Sunday, December 24, 2006

4th Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Mi 5:1-4a; Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Heb10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Lk 1:41-42).

Why was Mary blessed among women? First of all, Mary was blessed because she got the highest honor ever granted by God to a human being: the motherhood of God’s only Son. Why God chose a lowly human being to be the mother of His Son would remain a great wonderment for all theologians. It is no secret, however, that God often gives preference for the little ones, the simple and the humble. In the first reading, for example, the prophet Micah predicted that God would choose Bethlehem, the littlest among Judah’s clan, to be the Messiah’s place of origin (Mi 5:2).

Mary was blessed among women not only for the conception of Jesus but also because she remained faithful to God’s will all her life. In the gospel, Jesus teaches that obedience to God’s will is the central element in our relationship with him. To the woman who exclaimed “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked”, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27-28). In another occasion, he said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21). Mary was blessed because she was the first of all disciples, the most obedient among God’s children.

As we enter the final phase of our preparations for Christmas, the Church would like us to emulate Mary’s example of generous self-giving. During the annunciation, the angel told Mary that God has chosen her to be the mother of the Divine Savior. She was also informed about the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth. The gospel says that immediately after the annunciation, Mary traveled in haste to Judah not to boast of her special honor but to provide assistance to her cousin who was carrying a baby in her old age. Mary was not only ready to serve God; she was also quick to help others in need. Indeed, she did not have to be prompted; she went quickly.

During this Christmas season, it would be very meaningful if, like Mary, we begin to consider how we can provide genuine assistance to others who are less fortunate. Ordinarily, we would like to wonder “What are we going to receive this Christmas?” and “Who will give us the best Christmas present?” The gospel, however, would like us to consider “What can we meaningfully give this Christmas?” and “Who are the people that greatly need our Christmas gifts?”

The prayer of Anna Lee Edwards McAlpin is meaningful for the Christmas season:

Help me have a love for others
That surpasses "self" or gain;
Teach me how to share their sorrow,
Bear with them through stress and pain.
May I never do a favor,
Hoping glory to receive,
Just because I did my duty
And a troubled heart relieved.
May I never be "self-righteous,"
But remember well that He stated in the Holy Scriptures,
"This thou doest unto Me.”

Sunday, December 17, 2006

3rd Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Zeph 3:14-18; (Ps) Is 12; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18

The third Sunday of advent is called “Gaudete Sunday” (Gaudete is the Latin word for “rejoice”, which is taken from the first word of today’s entrance antiphon: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”). The liturgy is calling us to be joyful because the day of the Lord’s coming is drawing near.

When finally I was scheduled to return home to the Philippines after four years of study in Rome, my brother Ernesto told me on the phone: “Brod, the kids are so excited. They are counting the days and they could hardly sleep.” He was talking about my little nephews and nieces who were so happy to know that their uncle was finally coming home. The same kind of joyful expectation is what the Church wants us to feel during the season of advent.

Some of us, for some reasons, may not be thrilled that the season of Christmas is fast approaching. For what good is Christmas if we are poor, or sick, or broken-hearted. We have learned to believe that Christmas is only for the moneyed, for the healthy and for lovers. Somehow we have forgotten that Christmas, primarily, is for the less fortunate among us.

Today’s gospel encourages us to do something so that Christ’s coming would be meaningful for us and for others. The people, who had heard John the Baptist prophesying about the coming of the Messiah, asked him, “What must we do?” They wanted to make sure that the Anointed One would find them well prepared for the great feast of God’s reign. The answers of John provide us with some important tips for a colorful celebration of Christmas.

First: “He, who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Lk 3:11). The season of advent invites us to consider others who are less fortunate. We are called to provide assistance – be it spiritual, emotional, or material – to a neighbor in need. John does not ask that we give away everything; he only asks that we share what we have or that we practice compassion. Thus, it would be meaningful if during this season we will try to identify people who are in great need of our help. After doing this, we will try to do what we can to make their life a little bit easier.

Second: “Collect no more than is appointed you” (Lk 3:13). John’s admonition to the tax collectors is a way of telling us that we are to deal with others fairly and justly. We have to use prudently whatever authority we have over others, keeping in mind that it is always wrong to take advantage of people’s vulnerability. The season of advent provides us with the opportunity to make reparations for whatever injustice we have done to others.

