, and so we prefer to put clothes on it. And so we surround ourselves with flatterers and admirers, like the men in the palace in the story, “The King’s Clothes.” How we want to see a prophet or a critic or a speaker of truth languishing in jail. If he speaks against us, we transfer him to another office to let him know we did not like what he did, or else to a place where he cannot criticize. Indeed, we even scrutinize his background to destroy his name or credentials, much like in the Gospel when the people of Nazareth could not believe that Jesus was a prophet because he was merely a carpenter/s son (Mark 6:1-6). We engage in blackmail and character assassination to padlock his lips, or else we plot to kill him, as some of the Jews did to Jeremiah, whom they threw into the well. In the face of all this, is it any wonder why we consider a prophet a fool? Is it any wonder that it is better to tell lies, humor our superior, kowtow to him, so that the boat is not rocked, and so that we get promoted, and make the gang happy? Is it any wonder that to speak no evil, hear no evil and see no evil is the best option for many?

But then, what is at work in the life of the prophet is God’s power (2 Cor 12:7-10). Because the power is not our own, we, if we are really true to our calling as Christians, have no alternative but to act as prophets. As such, we have to be fearless in announcing God’s word and in denouncing man’s selfish word. When Khruschev denounced Stalin for his atrocities against the Russian people, some said, “Comrade, where were you when all these innocents were slaughtered? Of course, when Khruschev made the denunciation, Stalin was already six feet below the ground. That is not, obviously, the way of prophetism—fearless only before a dead lion.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Giver of Life

Homily on the 13th Sunday of Year B
Mark 5:21-24.35-43)
June 28, 2009

IF there is any universal human aspiration, it is the aspiration to live for ever. When a person becomes seriously ill, he would normally seek medical help to survive. Only lately, a friend of mine, having discovered she had a cancer, tried every possible way to prolong her life. Even those sects that commit mass suicide do so with they thought that they would be brought back to life if only in another world. If man does not like to die, it is because, according to the First Reading, “God formed man to be imperishable: the image of His own nature He made him” (Wisd 2:23).

Death seems to run against the human natural bent. Man was not created for death, but for life. It is not God’s will that we die, for He is a God who is pro-life. How explain death? “By the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it” (Wisd 2:24). Since it is in man’s nature to live, it is difficult to accept death, even just the though of it. Understandably, we even devise means to lengthen our days. Indeed, man has invented and continues to invent gadgets to prolong life. Or else, we extend it by other means: we live on in our children, in the arts we create, and in the monuments we erect. We wish to live in other people’s memory.

In the Bible, however, life is more than the kind of life that we seek to lengthen. Aside from earthly life, man has another life, the life with God, the life of heaven. Paul, for instance, speaks of the life of Christ in man: “The life that I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself to me” (Gal 2:20). It is God’s very life that we share. This is also known as the life in the Spirit (Rom 8:10-11). When a person lives this life, he is full of joy, is happy. And it is for this life that Christ came so he can give it to us abundantly (John 10:10). According to the Second Reading, it is a life seen in the concern for others, in the life of love (2 Cor 8:7,9,13-25).

It is this life that the devil snatched from us; death was brought to us. Though we recoil at physical death, more fearful that this is spiritual death. We experience this death whenever we are on the side of the devil (Wisd 2:24). Sin causes this death: “Just as through one man sin entered the world and with sin death, death thus coming to all men inasmuch as all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Because to sin is ultimately to reject God, those who reject Him die.

But Jesus came precisely to restore this life to us. “I came that you may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). If he is able to remove sin that causes death, then he can do something about death itself. That is why, in today’s Gospel, Jesus could say of the young girl, Jairus’ daughter, that she “is not death. She is asleep” (Mark 5:39), even if to all who saw her, she was in fact physically dead. If he has power over life, he has power over death. As Mark sees it, the getting up of the young girl is an image to explain Jesus’ ability to shame death and restore life. No wonder than in the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), for he is the source of life. Of course, this presumes that Jesus himself has overcome death at its roots. And the life with God that Jesus bestows, as the Gospel makes it clear, does not end, even if a person physically dies. Physical death, then, may simply be looked at as the last stage of one’s earthly life. Spiritual life does not die with it; on the contrary, death merely crystallizes the divine life, freeing it from all earthly encumbrances. Death, as it were, frees life. It is, in other words, a prelude to real life.

