Thursday, November 26, 2009

Our Savior is Jesus, not the Politicians!

Second Sunday of Advent of Year C
(Luke 3:1-6)
December 6, 2009

WHEN we hear of the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of the Great Britain, we usually associate them with countries advanced in science, technology, and economy. We look up to them because they have virtually become world leaders who are able to give their people comfort and happiness that citizens of the third world normally envy. Theirs is an advanced industrial society. Yet, the other side of the picture of such societies is quite alarming: they have worsening air and water pollution, mounting crimes, ghettoes, dwindling resources, to mention a few. And one wonders whether this is a form collective suicide. Of course, Karl Marx saw this, and proposed an alternative. Since the West is individualistic, he proposed the abolition of private property, and thought of allowing the people—the poor—to govern society. Thus we hear of the Josef Stalin of the Russia and Mao Tse Tung of China proclaiming themselves as champions of the proletariat. Yet, we who are on the other side of the fence know that these nations have their own brand of dogmatism and bureaucracy, regimentation and inquisition, witch hunting and police state. And not to long ago, we saw the virtual collapse of the communist world. Hence the question: whence is salvation of the world?

It is not fortuitous that today’s Gospel begins with the name of Tiberius Ceasar, emperor of the Roman empire, Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, Herod Antipas, tetrach of Galilee and Perea, and Philip, tetrach of other parts of Galilee (Luke 3:1). As an evangelist who has a universalist outlook, Luke takes care to relate the significance of the gospel to the world in his time. For him, these known persons represent the political and religious rulers at the time of Jesus. It may be recalled that as the people at that time expected, the political rulers, on the one hand, were supposed to save their people from hunger and lawlessness, while the religious leader, on the other hand, were to put them in right relationship with God. Yet it is clear from the Jewish tradition that their national rulers were hardly faithful in their task. On the contrary, they did the opposite. That is why, God, using pagan rulers as instruments, scattered them and exiled them (2 Kings 15:29; 17:16). The Jewish religious leaders, on the other hand, led the people astray (Jer 50:6). They became unfaithful (Ezek 34:2-10), and even scattered the flock (Jer 23:1-2). Thus, they failed in their responsibilities (Jer 2:8). It appears, therefore, that if Luke mentions secular and religious rulers to preface his account of Jesus’ ministry, it is to imply that salvation cannot come from the religio-political establishment of his time.

Not surprisingly enough, God’s word did not come to them, nor to any Roman or Jewish politician, but to John who, in contrast with the Roman emperors and governors, was an unknown in the empire. The word of the Lord came to him to indicate that salvation of the people can come from God alone (Bar 5:6), not from the religio-political rulers of his time. How does the prophet picture salvation? The book of Baruch presents this salvation to us in the image of Jerusalem taking the robe of peace instead of mourning to manifest the return of the sons of Israel from exile (Bar 5:1-4), led by God himself (Bar 5:6). So, Jerusalem has to look toward the east, to the coming of salvation from God (Bar 5:5). That is to say, the prophet warned his people that if they wish to be saved, the Israelites cannot rely on their own religio-political rulers, still less on foreign powers. If there is anyone to be depended on for salvation, it is God alone.

The same may be said of us. No matter how altruistic the United States or Russia may appear to be, no matter how they are able to show concern for peoples in the third world, we, Christians, cannot have the illusion that the salvation of men from all misery and want, and from evil and death could come from the political rulers of these powerful nations. It cannot come even from our own political rulers. Many presidents have sat on the presidential throne, but the salvation of the Filipino people is nowhere nearer. On the contrary, their lot has even become worst—politically, economically, socially, environmentally. Following the exhortation of Baruch, we have to look toward the East, to Jesus, for it is only he who can establish the new Jerusalem in splendor and glory (Bar 5:1, 1st Reading), that is to say, who can make us one community where justice and peace prevail, and removed all forms of evil in this world, by showing this splendor to every nation (Bar 5:3). This is the significance of advent. We await the coming of Jesus from the east who alone can save us. And as he is coming to save us, our role is simply this: we need to cultivate a proper conduct, abounding in love, and valuing the things that really matter (Phil 1:8-11, 2nd Reading). This way, we accept his coming, and prepare his way (Isa 40:3-4).

