Sunday, March 30, 2008

2nd Sunday of Easter (A)

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Pet 1:3-9; Jn 20:19-31

The story is told that at the final judgment, all priests were gathered outside the gates of heaven. There was much anticipation and tension. Then, the archangel of the FBI announced, “All those who did not violate the 1st Commandment, take one step forward!” Almost all of the priests move a step closer to the gate.

Then, the archangel said, “All those who did not violate the 2nd Commandment, take one step forward!” Still there were many who move a step closer.

As they moved to the next of the commandments, the number of priests moving forward was gradually diminishing. And there was a great feeling of anxiety.

And then, the archangel said, “Those who did not violate the 6th Commandment, one step forward!” Suddenly, there was stillness! Nobody was moving. Not until a very old pastor got his strength to take one step forward.

Realizing the predicament that only one of his priests would make it to the gate, God made a bold announcement: “Because of this faithful and holy old pastor, I pronounced a General Amnesty!” And there was great rejoicing in heaven.

While the great party moved on, the old priest was seen downhearted at the side. “What happened to you?” an angel asked him. “Are you not celebrating with the others?”

And the old priest shook his head, “If I only knew that there would be an amnesty.”

(The story is from an unknown author)

The second Sunday of Easter is also called Divine Mercy Sunday. In a decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship, dated May 23, 2000, Pope John Paul II declared that “throughout the world, the Second Sunday of Easter will receive the name Divine Mercy Sunday”. This, he said, would be “a perennial invitation to the Christian world to face, with confidence in divine benevolence, the difficulties and trials that humankind will experience in the years to come”. We are, therefore, called to live life with full trust in the goodness and boundless mercy of God.

God’s mercy is the main theme of today’s Scriptural readings. In the gospel the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples and said, “Peace be with you!” The disciples run away during the passion and death of the Lord. When Jesus needed them most, they were not around. Yes, even Peter, who promised to stay with him until death, deserted him. The disciples deserved a reprimand, and yet, the Risen Christ came back to them and brought them peace. Instead of condemnation, the disciples received peace and forgiveness. Through this, the Risen Christ showed that God is full of mercy, slow to anger, and is not vindictive.

In the second reading, Peter calls all to give praise to the Heavenly Father, who in his great mercy has given us a new birth as his children, privileged heirs of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is every disciple’s treasure, one that can neither be spoiled nor taken away. Likewise, the psalmist invites us to sing “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love is everlasting”.

What does the day of Divine Mercy inspire us to do?

First of all, we are called to come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly. We all need forgiveness and salvation because each one of us is a sinner. The gospel narrates how the Risen Christ breathed on the apostles and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”. The Risen Christ left to the Church the power to forgive because he knows that people often need pardon and mercy.

And secondly, we are invited to remain grateful to God for his boundless mercy by following more closely the footsteps of His Son. The Lord Jesus remained obedient and faithful because he experienced personally the greatness of his Father’s love. This is what the Christian life is all about: to experience the love of God and to respond appropriately. The first reading narrates how the first disciples of Jesus responded concretely to God’s love – they lived as brothers and sisters, they prayed together, broke bread, helped one another and shared what they have for the good of all.

A widow confided with a priest about the destiny of her husband who committed suicide a year ago.

“Father, would God grant my husband forgiveness and receive him in His kingdom?” she asked.

“If you are to decide, would you like your husband to be in heaven in spite of what he did?” the priest gently inquired.

“Yes, I will grant him mercy and forgiveness,” the widow replied.

And the priest said to the widow, “Actually, your merciful heart is only a tiny reflection of the forgiving heart of God.”

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday (A)

Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9

Saint Augustine once said: “The faith of Christians is the resurrection of Christ. It is no great thing to believe that Jesus died; even the pagans believe this, everyone believes it. The truly great thing is to believe that he is risen”.

Yet, the question often is asked: Can the resurrection of Christ from the dead be proven historically? Or, in common parlance, did it really happen?

Theologians would answer the question by appealing to two indisputable facts. First is the recorded tradition of those who had come to believe in it; and second is the sudden and unfathomable faith of the disciples, a faith so strong as to endure persecution and martyrdom.

Saint Paul is considered to have written the oldest testimony to the resurrection of Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, written around A.D. 56 or 57, he says: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (15:3-8). Unmistakably, the heart of this text is the Easter Faith which Paul claims he received from others.

The gospel accounts of the Lord’s resurrection were written some decades later and obviously manifest a development in the Church’s reflection. And yet, the core of the testimony remains the same: The Lord is risen and was seen alive (Mt 28:1-8; Mk 16:1-14; Lk 24:1-40; Jn 20:1-9).

Nonetheless, what appears more compelling than the written tradition of the resurrection of Christ was the sudden change of the first followers’ state of soul. The trial, persecution and death of Jesus brought excessive fear and confusion to the disciples. They fled and hid themselves from the Jews, without any thoughts concerning the resurrection. But something unexplainable did happen which brought a radical revolution in the hearts and minds of the disciples. All of sudden, the disciples started to come out and preach Jesus Christ boldly to the people. Theologians suggest that the stirring factor of their fearless proclamation of Jesus was the disciples’ full conviction that Christ indeed rose from the dead.

