Sunday, August 26, 2007

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30

After a long battle with cancer, a man died and arrived at the gates of heaven. Saint Peter told him that in order to get in he has to spell a word.

“Which word?” the man asked.

“Love.”

The man correctly spelled LOVE and Peter welcomed him into heaven.

About a year later, Saint Peter went to the man and asked him to watch the Gates of Heaven for him that day. While the man was guarding the Gates, his mother-in-law arrived. He was not happy to see her but he had to perform his duty.

“How do I get in?” the mother-in-law asked.

“You need to spell a word”, the man said.

“Which word?” she asked.

“Czechoslovakia”.

(The story is from an unknown author)

In today’s gospel, someone raises this question to Jesus: “Will only a few people be saved?” The Lord, in reply, does not say, “Yes, there will only be few” or “No, there will be many.” A commentator suggests that this is a deliberate and prudent move. On the one hand, if Jesus declares that only a small minority will be saved, we would easily fall to discouragement. Because of our human frailties, we would think that we are destined for damnation. We might as well give in to temptations and enjoy the pleasures of sin. On the other hand, if the Lord says that great numbers of people will make it to heaven, we would become presumptuous and proud. We would not stop sinning because we believe that God, who is so merciful, will forgive us in the end.

Instead, Jesus instructs the disciples to “strive to enter through the narrow gate”. The important thing, for the Lord, is not the “how many” but the “how” of salvation. How can one be saved? A person can attain salvation by passing through the narrow gate. And what or who is the narrow gate? In the gospel of John, Jesus presents himself as the “gate” that leads to the kingdom of heaven (10:9); he is “the way, the truth and the life” (14:6). The narrow gate, therefore, is not a thing but a person, Jesus himself. He warns disciples that entering the narrow gate or following him entails hard work or great effort. Indeed, it is not easy to follow his ways – to love as he loves, to serve as he serves, and to forgive as he forgives.

Entrance to heaven is not won or achieved, but offered. This is what we mean in saying that salvation is a gift. Yet, today’s gospel reminds us that our redemption demands some personal effort. Salvation is not a cheap grace. We have the task to accept Jesus and to follow his way of life. The gospel tells us that during Judgment Day people will say “Lord, open the door for us for we ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets”. But Jesus will tell them “Depart from me, you evildoers, for I do not know you”. Being a Christian or a Catholic, therefore, is not a guarantee of salvation. Only those who observe the teachings of Jesus in their daily life can share the banquet prepared by God in heaven.

The gate is narrow, but anyone who shows serious interest can enter. Salvation is offered to all, not only to a particular group of people. The gospel says that in the end “People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God”. The heavenly banquet, therefore, is like a big gathering of good-willed people, of those who possess principal virtues such as charity, generosity and integrity. The Lord sees everything under the sun, and he knows who among us are honestly trying to do what is good. Today, the Catholic Church recognizes that even those who have not heard about Jesus or who have not known the Lord can be saved, as long as they follow a life of genuine love and service.

One time in the gospel Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:25). Hearing this, the disciples were completely overwhelmed and exclaimed to one another, “If such is the case, who can be saved?” (26) And the Lord assured them, saying, “With God everything is possible” (27). Though narrow and difficult, the gate to salvation remains passable because of the grace of God. We only need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit who will show us the way and inspire us to fulfill the demands of the gospel. The popular adage encourages us, “Do your best and God will take care of the rest”.

A legend says that once upon a time, a Japanese peasant came to heaven, and the first thing he saw was a long shelf with something very strange looking upon it.

“What is that?” he asked. “Is it something to make soup of?”

“No,” was the reply. “Those are ears. They belonged to persons, who, when they lived on earth heard what they ought to do in order to be good, but they didn’t pay any attention to it. So when they died their ears came to heaven, but the rest of their bodies did not.”

After a while the peasant saw another shelf with very queer things on it. “What is it?” he asked. “Is it something to make soup of?”

“No,” he was told. “These are tongues. They once belong to people in the world who told people to do good and how to live good, but they themselves never did as they told others to do. So, when they died, their tongues came to heaven, but the rest of their bodies could not enter.”

(The story is from 1000 Stories You Can Use Vol. 2 by Frank Mihalic, SVD)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Feast of the Queenship of Mary (C)

Ez 28:1-10; Mt 19:23-30

In 1954, Pope Pius XII established the feast of the Queenship of Mary. Traditionally, the Church has considered Mary as the queen alluded in the book of Revelations: “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1).

The title Queen is applied to the Blessed Virgin because of her close relationship with Jesus: her maternal relationship to him and her vital role in his work of redemption. The Church believes that in heaven, Mary properly is seated beside her Son, the King of glory. Vatican II teaches: “When her earthly life was over,” Mary was “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son (LG 59).

