Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Primacy of God

Jesus, I trust in you!

Wanting to rescue us from the slavery to the devil, the Lord Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Pope Benedict explained that the fasting of Jesus in the desert is “a descent into the perils besetting mankind, for there is no other way to lift up fallen humanity…He must recapitulate the whole of human history from its beginnings – from Adam on; he must go through, suffer through the whole of it, in order to transform it.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 26.) The slavery of the whole world to sin and death was brought about by the disobedience of one man (Adam). Adam’s disobedience came when he fell for the temptation of the serpent. Temptation is a seduction to sin. Satan enticed Adam and Eve to look at, take, try and taste what is forbidden. He wanted Adam and Eve to disregard God’s decrees and commands and instead, appropriate for themselves the right and the power to determine what is good and evil. It was a costly decision which Adam and Eve made because “a single offense brought condemnation to all men…through one man’s disobedience, all became sinners…”

The Lord Jesus wanted to return to man whatever was stolen from him by the devil. Adam was successfully tempted to disobey God. Jesus had to undergo the same temptation in order to undo Adam’s disobedience by his obedience. Anointed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus went to the desert. The devil challenges Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. The devil “seeks to divert Jesus from the Father’s plan, that is, from the way of sacrifice, of love that offers itself in expiation, to make him take an easier path, one of success and power…The devil, to divert Jesus from the way of the cross, sets before him false messianic hopes: economic well-being (indicated by the ability to turn stones into bread); a dramatic and miraculous style (with the idea of throwing himself down from the highest point of the Temple and being saved by angels); and lastly, a shortcut to power and dominion, in exchange for an act of adoration to Satan.” (Pope Francis, Angelus, March 9, 2014) “At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion - that is the temptation that threatens us in many forms.” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 28) 

Satan puts the question of relevance into the mission of Jesus as Messiah: What kind of Messiah are you if you do not bring universal prosperity, or world peace, or a better world? The Church, because she is the Mystical Body of Christ, is constantly confronted by the temptation to be relevant. Disregarding the Church’s record of charity, politicians constantly repeat what Satan said: “Why don’t you turn stones into bread? Why don’t you just impress us by your miracles? Why don’t you conquer all mankind and force them to live in peace?” If you do not solve the problems of humanity and establish a perfect drug and crime-free world, you are not the Messiah we need!

And so, Jesus came and until now, there is still hunger and poverty. Until now, the world is not at peace. Until now, there is no universal prosperity. The world is not yet a better world. And so, what has Jesus done? What has he given us? “The answer is very simple: God. He has brought us God…He has brought God and now we know his face. Now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of the hardness of our heart that we think this is too little. Yes, indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again, it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at that time have all passed away. Their glory has proven to be a mere semblance (illusion). But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so.

“Jesus has emerged victorious from his battle with Satan. To the tempter’s lying divinization of power and prosperity, to his lying promise of a future that offers all things to all men through power and through wealth – he responds with the fact that God is God, that God is man’s true Good. To the invitation to worship power, the Lord answers with a passage from Deuteronomy (the same book the devil himself had cited): ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him alone will you serve.’ God alone is to be worshipped…this unconditional Yes to the first tablet of the 10 commandments also includes the Yes to the 2nd tablet – reverence for man, love of neighbor.” At the end, “angels came and ministered to him.” Psalm 91:11 now comes to fulfillment: The angels serve him, he has proven himself to be the Son, and heaven therefore stands open above him, the new Jacob, the Patriarch of a new universalized Israel.” (Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth, 44 - 45.)

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

Declaring our Sinfulness

Jesus, I trust in you!

The bishop, in one homily, told us to look at our palms and asked: “What letter do you see?” Of course, we replied, “2 Ms.” “Do you know what MM means? It means: Madaling mamatay.” For a joke, I found it to be very funny and yet, nothing could be closer to the truth. Mortality is our destiny. It is written on the palms of our hands.
This is the meaning of the ashes we receive today. They remind us of our humble origin and our tragic destiny. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground,” so said the Book of Genesis. But to this piece of clay, the Lord gave his Divine Spirit. “God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.”  This breath of life, God’s Spirit in man, is a pledge of immortality. “Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator, and entered the world as a consequence of sin.” (CCC, 1008)

The ashes we receive were last year’s palm branches we waved in acclaiming Christ as King. Last year, these were fresh and green. These were used to glorify God. In a way, last year’s palm branches are a fitting symbol of man, for “the glory of God is man fully alive,” so said St. Ireneus. But as the Catechism said, death entered the world as a consequence of sin. Last year’s palm branches are now ashes and they are now to mark our heads to remind us of what we have become: from bearers of the breath of life, we have become subjects of death. We would have been immune from bodily death had we not sinned. Therefore, today, we are marked with a sign that reminds us of what we are: we are dust and to dust we shall return. If I may use a contemporary image, we are ash tagged today.

