Aug 17, 2019

Set the world on fire


Fire can be as dangerous as it is beautiful and useful as it is mysterious. From the burning bush to the tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost, throughout the Scriptures, its language is rich and often used to reflect the nature of God (CCC 696). (c.f the Seraphim) Our own experience of the summer California wildfires touches us in a particular way. Many of us still have vivid memories of the fires of 2008 that surrounded us on three sides, provoking mass evacuations, destroying many homes and livelihoods.

It, therefore, does not seem to come as much of a consolation, when we hear Our Blessed Lord saying in the gospel today, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing” and the cause of households divided against themselves, family members betraying each other's trust.  

it is easier to blame, for example, the unintended tensions unleashed within a family to events such as funerals, weddings and even who gets invited and who doesn't to a family thanksgiving dinner. But the fuse of this particular stick of dynamite has been lit by the Lord himself. How do we understand this apparent “violence” with the image we must also have of Christ as the Good Shepherd and the Prince of Peace?

We must first consider when St. Luke wrote his Gospel message. It was probably written not long after the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. The rumor was that the Emperor Nero had himself lit the match that destroyed much of the city so that he could begin a new massive building project. This is how a pagan historian, who survived the fire, described the aftermath.

"Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most creative tortures on a class of people hated for their abominations, called Christians by the common people. … Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths...they were torn to death by dogs, or they were crucified on crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as human torches when nighttime illumination was needed." Tacitus, Annals XV.44

The early Christians, in the light of those “current events” would have, no doubt, listened to today’s Gospel and found in it an assurance that Our Lord himself experienced the fire of hell and transformed it into the fire of heaven. Abandoned by his own disciples, betrayed by the very ones he considered family, Christ shared in the anguish of persecuted Christians as non-believers betrayed friends and family when Roman soldiers came knocking on the door.

As case in point, St. Peter. He provides us with the example of a reluctant follower who was scared of being burnt, but finally gave himself completely to the Lord. On the night of the Last Supper when Christ was arrested, he was first content to anonymously warm his hands from the fire in the courtyard while the Lord was being beaten up by the temple guards inside. But a day would eventually arrive when he would allow himself to be consumed completely and forever by the fire of Christ’s love.

During Nero’s attack on the Christians after the fire of Rome, St. Peter, as the city’s first bishop, was arrested, tortured and crucified to death on a cross, upside down. Hisbody was buried near in a cemetery on a Roman hillside called “Vatican Hill”.

Yes, often times we will get burnt, and we will scream and call out in anger and in anguish. But as painful as if often times is, abandoning ourselves to the grace that comes from the cross of Christ, let us pray that we may we never mistake the purifying fire of heaven with the destructive fires of hell. There lies the virtue of Christian hope in the face of every dark and menacing cloud of smoke.

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Aug 14, 2019

Reaching the summit of humanity


The Assumption:

  Our Christian faith looks upon the human physical body not only with respect but also with reverence. The body is a sacred form, substance through which God communicates his love to the world. We first encounter this in the Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve. Humanity is formed first in a physical form. Only when it is infused, animated with the breath of God does Adam become a “living being” (Gen. 2:7).


In God’s original design, the body and the soul are not two opposites held together in an awkward relationship. God revealed his power and beauty through the human form of Adam and Eve, from their head to their feet. But sadly, the entry of sin into the world threw everything off balance, out of sync – the damaging shock waves permeating throughout all creation even effecting time itself which made new things old and old things to decay and die. (CCC 1008) Only God himself could push back this cosmic tsunami. And God does so through his Son Christ, the New Adam. This is the theme St. Paul talks of in the second reading.

Reflecting on this theme, St. Irenaeus (135-202) (in his Refutation of the False Gnosis ) describes how Christ enters into this wounded world and by obedience to the Father to the point of dying on the tree of the cross reverses the disobedience of the first Adam which had come through the tree of the garden. If Christ is the New Adam, then we see Mary also in a new light and involved intimately in the plan of salvation. As Eve was seduced by a fallen angel and disobeyed God, Mary as the new Eve received with joy the good news from a holy angel and obeyed God in total faithfulness, communicating the salvation of all creation in a very physical way – her pregnancy of the Son of God. (CCC 148, CCC 411) The Virgin Mary most perfectly “embodies” the obedience of faith.

On behalf of all humanity, she alone could respond perfectly to the gift of salvation offered by her Son and Savior of the world. Her “yes” to salvation resonated perfectly through every fiber of her body – that body perfectly in harmony with her soul is captured in the Gospel today. In her “Magnificat” Mary’s soul sings in joy through her body which has been touched intimately by the Holy Spirit.

