Mar 17, 2018

Unless We Die (5th Sunday Lent B)

Our natural instinct is self-preservation.  We protect ourselves from harm and, as much as possible, from death.  Dying is something we avoid thinking about. We dread it because it is destructive.  But much as we want to deny it, death is a process we will certainly all go through. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross, when we give it a serious look, transforms our attitude and the meaning we give to death. 

The story of Richie Fernando, a young Filipino Jesuit missionary in Cambodia, can help us gain an insight into this Christ-transformed understanding of death.  Before ordination to the priesthood, Richie was sent to Cambodia and worked as a teacher in a technical school for the handicapped.  He loved his students and allowed them to share with him their stories. He would write to a friend in the Philippines and express his joy in giving his life in the service of the handicapped:  “I know where my heart is, It is with Jesus Christ, who gave his all for the poor, the sick, the orphan ...I am confident that God never forgets his people: our disabled brothers and sisters. And I am glad that God has been using me to make sure that our brothers and sisters know this fact. I am convinced that this is my vocation.”

On October 17, 1996, one of Richie’s students, Sarom, a landmine victim who had been feared because of his disruptive behaviour and had been asked to leave by the school authorities, came to the school for a meeting.  Out of anger, he pulled out a grenade from his bag and moved towards a classroom full of students. Richie came up behind Sarom and restrained him. While struggling, Sarom dropped the grenade behind Richie and that instance spelled the death of the young missionary.  In trying to save the lives of others, Richie gave up his own.  

Richie’s life, I believe, was characterized by self-giving.  Before his untimely death, he had been dying every day to self with his decision to give his life in the service of the poor and the handicapped of Cambodia.  His death was a culmination of a life totally given to others and to Jesus.

Today’s gospel reading (Jn 12:20-33) offers us the clearest illustration of the relationship between dying and attaining new life: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Dying and rising to new life is central to our Lenten celebration which allows us to reflect on the paschal mystery of Christ. Jesus Christ is the grain of wheat.  He has to submit himself to death that he may conquer it by his resurrection. This is at the heart of Lent.

A disciple of Christ has to be like him, a grain of wheat ready to give up everything in dying in order to usher in the fullness of life.  The true following of Christ is not easy.  Real discipleship is not cheap. The way is costly. Discipleship requires our dying to oneself every day. Following Christ does not right away mean offering one’s life big time on the cross. The magnanimity and courage of the heart to give up everything in death do not come to us automatically as part of our nature.  What is natural to us is self-preservation. Self-sacrifice is transcending what is natural with the aid of grace. It has to be nurtured by our decisions to die a little each day by way of our acts of self-denial.  When we forget ourselves because our concern is the welfare of those who need our service and love, we have died to our selfishness.

Death for a believer, therefore, is already a consummation of a life spent in daily self-offering.  The destructive nature of death then, as in the destructiveness of the cross of Christ, is overcome by freely embracing death in self-giving just as Jesus Christ embraced his death in total surrender to the will of the Father. 

Our Lenten journey to Easter reminds us that there is no escaping the process of dying in our way to everlasting life.  We cannot eliminate the cross on our way to glory. There is no such thing as Christianity without the cross.  In fact, the way of the cross is the only way Christ has chosen to take in order to bring new life to all. The way of the cross is the Christian way of life and the way to life.

Richie Fernando gave up his life that all those whom he loved, his handicapped students, may have life.  His death culminated his earthly life characterized by daily self-giving.  He has lived the fullness of life that a faithful disciple could wish for.  Like Richie, we are invited to go beyond our self-preserving instinct.  We are called to transcend our self-love.  Dying each day to our selfishness and egoism liberates us to care for and serve others.  This is, perhaps, the greatest paradox in life: When we die each day in self-giving, it is when we gain the freedom to live our lives to the full. And when in death, we surrender humbly and trustingly everything to God, death loses its sting and eternal life shines brightly.

“The man who loves his life loses it, while the man who hates his life in this world preserves it to life eternal.”