Nowadays, some theologians are reluctant to apply the title “queen” to the Blessed Virgin Mary. They believe that this honorary title is a thing of the past which is not appropriate for the unassuming persona of Mary in the New Testament. They also are anxious that the title “queen” would project Mary as someone who enjoyed privileges, not as someone who gave her life for the service of God.

Here, it is important to highlight what Pope Pius XII taught in the Encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam. The pope made it clear that the queenship of Mary should not be understood as a political or imperial position. Mary’s queenship is one of love and service, not pomp and power, as is said about the kingship of her Son.

Christ is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rv 19:16). However, he is not a king according to the categories of this world because he reigns from the cross, not from the throne (Jn 18:36). In fact, while on earth, the King served his subjects like a good shepherd to his flock. He washed their feet (Jn 13:4-5) and gave his life for them (Jn 3:16).

Mary is queen because she is the perfect disciple of our Lord. She spent her earthly life doing God’s will (Lk 1:38) and serving those who are in need of help (Lk 1:39; Jn 2:3). Thus, when we praise Mary as queen, we always bear in mind that we honor her for her love and service for God and for people. She always is our shining example as we relate with God and with each other.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Jer 38:4-6, 8-10; Heb 12:1-4; Lk 12:49-53

Sometimes Jesus would use strong words in order to drive home an important point. In today’s gospel from Luke, for example, he says: “Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” In order to understand properly this passage, we will consider its parallel in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus says: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Undoubtedly, the word “sword” is not used by Jesus to imply bloodshed. The Lord is not a violent man and bloodshed is the last thing he wants for his people. Bible exegetes would rather suggest that “sword” is used to refer to the Word or the message that Jesus brings to the world. As the book of Hebrews says, “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). The Word of God is sharp enough to divide truth from falsity, right from wrong and good people from evil ones.

In his ministry, Jesus did not say what people wanted to hear; rather, he confronted his listeners with what was right and true. Individuals reacted to his Word differently which caused a deep divide in communities and even in families: “The father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter . . .” There were some who received his message and followed him; but many others rejected his Word and sought to get rid of him.

Jesus’ uncompromising attitude towards the truth should inspire us to reexamine our values today. Are we promoting the message of the kingdom in words and actions? Are we not surrendering moral principles to please superiors or friends? Do we have the courage to tell people about their evil ways and practices? Are we willing to suffer rejection and oppression for the sake of justice and truth?

The Lord was never tolerant of evil. He reached out to the sinner in love, but he hated sin. When a woman was found in adultery, Jesus did not say, “Your lifestyle is fine”; rather, he said, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (Jn. 8:11). In his teachings Jesus also insisted on a high standard of morality. In fact, he challenged his disciples to “be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.”

The gospel calls us to act, to do something and to commit ourselves for the values of the Kingdom. Where many today teach tolerance of every conceivable kind of behavior, we, like Jesus, must draw a sharp dividing line between good and immoral actions. When we do this, we must not be surprised to find ourselves in conflict with other people in the community, with others in our family, and even in conflict with ourselves.

The famous philosopher Diogenes was once sitting by the roadside, eating a bowl of gruel. One of his rich boyhood friends rode up on a white horse and wearing expensive clothes. He said, “Diogenes, if only you would learn to flatter the king, you would not have to eat that gruel.” Diogenes said, “Oh but you have it all wrong. If only you would learn to eat this gruel, you would not have to flatter the king.” The question is, “What is really important to us?”

(The story is from an unknown author)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Feast of the Assumption of Mary (C)

Rev 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1 Cor 15:20-27; Lk 1:39-56

The popular preacher Ernest Munachi Ezeogu gives an interesting comparison between Adam and Eve on the one hand and Jesus and Mary on the other:

In the old order, the woman (Eve) came from the body of the man (Adam); but in the new order, the man (Jesus) comes from the body of the woman (Mary). In the old order, the woman (Eve) first disobeyed God and led the man (Adam) to do the same; in the new order, the woman (Mary) first said “Yes” to God and taught her son Jesus to do likewise. In the old order, Adam and Eve had a good time together disobeying God; in the new order, Jesus and Mary suffered together doing God’s will. In the old order, Adam and Eve shared immediately in the resulting consequences and punishments of the Fall; in the new order, both Jesus and Mary shared immediately in the resulting consequences and blessings of the Redemption, which is, the fullness of life with God – Jesus through the mystery of the Ascension and Mary through the mystery of the Assumption.