What then is the point of the Gospel story? Just as Jesus is able to raise Jairus’ daughter from death, so he is able to give us new life life. To put it differently, the narrative about the daughter of Jairus is a parable of Jesus as giver of life. In this connection, Paul says: “If the Spirit of him who raise Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will bring our mortal bodies to life also through his Spirit dwelling in you” (Rom 8:11). We begin to experience this life as soon as we are baptized. According to Paul, “through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new life” (Rom 8:4). We live this kind of life as soon as we accept him in faith. As Jesus himself said to Jairus, “fear is useless; what is needed is faith” (Mark 5:36). And this, we sustain this life through a life of love and of service for others. We ccrucify the flesh, the passion and desires and we live by the lead of the Spirit (Gal 5:24-25; Tom 6:6).

We must therefore avoid sin, because this only leads to death. On the other hand, “now that you are freed from sin and have become slaves of God, your benefit is reconciliation, as you tend toward eternal life. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:22-23). And it is this eternal life that satisfied our universal aspiration to live for ever. In effect, then, eternal life is not our achievement. We cannot acquire it by siring children, by raising monuments or by writing a book to remember us by. All these efforts are rather an invitation for us to transcend earthly life because there is a more authentic life that only Jesus can give, waiting for those who believe in him.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Crisis in the Church and Our Lack of Faith

Homily on the 12th Sunday of Year B
Mark 4:35-41
June 21, 20009

The Church continues to experience crisis. In some cases, the crisis comes from outside, when the Church, for instance, undergoes persecution by the ruling powers of the state, as in places where Christianity is a minority, and Christians could practice their religion only at their own peril. In other cases, the crisis comes from within, as when the Church of the United States was rocked by sexual scandals of some members of the clergy that scandalized many Catholics. In instances like these, how does a Christian face the crisis of his Church? The Third Reading can shed some light.

In today’s Gospel, we have a story in which the disciples were caught in a storm on the lake of Galilee . Although they panicked in fear for their lives, Jesus was simply having an untroubled sleep at the stern. After they woke him, Jesus commanded the wind and the sea to be calm, and this prompted them to ask: “Who can this be that the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). This narrative is a typical miracle story, but as can be seen from the question at the end of the pericope, it was obviously originally intended to resolve a question on the identity of Jesus: who is he? Since he is able calm the turbulent sea and wind, the Markan community can affirm, and tell those who listen to the preaching of their missionaries that Jesus is the Lord of nature.

But Mark has expanded the original narrative into a catechetical story on discipleship. With the emphasis on the boat and the storm, Mark’s redaction transformed the story to answer the question: how does a Christian follow Jesus in the context of Church crisis? To understand the pericope, it may be recalled that in the Bible, the sea is associated with the place of destructive power: “You stirred up the sea by your might; you smashed the heads of the dragons in the waters” (Ps 74:13). The calming of the sea, on the other hand, is an indication of how God cares for his people: “They cried to the Lord in their distress; from their straits he rescued them. He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze, and the billows of the sea were stilled; they rejoiced that they were calmed, and he brought them to their desired haven” (Ps 107:28-30). With this in mind, it is easy to see how the pericope functions on the question of discipleship.

The early Church oftentimes pictured itself as a boat, and since in today’s Gospel waves were breaking over the boat so that it began to ship water badly (Mark 4:37), we then have a picture of a Church—a Diocese, a Parish—in much trouble. The problem, to be sure, is not that the Church faces a crisis. The truth is, Jesus never said that the Christian community would be shielded from problems and troubles. Quite the contrary, his ministers will surely come to grips with them: “What I am doing is sending you out like sheep among wolves. You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves. Be on your guard with respect to others. They will hale you to courts, they will flog you in their synagogues. You will be brought to trial before rulers and kings, to give witness before them and before the Gentiles on my account” (Matt 10:16-28).

The problem, rather, is that, when these happen, it seems to many that God does not care at all. As Mark puts it, “the waves were breaking over the boat, and it began to ship water badly, and Jesus was in the stern through it all, sound asleep on a cushion” (Mark 4:37b-38). When persecutions come, and Christians pray to God to rescue them from the crisis, it seems that God is asleep, not hearing the cries of the persecuted for freedom and liberation. Indeed, they are allowed to suffer and die. Churches and Christian ministers are being attacked in India and Pakistan , but no help from heaven looms in the horizon. The American Church is rocked by the scandal of pedophilia, and it is allowed to go bankrupt, while the ministers go to jail or censured in the mass media.