The ashes on our heads are not a trophy of holiness. They are rather a badge of shame. We bear them on our heads today as a confession of sinfulness and a reminder of the punishment of death that we shall later endure on account of our sins. Today, we declare a fast. We gather and weep. We say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach!” As Christ our Lord began his saving work with fasting, so we imitate him. The restoration of the Divine likeness in man begins with fasting and mortification. Indeed, the Lord’s death obtained for us the forgiveness of sins. But by self-abnegation, by fasting and penance, we struggle to be liberated from sinful and worldly attachment so as to be restored in the Divine likeness which we lost on account of sin. We fast and mortify ourselves in reparation for sins and also for the conversion of sinners. The sinners we wish to convert would first of all be our own selves.

At Fatima, our Lady asked the children: “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all the sufferings he wills to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended, and of supplication for the conversion of sinners?” When the children said that they were willing to suffer, Our Lady responded, “Then you are going to have much to suffer, but the grace of God will be your comfort.”

As we celebrate the centennial of the Fatima apparitions, Ash Wednesday addresses to us the same question: “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all sufferings?” Let us say, “Yes!” Let us receive the ashes and confess the shame of our sins. And yet, let us keep our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving secret. Secretly, let us struggle and work out our salvation. By prayer, let us deepen our love for God. By fasting and self-denial, let us purify our self-love and struggle to be freed from slavery to the flesh. By almsgiving, let us put into practice our love of neighbor. Guarding against doing things merely for others to see, let us focus on what only God can see: our hearts. In this time of grace, let us beg God for what we really need: his mercy. Let us say to him: Spare your people, O Lord. Be merciful, O Lord for we have sinned!

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!  

Faith in the Father


Today, the Lord says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” The Lord Jesus assures us that God loves us and that we are important to him. Because of this, he will take care of us. The Father feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field with splendid colors. “Are you not more important than they?”

Because God’s love assures us that he will take care of us, he asks us to trust him. The reason for trusting God is the certitude of his love and care. The Lord sets before us both worry and trust. Choose only one because they cannot go together. If you worry, then you do not trust. If you trust, you do not worry.

People who worry about what to eat and what to wear do not trust the Father. “All these pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” People who worry about tomorrow forget that the Lord has gone there ahead of us. And that Father who has gone ahead of us anticipates all our needs. People who worry too much about the future deprive themselves of the joy of the present.

The Father assures us of his tender love. The prophet Isaiah asks, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even if she forgets, I will never forget you.” I have carved your name in the palm of my hand. We write on our palms to avoid forgetting what we need to do. God did not simply write our names on the palm of his hand. He carved them to make sure that we will not be erased from his memory. The Lord does not forget us. All he asks of us is to trust in him.

Padre Pio said, “Don’t spend your energies on things that generate worry, anxiety, and anguish. Only one thing is necessary: lift up your spirit and love God…Don’t worry to the point of losing your inner peace. Pray with perseverance, with faith, with calmness and serenity…Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

The Perfection of the Father

Jesus, I trust in you!

Last Sunday, the Lord Jesus said, “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” We might have biased opinions about scribes and Pharisees because we have heard our Lord call them hypocrites. But during his time, these groups of people were the icons of religiosity because of their expertise and minute or detailed observance of the law. If there was anyone who would most likely enter the Kingdom of God, it would most probably be the scribes and Pharisees. No one could be deemed worthier than them.

But to the mind of the Lord, the meticulous observance of the law was not enough. If a person wanted to belong to the Kingdom of heaven, he had to surpass this high Pharisaic standard. In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus raised the standard of holiness. No longer are the scribes and Pharisees the standards of holiness. Instead, the standard would be the Father himself: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In the first reading, the Lord said to Moses: “Be holy, for I the Lord am holy.”

What does the holiness of the Lord mean? The holiness of the Lord means that he is not like his creatures. His ways are different. His thoughts are different. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways, for I am God and not man.” That is why to be holy as God is holy means living according to the paradigms of God and not of man. This is difficult because of the immense difference between the ways of God and the ways of the created world.

For example, it is but natural for us to love our neighbor and hate our enemies. It is but natural to love those who love us, those who like us, those with whom we share common interests. It is but natural for us to love those who are good and kind to us. But the Lord tells us that our holiness must be greater than mere natural goodness. Our love must be supernatural. Thus, as the Lord is good to all the good and bad alike, so also our love must not be limited to the lovable but also must extend to the unlovable. “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” While it is natural to feel hatred for the enemy, loving them and praying for those who make life difficult for us is supernatural. This is because God is love. He is kind and merciful. Thus, the Lord admonishes us: “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of them. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of them.” This is why “an eye for an eye
and a tooth for a tooth” does not work for us. “Kapag buhay ang inutang, buhay rin ang kabayaran,” likewise does not work for the Christian. Rather, the Christian response to evil is goodness: “Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. Hand over your cloak to the one who sues you for your tunic. Should anyone press you into service for 1 mile, go for 2 miles. Give to the one who asks of you, do not turn your back on the borrower.”