So, next time we hear politicians promise us a new heaven and a new earth, in which our dreams of justice to the poor and the victims of history, prosperity, peace for all, equality before the law, participation in governance, and abundance of life, we need not take their word hook, line and sinker. If their track record has anything to tell us, it is that all they are capable of is giving morsel of bread and providing circuses. There is only one savior—the Lord Jesus. It is he whom we await.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What If Christ Returns in 2012?

Homily on the First Sunday of Advent of Year C
(Luke 21:25-28,34-36)
November 29, 2009

If pseudo-scientists, internet theorists and paranormal enthusiasts are to be believed, the world is coming to an end on December 21, 2012, when a mysterious planet, supposedly discovered by ancient Sumerians, collides with our earth. This supposedly finds confirmation in the Mayan calendar that ends on that date. This doomsday scenario is the subject of the movie produced by Sony Picture, “2012.” No wonder, if one searches the internet, he will encounter a number of suggestions on how to survive the apocalypse.

Such an speculation about the end of the world is not new, however. It is told that in 1831, William Miller, a farmer, began preaching the end of the world in 1843. He draw his dating from the 2,300 days in the book of Daniel (Dan 8:13-14) which, for him, mean 2,300 years, and using 457 BC as the calculated the date commanded to restore Jerusalem. Thousands heeded his call to repentance, but the year 1843 went without the world ending with a bang or with a whimper. He deferred the date to October 22, 1844, but most Millerites abandoned his religion, others returned to their former denominations. Of course, the Millerites concluded that they were correct on the dating, though this has reference to Jesus’ entrance to the holy place in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The remnants of the Millerites accepted the prophetic role of Ellen G. White, whose writings the Seventh-Day Adventists revere as second to the Sacred Scriptures. After meeting with the Seventh-Day Adventists in 1872, haberdasher Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He predicted the end of the world in 1914. He died in 1916, but his successor, Joseph Rutherford, head of the Watchtower Society, advanced the date to 1925. He himself, however, died in 1942. More recently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were sure 1975 would be the year when Jesus would return. Of course, they were mistaken again.

Although many religionists are gaga over the precise date of Christ’s return, the Gospel today does exhort us not to concern ourselves with such speculation. It cannot be calculated, because it can come at any moment: “that day catch you by surprise like a trap” (Luke 21:34b-35a). The basic Christian attitude toward Christ’s return is not one of curiosity, but one of great expectation that is seen in our daily behavior. Having followed Jesus in discipleship, for all the trials and sufferings attendant upon it, we can stand erect and hold our head high because our deliverance has come (Luke 21:28). However the world will end, with a bang or with a whimper, whether or not the Lord is coming in 2012, we really have nothing to fear, because Jesus comes back as a savior, a victor over the forces of evil and death. There is no need for a survival kit!

Of course, we know that in following Jesus in discipleship, we do not always obtain justice or peace. On the contrary, we are even persecuted for our belief, and for our action on account of that belief. But this is not the last word of our discipleship. The last word is that, Jesus is coming to put an end to it---to the miscarriage of justice, to the injustices and every form of evil. When he comes, Jesus will be manifested to us as the just shoot of David who does what is right and just, and we, his disciples, will experience peace and justice (Jer 33:14-16, 1st Reading). That is why we do not fear death or the end of this world.