Regarding the mystery of the Assumption, the Church teaches that at the end of her earthly life, the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken up immediately into heaven, body and soul. This was defined as a dogma of faith by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950. A person would likely ask, “How is it possible for a human being to be raised to heaven body and soul? Isn’t it stupid to even think about it?” For those who have no faith, there is no explanation possible; but for those of us who have faith, a little explanation is enough.

Mary has a special place in the eternal plan of God. “The Almighty has done great things for her.” Mary is “blessed among women” because God has chosen her to be the mother of His only Son. Because she is His mother, it is only fitting that Jesus grant her the privilege of not having to await the eternal life He promised all those who love Him. Because Mary is Jesus’ first disciple, it also is fitting that she should be the first to be with Him.

Our belief in the Assumption of the Blessed Mother Mary also is our joy, consolation and encouragement. Where she is now, there we will also go. Mary, the humble servant from Nazareth, was exalted to the throne of heaven because of her obedience and love for God. We, too, strive to remain God’s faithful servants and eagerly wait for the time when God will bring us home to share everlasting joy with Him.

Because the Virgin Mary is now in heaven, we are confident that we have a mother to intercede for us all. A mother loves and cares for her children, kisses the boo-boo and cleans the wound. She cannot make the wound disappear. Only God can forgive sins. But our Mother Mary can lead us to Him. Her desire to help us is the instinct of a mother whose nature is to give life and love.

One fine day, the Lord God went out on patrol of heaven just to make sure that everything was running according to His will. Everything was fine, the hedges trimmed, the grass cut, the fountains clean, the shopping mall neat.

The Lord stopped by to listen to the choir of angels sing and they were in great form. Then, on one side of the street he encountered people who had no business in heaven. Some of them should have been serving a long sentence in purgatory; and others would have made it to heaven only with an extraordinary appeal. So, the Lord confronted Peter about this mess.

“What is going on here? Have you been negligent again with your duties at the gate?”

“No, my Lord, I try to keep watch all the time,” Peter defended himself.

“Then, why are there illegal aliens inside?” asked the Lord.

And Peter said, “I did not let them in. But what can I do. They went to the back door and your Mother opened the kitchen door and allowed them in.”

(The story is from an unknown author)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Wis 18:6-9; Heb 11:1-2, 8-19; Lk 12:35-40

The priest said to the congregation: “Those who would like to go to heaven please raise your hands.” In a moment all hands inside the Church were up in the air.

Then the priest said: “Those who would like to go to heaven TODAY please rise.” There were some murmurs, but nobody had the courage to stand up.

The priest learned that while everybody likes to go to heaven, nobody wants to die.

Why are people afraid to die? There may be a lot of reasons. Some would find this world too good to be abandoned – they have a beautiful family, booming business, lot of properties and good standing in the community. Others might find the possibility of extinction too fearful. What if there is no life after death? What if I will be gone forever? Still, many others would feel unprepared for the moment of encounter with God. How am I going to face God whom I am constantly offending by my wrongdoings?

We believe in life after death because the Lord himself says there is so. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26). In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks about heaven or his Father’s kingdom which is the real treasure of disciples. The treasures of this world – money, jewels, nature, education, jobs, etc. – are all exhaustible. But the kingdom of God offered by Jesus is an infinite treasure, wherein believers can enjoy fullness of life with God. The Lord knows how insecure we are to leave this world, and so, he gives the assuring words: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32).

Today’s parables are aimed to keep us ready for our ultimate encounter with the Creator. First of all, the Lord inspires us to “be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks”. Every now and then, God comes and touches us through events and people we meet. But the final and decisive coming of the Master in our lives will happen during the moment of our death. We do not know when death will come to us, but there is nothing we can do to stop it. With death’s inevitability, the most prudent advice is for us not to deny it but to be ready for it.

Moreover, Jesus motivates us to be like faithful and prudent stewards of the Master’s properties. God has entrusted to us many things – our life, family, friends, neighbors, wealth, talents, time, etc. Blessed are we if the Master comes and finds us taking care of his properties and using them responsibly. But woe to us if during the Master’s return he finds us complacent and taking everything into our own hands to satisfy our selfish desires.

The grim reminder of death leads some people to hedonism. They would say, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Others would busy themselves with so many non-essential things in this world, somehow revealing a subconscious denial of the reality of death. They are what Jesus refers as “bad and foolish servants” of the house' Owner.

Another subconscious attempt to deny death is people’s unhealthy fear of losing one’s beauty and vitality. Just imagine how many of us are willing to spend much time, effort and money to keep our physical attractiveness. Are we willing to give the same amount of effort and time to improve our spiritual life? A spiritual writer said that when we focus too much on our appearance, we tend to forget our coming “disappearance."