For us who also received the Easter Faith, what does it mean to believe in the resurrection of Christ? First of all, the Lord’s resurrection reminds us that evil will not triumph in the end. Love is more powerful than evil; it is stronger than hatred and sin. Christ faced all that evil can give and, by so doing, transformed sin to grace, hatred to forgiveness, and death to life. Hopefully, this thought will console those who are victims of injustice, jealousy, conspiracy, persecution and other forms of human cruelty. The challenge is to descend with courage into the world’s darkness, trusting that in the end we will ascend victoriously with Christ.

Moreover, the resurrection of Christ inspires us to see death not as an end but as the beginning of an endless, happy life with God. Through faith and baptism, we become one with Christ. Like Paul, we can now say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Because of this, we learn to hang on to the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “I live and you will also live” (14:19). Thus, we believe in eternal life because we believe in our existential communion with Christ who is himself the source and the giver of life.

A priest was called to give the sacrament of holy anointing to a terminal cancer patient. After hearing her confessions and after anointing her with holy oil, the woman said to the priest, “Father, for the first time in my life I feel God’s loving embrace.”

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Palm Sunday (A)

Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 27:11-54

An elderly man was lying in the hospital, dying with an incurable illness. His wife, a strong Christian, called her parish and asked the priest if he would mind going to her husband and speaking with him.

The priest came to the man’s bedside and stood on his right. They began to talk about how wonderful Heaven would be. They discussed angels and the glorious gifts this good man would receive in Heaven.

“You know, sir,” the priest said, “You can’t take all your riches with you when you die. Why not contribute some money to your Church? We've been in need of a new stained-glass window. I think that would be just the thing to leave behind your legacy. Why, you can even have a message or a passage inscribed on it!”

The man thought for a moment and said, “That sounds very good, Father. How much would this window cost?”

“Oh, I’d say about $10,000 should cover it.”

The poor man nearly burst when he heard this, but knowing that what the priest had said was true -- he couldn’t take his riches with him – he decided to go ahead and fulfill the priest’s suggestion.

He retrieved his check book and was just about to write out the check when the doctor came in and stood on his left.

“Here’s your medical bill, sir,” the doctor said. This bill was also astronomical and the poor old man nearly died in shock.

He filled out a check and gave it to the doctor. As he began writing the check for the priest, he got an idea.

“Father,” he said, “did you say I could have anything I wanted written on that window?”

“Yes, sir, of course,” the priest said. The man began to scribble on the check and passed it to the priest.

“What do you want written on your window, sir?” asked the priest.

“Look at the check,” the man said. The priest looked down at the memo line at the bottom of the check. The man had written: “On my stained glass window I want written, ‘In Memory of John T. Smith. He died like Christ – between Two Thieves.’”

(The story is from an unknown author)

Today is called “Palm Sunday” because in the liturgy we commemorate the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem that was marked by people, who were in Jerusalem for the Passover, waving palm branches and proclaiming him as Messianic King. The gospel says that on entering Jerusalem Jesus rode on a donkey (Mk 11:7), fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, and in so doing underlined simplicity, humility and peace that were distinguishing features of the kingdom he preached.

It is also known as “Passion Sunday” because during this time we remember Jesus’ final, agonizing journey to the cross. The word “passion” is from the Latin passio, which simply means “suffering”. The long gospel of the day is a graphic account of the passion of the Christ.

It is ironical that the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem also marked the beginning of his ultimate and great humiliation – his brutal passion and death on the cross. The same crowd who welcomed Jesus as new Davidic king would be the same people who cried out for his execution a few days later. Yet, the sacrificial act of Jesus culminated not in his death but in his glorious resurrection. The passion of the Christ was about the triumph of good over evil, forgiveness over sin, and life over death.

We consider this week special because it recalls the final days of our beloved Lord. Actually, we are not simply going to recall but relive the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. What do we mean by “reliving”? The liturgy of the Church makes present for us and with us the mysterious, saving actions of Jesus. During the Holy Week, the liturgy enables us to be inserted into the mystery of the Lord’s dying and rising and allows our lives, pains and joys, sufferings and successes be united with Christ’s experience of these same realities. In a way, therefore, what we commemorate during this week is not just Jesus’ dying and rising, but our own dying and rising in Him. The sacrificial and glorious journey of Jesus is now our journey. And since we recall and relive these central events with Him, this week is aptly called “Holy Week”.

The holiest week of the year starts today. But for many people, does it make any difference? Perhaps yes, as they enjoy the holidays, as they go to the beach and other vacation destinations. But for us disciples of Jesus, what must we do to make this week truly different and holy?

First of all, we are encouraged to actively and heartily participate in the liturgies throughout the week, particularly in the Easter Triduum which begins with the evening Mass of Holy Thursday, reaches its focal point in the Easter Vigil, and culminates on Easter Sunday evening.