As we await his coming, we have to conduct ourselves in a way pleasing to God, and learn to make progress in it. We make our hearts blameless before God, overflowing with love for one another (1 Thess 3:12). This should be our concern as we await his return: a blameless life, overflowing with love, not speculation of date. We are to act as if we were a woman whose husband is an OCW in Italy or Hongkong. While her husband is away, she does not falter in her love for him and for their children. Her life of care and love is her daily preparation for the coming back of her husband. Because of her life of love, she is eager to meet him at the airport upon his return, and to receive his gifts for her. She knows that his return is the salvation of her family from their basic needs, because her husband’s coming is the redemption of their family from grinding poverty, and signifies the unity of the whole family. We cannot imitate the wife who, when her husband is in a foreign land, spends away all the money he sent her, and consorts with other men, for that would be like the man in the Gospel whose spirit has become bloated with indulgence, drunkenness and worldly cares (Luke 21:34). Assuredly, she cannot hold her head high.

In effect, by leading such a life in the in-between time, we demonstrate that, even though we do not know the exact date, we are confident of the Lord’s return. The waiting may be long, but it is not without purpose nor devoid of meaning. On the contrary, it is meaningful because it derives it significance from the Lord himself who will make it perfect, when he establishes peace and justice for those who followed him.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jesus’ Kingdom: Not of this World

The Solemnity of Christ the King
34th Sunday of Year B
(John 18:33-37)
November 22, 1009

Power and privilege are what kingship and ruling are all about. In times past, among the basic duties of the king concern war and law: they have to wage war to protect the interest of the people, or protect them from their enemies. They see to it that there is order in the kingdom. Today, among the basic expectations of the people from their rulers have to do with food and justice. They have power and privilege, but they have to see to it that people do not starve, and provide an ordered society in which justice prevails. It happens, however, that power, by which they can provide people food and justice, ironically causes hunger and injustice. For as Lord Acton observes, power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Indeed, it is scarcely untruthful to say that there is something demonic in political power. And one who holds it normally finds it difficult to relinquish it. The privileges that are attendant upon it are hard to give up. No wonder, once one is in power, he makes an effort to hold on to it, even by hook or by crook. It is not easy to say no to political power and its trappings. Because it corrupts, deception, graft, corruption, abuse, oppression, repression are often connected with it. Thus, though we change those who hold political power time and again, yet society scarcely exhibits itself as evolving into a more just and more humane one. One often gets the impression that it is a case of the same dog, with different collar. That is how it goes in the kingdoms of this world.

In today’s Gospel on the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world: “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here” (John 18:36). This does not mean, of course, that Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with this world. It does not even mean that his kingdom cannot be found in this world. In the theology of John, the word “world” as used in this pericope means the world of sin. If anything, what Jesus said means that his rule does not belong to this world of sin, a world that values political power and social privileges, where there is domination, where rulers lord it over people, and make their importance felt. Hence, he cannot be a king in the sense Pilate understood it:”You say I am a king” (John 18:37).

How then do we look at the kingship of Jesus? We can understand his kingship if we consider how Jesus understood his kingdom. According to him, it is a kingdom of truth (John 18:37). Truth, in John, echoes the meaning of Wisdom 6:22 which associates it with God’s hidden plan of salvation, and in Daniel 10:21 which connects it with the designs of God for the time of salvation. Thus, unlike Caesar, Jesus did not have soldiers who were armed to protect him, nor people who were at his beck and call (John 18:36b), but certainly he had followers—those who hear his voice, which is the truth (John 18:37c). These are the disciples, the believers, his sheep (John 10:16; 8:47). Having considered this, we now understand Jesus’ kingship. He is a King in the sense that he is the embodiment of truth (John 14:6), and all his words and his deeds testify to it (John18:37b). Moreover, he testified to that truth with his death; so, in his crucifixion he is the King (John 19:19).