St. John’s vision, our first reading today, provides us with a glimpse into heaven. Richly described in symbolic language, the woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon giving birth to the child is, of course Mary. The sixth century Oecumenius, comments on this passage, “The vision appropriately depicts her as in heaven and not on the earth, for she is pure in soul and body, equal to an angel and a citizen of heaven…. Yet she is flesh although she has nothing in common with the earth, nor is there any sin in her.” Because her body and soul were so perfectly attuned to each other, after the completion of her earthy life, both her body and soul united and inseparable experienced salvation, heaven. This is what we celebrate today with gratitude.

We pray that our physical movements, expressions, choices and actions will become, with God’s grace, more in harmony with the Spirit of Christ so that the final resting place for our bodies will not be the grave, but our eternal homeland of heaven. May this Holy Eucharist, where we are feed with the Glorious and Risen Body of and Blood of Christ shape us more and more, body and soul, into the image and likeness of God so to live with him forever and experience from God the embrace of love face to face.

Aug 10, 2019

A little flock, a little nervous


“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock…” Christ's words help to remind us of the tenderness of the Good Shepherd. He is one who shields, protects and ultimately lays down his life for his flock. At the same time, the Good Shepherd ushers this little flock into a big world. Even though we may feel vulnerable, uneasy or nervous to sometimes stand alone in our faith amidst a demanding and often time cruel world, not only is the Good Shepherd protective of us, we are assured that our heavenly Father is preparing to give us the Kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world, but the Kingdom of God. (cf. CCC 764)

But almost like a child learning to walk for the first time, we must not be afraid of entering into uncharted territories, unpredictable circumstances. If Abraham had played it safe, trusting in his own resourcefulness and securities, he might never have put his trust in the Lord. God provides for us with a sure investment should we choose to embrace it, the gift of faith - “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”

So, how do we look forward to what can not be seen? If we define ourselves by our assets on earth, then like treasure hidden in the dark and locked up in a vault, we too will become. But if we define ourselves by the treasure that waits for us in heaven, then we should have no reluctance of letting go of all that belongs to this world.

A Christian is counter-cultural. The Church is also counter-cultural. A Christian does not live their life according to the standards of the world any more that the Church should order its household based on the model of a business corporation. The test of what we are made of is provided by Christ when he tells us in no uncertain terms to “sell your belongings and give alms”. St. Augustine remarks that a strong and true Christian “should neither be overjoyed at acquiring [wealth] nor saddened when it is gone.”

Christ talks of the servants waiting on their master's return. Of course, we are the servants of the Lord. As his servants, we are privileged to know his mind, what he expects of us, how we are to run the Lord’s household. St. Augustine, reflecting on the relationship between grace and free will, noticing that the servant in the gospel parable is beaten when the master returns to a house in disarray, makes this observation. “We must not on this account take refuge in the darkness of ignorance so as to find there an excuse for our conduct. Not to know is one thing; unwillingness to know is another”.

The early Church, when it was younger and somewhat tender was often drastically attacked, beaten and bruised. The Roman Emperor Valerian began his reign in the third century somewhat tolerant of Christianity. But with military defeats abroad and political disorder at home, he quickly turned against the Church. The Emperor needed finances and political scapegoats. He ordered that the Roman Church hand over all its treasures. When the deacon St. Lawrence asked for a couple of days to reply to this demand, he later returned and presented to the imperial court all the treasures of the Church – the poor, the outcasts, the widows and the orphans. Not at all amused with his reporting of the Church’s assets, St. Lawrence was tortured to death, slowly roasted alive over a charcoal fire. A sudden wave of vicious attacks upon the clergy followed. Even the pope, St. Sixtus II, like many others, was arrested and beheaded, simply because he dared say “no” to a pagan culture. Unfortunately, many disciples fearing persecution and the demands of Christian witness gave in to the pagan culture. This was a source of great disappointment and discouragement to many who had tried to keep the faith despite the odds.