And third: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk 3:14). John’s advice to the soldiers is also a good reminder that our professions must be practiced with honor and integrity. It is not right that we use our position or authority to intimidate others or to enrich ourselves. The season of advent challenges us to remain humble and to use our power to serve the good of others.

Saint Paul is urging us to be “always happy in the Lord” (Phil 4:4). Disciples will find happiness “in the Lord”, not in material things or worldly honor. The joy of Christians is in living fully the Christian life – in being generous, fair and righteous in the eyes of God and of people.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

An Advent Message

Pope Benedict XVI once commented in a message that Christmas festivities have been polluted by consumerism and materialism. The pope’s observation is not something new. In fact, we have been appealing to people to rediscover the real spirit of Christmas. We should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by Christmas parties, Christmas gifts, and holiday shoppings. The Christmas season is, first and foremost, a special moment of prayer and reflection. It is a special time to relish once again the wonderful mystery of God-becoming-man, of love made flesh, of acceptance and forgiveness.

Interestingly, Pope Benedict suggested that during this season, we need to assemble the Nativity scene (Belen in the Philippines) in our homes in order to teach the central part of our faith. The pope said: “Assembling the Nativity scene in the home can turn out to be a simple but effective way of presenting the faith to pass it on to one’s children. The Nativity scene helps us contemplate the mystery of the love of God, which is revealed to us in the poverty and simplicity of the grotto in Bethlehem.”

How does the Nativity Scene inform us about God’s love and our life as Christians? First and foremost, the Nativity Scene teaches us that genuine love knows no boundaries. Can you imagine a God Almighty becoming a defenseless infant? Whereas before there was a “seeming” boundary between God and humanity, between heaven and earth; now, there is no more. In Jesus, God and humanity become one. He is Emmanuel – God with us, in us and among us. God loves us without limits. He shared our joys and sorrows, our laughters and tears, and everything human, including the effect of sin which is death.

The Nativity Scene shows us that genuine loving embraces all, the dirty and the clean, the rich and the poor, the wise men and the ignorant. God’s love marginalizes no one. All have a space in the heart of our Savior. This is an important point because our love ordinarily has limits. “Love one another as I have loved you”, Jesus once said. Unfortunately, we don’t love as Jesus loved us. Our love is like this: I will love you as long as you behave, as long as you remit your salaries, as long as you don’t annoy me, as long as you smell good, as long as you don’t contradict my opinions, as long as you make me happy, as long as you are young and beautiful, as long as you make me feel good. Or simply, I will love you until further notice.

Second, the Nativity Scene teaches us that there is beauty in simplicity. The picture or image of the Nativity includes the most ordinary people, animals and things. And yet, it is the most beautiful picture the world has ever seen. There is nothing like it that captures the eyes and imagination of brilliant artists and poets of all times and places.

That there is beauty in simplicity is an important point because the world and people today have become so complicated. We have come to believe that the more sophisticated we become, the happier we are. We think that the more we have, the more satisfied we are. This is what the prevailing culture and the media kept telling us today, and we believe it. So, we save, we buy, we collect, and we grab in order to enjoy and have fun. However, while things are mounting and piling up in us, we are left wanting and dissatisfied. We feel the need to have more. We are jealous that others have more than what we already have. There always is another new model or brand name to buy. In the end, we realize that we are not really happy and life remains empty and meaningless. And we wonder why?

Things don’t necessarily make us happy. In fact, many of the good things in life are not material and cannot be bought with money. One can buy books, but not intelligence; medicine, but not health; food, but not appetite; people, but not friends, mansions, but not homes; pleasure, but not happiness. Sometimes, material things are even the cause of our troubles and quarrels.

If we have many things in life, we end up having little or no more space for people and for God. If our hearts are full, nobody can enter it, not even God. We end up unhappy because we are made for one another and for God, not for things. It is our relationships that give meaning to our lives. It is sad that we relate more with things, not with people. We allowed material things to use us, instead of us using them for a good purpose. If we remain simple (that is, content with the basic necessities of life), we are more free and we radiate more beauty.