A good servant of the Master would accept the reality of death and find life meaningful. What Peter Beisheim says is true:

Accepting the fact that I am going to die can liberate me in such a way that I can really be free to live, to enjoy each moment, to see each moment as a possibility for concern, care and love. The imperative of the message is the Now. I love my brother and my sister now—not later, for there may not be later.

Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross explains partly the reason why many people today find life empty and meaningless:

When you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do. You live your life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and meanwhile, each today is lost. In contrast, when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Eccl 1:2, 2:21-23; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Lk 12:13-21

An elderly man on the beach found a magic lamp. He picked it up, and a genie appeared. “Because you have freed me,” the genie said, “I will grant you a wish.”

The man thought for a moment and then responded. “My brother and I had a fight thirty years ago, and he hasn’t spoken to me since. I wish that he’ll finally forgive me.”

There was a thunderclap, and the genie declared, “Your wish has been granted. You know,” the genie continued, “most men would have asked for wealth or fame. But you only wanted
the love of your brother. Is it because you are old and dying?”

“No way!” the man cried. “But my brother is, and he’s worth about $60 million.

(The story is from A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers by William J. Bausch)

In the gospel, a man asks Jesus to interfere and help settle a problem in the family concerning the division of ancestral property. He says, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me”. In Jewish culture, as well as in many cultures, to be chosen as mediator is something honorable. Normally, people would ask someone to mediate because of the person’s good standing in the community.

Jesus appears to decline the invitation and gives the reason for his refusal when he says: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist in possessions.” The Lord suspects that this conflict about inheritance is driven by greed and he does not want to take part in it.

Until now, a lot of family feuds are caused by selfish interests for inheritance. Because of a piece of land or property, siblings would give silent treatment to one another, would file civil lawsuits against each other and, in some situations, would harm or kill one another.

To show his disgust against greediness, the Lord tells the parable of the man with the bumper crop. The man who built bigger barns to store up his harvest and secure his comfortable future is called “fool” by God. Why? What did this farmer do to displease God? There is no sign that the man is dishonest or that he cheats others in order to gain more. However, if we read between the lines of the parable, we can tell that the farmer is wrong in at least two counts. First, he celebrates bountiful harvests without being grateful. He believes that he is successful in farming because of his own efforts. Thus, he does not feel beholden to anybody, not even to God. And second, he depends solely on material possessions for his security and happiness. He believes that by becoming wealthy his future is already guaranteed.

The farmer in the parable is a fool because he forgets that all of creation is caused by God. There is nothing that we can claim as our own in this world. Even personal achievements cannot come without God’s grace. We should remain grateful to God because he is the reason of all our being and becoming. The person who thinks he succeeds by his own effort only would tend to become proud and selfish; while he who recognizes that every blessing is from God would tend to become humble and generous.

Moreover, the farmer is foolish to think that his wealth alone would make him happy. The experience of so many lonely rich people is a proof that possessions do not guarantee life and happiness. In fact, there is more to life than money and material things. Love, friendship, intimacy and other Christian values are essential for joyful and meaningful living. What does it matter if you have all the riches in the world and have no real friends? What does it profit if you succeed to get a bigger share of inheritance but lost a brother or a sister in the process? Would not love and intimacy in the family be more important than a piece of property?

In the first reading, the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that “all things are vanity”. When death comes, all our human achievements – including material possessions and honorific titles – will all be left behind. Saint Paul, in the second reading, wisely admonishes that we better set our hearts on what pertains to higher realms and not on things of earth. What are these higher things that Saint Paul is talking about? What else but the virtues that Christ our Lord would like us to have such as love, compassion, generosity, mercy and forgiveness. These virtues will accompany us to heaven, not our earthly honors and possessions.

In the days of King Solomon there lived two brothers who reaped wheat in the fields of Zion. One night, in the dark of the moon, the elder brother gathered several sheaves of his harvest and left it in his brother’s field, saying to himself: “My brother has seven children. With so many mouths to feed, he could use some of my bounty.” And he went home.

A short time later, the younger brother slipped out of his house, gathered several sheaves of his wheat, and carried it into his brother’s field, saying to himself: “My brother is all alone, with no one to help him harvest. So I’ll share some of my wheat with him.”

When the sun rose, each brother was amazed to find he had just as much wheat as before!

The next night they paid each other the same kindness, and still woke to find their stores undiminished.

But on the third night, they met each other as they carried their gifts into each other’s field. Each threw his arms around the other and shed tears of joy for his goodness.

And when Solomon heard of their love, he built the Temple of Israel there on the place of brotherhood.

(The story is from Moral Compass by William Bennett)