And secondly, we are invited to bring our lives to Jesus – all in us that need healing, forgiveness and redemption. Let us go to Jesus so that he who offered his life for our salvation can give us genuine peace and happiness by reconciling us to God and to one another.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

Ez 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45

Today’s readings deal with two kinds of resurrection. The first one is the resurrection of the body which is about reviving human life. Lazarus died and was in the tomb for four days already. Deeply saddened by the death of his close friend, Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father and raised Lazarus from the dead. Many of those who witnessed this miraculous event came to have faith in Jesus. Today, we believe that at the end of time, Jesus will do to us what he did to Lazarus. The Lord will bring our dead mortal bodies back to life to share eternal bliss with him.

Aside from the resurrection of the body, there is also the resurrection of the heart which is about restoring hope. In the first reading Yahweh told the people of Israel: “I am now going to raise you from your graves and lead you back to the land of Israel.” For many years the Israelites were put captives in Babylon, where they experienced too much humiliation, hardships and sufferings. Yahweh pitied his people because they were morally downed and emotionally shattered. They were good as dead. Accordingly, Yahweh promised to send His Spirit to the people of Israel to give them hope and to help them regain their land. Today, we also believe that Yahweh is our hope and our strength. Whenever we are sad and discouraged, God will come to inspire and rescue us.

Today, therefore, we are reminded that we can be dead even before we die. In the second reading, Saint Paul says that the body may be dead because of sin. For committing a mortal sin, a person may lose the supernatural grace that he or she received in baptism. However, many of us would appear dead because of pain and sorrow caused by serious misfortunes, sickness, injustice, infidelity, or poverty. Indeed, great sufferings may make people lose the will the live.

The good news for all believers is that we have someone to go whenever we are lost, to lean on whenever we are tired, to give us strength whenever we are sick, to console us whenever we are depressed, and to inspire us whenever we are discouraged. That someone is Jesus Christ, the full revelation of God’s love.

Here is an inspiring poem from an unknown author:

Today I got a burden,
And I felt that I should pray,
For God’s spirit seemed to tell me,
That you needed prayer today.

I don’t know just what that problem is,
But I sure do know the cure;
And if you'll only let Him,
God will keep you safe and secure.

In life there’s always problems;
Cropping up to spoil our day;
But my friend you know the answer,
All you have to do is pray.

If you still feel you’re defeated,
And you want to run and hide,
Just reach out, and I’ll be there,
Right there by your side.

Remember, whisper “Jesus”,
For He is just a prayer away,
He’s so close that you can touch Him,
All you have to do is pray.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

4th Sunday of Lent (A)

1 Sam 16:1, 6-7, 10-13, Ps 23:1-6, Eph 5:8-14, Jn 9:1-41

The gospel somehow describes two kinds of blindness – one is physical, the other is spiritual. The man whom Jesus encountered on the road was physically blind; his incapacity to see the physical world was from birth. While the Pharisees who questioned Jesus’ healing ministry on a Sabbath were spiritually blind; they were able to see the letters of the law, but they couldn’t see the serious need of a person and the divine activity of the Savior.

Physical and spiritual blindness are both deprivations. On the one hand, physical sight is essential to appreciate the beauty of the corporeal world. It is also an important faculty to find our way to things, people and places. Without the physical sight, we can hardly reach destinations. On the other hand, spiritual sight is necessary to understand the deeper meanings of life, the interior splendor of people, and the invisible movements of the Spirit. It is likewise an essential faculty to find our way to heaven or to God who is our ultimate destination.

Only few people are physically blind, but many of us have some degree of spiritual blindness. Sometimes, for example, we fail to see the needs of people around us. What we usually see are our personal and domestic necessities, but not the needs of our poor neighbors. Sometimes also we fail to recognize the goodness in people. We are quick to notice the weaknesses and inadequacies of individuals, but not their strengths and their gifts. Moreover, we easily observe the faults and failures of other people, but we do not easily acknowledge our own mistakes and sins.

However, the most serious spiritual blindness of people is the inability to notice the silent works of God. How conscious are we of the Divine presence in our lives? Regularly, without us knowing it, God supports, protects and nourishes us with material and spiritual blessings such as food, water, air, comfort, joy, work, recreation, business, family and friends. How often do we fail to count these blessings? Instead of seeing graces, we normally see misfortunes. Instead of counting blessings, we often count misgivings. When we fail to appreciate God’s gifts, we would not be able to give Him thanks.

The size of the eyes is not that important; what matters most is the person’s capacity to see. In the context of Lent, let us humbly ask the Lord to increase our ability to see and acknowledge our sinful thoughts, desires and actions so that we will come to follow Him more closely on the road to Easter.

John Newton was a slave trader in the 18th century. There was a violent storm at sea that tossed his slave ship like a matchstick. Newton was terrified, and he cried out to God, “If you stop this storm, see me safely home, I promise to cease slave-trading, and to become your slave.” The ship survived, and Newton kept his promise. He became a minister of the gospel, and it was he who later wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

(From 150 More Stories for Preachers and Teachers by Jack McArdle)