Finally, the Nativity Scene teaches us that happiness is found when there is oneness and intimacy between persons. Joseph, Mary and Jesus are closely bonded in love. There is distance between them, but you can feel their connectedness. Each one is a joy and comfort to the other.

That real joy is found in communion is another important reminder inasmuch as people today are threatened with disintegration because of the influx of created technological needs. What is going on in many homes today? Are we still having good, quality time for one another? How many are complaining because their spouses are busy navigating the internet? How many parents are disgusted by their children’s addiction to computer games? Many complain because their children no longer talk with them. The children are busy chatting or conversing with others on their celfone. Is it not quite weird that we connect with somebody far from us but not with others near us? How much time is enough to listen to very loud music? I guess right now one needs more than twenty-four hours a day to listen to their “Ipod” because this electrical device can accommodate 20 thousand songs. What happens now to our relationships in the family?

If we are not careful we will end up being alienated from one another and from God. The Nativity Scene inspires us to give more time listening and conversing with people near us. Intimacy and true friendship is only possible when we decide to give our time for one another.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

1st Sunday of Advent (C)

Jer 33:14-16; Ps 24; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

The Liturgical Calendar of the Roman Catholic Church runs through three yearly cycles, namely: Year A, Year B and Year C. Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the first day of the Liturgical Calendar Year C. “By means of the yearly cycle the Church celebrates the whole mystery of Christ, from his incarnation until the day of Pentecost and the expectation of his coming again” (From the Daily Roman Missal).

Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ. The name advent means “coming” or “arrival”. But there are two comings of Christ: the first was his birth in Bethlehem, which we commemorate on the 25th day of December, and the second will be his coming as King of the universe, which we hope to celebrate at the end of time.

Accordingly, the Church divides advent into two parts. The first part starts today and goes until the 16th of December. During this period, the liturgy would challenge the faithful to prepare for the final coming of Christ. The second part will begin on the 17th of December up to the eve of Christmas. The liturgy would highlight the preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s birth.

The overall theme of Advent is joyful expectation since the arrival of a special person is always a cause for joy. During the Mass, the singing of the “Gloria” is omitted not because we are sad but only so that during Christmas the singing of this great song would be like a new experience for the people of God.

As the Church begins to reflect on the second coming of Christ, we are reminded of the joyful and victorious nature of this event. In the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the last days will be heralded with some cataclysmic happenings. The disciples, however, are to stand courageously because the moment of their liberation is at hand. The wicked would anticipate judgment day with fear, but the righteous would look forward to it. Judgment day is a time of restoration, not destruction. The justice of God would destroy only one thing, that is, sin and its manifestations.

How are we going to prepare ourselves in full measure for the Lord’s second coming?

First, we need to exercise vigilance. Jesus says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catches you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Lk 21:34). The lord knows very well that worldly cares – study, work, business and recreation – could easily absorb us to the point that we could no longer live life meaningfully. Personal dreams and ambitions also could lead us to lose sight of God’s special plan for our lives.

Second, we must be prayerful. Jesus says, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:34-36). Jesus urges us to pray regularly because prayer would keep us in the proper perspective. Through prayer and reflection we would come to see and understand God’s will in our lives.

The prayer of Saint Paul in the second reading is quite fitting: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . May he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus . . .” (1 Thes 3:12-13).

The angels reported to heaven that many people do not pray anymore. People become so busy trying to catch up with the hectic schedule of everyday life. They wish to have more time so that they could pray. The Heavenly Council proposed to God that he should understand the predicament of contemporary humanity and simply lengthen the day. If the day would have 25 hours, the additional one hour could become the hour of God.

But contrary to expectations, people still did not pray but used the extra hour in their worldly concerns. What surprised the angels was that those who used the 25th hour were the ones who had already been praying even before God added the 25th hour to the day.

This led them to conclude that prayer is a question of love. People do not become prayerful by being given extra time. Those who are not inclined to pray will not find time to pray even if an extra hour is added to our day. But those who love will always find time to pray.

(The Story is from Cravings from the Heart by Simplicio Apalisok, Jr.)