Mar 10, 2018

Gratuitous Love (4th Sunday Lent B)

Gratuity is an uncommon word as the concept itself is quite strange in this profit-oriented society.  In this era when economic gain seems to be the be-all-and-end-all of life, we easily acquiesce to the principle that nothing comes for free.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch, we say.  Everything has a price.  Everything has to be paid.  Even in the theological exposition of the “economy of salvation,” the expiation framework easily makes sense to most of us:  The cross of Christ is some kind of a payment for our sins. To be saved from sin, someone has to pay the price. This logic we understand quite readily.

The readings today, fortunately, offer us another way of understanding the mystery of our salvation.  The readings invite us to see our relationship with God from the point of view of God’s gratuitous love.  For this we need to let go first of our fixation to concepts like profit, interest, price, payment.  We need to accept the principle of gratuity:  The best things in life are for free.  The nearest common concept to gratuity, I think, is gift-giving.  But again, even this concept has been tainted with self-interest as in the case of our exchange-gift-Christmas-party favourite.  We give and expect to receive.  All too often, we are robbed of the joy of pure giving when we fail to receive what we have expected to.

Something is gratuitous when it is offered unwarranted, undeserved, unmerited.  It is pure gift. Not demanded nor bought.  God’s love to us is gratuitous. This is illustrated in our first reading (2 Chr 36: 14-16, 19-23), when God inspired Cyrus, the King of Persia, to free the Israelites from Babylonian captivity.  This loving act of deliverance was unmerited by an unfaithful people.  Despite their sins, the people of Israel were restored to their own land.  St. Paul expresses this in the second reading (Eph 2:4-10) with more clarity of insight into God’s undeserved love and mercy: Brothers and sisters, God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ... For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast (vv. 4-9). 

Clear as daylight. We did not deserve to be cared for.  We were sinful, unfaithful, hard-headed, proud, and selfish. Despite these, we were saved from the very sins that had brought death upon us.  Such is the greatness of God’s love. Gratuitous indeed!

Moreover, today’s gospel (Jn 3: 14-21) highlights God’s love as his own initiative of giving up his only Son that we may have eternal life: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. The Son of God is lifted up on the cross as God’s ultimate act of sacrificial love.  Through this sacrificial love, our enslavement to sin has been broken.  Selfishness has been overcome by total self-giving.  And by Christ’s resurrection, death is vanquished; eternal life dawns for all of us who believe.  And all of these come to us for free.  It’s pure gift.  If there’s one thing we can be sure of about what God is not, God is every inch not a businessman!

In this season of Lent, we may do well to heed these following invitations:

Conviction.  Are we convinced of the gratuity of God’s love for us? Isn’t it the case that often we are practically incredulous of God’s capacity to love us despite our unworthiness? In our relationship with God, we allow our sense of unworthiness to get in the way.  We still think that we can only come to God when we are worthy; so, when we are not (which is often the case), we keep God at bay.  Lent is an opportunity to strengthen our conviction about God’s gratuitous love for us.  It is God’s grace which makes us worthy of him. We need to surrender to this truth and there can be no stronger proof of his unconditional love than the fact that, by God’s initiative, his beloved Son was lifted up on the cross... that we may have life.

Celebration.  A true disciple of Christ has all the reasons to be joyful. This season invites us to celebrate the joy of being loved gratuitously.  This is an invitation to a joyful spirituality, living each day with the delight that the new life in Christ brings, living in a loving relationship with God with utmost confidence in God’s unfailing fidelity, if not in our own capacity to be faithful.  May this season help us to truly relish with joy our freedom from sin and death won for us by Christ through his cross and resurrection. 

Commitment.   We have been loved unconditionally.  God loves us not because we are good.  God loves us despite ourselves. He loves us warts and all. His love is not because of our merit.  His love is pure gift.  Every day we receive his grace and we experience his mercy as gift. This experience of gratuity invites us to a commitment to self-giving, to be a man-and-woman-for-others, to serve without asking for reward, to give to those who cannot give back. 