But if God is a God of nature and creation, surely, despite all the crises that the Church undergoes, it cannot be overpowered or overwhelmed. Indeed, we have the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16:16). This means that no matter how grave the trials and troubles besetting the Church, and even if it seems that God does not care, we are assured that the power of God is there. However numerous may be the troubles in the Church and however deeply wounded may be its ministers and lay people, but in the end, the boat of the Church will not capsize. If God is a God who can defeat the storm and waves, he can surely overcome the persecutors of the Church.

In the end, then, it is really a question of faith. Faith, in the Gospel of Mark, is usually associated with the recognition that he is the Son of God (Mark 5:7); but in this particular miracle story, it is linked with the disciples’ trust in Jesus who is capable of prevailing over the storm. The lack of faith is a Markan characterization of Jesus’ disciples that was not obliterated even after the resurrection (Mark 16:11). Because of their lack of faith, they panicked, and woke Jesus up: “Teacher, does it not matter to you that we are going to drown?” (Mark 4:38). No wonder, Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith: “Why are you terrified? Why are you lacking in faith?” (Mark 4:40).

In times of crisis, then, the Christian should not fear or be terrified. In the midst of the storm of scandal, persecution and other evils that plague the Church, he can always assure himself that Christ will never abandon his disciples: “Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matt 28:20). Believing that for those who love God and are called according to his decrees, all things will work together for their own good (Rom 8:28), he can always be confident that abandoning oneself to the Lord, trusting in him is necessary; after all, he is certain of the triumph of God. It would, appear, therefore, that if Mark portrays the disciples as lacking in faith, it is to tell us, the present readers, not to imitate them, but rather to put our trust in him, because he is after all the Lord who can still all kinds of storms in the Church. God does care for his Church, as the fact that it still exist, despite the weaknesses, the sins, and the evils that came into it proves. Once we know this, crises will serve to strengthen our faith, and will make us closer to the Lord.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Broken Bread and the Shared Cup

Corpus Christi of Year B
(Mark 14:12-16. 22-26)
June 14, 2009

YEARS of controversy with Protestantism has honed the emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. This is because, for centuries, most Protestant Churches , in one way or the other, followed Luther in his denial of real presence. It is thus understandable that pre-Vatican II Catechism almost exclusively focused on the real presence and the sacramental character of the Eucharist. The Catholic had to be well-prepared to respond to the Protestant heretical doctrines. The consequence of this understanding, among others, made the Eucharist an icon of adoration.

Unfortunately, however, many people have limited their understanding to the Eucharist in terms of real presence and sacrifice that they failed to appreciate its meaning for the daily life of the Christian. It is not too far-fetched to say that, if some Catholics have much devotion to the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and yet hardly exhibit a life that is Eucharistic, it is partly because they failed to see the connection between the real presence and their daily action.

One way of seeing the connection between the Eucharist and our life is to look at it in terms of words of the institution as recounted by Mark. “And when they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drunk of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-23).

Jesus’ action, of course, fully corresponds with the way the meal was ordinarily held. The head of the household offered thanksgiving to God in this manner. Nevertheless, two things may be noted here. First, the four verbs used echo those in Mark 6:41 and 8:6-7 in the story of the multiplication of the bread. Mark portrays Jesus as using the same words and actions. And it is most likely that the correspondence is intentional. The multiplication of the bread has links with the Eucharist in terms of the meaning of the action. In the miracle of the loaves, Mark says that the disciples did not understand the meaning (Mark 6:52). But in the institution narratives, Mark no longer so affirms of the disciples, obviously because the Eucharist uncovers for them the meaning of the miracle.

Second, whatever the meaning of the account of the institution in its original setting, the evangelist would have us understand that for the Markan community, their eucharistic celebration looks back on the death of Jesus in the same way that the Jews look back on the Exodus event: it is God’s saving activity. The death of Jesus is the act of redemption. Just as this bread is broken, so his body will be broken; just as this cup is shared, so his blood is to be spelt for the salvation of the many. And those who share in the fellowship, partaking of the meal, share in the body and blood of Jesus, and of course, in the fruit of redemption, as well as in the action. One then easily understands why Luke’s account ends with the saying: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19b). More than a command to repeat the ritual, the saying obviously commands his disciples to imitate the Lord who shared the bread and the cup in their practical life.