This is why it is so difficult to propose the way of Christ to the world. The resistance of many to the bishops’ opposition to death penalty and also to extrajudicial killing comes from the fact that the standards of God are way above the natural standards of the world. It is easy to understand why people are more inclined to Duterte’s argument: “Masama sila kaya dapat lang sila mamatay.” Killing the enemy sounds so natural because this is the way the world thinks. Many people cannot comprehend the concept of supernatural mercy and patience. “God does not delight in the death of the sinner. He desires that the sinner should repent and live.”  It takes a lot of faith and a lot of grace to comprehend God’s wisdom in his mercy and patience. And yet, if we want to go to heaven, we must make this great effort to leap from natural logic to Divine wisdom. “The wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God,” so said St. Paul. If our holiness does not surpass natural goodness (that is, the holiness of the scribes and Pharisees), then we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. No less than the perfection of the Father is what it takes in order to enter heaven. We cannot afford to lower the standards of Christian living because Jesus elevated them.

Christian life is indeed challenging because it beckons us to go beyond the limits of natural goodness. We must aim high – aim for the height of supernatural holiness. Goodness is not good enough. We must be holy as God is holy if we want to enter heaven. Pope John Paul II said: “The standards of Christianity are high. They do not admit mediocre morality nor shallow spirituality.”

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

Thou Shall Not Kill

Jesus, I trust in you!

Jesus said to us, his disciples: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors: You shall not kill and whoever kills will be liable to judgment…”  Pope John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning, it involves ‘the creative action of God’ and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being.”…Donum Vitae sets forth the central content of God’s revelation on the sacredness and inviolability of human life.

“Sacred Scripture in fact, presents the precept ‘You shall not kill’ as a divine commandment…this commandment is found in the Decalogue, at the heart of the Covenant which the Lord makes with his chosen people; but it was already contained in the original covenant between God and humanity after the purifying punishment of the Flood, caused by the spread of sin and violence.

“God proclaims that he is the absolute Lord of the life of man, who is formed in his image and likeness. Human life is thus given a sacred and inviolable (banal, hindi maaring labagin) character, which reflects the inviolability of the Creator himself.  Precisely for this reason God will severely judge every violation of the commandment ‘You shall not kill’…He is the defender of the innocent. God thus shows that he does not delight in the death of the living (Wisdom 1:3). Only Satan can delight therein: for through his envy death entered the world (Wis. 2:24). He who is ‘a murderer from the beginning’, is also ‘a liar and the father of lies.’ By deceiving man he leads him to projects of sin and death, making them appear as goals and fruits of life.

“As explicitly formulated, the precept ‘You shall not kill’ is strongly negative: it indicates the extreme limit which can never be exceeded. However, implicitly it encourages a positive attitude of absolute respect for life; it leads to the promotion of life and to progress along the way of a love that gives, receives, and serves. The people of the Covenant…progressively matured in this way of thinking, and thus prepared for the great proclamation of Jesus that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is like the commandment to love God: ‘on these 2 commandments depend all the law and the prophets.’ St. Paul emphasizes that ‘the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ and any other commandment are summed up in this phrase: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ …The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ stands as an indispensable condition for being able ‘to enter life’. In this same perspective…the Apostle John (says): “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 Jn 3:15)

The Didache, an ancient document of the Church coming from the Apostolic times said: “There are 2 ways, a way of life and a way of death; there is a great difference between them…In accordance with the precept of the teaching ‘You shall not kill’…you shall not put a child to death by abortion nor kill it once it is born…The way of death is this: …they do show no compassion for the poor, they do not suffer with the suffering, they do not acknowledge their Creator, they kill their children and by abortion cause God’s creatures to perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering; they are advocates of the rich and unjust judges of the poor; they are filled with every sin. May you be able to stay ever apart, O children from these sins.

“This should not come as a surprise: to kill a human being, in whom the image of God is present, is a particularly serious sin. Only God is the master of life! (Evangelium Vitae, 53-55.)

The Book of Sirach teaches us: Before man are life and death, good and evil, whatever he chooses shall be given to him.

Let us choose life. Let us choose to stand by the commandments of God, even if we shall be persecuted and mocked for this. (March for life on Saturday, Feb 18 at the Qurino grandstand at 4:30 to 7:00 am) There is no mistake in standing up for life. There is no mistake in standing on the side of the God of life. If you keep the commandments, “they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live.”

O Mary Conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

The Truly Blessed

Jesus, I trust in you!