May the Lenten discipline transform us into the effective signs of the presence of God’s gratuitous love amid this society which puts a tag price to just everything.

Mar 3, 2018

God’s Temple (3rd Sunday Lent B)

In Fr. Niall O’Brien’s best-seller prison diary, Revolution from the Heart, this Columban missionary unfolds the story of his twenty-year mission in the island of Negros.  Central to this story is the struggle of the “Basic Christian communities” for liberation from poverty and oppression in the times of Marcos dictatorship.  I remember reading the portion when Fr. O’brien went for his sabbatical and found himself in the gigantic and elaborate Church edifices of Europe. There he couldn’t help but notice the paradox: Huge and intricately ornamented churches but very few people to worship God.  Back in Negros, the barrio chapels were just a little better than crudely built shacks, but they were packed with the communities of the poor worshipping the Lord and drawing from one another the hope they so badly needed in the midst of oppression.

True worship springs from a community of people inspired by the Spirit of the Risen Lord.  Worship is not tied to physical location like a well-ornamented temple.  There can be no authentic worship in an empty shrine. We can claim this truth now because Jesus has revealed it to his followers through the mystery of his death and resurrection.

The gospel reading of today (Jn 2:13-25), Jesus’ cleansing of the temple of Jerusalem, lends itself to a better understanding of the real temple where God can truly be worshipped. After driving out with a whip the sheep and oxen being sold inside the temple area, after overturning the tables of the money-changers telling them to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace, Jesus was confronted by the Jews with a demand for a sign: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” To which Jesus answered: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Jews of course could not understand.  Jesus was no longer speaking on the natural plane. His reference to the temple was no longer the material edifice.  It was naturally impossible to rebuild in three days a massive temple constructed for about forty-six years.  Jesus was speaking on the spiritual plane.  The temple which was to be destroyed and later be raised up was his body.

The gospel of John uses this incident as one of the signs.  This is the sign of substitution.  Jesus replaces the material temple where God, as the Jews used to believe, dwells and is exclusively worshipped.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the temple is superseded by the new reality of a “Spirit-filled” Christ.  Jesus Christ is the new temple. By his resurrection he becomes the locus of the presence of God. And this truth revolutionizes the way we experience and worship God.  We encounter and worship God whenever and wherever we gather and pray in the name of the risen Lord as a people.  Our relationship with God is no longer dependent on a particular location.  God is not confined to the temple or cathedral. God dwells in us.  St. Paul says: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16).

Some implications:

In our pastoral concerns, according to PCP II’s vision, the building up of the communities of disciples or the basic ecclesial communities should then take precedence over our concern for church edifice and its beautification. The two, of course, do not necessarily contradict.  It gives a lot of joy and comfort to the worshiping community when our church buildings are spacious, clean and beautiful.  But, again, they are only beautiful in as much as there is a community that brings life to authentic worship.  Let us not allow our priorities (time, resources and energy) to be skewed on favour of inanimate edifice to the detriment of our task in community building. Several times I celebrated the Eucharist in the simple chapels of the barrios and they are the best experiences of worship I ever had.  It’s not because of the location or building but because of the Spirit of the Lord who is alive in the community.
Our worship does not end in the church where we celebrate the liturgy.  We are the temples of God.  Our life and all that we do outside the church must also be an expression of our worship.  We see then a continuity of our liturgical celebrations in the church with our day-to-day life.  We worship God in and outside the church, by way of piety and by way of charity and commitment to social justice. Our participation in the Alay-Kapwa Lenten campaign is part and parcel of our meaningful worship.

In this season of Lent, therefore, we are invited to encounter and worship God, first, in our meaningful liturgical celebrations that usher us, as a community, into a deeper relationship with God, second, in our commitments to social charity reaching out to the poor and needy members of the community, and third, in our personal sanctification as the temple of God by way of repentance, striving to become worthy of God’s presence in our hearts.