Thus understood, the Eucharist has implications for daily living. If we limited ourselves to these by no means exhaustive meanings of the Eucharist, it is obvious that the Eucharist implies the sharing of bread with the thousands who suffer from hunger and poverty. Greed and monopoly have no place in Christian life. If to be Christian is to partake of the Eucharist, one cannot be a Christian without having to share with the brothers and sisters in the community. Indeed, he must see to it that the miracle of sharing is repeated daily in the community. But the meaning of sharing is not to be confined to the sharing of goods that the Christian possesses. Even more important is the sharing of oneself with others. This is the implication of the words over the bread and the cup. It is not enough to give money; one must share himself for the redemption of the community. This is seen, for example, in one’s death to selfishness, personal honor and glory. The command to repeat the ritual is fulfilled not simply at the ritual level—in the celebration of the mass—but at the practical level: in the sharing of goods in the community, and in the death of every member for the sake of the community’s salvation. For it is in dying that we are saved.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The God Who is Concerned with Humanity and Salvation

Trinity Sunday of Year B
(Matt 28:16-20)
June 7, 2009

TODAY’S Gospel (Matt 28:16-20) is almost universally called the Great Commission. Here, the Risen Lord instructs the eleven to make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to observe everything he commanded them. In this commission, we have an explicit reference to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in whose name one is baptized. This is obviously the reason why the present text is read on this feast, even if the thrust of the passage is not about the Trinitarian understanding of God. It may be observed that to baptize in the name of the three persons has become the classic baptismal formula, and the verse in question is the earliest evidence for it. The Father, Son and Spirit appear in juxtaposition, as if to say that they are equal.

Despite the fact that the three persons of the Trinity are named, it would be wrong to think that the passage bears the dogmatic meaning it was given, as a result of development through the Trinitarian controversies, in later centuries. The Confession of three persons and one God developed in an effort to account for the full implications of the mystery of Christ, whose life reveals that God is Father, Son and Spirit. The classical formulation of the doctrine was framed in the language of Greek philosophy which, unfortunately, is beyond the understanding of most of us. The consequence is that the doctrine emerged as something foreign to the daily life of Christians, appearing as it does as a mathematical problem to be solved. Of course, the dogmatic formula is a necessary, given the culture and world view of the time; but this does not prevent us from going back to the biblical understanding to see it relevance to our practical life as Christians.

Far from bearing the meaning of the Trinitarian definition of Nicea, the conception that God as Father, Son and Spirit reflects the Matthean community’s understanding of God in his dealings with men. For the Christians, God is not an immutable being, unmoved by the contingencies of human history. It may make sense in philosophy to say that God is a simple being, unaffected by the pain and suffering of humanity, and a unitary being, dwelling alone and beyond the access of humanity. On the contrary, the understanding of God as triune comes from the Christian experience that God is very much involved in the affairs of men. Rather than isolating himself from his creatures, God opens himself to them, seeking them out in love. John articulates it very well when he says that God is love (I John 4:8). It is in the nature of love to be self-diffusive, and this gives us an inkling why God is not an isolated God, but a Trinity who meets us in love. That love is seen in Jesus who gave us his life for the ransom of all. Again, John perfectly enunciates it: “God’s love was revealed in our midst in this way: he sent his only Son to the world that we might have life through him.” (1 John 4:9). And he continues to diffuse his love and mercy by the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Christian and in the community. Such an understanding of God is not foreign to the thought of Matthew who emphasizes the personal relationship between the Father and the Son, and the share of the disciples in that relationship through the Holy Spirit.

If it is in the nature of God to be Trinitarian, this implies that one cannot be a Christian unless he belongs to a community of brothers and sisters in the Lord. There is no such a person as an individual Christian; for there is no Christianity without a community. In the words of Paul, “If one does not belong to the body, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom 8:23). And because God is essentially love, so is a Christian. Jesus, in the gospel of John, says it well: “People will know that you are my disciples by gthe love you have for one another” (John 15:35). Of course, this love is not our love for one another, but the love which we share from the Father through the Son in the Spirit: “Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us, and has sent his Son as an offering for our sins… No one has ever seen God, yet if we love one another God dwells in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us. The way we know we remain in him and that he is in us is that he has given us of his Spirit.” (1 John 4:10.12-13). Or, as John says elsewhere, “God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him”. (1 John 4:16).