Viewed in this light, we can easily understand why Jesus’ kingship is not of this world. However, still, it has to do with this world. For the truth is opposed to this world of sin and division; not surprisingly enough, it hates the testimony of Jesus (John 7:2). This world cannot accept the values of his kingdom—truth, justice, peace, liberation, equality and participation. But Christians cannot despair. For few they may be, yet those who hear the truth and believe in him will eventually conquer the world: “Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”(1 John 5:4). In this feast of the Kingship of Jesus, John then has this to say to us: Jesus is a King and has a Kingdom. But if we are to share in his kingship, we must listen to his voice. By listening to his voice, we turn earthly values upside down: better to be poor than to be rich, to suffer than to persecute, to be weak than to be powerful, to be utilized than to exploit. We no longer imitate the current language of power and privilege. On the contrary, we follow him in discipleship, offering our very self on the cross, in which we can find our victory and vindication. In our crucifixion, we reign with him. In this reign, we experience wholeness, love, truth, justice and peace. By this kingdom which is not of this world, we will conquer the kingdom of this world.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Triumph of the Son of Man: A Source of Hope

33rd Sunday of Year B
Mark 13:24-32)
November 15, 2009

Discipleship means the following of Jesus. In Mark, however, discipleship has a definite reference—he is not just any Jesus. The Jesus being followed or referred to is the Son of Man: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow men… Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels”(Mark 8:34b-38). But who is this Jesus, the Son of Man? In Mark’s Gospel, this Son of Man who we follow in discipleship is, among others, the Jesus who must suffer, is rejected and killed (Mark 9:31; 10:33), and who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all (Mark 10:44b). As Son of Man, Jesus corrected his disciples for their wrong perception of what following him meant. For example, he criticized Peter who, instead of accepting the prospect of suffering and humiliation, thought of reviving David’s conquest (Mark 8:33). It is also for this reason that he silenced the brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who wished to occupy the prominent and prestigious places in the kingdom of God (Mark 10:38a).

Jesus’ criticism of his disciples makes it clear that to follow Jesus as Son of Man is rather costly. For judged in the light of worldly standard, it brings problems, deprivation, and suffering. A review of the Gospel readings of the preceding Sundays confirms this. The rich man refused to follow Jesus. When challenged to sell his property and give the money to the poor, his face fell because he was rich. For him, he could not suffer the loss of his wealth (Mark 10:23). As can be seen in Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, it also deprives one of his right to put away his wife for any cause (Mark 10:9). Discipleship also requires the giving up of ambition to lord it over others; instead, it asks the follower to accept suffering entailed in the ministry of service (Mark 10:38). Indeed, in one’s effort to call upon Jesus and follow him, as in the case of Bartimaeus, one could meet opposition and even attempts to silence him (Mark 10:48).

Does all this mean that following Jesus as Son of Man has nothing in store for the disciple except humiliation and defeat? Not at all. In the end, there is justification and triumph in discipleship. Although the disciple may live in a world enveloped by trials, difficulties and turmoil, he has a very certain consolation that the Son of Man he followed is coming back to give him eternal life in the age to come, making him share in his power and glory (see Mark 10:30). This is one point which this Sunday’s Gospel stresses: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” (Mark 13:26-27).

This is to say that when Jesus comes as Son of Man, we who followed him in suffering and even death will be victorious over the powers of evil and death. Structures of power and domination represented by the stellar phenomena will be toppled: “The stars and constellations of the heavens send forth no light. The sun is dark when it rises, and the light of the moon does not shine. Thus I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their guilt. I will put and end to the pride of the arrogant, the insolence of tyrants I will humble” (Isa 13:10-11). “Then the moon will blush and the sun grow pale. For the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem , glorious in the sight of his elders” (Isa 24:23). Or, in the apocalyptic language of the 1st Reading , those who followed Jesus “shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament”(Dan 12:3). According to Mark, the chosen ones will be gathered from the four winds (Mark 13:27). This assembly of the elect who have followed the Son of Man fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah: “Fear not, for I am with you; from the east I will bring back your descendants; from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north: Give them up! and to the south: Hold not back! Bring back my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth: everyone who is named as mind, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isa 43:5-6). This only means that like the Son of Man, the people of the new covenant are vindicated.

The point is obvious. Discipleship may be costly, but in the end, a final victory over the forces of darkness awaits those of us who followed the Son of Man. Hence, we have much reason to take up the cause of discipleship.