During the Lunar New Year, I was in Chinatown to do some errands. I chanced upon a make shift altar erected in honor of the Buddha with so many people lining up to offer first incense to him for blessings during the year. I really would not mind this practice of religion if it were not for the fact that those who lined up were not Buddhists. They were not even Chinese but Filipino Christians who would do anything (even worship a false god) in order to receive blessings for the new year.

We all want to be blessed and we all want to live a truly blessed life. But who are the truly blessed? To many of us, the rich business tycoons, beauty pageant winners, powerful politicians are among those who we would most likely call blessed people. “Blessed na blessed!” we would say about them. But the Lord would say otherwise. He said that the ones who are truly blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, peacemakers, the persecuted, the mocked and slandered people. Listening to the Lord’s list, we would find it difficult to believe that these people live blessed lives. How can they be blessed when in fact they seem to be suffering some want or lack? When looking at these people, we do not say “blessed na blessed.” Rather, we say “kawawa.” Indeed, these people are not what the world would consider as the “haves” but rather they are the “haves not.”

But St. Paul tells us: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, he chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, he chose those who count for nothing to reduce to nothing those who were something, so that no human being might boast before God.” The people included in the list of the beatitudes are definitely the ‘have nots” but ironically, they have everything because God chooses to give himself to them. He gives them his kingdom, his comfort, his inheritance, his satisfaction, his mercy. He will show himself to them. He calls them his own children. “Their reward will be great in heaven!”

When God created the human being, he left in each of us a space, a vacuum which cannot be filled by anything nor by anyone except by him.  St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Nothing created has ever filled the heart of man. God alone can fill it infinitely.” And this is the true blessing: God’s gift of himself. God who fills the entire universe is the only one who can satisfy the longings of the human heart. It is when the longings of the heart are satisfied, it is then that we are truly happy.
And so, if you want to be blessed during this new year, don’t offer incense to some strange god. Don’t buy charms nor engage in incantations. Rather, do what the prophet Zephaniah said in the first reading: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger…they shall pasture and couch their flocks with none to disturb them.”

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

Fishing Men Out of Darkness

Jesus, I trust in you!

Close to Epiphany, we see the beginnings of the public ministry of the Lord Jesus. He continues to reveal himself to all nations. As through the light of a star he beckoned the magi to himself, so today, he calls to the people beyond the Jordan, the Galilee of the Gentiles. The beginning of his public ministry took place in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali in northern Galilee which was occupied by Assyria. He addresses himself not just to the chosen people of Israel but to all the gentiles, that is, to the entire world: He has glorified the land west of the Jordan, the district of the Gentiles. God has so decided in the past to reveal himself to Israel. It was only to them that he spoke through the prophets. John the Baptist, the last prophet to be sent, preached to the people of Israel. God never sent any prophet to the Gentiles. For a long time, the light of Divine Revelation shone only upon the land of Israel while the rest of the world was kept in darkness. At last, the Lord expands the scope of his light. At last he speaks to the rest of the world: The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen. That Light is Jesus himself, the revelation of God, the visible image of the invisible God. He is Light from Light, true God from true God. He is the Light of the world and no one who follows him will walk in the dark.

He calls his disciples and makes them his partners in the work of saving people. As “fishers of men”, they are to “fish” people out of the dark seas, the abyss, the kingdom of evil. But for them to do this, they must themselves be fished out of that darkness. They must leave the kingdom of evil in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. This can only be done by conversion (metanoia). Conversion means making a radical turning towards the Lord, a full U-turn, turning one’s back to the previous life of darkness in order to live by the light of Jesus. Because Jesus is the Light, if we turn our backs toward him, we shall face our shadow. But if we turn to him, we have our shadows cast behind our backs. Therefore, we have to turn to Jesus and follow him first. We cannot lead people to the light of Jesus if we continue to live in darkness. We cannot liberate (fish) people from darkness if we remained prisoners of darkness ourselves.

In these past days, we have witnessed the outpouring of Filipino devotion to the Lord. Millions joined the procession of the Nazareno. Millions paid homage to the Santo Nino. And yet, we cannot deny that in spite of such fervor of devotion, many of us are still nominal Catholics. Oftentimes, there is a contradiction between our actual lives and our faith in Jesus. This nominal Catholicism is rooted in the absence of true conversion. Conversion is not just sorrow for past sinfulness. It is rebirth (bagong buhay, pagbabalik-loob) in which we allow the Holy Spirit to transform the way we think into the mind of Christ. It is rebirth in which we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our will so that we would desire only to do what Jesus wills. In this rebirth, we allow the word of God to shape our lives. Thus, we should ask ourselves: are we walking in the light of the Lord or are we still living in the shadow of death? Are we living on the side of light and life or are we still sitting in darkness and the shadow of death? Are we preaching the Gospel of life or are we supporting the culture of death? Let us allow ourselves to be enlightened by the Lord. It is by walking in his light that we shall live in the land of the living.

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!