When Christians undergo persecution, we might look at the assault upon the household of the Lord as an attack waged upon us by the forces of darkness and evil itself. I am sure there is some truth to this. Soon after the deacon Lawrence and Pope Sixtus were martyred for their faith, St. Cyprian, Bishop of the Roman colony of Carthage reflected on today’s gospel shortly before he too was publically executed. Mediating on the sufferings of Christians, regardless of its cause, he instead saw it as an opportunity to be purified. These are his words: “We must see and admit that this very disturbing devastation of the affliction that has destroyed and is destroying our flock in great part has come about because of our sins. Eager for our inheritance and advantage… neglecting simplicity and faith, renouncing the world only in words and not in deeds… we are beaten up as we deserve.” (Letter 11.1)

The whole history of the Church belongs to us and so does her future. May today’s Gospel awaken in us a greater appreciation for what Christ has given, and the courage to imitate him in doing the will of our heavenly Father. Only by joining our own sacrifices to his can we truly appreciate the gift of faith which we now celebrate in this Holy Eucharist - the source of the Church’s unity and the strength of every believer in the Body of Christ, wounded on the cross but now gloriously resurrected and in our midst. The Good Shepherd will never abandon his “little flock”.

Aug 3, 2019

Stuff


Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Whoever he was, he was afraid. His attention was focused, not on the Lord, but on someone else, something else. In fact, by attempting to bring God into this dispute concerning an inheritance, he reveals how fear is often a distraction to faith and how charity and love can be poisoned by greed and selfishness.

In this incident we read in the Gospel, what could the man’s brother give him as an inheritance that was more important than what Christ could give? Who can provide an inheritance that lasts for eternity? St. Ambrose says, “You must not consider what you seek. More important is who you are asking”. The voice from the crowd did not recognize Christ as Lord, but only as teacher. He was soon taught a lesson!

In doing so, Christ provides us with a caution by offering us an example of greed and to compare our lives against the image he paints of the rich man who feels the need to build for himself huge storage units for all his things. One has only of think of the great pyramids and treasures once stored within those great ancient structures. Tomb raiders, thieves and archeologists have carried away all their treasures. And for many of the pharaohs themselves, we find their bodies now on display behind glass – objects of curiosity for school children and tourists!

If we fail to learn the discipline of detachment and resist poverty of spirit as called for by Christ, then the kingdom of heaven cannot be ours. If the concerns that preoccupy us do not raise our minds to Christ in order to seek the face of God, then we will ultimately and inevitability feel sadness and inadequacy when we look out at the things of this world comparing ourselves with it. But “Whoever sees God has obtained all the goods of which he can conceive.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa) (Cf. Comp.CCC 531-533)

The mistake made by the rich man spoken of by Christ in the Gospel was not simply having wealth. Rather, he did not understand what his wealth was given to him for. Instead of his plans to hoard it and ultimately do nothing with it, had he been resolved to share his blessings with those who genuinely needed a helping hand then he would not have been afraid to die, not afraid of letting go of everything, even his own life in order to embrace heaven. “Those who know that they are mortal should not come to an unprepared end” (St. Leo the Great)

The Scriptures this Sunday help us to appreciate that Christ comes to help us to see beyond the “goods” of this world and to help us purify our earthly attachments that would otherwise weigh us down. It is for this reason Christ has given us the Holy Eucharist that points us in the direction of the heavens.

When the priest says: “Pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God our almighty Father”, the implication is that there are in fact two sacrifices intertwined, united together. The first is that of Christ the eternal priest, who as divine, has everything – but choose to let go of all of it - he emptied out everything, surrendered every bit of his life, to be stripped naked, to be tortured to death. This he willingly choose in order to win our eternal freedom. But we can only inherit this if, likewise, we too make our own sacrifice personal and let go of what we hold onto in our own efforts to keep ourselves alive. We should not be afraid of detachment, dying to this world, to the things of this world, dying even to ourselves.

To put this into context in the Eucharist, allow me to dare put words into the mouth of Christ. In the Mass Christ says, "It's not your time I want to free, it's not your talents, I don't want your treasures. I want you. I want to free you. I have not come to inconvenience your life, nor to become a burden, nor to make you feel guilty that you have so many things. I have come instead to empty you of your whole life. But do not be afraid. I will give you a new life - I give you my life, my life, the life of God, shall become yours", says the Lord. (cf. CCC 549)

So, let us now prepare for an exchange of gifts - the bread and wine of this world in exchange for the heavenly body and blood of Christ. Strictly speaking, it is not a fair exchange. Christ made the greater sacrifice. Accepting this heavenly inheritance, the gift of the everlasting body and blood of Christ in exchange for our own, may the gift of the Holy Eucharist always keep us humble, continually grateful and forever generous.

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time c

Set the world on fire

Fire can be as dangerous as it is beautiful and useful as it is mysterious. From the burning bush to the tongues of fire on the day of ...